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A New League And a New Team, Part 6

Sonny & Joe

NY Jets Quarterback Joe Namath Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The start of 1964 brought big changes to the Jets and the AFL as a whole. The Jets were moving into a new stadium, and the AFL was getting a new TV deal brokered by Sonny Werblin. Remember that Sonny was still involved with MCA when he first bought the Jets. It was MCA along with Harry Wismer who signed the original deal with ABC back in 1960. That deal was essentially a numerous amount of one year deals.

NBC was looking to make a huge splash by cutting into CBS’s near monopoly on football coverage. Sonny of course new all the people who crafted the original deal with ABC including Jay Michaels (the father of announcer Al Michaels). If NBC wanted in they would have to pay and pay big. So Sonny brokered a deal with NBC that was to begin in 1965 and pay the league $36 million over the next 5 years. That was a four fold increase in the ABC deal, a huge jump in just 5 years time.

Now the league had the kind of capital to start winning bidding wars with the NFL over players. This is exactly the type of situation that Sonny Werblin dreamed of. This new deal would help bring star power into the AFL. Keep in mind that Sonny knew entertainment. He knew what would entice people (not just sports fans) to watch the Jets. It was star power. People would flock to an event if they thought they could watch a star.

The Jets were moving on to a new venue in 1964, and they were very much looking forward to getting out of the decrepit Polo Grounds. The AFL was still considered a second tier league then, but towards the end of 1963 they gained some much needed praise when a horrible tragedy befell the nation. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. The grief of that event was nearly unbearable to many Americans. It is a scar on our nation’s heart even today.

The AFL immediately canceled its games for that weekend. The AFL felt that the horror of that event was so significant that the nation should have a chance to heal, as well as the players whose minds might not be totally on the game. The NFL on the other hand played their games saying that the nation needs a distraction from the pain of the event which didn’t sit well with many Americans or the press.

The decision to play the games came off as self-serving and selfish as wealthy owners wanting their payday instead of reverence for President Kennedy. At the time there was no model for sport franchises to react to major historic events. No president had been assassinated since William McKinley in 1901. The assassination was on a Friday, and the NFL was playing games two days later. It was a PR nightmare and a national travesty.

After that the AFL started receiving better write ups in the press. It also coincided with the high level of play seen in AFL games. Once the fans could watch an aerial assault on a defense they were wondering why an NFL game had teams running a fullback up the middle play on a 3rd and 22. The fans liked watching Lance Alworth (nicknamed Bambi) with his speed and graceful style or Don Maynard who finished his career with he most receiving yards in history.

The Jets entered the 1964 season with great hope, a new stadium, and their first round pick FB Matt Snell from Ohio State. Snell was also drafted by the Giants in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, but they offered him much less so he decided to sign with the Jets. This was front page news as the upstart Jets had absconded with a Giant draft pick.

Snell was everything he Jets had hoped as he was powerful, a gregarious team player, and a truck on the football field. He was 6’ 2” 219 lbs which at the time was larger than many linebackers. Snell had great hands, and he could finish a run.

The Jets opened the 1964 season at home, something they wouldn’t do for another 14 straight years (and it took a court order to change that situation). The Jets began the season in 1964 against the Denver Broncos and won 30-6. Shea Stadium was a much nicer facility for the team and the fans. 45,665 fans showed up for the first game and over 50,000 for the second home game, a 17-17 tie with the San Diego Chargers.

The Jets were in a new a new beautiful new home, but they still were unwanted guests.

The Mets were owned by Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson who was an heiress to one of the great fortunes in the US. She (for some strange reason) was enamored with the New York Giants baseball team. When they left New York she needed another diversion from her life and was granted an expansion MLB team, she had the money.

The problem was she was was dictatorial in her demands. The Mets were the primary tenants of Shea Stadium. Mrs Payson demanded that the Jets entered the stadium from the visitors entrance even though the Mets obviously were not playing at Shea on the same day.

Her liaison for the team was a sycophant by he name of M. Donald Grant who through Mrs. Payson demands was able to get the Mets free office space at the stadium, free electricity for the team, and even revenue from the Jets parking, programs and hot dog sales. The Jets had moved into a new home but it wasn’t their own. In actuality it belonged to another team entirely. Some things never change.

The Mets so hated the Jets that they were not allowed a coaches meeting room. When the Jets protested they allowed them to put a room over the boiler room as a coaches office which Walt Michaels described as “the Dungeon.” Grant truly hated when the Jets played. The moveable stands that were a feature of Shea Stadium’s modern design traumatized the grass in Mr. Grant’s eyes.

The Jets played on Saturday nights usually in an attempt to give football fans something to watch in the evening. It also gave the Jets a chance to bring in some Giants fans as well to watch the game. The Giants had a rabid fan base even though the home games were blacked out at that time (even during a sellout). The Giants had 64,000 season ticket holders so all the games were sellouts. Fans who didn’t have tickets would often visit friends in Connecticut or go to another state. There were probably thousands of fans who traveled out of state to watch the Giants. They would even stay a hotels that had the game on TV. There was a motel in Stratford, Connecticut, which had its own halftime festivities including a marching band. The Giants were a great team back in the early 60s winning three straight conference titles.

Then on November 8, 1964, the Jets and Giants both played a Sunday game, the Jets at Shea and the Giants at Yankee Stadium. The Giants pulled in their usual 64,000 fans, but the Jets set a AFL record with 61,929 fans, the first AFL game with over 60,000 fans. The turnout was so fantastic it made the morning headlines which at the time was important. The news was a signal to the average fan (if just perceived) that the Jets and Giants were on equal footing with powerful fan bases. Unfortunately the Jets lost that game to the Bills 20-7. For the first year of the new franchise called the Jets the team went 5-1-1 at home but lost all 7 road games to finish 5-8-1.

Big things were about to happen.

Hello Joe

The story behind the Jets getting Joe Namath has never been discussed at length but it is a convoluted tale that wasn’t quite legal. You see Sonny Werblin didn’t like Joe Namath. He literally adored Joe Namath. Remember star power? Well Sonny could read star power all over Joe Namath from miles away. He had to have Namath for his grand plan to take full effect. Joe was to be center stage of that plan.

The 1965 AFL Draft actually took place on November 28, 1964. before all the college games had ended. You couldn’t sign a player legally until he was finished playing his college career. The Jets new that. The Jets didn’t care.

First they had to draft Joe Namath, no easy trick because the Jets didn’t have the first pick. They had the fourth pick in the draft. Now no one is saying who. but the word got to Joe about the interest and the money he could make in New York. Joe was from Beaver Falls Pennsylvania, and played football in Alabama. He really didn’t know anything about New York.

The Oilers had traded with the Broncos so they now owned the first two picks in the 1965 AFL Draft. It just so happens that the head coach on the Houston Oilers was none other than Sammy Baugh, the Titans/Jets first coach. Baugh recalls the events of what happened, “We had the rights to him (Namath) but he told us he wouldn’t play in Houston. He said I’m not playing anywhere unless I play in New York. So the Jets traded us the rights to Tulsa QB Jerry Rhome and we traded them the rights to Namath.”

This draft was all done on conference calls with the league office. =It is the only draft that has never had a central location.

The Jets took Namath with the 2nd pick after the Oilers took Larry Elkins a WR from Baylor who was a two time All-American with the first overall pick. But remember this doesn’t mean the Jets would get Namath. The NFL had their shot at him also or so they thought.

In the NFL Draft of 1965 the Giants held the first overall pick and used it on Tucker Frederickson a RB from Auburn who was a good player. =He was not as good as the #3 pick Dick Butkus or the #4 pick Gayle Sayers but a good player. Joe Namath lasted (for some odd reason) until the 12th pick where he was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The NFL Draft was held the same day as the AFL Draft at the Summit Hotel in New York City. The NFL by now was totally paranoid of the AFL and moved their draft date up to not be outdone by the AFL. The Cardinals began negotiating and were offering money in the same area as the Jets. The difference was the Cardinals wanted Joe to host a radio show plus do some promotional stuff in addition to playing football. Joe was not interested in that, and St. Louis is not New York.

Word spreads fast in sports, and when the Cardinals seemed out of the negotiations for Namath the Giants were said to have an interest in sliding in and undercutting the Jets for Namath’s services. The Giants felt that if they could steal Namath from the Jets they would prevent the demise of their franchise and have a replacement for the aging YA Tittle at QB.

How much interest in Namath the Giants really had is unknown. They were always tight lipped about team matters. Later on their brain trust let on they were mistaken in trying to get the Jets to overspend on player. (More on that in future episodes.) The year earlier the Giants spent a 3rd round pick on the Jets #1 pick in 1964 Matt Snell out of Ohio State. How much the Giants wanted Snell is unknown, but they drafted Snell with the hopes of driving up the price of his contract to hasten the Jets’ financial demise.

On a side note Rich Kotite (the future Jets coach) was picked that year in the 18th round of the NFL Draft. He was a TE who played at Wagner. Chris Hanburger was also drafted in the 18th round. The LB from N. Carolina became a Hall of Fame player who played in Washington.

Officially on January 2, 1965, the day after the Orange Bowl and the first official day the Jets could talk contract with Joe Namath they signed him. It was amazing that the Jets signed Namath so quickly, but the deal was actually struck days before. Both the AFL and NFL cheated and tried to sign Joe early. The Jets were just the ones to succeed.

Namath himself was not all that eager to join the NFL anyway. He was put off by the fact that the Cardinals were so eager to pawn him off to the Giants so readily. As Joe put it, “That kind of hustling didn’t sit well with me. The NFL had great players but everybody seemed to wear their hair a certain way and live up to a very arbitrary code of {conduct}. They did seem to have the liberty to be themselves.”

Joe later added, “I can just imagine how the NFL would have reacted to my white shoes. My feet just felt lighter in white; so I wore white shoes. I couldn’t understand why people made a bid deal out of it. And the more I noticed that everyone else wore black shoes and the more people wanted me to change, the less interest I had in conforming. I didn’t get any conditions from Mr. Werblin. In fact he was probably the guy responsible for a fresh pair of white shoes waiting for me in my first Jet locker. He liked me the way I was; he liked my story. The NFL didn’t. it was as simple as that.”

As Walt Michaels tells it the Jets had gotten hold of a lawyer down in Alabama named Mike Bite from the law firm (if you can believe) Bite, Bite & Bite. They had Joe signed days before the Orange Bowl was even played or when the NFL could talk with him.

Sonny had signed him to a amazing contract (by design) that Joe would have been a fool to turn down. St. Louis was going to offer him $20,000. Joe wanted $200,000 and a car. The Jets gave him $400,000 and a car. The final contract was for (all included even incentives) $427,000 over 3 years. It was the type of move Sonny was dying to make. He knew this would be headline material, and everyone, even non sport fans would be talking about it.

The Jets offer also included a new green Lincoln Continental as well as scout salaries for three of Joe Namath’s relatives.

Now Sonny had his celebrity. He had the guy that everyone wanted to see. I was a child at the time, and I wanted to see the $400,000 man. My dad was a firefighter and a butcher. As a fireman he made $5,500 in 1965. The Jets went and worked out at Peekskill High School one day. My dad drove me up there to watch the practice.

Sonny knew celebrity. He knew how to sell celebrity, but what he didn’t know about was how to run a sports team. Celebrities in Hollywood get pampered, but sport stars, especially football stars get injured. Cycling is a fatiguing sport. Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport. Everyone (except kickers) who play professional football have lasting injuries. The longer you play, the more serious the long term effects.

Joe was a fantastic athlete. He had a golden arm and ran like the wind.

Joe was a great football star, but he also was a great baseball player as well. He loved playing baseball. I have a baseball card of Joe Namath. He is singled out of a team photo. Of course he is wearing a pair of dark Ray-Ban sunglasses looking like Steve McQueen. I guess Joe was always Joe.

In high school Tommy Lasorda (who was a scout for the Dodgers at the time) tried to talk Joe into playing for the Dodgers. The Cubs wanted him as well. As Joe recalls, “The Cubs offered me $50,000 to sign with them and the University of Alabama offered me a football scholarship Coach Bear Bryant wanted to bring Alabama into the 1960s new passing style. If you had asked me though, I would have picked baseball. I had an Olds Starfire, a blue convertible all picked out with that Cubs bonus money.”

“We had a meeting at home to decide what I was going to do with my future. My folks were divorced so my dad wasn’t there but my mother Rose was sitting at the table along with two of my brothers and my sister. My mother was working as a maid for a doctor. We could have done a lot with that $50,000.”

“My brother Bob looked at my mother and said ‘well mom what do you want Joe to do?” She said, ‘Well I want Joe to go to college’ Bob pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘That’s it Joe, you go to college.’”

Joe still refers to Bear Bryant as “Coach Bryant” with a highly respected awe. “Coach Bryant always called me Babe, like in Babe Ruth,” Joe said.

In his fourth game his senior season he was playing against NC State when he ran out of the pocket but was hauled down by the knee.

“They took me to the hospital and aspirated my knee, blood was in the liquid so they knew something was torn they just didn’t know what.” There were no MRIs then, no arthroscopy, just bandage them up.

After he left the hospital he was just walking on campus when he knee just buckled. It buckled 5 more times that week.

“It hurt like Hell, once it buckled when I was loading the trunk of my car. It also went in practice; I hurt it four more times that season. I wanted to play though, I don’t think that Alabama wanted to jeopardize my knee; they just didn’t know any better.”

Up next:

Showing off the new kid

Getting a check up in a strange place

How Joe changed the NFL

And more