On Saturday, January 11, 1969, Howard Cosell the famed sportscaster, now buried in a Westhampton cemetery, stood on the roof of the Miami Orange Bowl and on live ABC TV said in his distinct talking style, “Tomorrow there is no way the New York Football Jets can defeat the Baltimore Colts….” And yet they did. Back then it was the upstart the American Football League Jets versus the long-established National Football League champion Baltimore Colts playing in a World Championship game for only the third time, the game we all now call “The Super Bowl.”
The year 1969 is huge in New York sports history. The Jets won the Super Bowl, the New York Knicks won the NBA championship and then the “Miracle Mets” won the World Series at Shea Stadium in the fall. None of these teams had ever won anything before. 1969 also was the year Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the United States and later in the summer an unusually large 3-day rock concert in Woodstock launched the ever-famous Summer of Love. So perhaps that upstart underdog New York Jets win changed the New York sports mojo.
The NY Jets was definitely a Long Island Team. They practiced in Hempstead, Long Island every week and frequented the diners, malls and car dealerships. Every Long Islander seemed to know at least one player somehow. The Jet players rented homes for the season near the Hempstead practice facility and quite frankly struggled to get by because back then the average pro football player salary was $25,000 and in the American Football League it was lower. The high-paid Joe Namath actually signed a then huge $427,000 contract but that was for four years at $100,000 per year, a far cry from today’s quarterbacks who are getting paid close to $30M per season. Even though he was called “Broadway Joe,” and lived in a Lama-rugged swank Upper East Side apartment, my wife working as a waitress at the time recalls seeing Joe Namath at the diner on Long Island having coffee with other players almost daily.
All of us sixty-somethings may not have watched Super Bowl III live that Sunday, January 12, 1969 but later that night everyone in the U.S.A. knew that the NY Jets had defeated the Baltimore Colts. It was a truly huge amazing news story. It rocked established norms as the counter culture was now officially on the rise.
For me watching the game in the den with just my dad was nerve-racking. The only professional sports event I ever went to with my dad was a football game against the San Diego Chargers in 1967. It was sold out, but we went out to Shea Stadium very early and still ended up with “standing only” tickets. My father, not a big sports fan, surprised me by taking me at all, but as we “stood” in the stands directly over the New York Mets bullpen my father watched Joe Namath throw 40-50-yard tight spiral practice throws and said, “Tom, he can really throw that football.”
Super Bowl III was a nerve-racking game for me a real NY Jets fan. It did not start well as the Colts offense came out and at first manhandled the Jets’ defense. Then there was the missed field goal, the interception on a flea-flicker trick play and the Jets settled in and began to win the battle on the field with every block, tackle, run, pass, and catch. You could feel a slow dominance. It was not a David versus Goliath event with a lucky slingshot stealing a victory, it was a slow play by play struggle with the Jets players seemingly wanting to win more. Despite some late game heroics by the Baltimore Colts legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas, in the end Joe Namath walked off the Orange Bowl field with his index finger in the air signifying the Jets were #1 in the football world.
Unfortunately, the Jets never played on the Super Bowl stage ever again. The phrase “long-suffering Jets fan” has become a staple in sports reporting. They have had some good moments but they were just flashes of what was not to be. But on January 12, 1969 the New York Football Jets were the Super Bowl Champs.