It was 10 days before the Super Bowl. The Jets were staying at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach. They would be at this hotel until the big game. It was where they started their preparations with film review of the Baltimore Colts. You would have thought that the Jets players would be single minded in their attempts to upset the heavily favored Colts, but they started the week with thoughts that had nothing to do with the game.
Just before their film review of the Colts the players had a team meeting. The players were upset that they were to receive a watch for winning the AFL Championship instead of a ring. They were also upset that the team would not pay for the players’ wives expenses while in Florida. They also began to complain that the AFL Championship title share would be less then the promised $9,000.
They all went to to Weeb Ewbank to vent their frustrations. Weeb was not a sympathetic ear to their concerns.
He had set up two big white screens in a ballroom of the hotel so the team could view film of the Colts. They split the team into two units with the Jets offense watching the Colts defense on one screen and the defense watching the prolific Colts offense on the other.
When the players voiced their concerns to Weeb he relied with his usual harsh but homespun logic, “ We have a game to think about, and let’s think about it.”
The players to their credit stowed their concerns in the back of their minds and began the long task of preparing for the Colts. This was going to be a tall order. The Colts were 15-1 in the rugged NFL. They were a juggernaut of a squad who destroyed the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the NFL Championship Game, the same Cleveland team that was the only team to beat the Colts earlier in the year. Their revenge on the Browns was swift and decisive. They were the true champions of the NFL which to them was the epitome of the football world.
Weeb was a doddering older fellow with down home colloquialisms, but he was also a wise judge of talent and a smart leader on men. Weeb knew he had to humanize their opponents, make them something less than the supermen that they were written about in the newspapers. Remember the AFL teams didn’t play the NFL teams until the Super Bowl. They had no frame of reference, how they played against common opponents. To the world, the NFL players were superior to AFL player. That type of sentiment was in the subconscious of many players and Weeb was going to remove it.
He started by comparing the Colts players to players the Jets had played. Bubba Smith was a massive defensive end who terrorized opponents; in college at Michigan State. The fans would yell, “Kill Bubba kill,” when he chased after a player. Since he was only in his second year Weeb said, “He is virtually a rookie,” then compared him to the Buffalo Bills end Ron McDole who was a very good end who the Jets respected but did not make a big difference in a game.
He then talked about the other side of the line in the speedy Billy Ray Smith, “Their Rabbit Billy Ray Smith is like Jim Hunt of the Patriots, and we’ve been able to handle Hunt”
John Mackey was considered the best tight end in either league, but Weeb said, “We can stop him. No tight end can win the game all by himself. By the time Weeb was done castrating the once vaunted Colts Joe Namath stood up (himself now fully convinced) and said, “Hell, their not supermen.”
Weeb had gotten the Jets to believe in his themselves and their chances in the game with a well thought out approach to instilling confidence in his team through diminishing his opponent. This was a masterful job by Weeb since the press with relentless attacks on any hope for victory by the Jets. The NFL had won the first two Super Bowls by a combined 68-24 score, and Jimmy the Greek (the Las Vegas sports odds maker) had covered on both games. He had the Jets as 21 point underdogs. Tom Maule the top football expert at Sports Illustrated predicted the Colts would win 43-0, and Cameron Snyder of the Baltimore Sun had the final score 47-0 with the Colts the victors.
The Super Bowl of today is much different than what it was back in the late 60’s. It is now finely regulated show with the press escorted around in buses to predetermined news conferences and interview sessions. Players are told where to be and when as to make sure every media member has a chance to talk with each player or coach.
Back during Super Bowl III it was more impromptu with players being grabbed on sidewalks or as with Joe Namath poolside in a lounge chair with Ray Bans on and dressed in bathing trunks. Basically anyone who was young, big and athletic looking in Miami that week was asked if he was a football player for either the Jets or the Colts.
Today you wouldn’t be allowed into the hotel where the players are staying let alone hang out by the pool with the players. But pictures like this were golden to newspapers and news reports which stoked the fires of interest in the game. People who didn’t even like sports in New York and Baltimore were drawn into the fervor that surrounded this game which just continued to build as more news was published.
Today there are about 3,500 media passes issued for the Super Bowl which is about 10 times the amount that was issued in 1969. Yet the hysterical excitement that was building in and around Miami before the game in 1969 still resonates in the NFL with the media. They could only hope to be part of that single moment in time like what happened with the New York Jets in January of 1969. It is something unique, provocative, and endearing with a near childlike confidence that readers could see and feel right through the newsprint. It made people from the president down to an 8 year old boy talk about the game with hopeful assurance that David would beat Goliath with a brash young QB leading the way.
The reason the hearts of Americans felt that way I believe is that it is not unlike General George Washington taking a ragtag bunch of farmers, tradesmen, and unskilled laborers then built an army that would defeat an Empire that stretched across the globe. To win as an underdog is as American as apple pie. That is why people like Cinderella stories in college basketball and in life in general. It is in our blood. We rode with Joe whose arm was his carriage, and his dress was a pair of bathing trunks sitting poolside in Miami. gave us the brashness that was charming and his cleats were his glass slippers on a grass field.
Some of the dignitaries that were in Fort Lauderdale with the Jets included Andre Kostelanetz, an internationally acclaimed conductor and an official of the New York Philharmonic. He was invited down as guests of James Nicholas (New York Jets team doctor) and his wife Niki. Jim introduced Joe Namath to Andre Kostelanetz after one of the practices. He asked Joe, “How did the rehearsal go?” Joe looked at him and smiled then replied, “It went great, wait until you see the performance.”
During the week prior to the Super Bowl Weeb Ewbank was in his hotel room with his wife Lucy when he heard a knock at the door. Weeb opened the door, and standing in front of him was his old QB Johnny Unitas and his wife Dotty. Unitas was Weeb’s starting QB when he coached the Colts. It was probably inappropriate for the two to talk, and Weeb knew that. Unitas himself was the NFL MVP the year before. The only reason he wasn’t starting the Super Bowl against Weeb was an injury to his right arm.
Weeb still invited him in and the four sat around talking for some time. Unitas talked about his 5 children, and they shared stories about old friends they had in common. There was no mention of Unitas’s health, and Weeb stayed away from anything even close to indecorous. “That wouldn’t have be fair,” Weeb would later say.
Weeb then opened the door and led Johnny U and his wife down the corridor but stopped short of the lobby. He didn’t want anyone from the press to see them together so close to the game. They shook hands, and Unitas went down further when Joe Namath entered the hallway from a side glass door. The two prized QB’s of Weebs coaching tenure knew each other, and they both stopped and talked for a spell. There was a natural admiration from both men for each other.
It was a stark contrast with the crew cut Unitas in a gray suit and tie talking with Namath with his shaggy hair in a 60’s type turtleneck sweater under a blue blazer. This was unique because back in Beaver Falls when Namath was in high school playing QB they gave him the nickname of “Joey U” as a reference to “Johnny U.”
Johnny Unitas was a boyhood hero of Joe. To stand there and talk to him like they were equals was probably a surreal moment for him, a point in time he would treasure even today. Weeb stood there and watched the encounter like a proud papa as his two standout field generals spoke so easily with each other with modesty and reverence. He waited until they parted and then he limped back to his room with a vivid memory of the events that had transpired.
Three days before the Super Bowl Namath was to attend the Miami Touchdown Club’s annual banquet to accept an award. The week prior at the poolside gathering Namath had told the reporters that there were a half dozen AFL QBs better than Earl Morrell the starting QB for the Colts in the Super Bowl. Don Shula who was the coach of the Colts was not pleased and said so to the press. Shula was usually a very closed mouth individual but was so incensed by the comments he lashed out at Namath in the press. “I didn’t plan on stirring anything up,” Namath said.
So before the banquet Weeb had told Joe to “keep your big mouth shut.” When Joe was on the podium accepting his award naturally the subject of the game came up. He then let everyone know he was unhappy that the Jets were such underdogs to the Colts. When pressed further he stated that he was “tired of answering questions about the big, bad, Colts.” He found it ridiculous that they were 18 point favorites. He went on to add in long acceptance speech, “You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but if you don’t win these football games then it doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to win Sunday. I’ll guarantee you.”
Namath later stated that “Those words I guarantee you were all I said and the only time I ever said it. I didn’t mean to sound like such a wise guy, and I never thought that would turn into a historical statement; especially coming from me, you know the brash Broadway invader from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.”
Of course Weeb was not at all happy with what had transpired. He was so angry that when he next saw Joe he said, “Dag-gon-it, Joe, why did you have to go and say that for? We had them right where we wanted them.”
Of course it was the guarantee that made Super Bowl III the greatest victory of Super Bowl history, a huge underdog that guaranteed victory in the face of overwhelming doubt by all those who were part of the “in the know” football establishment, the audacity to claim a guarantee under such great odds was unheard of in the 60’s. The thing that is lost in this is the fact it was not bravado. It was not hubris, and it was not a boast because Joe Namath actually believed it down into his soul. That confidence resonated down into every player and even the people in the Jets organization. It was an integral part of the Jets victory every bit as much as the game plan.
“Joe was the leader of our team,” said Ralph Baker, a starting linebacker who later became a captain. “If he was so confident, I felt there was no reason I shouldn’t be, too.”
The night before the game was a time traditionally the Jets would gather as a team for a snack. This time the team, friends, news media, and others gathered for the informal get together. It was around 200 people. Around 11 o’clock, after things started dying down. Kostelanetz slid into the seat behind a piano in the ballroom. Split end Blake Turner (who knew his way around a guitar) grabbed a six string he had and the two began a duet of the tune “Malaguena.” Kostelanetz was playing the piano with one hand and conducting with the other; everyone was delighted and in a festive mood. Then someone in the crowd yelled out. “Hey Blake, you are really carrying that piano player.” Everyone left that room later in a joyous mood, all before the biggest game, event, or situation they would face probably in their entire lives. The Jets were a loose team on the eve of the Super Bowl.
Joe went up to his room (which was the Governor’s suite) with some of the staff including Weeb to go over the game plan.
Up next is our last installment.
Super Bowl III