In January of 1969, I was away at college. One day, while sitting around my apartment, I answered the phone, and heard my father’s voice say:
So, would you like to go to the Super Bowl? He was headed for Miami with some of his buddies, and he had an extra ticket.
The Super Bowl? Truthfully, I was on the verge of saying, “Thanks Dad, but I’m kind of busy.” Did I really need to be in the stands, watching the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts, generally considered to be the best football team in history -–better even than the vintage Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers-- annihilate the flashy, fun to watch, and weakest AFL Champion to date, New York Jets?
He broke the brief silence. “It will be fun. I’ll see you in Miami.” Then, he hung up.
I met him at the hotel, where we and most of his friends had to sleep in the lobby, because the rooms had been oversold. That was my father. He didn’t sweat the details. Rooms? Who needs rooms? In fact, he didn’t quite have tickets either, but he scrounged some up.
You’re probably thinking, “What a great dad, taking his kid to The Super Bowl.” True enough, but I need to provide a touch of perspective. Once I arrived in Miami, I quickly figured out what was what.
Dad wanted a week of deep-sea fishing and pool-side-vodka-and-tonic card playing with his cronies, with a splash Super Bowl thrown in. So he used the I think I’ll take our kid to The Super Bowl ploy to get a free pass from my mother, who probably thought, “Well this will be a nice father and son experience. How could I possible object? ”
Sunday, January 12, 1969, Miami, FL, The Orange Bowl
SUPER BOWL III.
I don’t know about you, but when I arrive early at a stadium or arena to watch an event, I pay close attention to those who begin filling the seats around me, and I decide, based on very little information, what kind of people they are and whether or not I’m going to like them, or at least be able to tolerate them.
Hey, if I’m going to spend several hours in this temporary, human zoo of a neighborhood, I want to have some idea of who I’m going to like and who I will eventually want to kill. I don’t think that’s just me. I think its human nature. I’m pretty sure you do it too.
We arrived quite early. My seat was one row back from Dad and his gang, so we were kind of together, but not really. They would periodically look back and talk to me so that I would feel included. Then the seats around me began filling in, creating my very own soon-to-be community of friends, neighbors, and blood enemies.
The Colts, that season, had beaten every team they played. They lost one game to the Cleveland Browns, then came back and trounced them the next time they met. This team had zero weaknesses.
No question about it. This would not be the year for severely disrespected AFLers to show the world that our brand of football was every bit as first-class as that stodgy, stale, NFL brand that owned the majority of football hearts and minds.
To my left, a gang of eight middle-aged guys were climbing the steps and heading toward my row. They were loud NFL diehards. The odds were good they would not be sitting anywhere near me. They eventually reached my row, checked their tickets and filed in. Fabulous. These were my next-door neighbors.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly introduced themselves. Six of them were the kind of NFL meatheads who believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the AFL champions could be beaten by Notre Dame. My guess was that they had all been drinking since breakfast, but one of them (The Ugly) stood out from the others: louder, drunker, and proudly annoying.
Two of the eight were AFL fans (The Good), who after some quick declarations of who we all were, switched seats to sit near me. They handed me an extra beer, and started calling me: “Boston.” I called my neighbor, in the next seat, “Houston.”
We shared stories of my Patriots and his Oilers. When he especially liked one of mine, he would laugh and jab me in the shoulder. My father glanced back, took in the scene, and clearly thought it was hilarious.
Throughout the afternoon, I would hear: “Hey, pass this one down to Boston.” And, I’d be handed a beer, accompanied by a friendly punch in the shoulder.
Prior to the arrival of my new best friends, I was thinking that this would be like watching a bullfight. A young, attractive, and inexperienced matador had drawn the biggest, meanest bull on the planet, and I would be rooting for the matador not to get gored.
The five Bad Guys, to my left, would be rooting for the matador to get gored, stomped on, tossed against the wall, and get gored again. The Ugly sixth would have been severely disappointed by that outcome.
But all in all, these guys were my favorite neighbors. The group to my right included a surprising number of women and teenage girls who were obviously recycling the hats and dresses they must have worn to the Kentucky Derby. They would have little idea of what was going on down on the field. They were a football audience I had never seen before.
To drum up interest for this absurd mismatch, league execs abandoned the bland title of AFL-NFL Championship Game, and officially renamed the contest: The Super Bowl. And guess what? It actually did create a lot of good buzz, but most of that buzz was due to the fact that for the very first time, this battle between the league champions had a genuine rock star:
And like any true rock star, Joe Willie had fans – lots of them. Many were brand new to football. And many of these brand new fans were women and teenage girls. They may not have known Joe’s stats, but they knew he was sexy, and they headed for Miami or to their television sets in record numbers. This would change professional football forever.
“This will be Namath’s first professional game,” said ex-NFL quarterback and coach, Norm Van Brocklin. That insult, and others like it, were felt deep in the gut of every AFL player and fan.
Joe was not the silent type. His angry response to one public insult was: “We’ll win the game. I guarantee you.” The quote became a front-page headline in most newspapers. So, more times than I could count, the Ugly would yell out, at the top of his lungs, “This will be Namath’s first professional game.” And more times than I could count, Houston would yell back, “We’ll win the game. I guarantee you.”
And the Derby chicks to my right would look over, shake their heads, and make faces.
The game got underway.
On their first possession, the Colts marched down field, headed for a touchdown. They did not get it. Stopped on the Jets’ 27-yard line, they had to settle for a field goal. But they missed it. Houston was elated. He, of course, punched me in the shoulder.
We watched a first half of football that nobody expected to see. The Colts missed another field goal. The Jets scored a touchdown. The half ended with the Jets on top, 7-0. I was not relieved. My Bad Guy neighbors were a little quiet, but as one of them put it, “Hey for the Colts, being down 7-points at the half is the same as being up 14-points.”
He was probably right. The Colts would make the necessary adjustments, as had the Packers in Super Bowl I. The Jets had most likely played their hearts out and had little left in the tank, just like the Chiefs, in Super Bowl I.
We all figured the Colts would come out roaring in the second half.
They did not.
It was like they had some kind of collective nervous breakdown.
The Jets controlled the ball for most of the third period. When the Colts did have the ball, they fumbled, got intercepted, and blew big plays.
Houston was jubilant. His buddies were slumped in their seats. The Derby Chicks were having a ball. Namath was actually going to deliver on his guarantee. The mighty Colts were powerless to stop him. It was a little too soon to start celebrating, but we were pretty darn sure that Vindication Day had arrived for 20 million AFL fans.
Then, something happened to change the game. Well, it changed the game for me. The quarterback, Earl Morrall was pulled from the game. Morrall, who had a great season, had been the beneficiary of an injury to the Colt’s real quarterback, Johnny Unitas.
There are those who say that Unitas’ injured elbow was completely healed and there are others who doubt that it was. But with four minutes left in the third quarter, Number 19 was standing behind his center. Johnny Unitas, the quarterback who had thrown touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games, and who ran an offense better than any quarterback in history was now on the field.
Suddenly, I became unaware of what was happening in the seats around me. All of that faded to black. With the sudden twist of plot, I was into this drama, totally. If you read my Part I, you know why. At 10 years old, the greatness of Johnny U. was permanently wired to my soul.
Johnny U. played well, but not well enough to win. It may have been the sore arm, or the rust from spending the entire season on the bench, or it may have been his teammates who couldn’t shake off the bewilderment of what was happening to them.
Final score: Jets 16, Colts 7.
Namath’s teammates carried him off the field, on their shoulders. His finger, pointed high in the air, said it all, “We’re number one.” The Colt players were stunned and no doubt embarrassed. I didn’t see much sportsman-like congratulating going on. Some Colts just turned and made their way to the locker room.
But I saw Unitas shaking hands with some of the Jets. Of course.
The next day, on the plane back to college, I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes and replayed the game. When I got to four minutes left in the third period, I stopped and realized that if Unitas had turned the game around and won it, that would have been just fine with me. I could have waited another year for the vindication that I so badly wanted.
A sportswriter wrote that if those same Colts played those same Jets nine more times, the Colts would win all nine contests. I would not have challenged that claim. But on the day it mattered, an unlikely messiah made good on an outrageous boast, delivering exactly what he had guaranteed.
The next year, the merger between the NFL and the AFL would be finalized. The AFL name would disappear. It would all be one big NFL, with an American Football Conference and a National Football Conference.
Three old NFL teams: The Steelers, the Browns, and the Colts would move over to the AFC, blending the two leagues into one.
That decision ended the greatest sports rivalry of my life.