Super Bowl III revisited, 50 years later: Jets beating Colts still resonates

The New York Jets stunned the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Fifty years later, the game resonates as a tipping point in pro football history. Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the historic game at the Orange Bowl.

In the five ensuing decades, nothing about the New York Jets’ momentous upset of the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III has waned in terms of its meaning and lasting significance.

It is still perhaps the most iconic and ground-shifting three hours of pro football ever played as the game nears its 100th anniversary. In many ways it represented the highlight of the game’s new and wildly popular full-color era on television. Concurrently, it helped to forge the intersection of sports and celebrity culture, thanks to its main protagonist, Jets quarterback turned prognosticator Joe Namath.

With the 50th anniversary of the Jets’ landmark 16-7 win falling on Saturday of this week, we look back at that epic Jan. 12, 1969 game in Miami’s since torn-down Orange Bowl, when the underdog American Football League came of age and validated its worth in its decade-long quest for equality with the more-established NFL.

Here are some entertaining and enlightening vignettes and observations gathered from interviews I’ve conducted in both recent years and in recent days from some of the principle figures in and around Super Bowl III, remembering the day the Jets and the AFL stunned the Baltimore Colts and the football world:

MIAMI, FL – JANUARY 12, 1969: Quarterback Joe Namath

Joe Namath

The quarterback brashly and boldly “guaranteed’’ a New York victory three nights before the game during a banquet at the Miami Touchdown Club. A jeering Colts fan and a little Johnnie Walker Red gave Namath the courage to proclaim his guarantee even though the 15-1 Colts were an 18-point favorite. That game secured football immortality and superstardom for Namath, making him the easily-identifiable father of the now-cliched sports guarantee and a legitimate pop culture icon. But the intention behind his prediction, he says, was not to be provocative, as much as it was to strike a blow for the AFL’s under-appreciated brand of football:

“You know what, I didn’t even go there before I went there (at the banquet). I just honest to God felt good about our team and got tired of being told how we were going to lose the game. I mean the whole country … other than the Jets’ loyal fans, I don’t think anyone believed we could win. I’m thankful to this day that it happened. I see that picture of me going off the field and raising that hand in a No. 1, and that was our league, man. We did it. We did it.

“I just know that when I was running off that field after the game, I swear I saw those AFL people up there in the stands, and they were so happy. And it was just the finality of it. It seemed like a struggle, such a struggle for we as individuals and teams in the AFL. Our league had always been considered by the other league and their players as a second-rate league. We all felt that and knew that after the first two (AFL-NFL) championship games, with Green Bay winning both, yeah, there was a sense of urgency. We knew we had to win that third game. You can’t lose three in a row to them. We had to get it done.’’

New York Jets wide receiver Don Maynard.

Don Maynard

The Jets leading receiver and future Hall of Famer never thought the supposed talent gap between his team and the mighty Colts ever really existed. It was a case of perception versus reality, and got represented by a point-spread and pre-game storylines that were conjured up based on outdated information and viewpoints.

“That was just the media’s opinion of the game and all. We knew we had two top running backs, as good a passing game as had ever been in football, and the No. 1 defense in the entire AFL. The other thing was we had a great field goal kicker in Jim Turner. We could play with anybody. They could only put 11 men out there against us.

“It just goes back to how outsiders looked at us. We weren’t cocky by any means, we were just confident. We said the same thing Joe said, we just said it in our locker room as guys discussed things in meetings. The defensive guys said, ‘You know, we may shut them out.’ And the offense said, with our running backs, Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer, we’re going to score some. We started saying, ‘We’re going to win the Super Bowl. We’re going to beat the Colts.’ The best way to put it is that we were completely confident that we could play with anybody.’’

“Naturally anything Joe said made news. But it was just unheard of at that time, for someone to come out and talk like that and make those kind of comments.’’

MIAMI – JANUARY 12: Tom Matte of the Baltimore Colts is tackled by a New York Jet during Super Bowl III at the Orange Bowl on January 12, 1969 in Miami, Florida. The Jets defeated the Colts 16-7. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Tom Matte

The Colts’ top running back remembers being shocked at Namath’s bravado. Matte was by far the brightest of Baltimore’s stars in Super Bowl III. Had history turned out differently, he likely would have been named the game’s MVP, rather than Namath, who turned in a rather unspectacular 17-of-28 passing day, for 206 yards and no touchdowns. Matte rushed for 116 yards on 11 carries against the Jets, becoming the first 100-yard rusher in Super Bowl history. He had a Super Bowl-record 58-yard run, and chipped in another 30 yards on receptions, albeit committing one costly fumble. But he does not dwell on the might-have-beens all that often any more.

“I did have a good game, but you don’t think of it that way. When it comes down to it, it’s a team game. It was a team failure as far as I’m concerned. We came up on the short end of the stick and those guys came out smelling like roses. But it was bittersweet, let me tell you. People still come up to me and say, ‘If you’d won that game you’d probably been MVP,’ and I say that doesn’t mean s–t.’

“It’s a shame, and it was a shame. I think we were a little bit out-coached on that day, too. We had some guys hurt and that really killed us, and Namath did a great job. Joe shot his mouth off a lot, but the thing was, he backed it up. They won the game, so you have to have a lot of respect for him.’’

NBC NEWS — Pictured: Coach Don Shula, a spokesman for NutriSystem, speaks with NBC’s Kerry Sanders at home in Miami, Florida on the topic of men and dieting on June 21, 2007 (Photo by Stephanie Himango/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Don Shula

Early in his career, the then-Colts head coach wore the label of not being able to win the big one in large part due to the ignominy of the Super Bowl loss to the Jets. Ironically Shula would go on to win lasting fame with his coaching work in the Orange Bowl with the Dolphins, whom he led for 26 years, reaching five Super Bowls. But he didn’t win anything but misery on Jan. 12, 1969:

“The thing that people don’t realize is the Jets were pretty good, and Joe Namath was pretty good. And he boldly made the prediction that they were going to win the game, then they won the game. Namath had been the Jets quarterback for four years and we had Earl Morrall, who was our quarterback that year, for four months. Namath just had a big day, the Jets had a big day, their coach (Weeb Ewbank) had a big day and we didn’t.

“Super Bowl III was just such a disappointment, being so heavily favored and seemingly everything was pointed in our direction, and then to fail. And that failure kept getting brought up and it wouldn’t go away. There were a lot of New York people that really enjoyed that. It’s just a bad memory. So I had to learn to live with it and I couldn’t do anything about it until we did something about it.’’

NOV 1971, APR 4 1972 Dawson, Len (Ind.) Kansas City Chiefs Len Dawson K.C. quarterback due back again this year. Credit: Denver Post (Denver Post via Getty Images)

Len Dawson

The future Hall of Fame quarterback from the Kansas City Chiefs wasn’t playing that day and didn’t win his own Super Bowl ring until the following year. But Dawson was there at Super Bowl III with a contingent of AFL and NFL players who were in attendance as guests of American Express. Dawson sat quietly in the stands for most of the game, knowing he was in the minority as an AFL fan. But as the Jets’ upset crept closer to becoming reality, Dawson couldn’t bite his tongue any longer, perhaps inspired by Namath’s big talk and even bigger actions.

“I’m keeping my mouth shut until I couldn’t stand it any longer. At some point in the fourth quarter, when I knew the Jets were going to win, I spoke up and said, ‘How does that lousy American Football League look now?’ I just had to stick it in, because I had been holding it in all day.”

Joe Browne

Browne spent 50 years working in the NFL office, ending his historic career as its longest-serving employee ever. By January 1969, he had already spent time working for the league as an intern, and received a short leave from the Marines in order to attend Super Bowl III in Miami. As an NFL man through and through, his memories of that day are still fresh, and still a tad bitter.

“I suffered, like a lot of NFL types suffered, when that freakin’ Joe Namath beat the Colts. Everybody was down that day. We went out to Golden Beach, where (then-Colts owner) Carroll Rosenbloom had a party scheduled that night, and to his credit he kept the party on. But we got there and it was a wake, it wasn’t a party.’’

At least one party-goer that night looked past the momentary gloom and doom of defeat and presciently saw the larger victory in the Jets’ upset. For the NFL, which was scheduled to merge with the AFL in 1970, the outcome of Super Bowl III was nothing but a positive, predicted NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

“I’ll give Rozelle credit. He said: ‘Hey, this is the best thing that could happen to us. Because it shows that it’s not the superior league versus the inferior league. We’ve got to sell this darn thing in less than a year to the public and to the (TV) networks and now we have real competition.’

“But that was small consolation that night and the next morning to us junior staffers. Especially having to go back to the league office in New York. But he saw the big picture. He may have smoked a couple extra cigarettes that night, but that’s all.’’

Joe Namath

Namath has famously said in later years that if the Colts and Jets had played 10 times that season, rather than just once, who knows, Baltimore might have even won one of those games. He was that convinced that New York belonged, even given the NFL’s supposed aura of superiority.

“Was I 100 percent sure we’d win? I felt confident in our team and what we had done. But until you win, you don’t know anything 100 percent sure. And the Colts were just a hell of a football team. God, they beat the Browns 34-0 in the NFL championship game to get to the Super Bowl. They were efficient. So we knew what we were up against.

“But we were confident in how we were playing, and I thought we had the best team. I think our defense was the best-kept secret in the game. But we still had to go out there and do it. And we did. We ended up having the best team that day. It was a wonderful afternoon.’’

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