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A New Team and a New League, Part 9

The team gains players and loses a benefactor

Boozer & Snell In Uniform Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

The Jets were on their way to building a team, adding quality players year after year.

Emerson Boozer

In 1966 a 6th round choice out of Maryland State became the team’s featured back. Emerson Boozer was the perfect complement to the rugged fullback Matt Snell. Boozer had a twisting/slashing style of running that reminded people of Gale Sayers. He was only 5’11” and less than 200 lbs but he 1,247 all purpose yards as a rookie in 1966.

By the middle of 1967 he already had 13 TDs which led the league for any player during that period of time. In the 8th game of 1967 Boozer was sandwiched between two Kanas City Chiefs defenders, and his knee buckled. He was lost for the year. Dr. Nicholas did the surgery on Boozer’s knee and said it was the worst ligament/cartilage damage he had ever seen. When Boozer returned to the Jets in 1968 he was no longer the game breaking player he once was. He had lost his burst and short area quickness.

To his credit Boozer didn’t bemoan what might have been. Instead he worked hard to change his game to help the team. Even though he was of a smaller stature he developed the ability to block and open holes for his running mate Matt Snell. The two had switched roles in the matter of a year. It was a true testament to Boozer’s team first mentality to change his entire game for the betterment of the Jets. Most players would have a hard time giving up the featured role on an offense to play second fiddle to a fullback. Boozer showed his true character with the change. His play was key in the Jets Super Bowl win a year later.

Verlon Biggs

Biggs was a 3rd round pick out of Jackson State who played 10 years in the AFL/NFL, six of them with the New York Jets. He was a 3 time Pro Bowl player in 1966, 67 and 68. Biggs had a huge impact as he sacked Daryle Lamonica late in the 1968 AFL Championship Game on fourth and 10 and also forced a fumble in Super Bowl III that put the Jets in position to take a 10-0 lead.

Sadly Biggs was traded to Washington in 1971 because he disliked his contract and (after Sonny Werblin left) the Jets didn’t pay him what he was worth. He played 4 more years in Washington and was a valuable member of the “Over the Hill” gang.

George Sauer

The word eclectic is not a strong enough word to describe George Sauer. He was a player who prided himself on running great routes. He also had great hands which he worked on continually. He had long blonde hair and wore thick horned rimmed glasses. He carried a copy of Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” in his back pocket to one training camp.

He played only 6 seasons in the AFL/NFL not because of injury but because he wanted to write a book. His playbook was often filled in along the borders with personal observations. He was a nerd decades before the term was created, but it never stopped him from being a great player. In his 6 years he was a 4 time Pro Bowler and a 2 time All Pro.

Sauer’s father was an All American fullback at Nebraska who was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He played for the Green Bay Packers then later coached at Baylor and Navy. George Sauer, Sr. was so loved by his coach D. X. Bible that he reserved a scholarship for George Jr. at the University of Texas when he was 1 year old.

George Jr was so driven by knowledge and grades he almost was thrown off the team for lack of school credits. It wasn’t because he did poorly in class but because he would drop a course if he didn’t think he was going to get an “A” in the class in mid year.

As a player at Texas he disliked the run first offense of coach Darrell Royal who only passed as a last resort. Frustrated with an offense that chose not to pass, George decided to leave Texas early to join the New York Jets. His move was unprecedented in college football in the ‘60s. He became the first Longhorn ever to skip a year of eligibility to bolt for a pro contract. Coach Royal was so stunned and angry that he banned Jets scouts from UT premises. Later in life he hated professional football because he considered it dehumanizing.

Jim Hudson

Hudson was a big defensive back for the times (6’ 2” 210 lbs) who had a unique history with the New York Jets. Hudson was not drafted by any professional team but joined the Jets as a free agent in 1965. He played through three knee operations and a bad back, then retired after six seasons, all as a Jet, with 14 regular-season interceptions. His most famous interception was in the Super Bowl on a flea flicker play against the Colts and Earl Morrall. Morrall handed off to halfback Tom Matte, who began a sweep around right end and then tossed a lateral to Morrall. Colts receiver Jimmy Orr had drifted down the left sideline and was standing around the Jets’ 10-yard line with no defender near him. But Morrall did not see him and threw down the middle for his fullback, Jerry Hill. Hudson intercepted the ball on about the 12-yard line.

Like Sauer, Hudson also played at Texas. Hudson, Namath and Sauer’s paths to the Jets dated to the night of January 1, 1965, when Namath’s National Champion Alabama team played Texas in the Orange Bowl. Jets scouts were on hand to see Namath. But Hudson, who played mainly on defense in his three years with Texas, including their 1963 National Championship season, came in as a substitute quarterback when the Longhorns’ starter couldn’t move the team through the air. Ironically Hudson threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to to the guy who would leave the team due to insufficient passing, George Sauer; helping Texas beat Alabama, 21-17. It was all three players’ final college game. Namath would sign his monster contract only hours later.

Al Atkinson

Atkinson was actually drafted by the Buffalo Bills and the NFL Baltimore Colts in 1965. Atkinson was a offensive and defensive tackle at Villanova. The Bills seemed to want him more than the Colts so he signed with Buffalo. Problem was that Buffalo wanted him to play linebacker, something he had never done before. He was lost on defense on a team that had won the AFL Championship a year earlier and was looking to repeat. They didn’t want a no nothing rookie learning a new position so he was cut and ended up singing with New York which was closer to his home in Philadelphia.

Walt Michaels was the linebacker coach and took Atkinson under his wing. He taught Atkinson how to play linebacker from the ground up. The result was a 10 year career which included 120 games and 21 INTs. (Tackle records were not kept back then.)

Sonny being Sonny

Sonny was still the straw that stirred the drink in with the Jets, but that time was soon to come to an end. The other owners were becoming jealous of Sonny with his fame and frivolity. He had a 50 yard line box where he entertained. He had parties for the press so the Jets would get good coverage. You didn’t want to write a disparaging article about the Jets for fear you wouldn’t get an invite to the next gala.

The other four owners were tiring of the way things were going. The team was bringing in record crowds but making no money. The press would call Sonny Werblin “the owner of the Jets” although he had a 20% stake in the club like all the other owners.

This didn’t stop Sonny from being himself, he always had a thought about how to market the Jets. ″My life,″ Werblin once said, ″has been selling tickets.″ In true Werblin style he tried something that no other owner would ever do. He brought in an artist to immortalize the team in paint. Not just any artist, no, he brought in Leroy Neiman who was acclaimed at that time for his work in Playboy magazine and his pieces on Muhammad Ali.

You have to remember the times, such work like Neiman’s was considered scandalous. This is precisely why Sonny wanted him. The more indecorous the person the more people would talk about it. Talking about it gets the Jets more publicity. The more provocative the talk the more interest it brings.

There was also the Namath factor. Never would a chronicler of the times like a Neiman or a Warhol every be part of a sports franchise unless a bohemian nonconformist like Namath was there to show the paradox of the situation. The long haired, mink stole wrapped, super model dating man in a structured offense with plays set in stone, participating in a game that screams conformity.

So Neiman became the artist-in-residence for the Jets. He was around so much he became a fixture on the team. He was in the locker room when Namath was getting his knees taped. He was in the press box, on the sideline, and in Joe Namath’s apartment. He followed Joe to Bachelors III. He has behind the goal line. He was up in the owner’s box.

Neiman had the ability to take a moment in time then immortalize it on canvas. Once he was on the sideline just after a rain storm. He sat his near finished artwork down on the chair the fetch something to drink. While he was away the wind blew the picture to the ground and was stepped on by a running Weeb Ewbank who was following the play. When Leroy came back he picked up the drawing, but now there was a huge muddy footprint in the middle of it. At that moment Weeb Ewbank came walking back by, looked at the picture, then at Leroy and said, “Hey, Leroy, you’re improving.”

The unhappy four

The other owners of the Jets were:

Leon Hess

Who owned Amerada Hess Corporation. He was a self made man because his companies made profits. He had a poker face like no other, he would often face down Middle Eastern dictators without hesitation. He had numerous political connections and could change certain legislation with a phone call.

Phil Iselin

Iselin was considered him a nice guy by most who knew him. He owned a dress company and only was part of the ownership group because he had invested in Monmouth Park like Sonny Werblin and made a small fortune. He was invited to join the ownership group solely on that relationship.

Townsend Martin

Martin was an original investor in Monmouth Park,. He was also an investment banker, race horse owner and breeder. He had inherited a fortune from his family then invested wisely.

Donald Lillis

Lillis was an aggressive stockbroker who had amassed a fortune investing in the stock market. He had horse racing connections having been the head of Bowie Racetrack.

The day the Jets lost their benefactor

The other owners of the Jets got together to decide what to do about Sonny and their displeasure with him. They felt that Sonny was doing too much on his own, leaving the other owners out of the decision making process. Lillis is quoted as saying, “We want a winning team, we haven’t got that yet; and we want to make some money.”

The four men went to the office of Sonny Werblin and gave him an ultimatum. Either buy us all out, or we will buy you out of the ownership group. There was a definite falling out of the partnership group that couldn’t be fixed. The final line was drawn as the group of four told Sonny to give them $8 million for our shares or they would pay him $2 million for his share; it was his choice.

Sonny had the money, but it is unknown whether he wanted to put such a large portion of his net worth into a single volatile entity like the Jets. It was said that Sonny looked for others to invest with him, but it is unknown how hard he tried. In the end Sonny took the $2 million and moved on.

Werblin’s refusal to buy out the other owners was also partly due to his disagreement with many of the major moves the AFL was doing. Both Sonny and Al Davis never wanted to merge with the NFL and especially didn’t want to give them $18 million to do so. Werblin cared more for winning than making money, and the other owners were against that. Werblin also didn’t like being a second fiddle in his own park. There is no doubt that Werblin would have built the Jets their own stadium “Jets Park” if he had stayed the owner.

Sonny felt that the Jets were never going to be a true dominant team without their own space. Practicing on the side of the road or in a prison does not instill confidence in a group of men about their importance. Jim Turner the Jets kicker could not practice at Shea Stadium. It was closed to the Jets. The other practice facilities had no goal posts to use so Turner would practice at Flushing Meadow Park adjacent to Shea Staduim. He used that area because it had two trees about the same width apart as AFL goal posts. That is where the man who kicked 3 field goals in Super Bowl III had to practice.

It was Sonny’s desire for the Jets to have their own place. It would be somewhere he could entertain the fans but also revel in himself. If Werblin would have remained as owner there is no doubt he would have spent the money on big players to go along with Namath.

Sonny tried to hide his dismay and even hosted a goodbye party for the press at Luchow’s, a long gone German restaurant. When one of the younger writers told Sonny, “I like the Lox,” Sonny turned to him, smiled patted his shoulder and said “Scotch Salmon my son, Scotch Salmon.” I’m sure Sonny thought that was funny.

“There was bitterness, to be very candid,” said his son Tom Werblin. Sonny missed the team, and the team missed Sonny.”

After the Super Bowl win Emerson Boozer said, “I felt a sense of loss, or that a piece of the puzzle was missing in that he was not there to share the Super Bowl, because he put the club together.”

Sonny did not own the Jets during the 1968 season when they won the Super Bowl since he was bought out in the spring of that year. He didn’t get to relish in a victory that he alone helped build.

The Jet Curse

Many believe the Jet Curse is the Joe Namath Curse, but Joe is still part of the Jets family even after all these years of frustration. The curse is the Curse of Sonny Werblin. This is where I think the curse comes into play here. It’s the way Hess, Lillis and Phil Islin forced him out as part owner and president after the 1967 season. Sonny did not want out as Jets owner and was willing to spend money on the team that the other owners refused to.

Sports columnists Jerry Izenberg and Sidney Zion were the first two men to write of the curse. Ironically both Izenberg and Sonny were inducted into the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame the same year in 1997, of course Sonny posthumously.

The Jets won the Super Bowl with the team Sonny helped build, but the franchise lost out to a bunch of rich men who cared more about their pocketbooks than the team or its fans. They all had more than enough money without the Jets.

I have no idea what the Jets would have been like if Sonny had bought the team, but I sure would have liked to see it.

Sonny will come back into the picture in the future, but not as part of the Jets

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