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A New League and a New Team, Part 7

The contracts + toot shor

David Werblin Presenting Award to President Reagan

Now that Sonny Werblin had his star signed sealed and delivered he did what everyone does with a prize. He showed it off. Sonny spent years developing a talent to read people. hHe understood how they reacted to certain stimuli. With Joe Namath he knew that when Joe entered a room everyone would turn to watch.

Joe was from Pennsylvania, but he talked with a slight southern drawl after being in Alabama a few years. He had an infectious smile and an easy way about himself that made people feel lucky to meet him. Still he was easy to talk to. He would answer questions quickly, not like he was thinking of the right thing to say but rather what he really thought. This put people at ease. He was becoming a huge celebrity, but he seemed genuine. His boyish good looks and his affable personality were evident everywhere he went. People were more drawn to him the more they saw him or heard him unlike many celebrities.

Sonny Werblin was a master in seeing talent, but that was not the totality of his skill. He was super successful because he combined that talent with the ability to influence people. Sonny did that best amid a varied crowd with a drink in his hand.

So where did he take his star attraction first? He took him to Toots Shor’s which was a iconic watering hole on 33 West 52nd Street near Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. Sports legends, great thespians, writers, along with the cream of the A-list crowd would stop by.

Toot was a former bouncer at speakeasies back in the prohibition days. Toot used to say, “I had to flatten a bum every night, sometimes more than one.” He was actually a very nice guy (if he liked you) often comping huge tabs for friends who were down on their luck.

Toot Shor’s place always had to have a police presence, not to keep the patrons in line. The Police were there to keep the onlookers/celebrity hounds from pestering the A-list clientele.

Ernest Hemingway, Joe Dimaggio, Bing Crosby, Walter Winchell, Cecil B. DeMille, Mickey Mantle, Charlie Chaplin, and Frank Sinatra among many celebrities to frequented Toots Shor’s establishment. These were the type of people Sonny wanted Joe Namath to first be seen with and feel comfortable around. By doing so Joe would be written up on society pages as seen associating with the mega stars.

Sonny knew through his experience that the more Joe was seen with the superstar celebrities the more interest it would bring to him and by association, the Jets. Joe had the trifecta. First he had money via his insane for the time contract. Second he had fame and was accepted by the elite celebrity class. Third he had talent with a golden arm, which you could see if you bought a ticket and came to the game.

On a Side Note - The Contract

Even accounting for how much money a $427,000/ 3 year contract was in 1965, Namath’s contract could be considered one of the greatest bargains of all time. If you think about it the AFL was a struggling league which had been around for only 5 years with many of its clubs losing money. Joe Namath not only sold tickets for the Jets but for every team he played against on the road. That contract made headlines around the world. People in other countries who didn’t even know what American football was were talking about the Jets and Joe Namath.

Sonny had made Joe a star by surrounding him with celebrities, being on the gossip pages. Yet Joe was making stars out of the great players he played against, especially in the cities those players played in. That contract (because it was so astronomical) elevated Joe Namath into the stratosphere of celebrity so those he associated with (teammates and opponents) got a boost of celebrity themselves.

At the time everyone wanted to get a glimpse of Joe Namath. It attracted a lot of people who didn’t really appreciate sports. Sonny had turned Joe into a star, and he still is a star today. Every time Joe goes to a sports show he is mobbed by the fans far more than anyone else at the show. Plus you can’t think about Joe Namath without thinking New York Jets, the greatest advertising gimmick of all time. Companies today spend millions of dollars trying to get people to remember their products but 55 years later Joe’s celebrity still gets it done for the New York Jets. One contract and 55 years of publicity is priceless.

So what about the knees?

So while Sonny is showing of his new star and getting a lot of people excited about Joe there was another person in the room who had an interest in the Jets but also Namath.

His name was Dr. James A. Nicholas who was a brilliant man and at the time was probably the most renown orthopedic surgeon in the country. Dr. Nicholas was on the team that operated on future president John F. Kennedy’s back, the back that had been injured during the PT 109 incident from WWII. For those that don’t know Kennedy had hurt his back when his PT boat (Patrol Torpedo Boat) was rammed and totally wrecked by a Japanese Destroyer. Kennedy received the Purple Heart and the Navy Marine Corp Medal.

Dr. Nicholas also discovered that JFK suffered from Addison’s disease (a serious adrenal gland disorder). Jackie Kennedy (the future First Lady) felt that discovery saved the future President’s life. As fate would have it Dr. Nicholas also worked on Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping tycoon and one of the wealthiest men in the world, who married Jackie Kennedy in 1968, five years after the death of her husband.

It was just luck or fate that Dr. Nicholas was anywhere near the party that took place at Toots Shor’s establishment. Dr. Nicholas was the doctor who took care of Harry Wismer when he had hip surgery after Harry had just bought the Jets.

Harry had asked Dr. Nicholas if he would become the Jets team doctor. Sports medicine at the time was almost non existent, and team doctor was well below Dr. Nicholas pay grade. It would be like asking an astrophysicist to help do subtraction.

As fate would have it (again fate comes in) Dr. Nicholas was interested. As he put it, “I was doing research on osteoporosis and I thought this would be a good way to learn what the effect exercise had on the bone. I could observe it in athletes” he said. With that he became the team doctor, an original Titan.

The Jets and the press had known that Namath had knee problems but had never examined him. While everyone at Toot Shor’s was having a grand ole time a reporter spotted Dr. Nicholas at the party and asked him, “Have you examined Namath yet?” To which Dr. Nicholas replied, “ I haven’t, and I mentioned it to Weeb.” The reporter then sort of forcibly replied, “Go take a look at him.”

So Dr. Nicholas went out into the party to find Namath. Once he did he asked him to step into the bathroom. Namath went along quietly, stepped into the lavatory, and sat down on the toilet. There Dr. Nicholas gave a couple of twists and turns to Namath’s knee. In seconds he was finished, he then looked up at Joe and said. “If I had known this before, I would have told Sonny to forget you.”

Dr. Nicholas went back to the party to let those involved the bad news. He found Weeb Ewbank and said to him, “I hope you have another quarterback; we’ll have to operate on this guy.”

‘He had a very unstable knee,” Dr Nicholas said. “The cruciate ligament was bad so we scheduled surgery immediately. I opened the knee as best I could and tightened the knee; we didn’t know if he would play.”

The other highly paid QB’s drafted in 1965 and future Draft picks

The Jets had drafted a QB and paid him a boatload of money not knowing whether he could play because of his knee. They made a plan for this by drafting another QB in 1965 in former Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte, but he couldn’t throw overhand because of a separated shoulder that needed surgery. He was the second round pick of the Jets, #12 overall. The Jets paid him a $200,000 contract that they sold to Boston in 1966.

Huarte was a benchwarmer at Notre Dame for three years until Ara Parseghian took over as coach. He took over as starting QB at Notre Dame after playing a total of 50 minutes his first three years throwing a total of 24 passes. His college stats were all right in 1964, but he received the Heisman Trophy because of Notre Dame’s publicist, Charlie Callahan, who persuaded the national press to give the award to Huarte.

‘’I had 10 good games in one season, and I got lucky,’’ Huarte recalls. ‘’Everything just worked out right.’’ Huarte threw for just over 2,000 yards and 16 TDs with 11 INTs; good but not great. Howard Twilley that same year had 95 receptions (beating the old record of receptions of 73 in a year by a mile) for 1,178 yards and 13 TDs.

Others more deserving of the award were Gale Sayers RB Kansas, Dick Butkus LB Illinois, Tucker Frederickson RB Auburn (#1 pick of the 1965 NFL draft by the Giants), Craig Morton QB Cal (who had over 60% completion rate which was outstanding in 1964) QB Roger Staubach of Navy, and of course Joe Namath himself.

Huarte was on 6 AFL/NFL teams before he finally had a chance to play regularly albeit in the World Football League for the famed Memphis Riverboats. The league folded after two years.

The Jets also drafted a third QB out of Virginia Tech in the 4th round named Bob Schweickert who they didn’t know if he could play. He couldn’t.

He spent two years on the Jets 1965 and 1967, was active for 6 games, and had a grand total of a single rushing yard. He never threw a pass in the AFL or the NFL. The Jets signed Schweickert to a $150,000 contract.

Huarte on the other hand played 6 years in the AFL/NFL but none with the Jets which was a good thing. In six years he played in 24 game with one start. He had a completion percentage of 39.6% with a single TD and 5 INTs. The man passed for a total of 230 yards in 6 years.

The Jets third round pick in 1965 was Verlon Biggs, a powerful defensive end out of Jackson State. Bigg was an AFL All-Star and played 80 of 135 career games for the Jets. He finished his 10 year career in Washington. Sadly Biggs left the Jets in 1970 (after Sonny sold his share of the team) because he felt underappreciated and underpaid.

Future contracts paid out by Sonny were:

1} Bill Yearby

The Jets first round selection in 1966 (300,000 contract), Yearby was a DE/DT and a ferocious tackler at Michigan but hurt his knee in a preseason game and never played a down in the NFL regular season.

2} Carl McAdams

A LB out of the University of Oklahoma (325,000 contract signed in 1967) he played a mere 26 games for the Jets with 3 starts though he was an integral part of the Jets Super Bowl team.

Namath played in 1965, less than 6 months after a surgery that left a scar on his leg shaped like a crescent moon about 8 inches long, one of many that he would receive. Today, surgeries like the many Namath had are done with far less trauma due to the procedures with arthroscopy.

The Jets could have just held onto their starting QB from 1964 at a fraction of the price paid to the other QBs on the roster.

Dick Wood (yes that is his name) was the first QB to throw a TD in Shea Stadium, and he went on to play for 5 different AFL teams, the only person to ever do so.

Wood was a mediocre QB throwing 35 TDs and 44 INTs in his two years with the Jets. That was actually not a horrible state line in these days of football. Defense restrictive penalties were far less a part of the game today. There were no illegal contact, holding, or pass interference like there is today. Basically you could get away with assault on a receiver and not have it called.

Wood went on to Oakland as a backup when he just as easily could have stayed in New York. Of course hindsight is 20-20. Wood became a longtime coach after his playing days and ended his career in 1995 as the Jets QB/RB coach under Rich Kotite.

The spending that Sonny was doing was a well calculated plan to get attention to the Jets, and it worked. The Jets were drawing huge crowds at Shea, and Weeb was slowly building a winner. It also had a profound effect on the cross town rivals, the New York Giants.

For all the blather and ballyhoo about the great Giants run of success, the Jets had more to do with the Giant demise than any other consequence. If you look at the records, the Giants won the NFL Championship in 1938 when there were only 10 NFL teams. They didn’t win it again until the 1956 season which is 18 seasons (4 years before the Jets became a team). There were 12 teams.

They then had a supposed run of success by playing in the NFL Championship Gamein 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962, and 1963 in which they lost each one.

In 1964 they drafted Matt Snell in the third round in an attempt to make the Jets pay too much for their first round pick. They hoped the Jets franchise would fold due to money problems. It didn’t work. In 1964 the Giants finished 2-10-2 and in last place. They finished in second place in 1965 but with a 7-7 record and no playoffs. The following year they went 1-12-1 to finish in last place. The Giants didn’t make the Playoffs again until 1981 but lost their first game. They had become reactionary drafters rather than looking to the future.

The Giants had started strategizing against the AFL Jets rather than against their opponents in the NFL. Instead of building their team they were scheming against a team that was not even in their own league. Deals were made like the horrible trade for an older Fran Tarkenton (first and second round pick in 1967 plus a first round pick in 1968) to keep the Giants on the back pages of the Daily News and the New York Post. Tarkenton was a future Hall of Fame player who was more of a scrambler than a drop back QB. With the Giants in five years he went 33-36 with no playoff appearances. The Giants were out of the playoffs from 1964 until 1981 after being a Playoff team 6 of the 8 years before.

The Jets were the reason for the slide as Wellington Mara once said in an enlightening interview. “I think the Jets coming in when they did contributed to our bad years because we tried to do everything for the short term rather than the long haul. We’d trade a draft choice for a player figuring he’d give us one or two good years. We didn’t want to accept how the public might react if we had a bad year or two or three. In other words it was it was a question of mistaken pride. The fans would have stuck with us anyhow. They did stick with us through all the bad years. In the past we had been able to fill in a Robustelli, a Modzelewski a Walton’ we added people like that. That was fine when we had a great nucleus. But after 1963 we kept trying to add without realizing the nucleus wasn’t as strong as it had been. Like I said it was a question of mistaken pride.”

Wellington Mara had to concede this about for his foibles, “I didn’t want to have a loser while the Jets had a winner.” This short sided idealism was a precursor to future disaster. The Giants had always built their team with the future in mind. The Jets made them change their ideology 180 degrees and draft for the short term. It was disaster. They didn’t revive their franchise until a fellow named George Young came along who hired Bill Parcells.

Up next...

The Namath phenomenon

The AFL/NFL Merger

Stay tuned.