Sunday, January 16, 2011

Super Bowl Moment III: Namath delivers...and gives America "the finger"

The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 3 on the list of the top 25.

If I  was ranking Super Bowl moments from best to worst instead of chronologically as I’ve been doing, I think this one would be near the top of the list (if not at the very top). It had all the elements of a really good Western: the sheep-like settlers (aka the American public) who expect only the obvious outcome, the villain (the Baltimore Colts) and last but certainly not least, the cool customer of a hero: Mr. Joe Namath. (In fact, if you feel so compelled, listen to some Western music now to get into the spirit of things and indulge your inner dork like I do all-too often.)

It was perfectly poignant that Namath was the one who positioned himself to break the NFL’s vice-grip on the championship in Super Bowl III, since his story was so intertwined with the success of the AFL in the first place.

He’d won a National Championship with Alabama and headed towards professional football like a meteor, destined to collide with maximum impact even before the legendary Bear Bryant had declared him “the greatest athlete I ever coached.” Yet, for the first time in a long time, the top college talent had more than one option about what to do.

Thanks to a clever tactic of holding their draft on the same exact day as the NFL (November 28th, 1964), the AFL (who were competing directly with their older NFL rivals) could get the attention of top players who were the lifeblood of the fledgling league.

That said, the real lifeblood of any league is money. And the upstart AFL, spearheaded by wealthy men like Bud Adams and Lamar Hunt, had plenty of financial muscle-power.

After being drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals 12th overall and first overall by the AFL’s New York Jets, Namath chose New York and the less-heralded AFL. It probably helped that he also received a then-record $427,000 salary. Nonetheless, the AFL had what it coveted: a stone-cold superstar quarterback.

Namath famously acclimated to the heightened sports stage of New York City like no other athlete since Mickey Mantle, earning the immortal nickname Broadway Joe for his famous actions on the field and off of it.
Who does things like this? Broadway Joe.

“I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde” he once said (this was clearly in a time before the women’s movement had much traction).

He also earned his enormous salary by becoming the first quarterback to ever throw for 4000 yards in 1967, helping to further establish the AFL as a credible league. 

Yet the specter of being “the gimmick league” remained over the AFL as the combined score in the first two Super Bowls was 68-24 in the NFL's favor. Needless to say, the AFL was 0-2.

For Namath though, his stock continued to rise. By 1968, the Jets as a team had caught up to the talent of their quarterback, notching an 11-3 record and defeating the Raiders 27-23 to get into the Super Bowl.

Few gave Namath or the Jets a chance on football’s greatest stage. To this day they remain the greatest underdog in the Super Bowl’s illustrious history as their opponent, the Baltimore Colts, were 18-point favorites.

But Joe Namath wasn’t one to be intimidated. Famously, at the Miami Touchdown Club while accepting an award, Namath responded decisively to a heckling Baltimore fan.

“Were gonna win the game” declared the unerringly confident Namath, “I guarantee it.” With those words, his life would change, although at the time most people assumed it would be for the worst.

It remains arguably the most famous quote in the history of professional football. Of course, it retains its luster because Namath and Jets delivered the first AFL victory in Super Bowl history, 16-7.

What’s interesting is that Broadway Joe had a fairly pedestrian performance, throwing for only 206 yards, no touchdowns (but also no interceptions). It was fullback Matt Snell who managed the best game, notching 121 yards rushing and the only Jets touchdown of the day (coupled with excellent work from the Jets offensive line).

Yet more important than his on-the-field play, Namath had shifted the balance of power in professional football forever. By so brashly declaring the Jets would win despite being such immense underdogs, coupled with the simple fact that he delivered, there could only be one outcome.

The fans, the players and everyone who watched football could never again slight the AFL for being weaker. In essence, Namath and the Jets established parody in a way that no other team could have.

No other player had so publicly thumbed his nose at the establishment NFL in choosing where he would play. And no other player so perfectly embodied the rebellious nature of his league and the counter-culture of his time.

Namath’s finest moment though (the one that’s emblazoned in Super Bowl history) was after the game. And going back to my original theory that Super Bowl III had the plot of a classic Western, Namath rode off into the sunset victorious, wagging his index finger aloft to remind an awestruck America that he was, indisputably, number one.

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