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A New Team And A New League Part 10

The Jets sans Sonny plus the Heidi game

Jets vs Raiders Photo By:Gene Kappock/NY Daily News via Getty Images

With Sonny Werblin out of the way the four owners installed Donald Lillis as the team president and spokesman for the group. Lillis and Hess were the driving force behind forcing Sonny out or buying him out. The Jets you see were becoming very successful on the field and in attendance, yet showed no profit. The group felt like a bonanza was on the horizon with the AFL/NFL merger just a few years away. They wanted to both reap the financial rewards of that event and be removed from the overspending Sonny was planning.

Sonny walked away with a ten-fold increase of his initial investment and a sour taste in his mouth. He reveled he was part of an ascending enterprise that he pretty much did on his own while the other owners sat back and complained. He was able to build a fan base along with a team, all while having fun doing so.

Sonny of course didn’t stay dormant too long. He became the first president of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Sonny did the near impossible by building the Meadowlands complex in an area called “the swamp.” On a freezing cold day Sonny drove out to “the swamp” with a group of reporters to announce the project. The place was a cesspool with junked cars, garbage upon garbage tainted with chemical waste. Scurrying around it all were rats the size of house cats. Sonny said ”The good Lord willing, we will transform what is before you today into an area of beauty, excitement and pleasure for you, your children and generations to come.”

As president of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Werblin oversaw the construction of the Meadowlands complex that includes Giants Stadium, the Brendan Byrne Arena and a horse racing track. He later ran Madison Square Garden from 1977-84 and was chairman of the MSG Corporation.

As NJSEA president Sonny had secured the New York Giants as the first tenant of the facility, getting them to leave storied Yankee Stadium. Sonny never contacted the Jets about such a move - the mutiny still hurt Sonny. Five years later Sonny stood on the same piece of ground in the old “Swamp” that was now a parking lot for 22,000 cars in a 588 acre sports complex humbly called by locals the “Baghdad on the Bog.” The price tag for the entire complex was a staggering $342 million, which would be nothing today.

The Jets front office people (sans Sonny) were considering changes. One of those changes was Weeb Ewbank. The coach thought he could build a winner in 5 years, and though the Jets had a winning record for the first time in 1967, they still hadn’t made it to the playoffs.

Donald Lillis often ran into Vince Lombardi at a small Italian restaurant on 3rd avenue and talked to him several times about coming to the Jets as a coach/GM, both or either one. Lombardi had just stepped down from coaching after his 2nd consecutive Super Bowl victory. He thought about coming to New York but instead stayed in Green Bay as their GM.

The fact that there was no other viable candidate was the sole reason that Weeb got to coach the Jets in the 1968 season. It was clear though that without a playoff victory, this would be Weeb’s final season with the Jets. Of course history shows Weeb completing one of the most momentous seasons in NFL history in 1968.

The fact that fate intervened to help the Jets was a miracle in itself. The Jets had their own version of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” now running the show. They were interested in profits, the only interest they had in winning was as a vehicle to drive those profits up. The Jets had a magical season in 1968 with many memorable moments. It would be hard to think the Jets could have achieved what they did if they had to change their offense and defensive schemes to suit the needs of a new coach.

Even if Vince Lombardi had become the head coach of the Jets and won the Super Bowl, the tremendous accomplishment of the Jets would have been overshadowed by Lombardi’s presence. Instead of the rag tag group of overachievers from the AFL toppling the majestic Colts of the NFL, the story would have been about Lombardi. How Lombardi’s great leadership and NFL know how willed this group of misfits to a championship. It would have been written that without Lombardi the Jets had no chance at all; it was all Lombardi. That’s if the Jets had won with Lombardi, which is highly speculative.

The Jets moved their preseason training facility to the campus of Hofstra University. It gave the Jets a permanent home for training camp, and it allowed fans to come out and watch practice. The facility was much more hospitable than previous arrangements and it was far more fan friendly also.

The cavalcade of huge contracts was over for the Jets, partly because of the scaled back budget under the new regime, but also because the upcoming merger curtailed the bidding wars for players. Since the AFL would soon be part of the NFL draft, the players drafted would have little opportunity to play anywhere else, other than the CFL.

Lillis didn’t have a chance to make a huge difference with the Jets because he was in poor health. Lillis had emphysema, and a little over a month into his Jets presidency he had to have an emergency appendectomy. He died three weeks after his operation of heart failure. Don Lillis was 66 years old at the time of his death. His 25% share of ownership went to his daughter Hellen Dillon. She didn’t have much involvement with the team but she was on the on the board of directors until 1984, when Leon Hess bought her out to take 100% ownership of the Jets. For her time with the Jets she was the first and only woman on the board of directors of a professional football team, first in the AFL and later in the NFL.

With Lillis gone, the trio of controlling partners named Phil Iselin the new Jets president. Iselin was considered a friendly fellow and he tried to carry on some of the fun things Sonny had done for the press. One of those was the Summertime Bash at Monmouth Park for football and horse racing writers. It was a kind of opulent affair that put good thoughts in the minds of writers about the Jets or the Monmouth park officials. Kind of a social bribe to keep things cordial.

This was an event that Werblin spared no expense on for the writers and their wives. Sonny was always the master of ceremonies going around making sure everyone had a good time. That duty now fell on Iselin.

The day started out with breakfast at the “21” lounge in Manhattan, which is a lavish former speakeasy. Then the buses pulled up to take the revelers to New Jersey. There were waiters on the bus wearing white tuxedos serving champagne and Bloody Mary’s. Once the group arrived at the race track, they were led up to a penthouse private box area with its own private betting windows. Betty Iselin would walk around with a basket filled with daily double tickets and the wives would each reach their hand in to grab a ticket.

They would have an extravagant lunch while they watched the races. In the evening they would all go to a private club on the beach for dinner and dancing. Joe Namath would usually make an appearance, but once Sonny was no longer running the show Namath would usually have other plans for the day.

The Jets were an AFL franchise that was soon to be part of the NFL, but it was much more intimate than the NFL of today. Helen Dillon, who inherited 25% of the Jets from her father, didn’t do much on the business side of the Jets, but she was still involved. She had recently divorced and had 3 small children and was a regular at the games, but now she felt like she could do more as an owner.

Hellen started a players’ wives association with Randy Beverly’s wife. The wives would attend practice, which made it more of a family atmosphere for all. The ladies could see the work the guys were doing and the guys enjoyed the fact the ladies understood more about the rigors of their jobs than before. Bill Hampton was the equipment manager since the Jets inception. When the weather turned ugly and the guys would go into the building to watch film the wives would find things to do around the building. Helen, along with Dottie Hampton (Bill’s wife) and some of the women, would go to clean and spruce up the locker room. It gave a home spun touch that Bill did not have.

The Jets themselves were ready to roll. The team was primed for success heading into the 1968 season. For the first time since he was here Joe Namath was named a team captain. Early on Joe was late to meetings, coming in groggy from the night before. With Sonny gone there was less frivolity.

Unlike today you had a feeling the Jets were an ascending team. They were young, had a superstar QB and two great complimentary running backs. At nearly every position you could make the argument that the player was a top 5 player at his position.

The lineup was finally playoff ready, with solid players at every position. Weeb Ewbank had a keen eye for talent. Finally the Jets had the protection for Namath they needed and the key players were mostly in the prime of their careers. Bob Talamini was 29 at left guard but was replaced mid year by rookie Randy Rasmussen. The only offensive starter over the age of 27 was Don Maynard, who was 33. On defense the Jets only had 3 starter over the age of 27: Paul Rochester 30, Larry Grantham 30, and Johnny Sample 32.

The Jets had 10 Pro Bowl players on that squad - Joe Namath, Emerson Boozer, Don Maynard, George Sauer, Winston Hill, Dave Herman, Gerry Philbin, John Elliott, Al Atkinson and Verlon Biggs. Namath, Sauer and Philbin were All Pros.

The Heidi game

The Jets have a history of epic games that somehow went awry. You had the Las Vegas Raiders bomb when the Jets had a zero blitz called that lost a game in 2020. The Butt fumble game lives in infamy, as does the Mud Bowl, when Richard Todd threw 5 INTs in the AFC championship game. As the Titans the team lost a game when the team had a lead on the last play of the game, the Titans fumbled a punt and the opposing team ran it back for a TD.

Yet the most infamous Jets game was the Heidi game during the 1968 season. The Jets were on the west coast playing in Oakland. The teams were more than heated rivals, there was hatred of each other, and with good reason.

The Raiders were the dirtiest team in all of pro football, and they were proud of it. A year earlier the Jets were in Oakland on the second to last game of the year. The Jets were out of the playoff hunt but had a winning record for the first time in franchise history.

In the game Oakland’s Ike Lassiter took a cheap shot at Namath and broke his cheekbone. A few plays later Oakland’s Ben Davidson, who knew Namath had the injury, gave Namath a swat across the face in a further attempt to injure Joe and give him pain. Of course Joe being Joe didn’t give Davidson the satisfaction of knocking him out of the game; Joe went right back in, broken cheekbone and all.

The Raiders had no shame, they didn’t scold Davidson for the cheap shot, they reveled in it. The players all laughed when it happened and by the date of the Heidi game a picture of the assault on Joe Namath by Davidson was hanging in the Raiders offices as a tribute to the violence they believed in.

The Heidi game was just like any other close game up until the end. The calls seemed to be favoring the home team Raiders all day, so when an egregious penalty was called on safety Jim Hudson when it was really an assault by a Raider player on Hudson, the Jets were in near hysteria. The veteran safety Hudson tried to argue the call but the game official didn’t want to hear it so he tossed Hudson from the game without a warning. The Jets were incensed but there was nothing they could do.

The Jets had only 1 reserve safety on the bench and that was rookie Mike D’ Amado, who had rarely played all year. He was forced into action by the ejection of Hudson.

The game was a typical Jets-Raiders game, which meant it was extra brutal. Like most games the Jets played they would get victimized by a cheap shot, then get penalized for the retaliation. The Jets were penalized 13 times for 145 yards, while the Raiders were charged with only 6 infractions for 93 yards. This made the game drag out longer than normal, and it was a west coast game which meant it was pushing the 7pm time TV time slot.

Back in the 1960’s TV was different than it was today. No one stayed up late to watch TV because TV wasn’t on late at night. Most TV stations were off the air by midnight. If you turned on the TV all you would get is a test pattern on the screen. It seems crazy today but that is the way it was.

Prime time TV started at 7pm rather than 8pm as it is today. Your late news would start at 10pm in many markets, although NBC had an 11pm newscast in New York. It was a early to bed early to rise for most of the world in the ‘60s.

The Jets-Raiders game that day was a big affair for the NFL. Both teams were on winning streaks and NBC sent out their #1 broadcast team in Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis as announcers (you older guys will remember these guys). This same team, together with Kyle Rote, was the announcing crew for Super Bowl III that season.

The game itself was a barnburner. The Raiders were leading heading into the 4th quarter 22-19 when Namath hit Don Maynard on a 50 yard TD pass to take the lead. The Jets got the ball back then drove the field only to be stopped, but a Jim Turner field goal gave the Jets a 7 point lead at 29-22.

The Raiders then drove the field and a 22 yard TD pass from Daryle Lamonica to Fred Biletnikoff tied the game at 29 apiece. The Jets then marched back down the field on the arm of Joe Namath. Namath had a great game, going 19-37 for 381 yards and a TD. Joe also ran for a TD (yes, Joe Namath scampered a total of 1 yard for a TD). The Jets drive stalled but the 4th field goal of the day by Jim Turner gave the Jets the lead 32-29 with 1 minute and 5 seconds to play in the game.

The game went to commercial, with fans awaiting a return to the game. In their New York studios NBC officials wanted to start the Sunday evening movie, Heidi, on time at 7pm. Some executive in the room (no one has taken ownership of this move) postulated that the kickoff would take 10 seconds off the clock so there was no way the Raiders could come back to win the game in 55 seconds. This was only in the eastern time zone, since the movie would air right on time in the western part of the country.

From his home the head of NBC sports, Allan Connal, was alerted to the fact that the network was switching from the game to the movie after the commercial. Connal knew this was a crazy idea, so he called the studio to tell them not to switch the game. He could never get a hold of anyone with decision making abilities, so when the commercial slot ended the people on the east coast watching the Jets-Raiders game were shown the movie Heidi.

Fans watching the game became enraged. They called in droves to the NBC studios, wondering what the @#&$! was going on. The switchboard got so many calls it was knocked out of commission in a short period of time. Some people even called the police to see what happened and to check the network for foul play. That TV audience that was livid at the switch included a young man who was a die hard Jets fan. That fan was me. There was no local radio broadcast of the game so we on the east coast were left in the dark wondering how the game ended. My poor mom got an earful.

At the game the Raiders were looking to take advantage of the rookie strong safety, D’ Amato. The first play after the kickoff was a swing pass to running back Charlie Smith, who scampered 20 yards. A personal foul penalty by D’ Amato added 15 more yards, and the Raiders were now already on the Jets’ side of the 50 yard line. The next play was the same exact play, but this time D’ Amato whiffed on the tackle attempt and Smith ran 43 yards for a TD. The Raiders had scored a TD with 42 seconds still on the clock.

The Raiders then kicked off, with Jets fans wondering if Broadway Joe could somehow make an epic comeback to beat their most hated rivals. Joe didn’t get the chance. Kick returner Earl Christy fumbled the kickoff and went back to pick up the ball at the 10 yard line, but it squirted free, rolling back to the two yard line. From there a player who would barely last a season on the Raiders, Preston Ridlehuber, scooped up the ball and returned it for a TD.

The Raiders had scored two TDs in 9 seconds to win the game 43-32. No one back in New York knew the score or who won. An hour after the game Weeb Ewbank phoned his wife back in New York. She said “Congratulations!” to which Weeb replied “For what?” “On winning” she said. Webb replied “We lost the game.” No one with the Jets had any idea of what had transpired with NBC. They were too enraged by the tossing of their safety Hudson from the game to even care.

Walt Michaels was so enraged by the ejection of Turner he headed to the officials room to give them a piece of his mind. The door was locked with the officials inside so Michaels was banging on the door screaming at the top of his lungs. The Jets’ team physician, Dr. Nicholas, then came by to examine one of the officials, something he had promised prior to the game. Once the doctor was let in to see the official he examined his patient, gave him a recommendation for treatment but also gave him his opinion on the bogus call.

The next day the league sent over a letter to the Jets saying that Walt Michaels was fined $5,000 and Dr. Nicholas was fined $2,500 for their actions after the game. The official had turned in the doctor despite the free diagnosis. Dr. Nicholas would later say “ I am the only physician in history to be fined for knocking on a door.”

The next day NBC apologized for switching to Heidi, a decision they called “a forgivable error committed by humans who were concerned with the children.” Behind the scenes the network was furious over the mishap that made news all over the world. Soon after tha, NBC officials met with the NFL to issue a edict that whenever a game is shown in a home TV market, whether home or away, the network will stay to the end of the game regardless of the score.

I am still furious over missing the end of a game during the Jets championship season.

The Raiders and Jets would meet again that year for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

Coming up: that game

plus

the Super Bowl

and some little tidbits on the NFL..