The National Football League is celebrating the Golden Anniversary of it's biggest event this Sunday, February 7th, as Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers take on Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Leading up to the big game, The Shadow League will continue to share some of our most memorable reflections from the event that has become much bigger than football, morphing into an essential piece of the tapestry that defines who we are as an American society.
In the early days of pro football when the National Football League and American Football League were David and Goliath adversaries, the AFL was considered the newer, weaker and less official pro league.
Any New York Jets fan over the age of 50 loves the Jets because of Broadway Joe Namath and the miracle he accomplished in Super Bowl III. He’s also the reason why their kids are Jets fans.
In the first two Super Bowls, the AFL had been hammered by Vince Lombardi's Packers, with Green Bay smashing the Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl I and then dismantling the upstart Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
The NFL was considered the clear juggernaut and in 1969, Super Bowl III between the AFL’s NY Jets and the NFL’s Baltimore Colts was supposed to be another definitive degrading of the inferior AFL. The Jets were a disrespected 18-point underdog.
Tired of hearing people say Baltimore would clobber his squad, Namath asserted that his Jets would win.
In fact, he said, “I guarantee it.”
Then he proceeded to lead the Jets to an unfathomable 16-7 victory over Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts, considered by many to be the greatest regular season squad ever. Namath displayed his ultimate leadership on that historic battlefield. He called the offensive plays and engineered a brilliant scheme based on the ground-and-pound capabilities of running back Matt Snell, who ran for 121 yards against the NFL’s supreme defense. Gang Green went head up with Baltimore’s supposedly impenetrable front line 43 times, controlling the clock and eventually grinding them into submission.
Namath ran the ball on four of five plays in the opening drive. Then he flipped the script on B-More’s D and threw six straight passes to five different receivers. He had the Colts off balance for the rest of the game. Broadway Joe was 17 of 28 for 206 yards and orchestrated what Jets coach Weeb Ewbank called a near flawless game plan.
It’s safe to say that the Colts and the entire football world slept on the Jets and their slick-talking, playboy walking, ball-tossing quarterback, who Bill Wash once said had the best arm and footwork he’d ever seen.
Namath, the Pennsylvania-born QB who starred under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, was the ultimate panty raider and aerial invader. He dated the hottest flames in the game and became the first passer to throw for 4,000 yards in either league in 1967.
The Jets had serious talent on both sides of the rock and a leader who loved the limelight and knew that America was in for the shock of their lives. The Jets ran through a slew of AFL teams that season and Namath felt like they would have the same success against any football team on the planet.
It was the AFL’s finest moment and the catalyst for a merger that has developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. Ewbank saw the future right after that game when he told reporters, “This is a start of a new era.”
Super Bowls didn’t have the same fanfare, festive components and media hype back then. And the AFL could have gone the way of the USFL if Namath didn’t successfully execute the now legendary NY championship guarantee.
Namath is one of the pioneers. A founding father of the NFL game. His feats are equivalent to those of a war soldier pioneering a new frontier through battle in the days of early America. That one game did so much to influence the course of football history. It was a Jackie Robinson moment for the entire red-headed, step child AFL.
Namath was the mouthpiece for all 10 teams belonging to pro football's sideshow league. He spoke loudly and backed it up. His name, celebrity and legend has been immortalized in the 46 Super Bowls that have taken place since Namath’s guarantee.
On TV after the momentous win, Namath would state, "never were so many people wrong."