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A New Team And A New League Part 11

Loads of pre Super Bowl stuff

Super Bowl III - New York Jets vs Baltimore Colts - January 12, 1969 Photo by Fred Roe/Getty Images

After the debacle of the Heidi game the Jets didn’t lose another game the rest of the year. They won their division for the first time in franchise history, then were set to play in the AFL championship game against the Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders were always the bad guys who liked to cheat or get away with whatever they could. They would revel in the pain of other teams and would try anything to gain an advantage. When Al Davis was coach (by the time of the championship game he was AFL commissioner) he tried one of their sinister machinations.

Curly Johnson was the Jets punter and kickoff specialist. He would tie up his shoe with shoelace so the tip of the shoe was curving up. Many kickers would do that before the soccer style of kicking came into vogue. This way he could get more height on the kick to give the coverage guys more time to make it down the field. Al Davis called a timeout to tell the referees that Johnson had weights in his shoe and that was illegal. Of course that was untrue and Davis knew it, but it was a way of getting into the mind of a player hoping it would lead to a mistake. It never did, but it did make the AFL change the rule so that all kickers’ shoes had to be store bought and unaltered.

The rematch with the Oakland Raiders was just fine with the Jets. They felt payback was in order for all the dirty things the Raiders had done to them over the years. This was not going to be an easy affair. The Raiders played a brutal game of football and the Raiders-Jets games were savage.

What was nice about this meeting (unlike the previous two) was this was a home game for the Jets, played in the not so comfy confines of Shea Stadium. It wasn’t the most elegant of stadiums, but the Jets knew how the winds blew and it was home to them.

The Jets had the lead again heading into the 4th quarter 20 -13. Soon after, the Raiders moved the ball inside the 10 but settled on a field goal to make it 20-16. After a Jets punt the Raiders again drove the field and a Pete Banaszak TD gave the Raiders the lead with time waning in the 4th quarter.

This time it was the Jets who drove the field. When Joe Namath hit Don Maynard on a 6 yard score the Jets re-took the lead, 27-23. Time was still remaining on the clock. The Raiders again quickly drove the field. With little more than 2 minutes remaining they were on the 24 yard line. The Raiders tried a play that had worked before. It was the same play that they used to score the go ahead TD in the Heidi game. This time it was LB Ralph Baker’s job to guard the RB on the play. Baker had watched that same play over and over again on game film. He was ready.

Baker moved into the backfield as Daryl Lamonica tossed the ball to the RB in the flat. The wind in Shea was blowing so the ball was a little off target and it slipped off the fingers of Charlie Smith for an incompletion. Or was it? Ralph Baker knew right away that the ball was thrown behind where Lamonica was standing. That made it a lateral, not a forward pass. Baker scooped the ball up and ran towards the Raiders’ end zone.

Back in 1968 you couldn’t advance a lateral that was fumbled. You got the ball at the point of recovery. The Jets took control of the ball and swiftly ran out the clock for the biggest win in franchise history and a date in the Super Bowl.

With the win the Jets erupted into sheer joy. They grabbed Weeb Ewbank and pulled him up onto their collective shoulders to walk him triumphantly across the field. The news crews showed Weeb with tears in his eyes as the group gleefully paraded across the field. Little did anyone know that those tears weren’t tears of joy, but of pain. Weeb recalled “Remember when the players put me on their shoulders? Well, some little kid came along and swung on my right leg. It really irritated my hip joint. Those weren’t tears of joy, those were tears period.”

They gave Weeb a pair of crutches to get around, but he hated them. As Weeb put it “I went on crutches for one day and I said this is a bunch of stuff (one of Weeb’s favorite near curses) so I threw them away.” He used a cane instead, so he hobbled around with a cane in the time before the Super Bowl.

It wasn’t called the Super Bowl at that time. It was called the AFL-NFL Championship game. The name was changed just prior to Super Bowl III, but it was done after the tickets were already printed so they decided to call future games the Super Bowl, then retroactively change the names of the games prior to Super Bowl III.

So who came up with the name Super Bowl?

As the original story goes, AFL founder Lamar Hunt was at home in his favorite chair reading the newspaper when he heard a thump-thump-thump. Hunt pulled down his newspaper to see his young daughter standing in front of him bouncing a ball on the floor over and over. Hunt was a southerner, born in Arkansas but his children were born and raised in Texas. So she had that southern Texas drawl when she talked. Lamar Hunt asked his daughter “what you bouncing there honey?” His daughter replied “a super bawl daddy.” Hunt hears Super Bowl, like the college bowls only way more super. He then pitched the idea to the NFL executive committee and they realized that Super Bowl is a lot more marketable than AFL-NFL championship game. The rest is history.

Ralph Baker Story

To hear Joe Namath tell the story it’s kind of comical. Joe Namath used to carouse with Sonny Werblin, who was a great friend and business associate of Johnny Carson. Joe, Sonny and Ralph Baker were hanging out at Johnny Carson’s place one evening and everyone was drinking. Johnny got kind of feisty when he drank and Namath was talking to someone and he hears Johnny Carson (a little lit) say to Ralph Baker “So you think you’re tough? You, a football player, you think you’re tough?” Then Johnny Carson slaps Baker across the face. Namath walks over, but Baker just smiles back at Carson, no big deal. Johnny allegedly felt real bad about the incident and apologized profusely the next day.

Super Bowl lead up

Now that the Jets were in the Super Bowl they had two weeks to prepare for the Colts and the onslaught of the national press. The Colts were a juggernaut of a team. During the year they beat the Giants 26-0, the Cardinals 27-0, and the Falcons 44-0. In the NFL championship game the Colts beat the Browns 34-0. They were 15-1, with their only loss coming against the same Browns team they dismantled in the playoffs.

The Colts were big and strong with a menacing pass rush led by Bubba Smith. They were on a 10 game winning streak and their QB Earl Morrall was league MVP. His backup Johnny Unitas was league MVP the previous year. Don Shula was the head coach. He went on to become the winningest coach of all time. Weeb Ewbank had won a championship with the Colts but was handed his walking papers because the front office wanted the much younger Shula to run the team.

The Jets started their Super Bowl prep with a meeting at Shea Stadium. Weeb hobbled in with his cane and told his players not to talk with the press. “Let me do all the talking” he bellowed. I laughed just writing this because you knew that was not going to happen. Before the meeting Namath had already told the press that Daryl Lamonica of the Raiders was a better QB than the Colts NFL MVP QB Earl Morrall.

Meanwhile Jimmy the Greek Snyder, who was a well known odds maker in Las Vegas, pronounced the Colts as 17 point favorites to win the game. He said “the Jets have a tiger by the tail.”

The Jets flew into Florida early to practice in the Florida sun rather than in the cold northeast. The New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson was on the flight. He was a favorite of Joe Namath. Anderson told Namath about the 17 point spread on the game and Joe looked shocked to hear it.

He told Anderson “17 points? If I were allowed I would put $100,000 on this one. I might sound like I’m boasting and bragging and I am. Ask anyone who played against us in our league. The Colts are good but we’re good too.”

Today the Super Bowl teams are sequestered away with high security. Even the plane rides now have FBI protection from all possible threats. On the Jets’ flight down the only protection the Jets needed was from Bob Talamini’s four kids running around the plane.

The contrast in teams who were playing in the Super Bowl along with the difference in leagues was so strong it seemed like these two teams were playing from two different eras.

The Colts were an old school bunch with a grizzled old NFL MVP QB who replaced an injured grizzled old NFL MVP QB. Don Shula was the younger coach but he was an old school, my way or the highway kind of guy. The Colts were stuck in a time warp. It was 1969 by the time of the Super Bowl with Woodstock on the horizon. The free love era was coming in along with a new sound of music. Both Colts QBs had flat top haircuts from the 1950’s and wore black high top shoes. When they moved it was like slow motion.

The Jets were a much looser team, with a QB with long hair, a handlebar mustache and white shoes. He dated supermodels, hung with celebrities and said what he thought. Weeb Ewbank was the older coach but he let his player be themselves as much as he could. He knew he couldn’t control Joe Namath, but he didn’t want to. He knew that Namath was the leader on the team. His drive, spirit and talent is what every player on the team counted on. When Joe talked big it was because he believed in his team, that gave the entire team confidence. Joe wasn’t saying he was great, he was saying he played with great teammates and they were great together. The entire team felt that and believed that.

When the week started, Don Shula’s message to the Colts was clear. “Everything we’ve accomplished all season is riding on the outcome of this game.” It put a negative spin on what they had accomplished. It didn’t help that their opponents were so darn positive of their chances. Heck when Namath was asked about his assertion that he and Lamonica were better than Morrall he doubled down on that statement. He stated that “John Hadl and Bob Griese are both also better than any QB in the NFL.” That statement told the Jets “Hey we played against the best in our league so we should win this game, no doubt.”

Shula was always on the defensive when he met with the press. He made it seem like he didn’t care what the Jets or Namath said, but he seemed to know every word. Shula said “I don’t know how Namath can rap Earl.” Shula also lost it when he was told that Namath didn’t show up for the pre-Super Bowl photo. When Shula heard that Namath hadn’t shown up for photo day he said “What the hell is Weeb doing?” like he cared so much about what the Jets were doing or not doing. Joe said he overslept. Truth is Joe couldn’t care less about some NFL orchestrated media event that would be hours of defending what he said to people who wouldn’t believe him anyway.

At a Miami Touchdown Club dinner three days before the game, Namath answered a heckler by saying, “We’re going to win Sunday. I guarantee you.” His brazenness made headlines, though many journalists passed it off as bluster or self-delusion. Shula was very agitated by the Namath remarks for some reason. Finally Shula sort of threw his hands in the air and said “But I guess Namath can say whatever the hell he wants.”

Jets linebacker coach Walt Michaels was an old school kind of guy who didn’t mind the boastful Jets, but his brother (who also was an old school guy) did mind what was said. Walt’s brother Lou was the burly place kicker for the Colts. Lou Michaels was a rotund 250 lbs placekicker for the Colts for more than a decade. Both Lou and Walt had a brother who died in WWII at Guadalcanal and a father who spent over 25 years working in the mines. They both were no nonsense types who backed what they believed.

Unlike today, ball players would go out when on the road to the first watering hole they could find and have a good time. There were no cell phones, no video games and the TV in the room probably got three channels, so there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do at the hotel. You can’t just work on football 18 hours a day, you need to unwind, take a load off.

Back in the 60’s there were a lot of bars in Miami but not nearly as many as there are today. Eventually players from opposing teams would find each other in the same bar. This is what happened with Lou Michaels and Joe Namath.

Namath was out with strong safety Jim Hudson having something to eat and imbibing a little when Lou Michaels comes up rather impudently and says “Lou Michaels” as a way of introducing himself. Joe just kept to himself. Michaels added “You’re doing a lot of talking.”

Joe replied “There’s a lot to talk about. We’re going to to kick the hell out of your team.”

Michaels was starting to feel the anger well up inside him. He said “Haven’t you heard of the word modesty Joseph?”

Jim Hudson didn’t like the way the conversation was going so he grabbed Joe and shuffled him over to a table so they could have some dinner and defuse the situation. But Michaels was not done with Joe yet. He sat down at the same table, uninvited, along with teammate Dan Sullivan.

Joe just looked over at Lou and said “You still here?”

Michaels responded “Damn right I’m still here. I want to hear all you got to say.”

“I’m going to pick you apart” said Joe.

“I never heard Johnny Unitas or Bobby Layne talk like that” Lou responded. He then added “Even if we were in trouble we’d send the master in,” referring to Unitas.

Namath just looked at Michaels then smiled a huge smile and said “I hope you do because that will mean the game is too far gone.”

“Too far what!!?” shouted Michaels.

Joe looked over at Michaels, wiped his mouth with a napkin and said “Excuse me a moment, I have to say hello to a few friends.” With that Joe got up and left.

Jim Hudson quickly chimed in (as he saw Lou Michaels was now fuming) “Don’t pay attention to what Joe says, you have to understand him.”

Joe came back to the table and sat back down, with Michaels still enraged by the conversation. Michaels then leaned over closer to Joe and said

“Suppose we kick the hell out of your team; just suppose we do that. What then Namath?”

Joe glanced back over to Lou Michaels, smiled and said “I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll sit in the middle of the field and I’ll cry.”

Joe stared at Michaels and he back at Namath and the whole table erupted in laughter. Joe had found a way to say what he thought but still defuse a hostile situation.

They all sat there until the bill came and Namath paid the check with a $100 bill, one of many he had in a roll in his pocket. “You got a ride back to the hotel?” Namath asked Lou.

“No, but we’ll jump in a cab” said Michaels.

Namath replied “Don’t be silly, I’ll drop you off.”

Namath and Hudson rode along with Lou and Dan Sullivan, then dropped them off at the Statler Hilton where the Colts were staying. They thanked Joe for the ride, then they all waved goodbye.

“He’s a helluva guy” Lou Michael said.

Up next

More pre-Super Bowl stuff

The Super Bowl

And maybe the end

We shall see.