A half a century is a long time.
The huge popularity the NFL currently enjoys cannot be taken for granted as it was not always so. In the middle of the 20th century college football was the dominant autumn sport and baseball was universally considered to be America’s national pastime.
But one NFL game in particular has come to define the event that vaulted pro football into not just the national consciousness but to overtake baseball as our national pastime and to grow in popularity to unimaginable heights such that the culminating event each season is a de facto national holiday.
That game was Super Bowl III, which was played on Jan. 12, 1969. The 50th anniversary of that game will occur this Saturday,
I grew up in New York, on Long Island, in the most heavily populated metropolitan area of our country. And if you grew up on Long Island and were a sports fan, you were more often than not a fan of both baseball’s New York Mets and, in those days, the AFL’s New York Jets.
If you grew up in New York City, Westchester County or Northern New Jersey you were most likely to be a fan of the more established New York teams, the Yankees and the NFL’s New York Giants.
I was no different. I was a rabid fan of the Mets and Jets. My Dad grew up a Yankees and Giants fan, having been born decades before the Mets and Jets came into existence. So there was this good natured father/son rivalry with my Dad’s teams having a huge historical edge.
I had just turned 14 and entered the ninth grade when the 1968 football season began and my Dad took me to several Jets games at Shea Stadium. Ironically, in mid- season, my Dad and I along with his business partner and his son had the chance to attend a game in Baltimore between the then (for younger readers) Baltimore Colts and Minnesota.
Little did my Dad and I know at the time that we would attend another Colts game that season.
The Colts beat the Vikings, 21-9, en route to a 13-1 season and a dominating 34-0 win over Cleveland to win the NFL Championship. Yes, kiddies, Cleveland along with Pittsburgh and, ironically enough, Baltimore began life in the NFL but agreed to move to the “other” league when the AFL and NFL merged to form the modern NFL with two conferences, the AFC and NFC.
The Jets had a fine regular season, going 11-3 and winning the Eastern Division of the AFL by four games. The AFL had just 10 teams at the time and as such the champions of both divisions met for the League title. There were no Wild Card games at that time – that would begin the next season.
The Jets hosted the Oakland Raiders with the winner advancing to meet the Colts in the third of what had been billed as the AFL vs. NFL World Championship Game. For a few years a certain term, that played upon a popular toy of the time, was being used in an unofficial sense, to describe the game between the two league champions. And on the cover the game program for the third such meeting, the phrase “Super Bowl” appeared for the first time. The program cost $1 and the cost of a ticket to the game for some very good seats in the Orange Bowl in Miami cost just $12.
How do I know? Because as a surprise gift to me, my father had gotten tickets for the game and he, I, his business partner and son flew down to Miami for the day to attend the game.
Obviously, I was not just rooting for the Jets, but believed that they would defeat the Colts. Little did I care that the NFL was the much stronger of the two leagues and had evidenced that with Green Bay’s decisive wins over Kansas City and Oakland in the first two meetings between the leagues.
Nor did I care that the Colts were prohibitive 18.5-point favorites for the game. And I had legitimate support for that belief. After all, in a midweek press conference Jets QB Joe Willie Namath had guaranteed a Jets win!
I still recall today the excitement we all felt as we flew Eastern Airlines down to Miami and took a cab ride from the airport to the Orange Bowl driven by a cabbie from, of all places, Alabama. Namath had attended the University of Alabama and the cabbie was excited as well telling stories of “Joe Willie this” and “Joe Willie that” on the ride to the airport, further fueling my excitement.
The game was scheduled to start at 3 p.m. Eastern time and we arrived in plenty of time for the pregame hoopla and the ceremonial coin toss which drew a thunderous reaction from the crowd when the three gentlemen involved in the coin toss ceremony were introduced.
Less than three weeks earlier the first manned space mission to circle the moon had taken place and the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders – were considered national heroes for their bravery in accomplishing what no humans had ever before attempted. For those of you not familiar with that piece of American history google the phrase “Earthrise” for perhaps the most awe-inspiring photograph ever taken.
The game itself unfolded slowly with neither team doing much in the opening quarter. Then to the surprise of virtually everyone in attendance and to those watching on TV the Jets got the first score of the game when running back Matt Snell scored on a 4-yard run.
One of the famous plays of that game occurred just before halftime when Baltimore QB Earl Morrall, who had started for much of the season following an injury to Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, failed to spot a wide-open Jimmy Orr in the end zone which would have sent the game to halftime tied at 7.
A pair of Jim Tuner field goals in the third quarter extended the Jets’ lead to 13-0 and early in the fourth quarter another FG gave the Jets a 16-0 lead – a three- possession lead in fact as the NFL would not adopt the 2-point conversion lead for another quarter century.
Unitas did come in to relieve Morrall and led the Colts to a touchdown. The Colts had another late chance to score but came up short and the Jets won by the final score of 16-7 in what was considered at the time – and still is by many – the greatest sports upset of all time – from an aesthetic or significance standpoint, not from a perspective of betting odds.
Despite my convictions that the Jets would indeed win I still remember the disbelief I was feeling as the game was unfolding and playing out as the artistic side of my brain had dreamed.
The ‘logical’ part of my brain understood both the challenges and the odds. Nonetheless, the impossible came true and as the four of us returned to New York later than evening we were all smiles and speaking in one-word sentences such as “Wow,” “Unbelievable” and “Amazing.”
It was a father/son memory cherished by my Dad the rest of his life and shall be for the rest of mine. Even if some of the details have grown fuzzy over the years the impact of that emotional experience remains and has grown over time.
For New Yorkers it was the start of a truly spectacular run of success in pro sports. Nine months later the woeful Mets shocked the sports world with an upset of the highly favored Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series – an accomplishment that would have itself been proclaimed the greatest upset in sports history but for Super Bowl III. And barely six months later the New York Knicks would win their first NBA title defeating along the way, the Baltimore Bullets, in seven games in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
At the end of the tumultuous 1960’s the score was New York 3, Baltimore 0. And it all began 50 years ago this weekend with Super Bowl III.
To whet your appetite for the 53rd edition of the ultimate game of the NFL season, here are a couple of trivia questions related to Super Bowl III and the 1968 football season, the answers to which I shall provide in my Super Bowl preview column later this month.
1. What record was set in Super Bowl III that can never be equaled or broken? Hint – It would take the reversal of a fundamental change in the game a few years following Super Bowl III (though not related to anything about Super Bowl III).
2. What event occurred during the 1968 season that has earned an iconic place in cultural history to the extent it is oft referred to today when similar, though rare, events occur? Hint – there is a connection, perhaps a stretch, between New York and Las Vegas.
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