By Greg Bates
It has been a half-century since Joe Namath guaranteed his New York Jets would upset the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts.
Each passing year, the comments the legendary quarterback made prior to Super Bowl III keep getting bigger and bigger.
Just days before the big game, Namath proclaimed to an audience at a dinner at the Miami Touchdown Club: “We’re going to win Sunday. I guarantee you.”
Those were bold words from an extremely bold man.
The Jets, winners of the American Football League, were 18-point underdogs to the dominant Colts of the National Football League. It was the first time the championship game between the two leagues was referred to as the “Super Bowl.”
But Namath held true to his words, helping deliver a 16-7 victory at the Orange Bowl in Miami on Jan. 12, 1969.
“People gave us no chance,” Jets defensive back John Dockery told Sports Collectors Digest 50 years after the game. “They didn’t take a close look or didn’t know the heart that was in a lot of those guys.
“I grew up in Brooklyn and spent a lot of time in the schoolyard. And I had that feeling that this was the bullies, the Colts, the big, bad bullies who couldn’t lose, against the tentative, little cringing in the corner Jets, who had no shot – 18-point underdogs. Why don’t you just leave now is what the attitude was.”
When Namath, who was in his fourth year playing with the Jets, blurted out his guarantee for a Super Bowl victory, it surprised a lot of his teammates. But it also gave his teammates motivation to back him up.
“Double-faced coin, think about it,” Dockery said. “You’re down in Florida and no one gives you a shot and it puts you in a nice little position where you can’t lose but you also look at these guys and say, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to be unstoppable. They’re going to embarrass us in the Super Bowl.’ There was a combination of things. I got over my initial shock, like, ‘Oh my goodness, look at who’s here.’
“Joe talked a big game. He guarantees something and he’s ruckus the night before in terms of confidence. I remember (Jets split end) George Sauer and I were saying, ‘George, c’mon. What’s this guy doing? He’s throwing more fuel on the fire. I wouldn’t say this to anybody else, but we were in trouble.’”
Jets left defensive end Gerry Philbin loved to see the confidence in his 25-year-old quarterback.
“I would have hated to seen it the other way where he kind of questioned himself and the team,” Philbin said. “He believed in what he said. He conducted the offense and he believed in it. And he goes against the defense, he knew we had a great defense. I think it really gave the team a lift.”
For the Colts players, Namath’s comments also gave them motivation for the brash and flashy quarterback to eat his words.
“He would shoot his mouth off and he always had that tendency anyway,” Colts running back Tom Matte said. “He was having a good time. What did he have to lose? And he proved himself right, he was a hero. He was a great football player and a good friend and I had a lot of respect for him.”
When Rick Volk heard Namath was calling his shot of an upset, the Colts safety wanted to beat him badly on the playing field.
“He was Broadway Joe. He wore the mink coats and had all the panty hose and everything else – maybe the panty hose came later – I don’t remember,” Volk said. “He was in New York. He was living the life there and had a lot of publicity and everything else. It was something we wanted to do was beat him, that was for sure. As it turned out, he beat us. He turned it against us.”
Coming into Super Bowl III, the Jets received little respect. That’s in large part because the NFL was considered the premium league and the AFL its little brother. After the Green Bay Packers showed the world the NFL’s dominance with blowout victories in the first two Super Bowls, the Colts were dubbed as nearly three-touchdown favorites in their first trip to the championship game.
That stigma that the NFL was superior to the AFL loomed large prior to the game. It created a chip on the shoulders of the Jets players.
“A big chip, not a little one, on both shoulders,” Philbin said. “The AFL was getting ridiculed and we just couldn’t get due respect until we won the Super Bowl. If we had lost that game, I think the American Football League would have kind of broken up and the better teams would have been absorbed in the NFL and it would have been the end of the AFL. I truly believe that.”
As heavy favorites, Volk said he and a lot of his Colts teammates just went through the motions prior to the game. They didn’t take the Jets as serious contenders to make it even a close contest.
With the game being played in lush Miami with beaches all around, it caused plenty of distractions for the Colts players. The wives were staying with the players the week before the game, which took away from the guys’ focus. Volk called his team “overconfident.”
“In my opinion, we went down there sort of loose and more or less to have a good time and the game was sort of secondary,” Volk said. “I think everybody’s attitude was we’re going to blow them out. You know, 18-point favorites. And so, I don’t think we were really concentrating on what we were supposed to be doing.
“The only thing I remember more about anything is where are we going to go out to dinner and who are we going to go with. That was a big issue of the day.”
For the Jets players, it was a business trip. Well, maybe not entirely for Namath, who loved sitting poolside at the team hotel, soaking in the warm Florida rays.
“We weren’t planning any parties, and I’m sure that they were a little overconfident because, again, the AFL just didn’t get any respect,” Philbin said.
The Jets players could play with the mighty Colts.
“We saw them on film enough that we had teams in our league that were just as good if not better and we beat them – Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers,” Philbin said. “The size for one, some of the AFL teams were a lot bigger. But we had a lot of confidence and I think it’s a credit to the coaching staff.”
The game was a battle of future NFL Hall of Fame coaches Don Shula and Weeb Ewbank. Shula – who is the NFL’s all-time winningest coach (347 victories) – was in his sixth season with the Colts. Ewbank was in his sixth season with the Jets, but more intriguing he was the Colts’ coach from 1954-62 and helped them win NFL championships in 1958 and ’59.
Even six years removed from coaching the Colts, Ewbank knew the team’s players and schemes very well, Volk said.
“We knew their personnel and we knew what they liked to do,” Dockery said. “It helps to know they’re going to do this, they’re going to twist this way, they’re going to go for the deep ball, they’re going to go across the middle.”
“I don’t think (Weeb) gets enough credit at all for what he did,” Matte said. “He knew our team inside, outside and backwards and forwards. He knew pretty much how to take advantage of what were our shortcomings.”
But Philbin disputes the claim that Ewbank had the inside track on the Colts.
“There was nothing they said or did that gave us any edge over the Baltimore Colts,” Philbin said. “It’s just the idea that they knew the personnel and they knew our personnel and they just said we can go out there and win.”
When the game got underway, it didn’t take long for the Jets players to show they wouldn’t be pushovers in the biggest game of their careers. The Jets, which had a 12-3 record coming into the game, took the lead in the second quarter on a 9-yard touchdown run by Matt Snell, who finished with a game-high 121 yards. New York’s drive was impressive, 12 plays for 80 yards, to go up 7-0. It marked the first time in Super Bowl history an AFL team held the lead.
The Colts, which sported a 15-1 record prior to the Super Bowl, had good field position on a pair of drives, but kicker Lou Michaels missed field goals of 27 and 46 yards to keep his team off the scoreboard.
After Matte had a 58-yard run to get Baltimore down to the New York 15-yard line with two minutes remaining in the second quarter, Colts quarterback Earl Morrall threw his second of three first-half interceptions, this time in the end zone.
With it still being a one-score game at halftime, the Colts were in the game despite an inept offense that continued to turn the ball over.
“Focus was the big word in the locker room,” said Matte, who ran for a team-high 116 yards on just 11 carries. “Let’s focus on just where we have to be and that’s what we tried to do and we came up on the short end. You’ve got to give credit to the Jets, they were a good football team. They had great leadership, Ewbank was a great coach and Namath was a damn good quarterback.”
The Jets tacked on a pair of Jim Turner field goals, from 32 and 30 yards, to take a 13-0 lead with 3:58 left in the third quarter.
At that point, Shula decided to pull Morrall, the NFL MVP during the regular season, who was just 6-for-17 for 71 yards and three interceptions. In came former three-time NFL MVP Johnny Unitas.
“I think we should have put John in earlier, but that’s a coach’s decision,” Matte said.
Early in the fourth, the Jets added a 9-yard Turner field goal to make it a three-score game.
Pressed to get on the scoreboard quickly, Unitas went to the air. He marched the Colts down to the 1 yard line where Jerry Hill scored a touchdown.
Matte was shocked by how the Jets were able to slow down the potent Colts offensive attack all game long.
“I think the Jets defense was very well prepared,” Matte said. “I think that’s where coaching came in. I’m not trying to come up with any excuses, we just got our butts handed to us by a good team. … It was a tough bullet to bite.”
Down 16-7 with 3:19 left, the Colts converted an onside kick and recovered. Three straight complete passes by Unitas got his team down to the Jets’ 19. But the drive stalled and instead of attempting a field goal to make it a one-touchdown game, the Colts threw an incomplete pass to turn the ball over on downs. The victory was the Jets’.
Namath was named the game’s MVP by going 17-for-28 for 206 yards and zero interceptions.
The Jets players didn’t really realize the magnitude of their victory at the time.
“Not to where it’s gone,” Dockery said. “It’s been heralded and replayed and memories and written about.”
It’s a game that the Colts players were embarrassed about. Even 50 years removed, it’s still a sore subject.
“You disappointed a lot of people, especially our families and our fans back in Baltimore where we had such a great fan base,” Matte said. “We let them down.”
Said Volk: “It’s just a game we try to forget.”
Volk sustained a first-quarter concussion and had to leave the game for a bit. He returned a couple series later.
“I wasn’t myself,” Volk said. “I knew what was going on right then but no recollection after a play happened. I had a concussion apparently and those days you played no matter what was wrong with you.”
On the onside kick late in the game, Volk was again injured and knocked unconscious. He had to be carried off the field.
“I don’t remember that but I do remember taking a shower and Earl Morrall’s there and I said, ‘Earl, did we win?’” Volk said. “He said, ‘No, Ricky, we lost.’”
Volk’s concussion took a turn for the worse after the game when he went into convulsions at the team hotel. He was taken to the hospital where he spent the next couple of days. Namath sent flowers to Volk.
“I always thought that was a great gesture on his part,” Volk said. “He wasn’t trying to rub it in, he was concerned.”
Volk wasn’t the only Colts player who got hurt in the game. Philbin said the Jets used their size, strength and speed to their advantage.
“We beat them physically, and you can see the number of guys that left that game with injuries,” Philbin said. “And they knew they were in a football game, and I don’t think they expected it.”
Fifty years later, there’s still plenty of chatter about the Jets’ victory being the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. But do the Jets players even consider it an upset?
“A lot of my teammates would be very angry at you, Greg, for talking like that,” Dockery said. “I would call it an upset, trying to be realistic. (My teammates) would be touchy about having it called an upset because there were so many players nobody sort of gave credit to until it got to the third quarter, the fourth quarter and people were so wide eyed and saying, ‘Oh, this could be something that’s going to go down in the annals of football history.’ Upset? Yes, if you’re being realistic about it. Third, fourth quarter when we realized we could play with these boys, no upset. Just a win, a big win.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.