Forty years ago today, the New York Jets were crowned champions of the football world. The underdog Jets, representing the American Football League, carried the play to the NFL's Baltimore Colts and took home a decisive 16-7 victory at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.
Forty years after the New York Jets won the most important game in pro football history, Joe Namath still recalls staring at the Orange Bowl scoreboard and wishing time would fly.
"I never knew we had that game until that gun went off — wouldn't dare think about having it," Namath said of the Jets' 16-7 Super Bowl III triumph over the Baltimore Colts on Jan. 12, 1969. "I can remember looking up at the clock and there were six minutes, 11 seconds left and it was the longest six minutes, 11 seconds.
"I never asked God to help us win a game. I always prayed for us to stay healthy and do our best. But I remember looking up there and saying, 'Please God, please let that clock run — let that clock run!' "
The clock ran and the Jets' charismatic No. 12 ran off holding his right index finger in the air. Only three days after guaranteeing a victory at the Miami Touchdown Club, Namath — with a lot of help from his super teammates and tremendous coaching staff — had delivered.
Long before Namath could celebrate, he had to learn an important lesson. After the Jets lost a 37-35 game in Buffalo on Sept. 29, Jets defensive coordinator Walt Michaels summoned the quarterback on the plane ride home. Michaels was in no laughing mood after watching Namath throw five interceptions — three of which were returned for touchdowns.
"He was sitting there with a clenched mouth and was breathing rather heavy," Namath recalled, "and I'm saying, 'Oh please, what's going to happen here?' Walt says, 'Joe, we have the best defense in the league. They have a rookie quarterback. We have to change our thinking some and pay more attention to the defensive side of the game.'
"Boy, it hit me like I don't know what. He was right on time."
Unlike most quarterbacks in today's modern era, Namath was given freedom to call plays by head coach Weeb Ewbank and offensive coordinator Clive Rush.
"We started to play more conservatively, you might say — at least I did. I started thinking things out," he said. "I had another bump in the road but that was really my coming of age to understanding our defense and understanding our guys on defense."
Work Hard, Play Hard
In 1968, Joe Namath owned Broadway. He was a superstar who transcended sports. He was young and had a lot of money, broke out the "Fu Manchu" mustache, donned the white cleats and wore that famous long mink coat.
"Joe had it," said former Jets public relations director Frank Ramos. "You just know it, you feel it and you see it. Joe had it.
"It was different than a Joe DiMaggio because DiMaggio was very shy. It was a special quality and it transcended sports and football. That's why he ended up with so many commercials. He had this appeal to women and children. He had this appeal that people were drawn to."
But more important, he was a contagious leader and his teammates held him in high regard. John Dockery, a defensive back on the '68 team, said Namath was a guy you would want to get in a foxhole with.
"Joe as a teammate? People don't know the amount of time he spent after practice working on those patterns. The magic with George Sauer didn't happen just by accident," Dockery told newyorkjets.com. "He and George would spend hours after practice working on the moves and the timing and with Don Maynard and Bake Turner the same way."
Away from the field, Namath surely had a good time enjoying himself around town.
"Joe was a guy who was kind of a juxtaposition of things," Dockery said. "He worked hard and he was a tough, tough teammate and a guy you wanted to have with you. And yet he was able to enjoy himself as well and take advantage of a great time in his life."
Namath brilliantly transformed himself as a player to suit his team in the championship campaign. His stats don't jump off the screen — 3,147 aerial yards were impressive, but his 15 touchdown passes were the lowest total of his first four pro seasons and he was also picked off 17 times.
But 10 of those interceptions came in two of the Jets' three losses — the five in Buffalo and then another five in a 21-13 loss to the Broncos at Shea Stadium on Oct. 13, 1968.
"Before the Denver game," Namath said, "I can remember Weeb coming to a couple of us in the corridors in Shea Stadium — we had to practice in the corridors because there was bad weather all week and the field was a mess. He said, 'We're not ready. We're not ready. Our timing is not going be good and you guys have to focus.'
"I said, 'Don't worry, Coach. We'll be all right.' Well, he was right. You can't just turn it on and off automatically. You have to develop a way to work and I got caught, myself personally, in thinking that I was ready. But without that sense of urgency and that respect for the opponent, you aren't playing on top."
Although he carried an unmistakable swagger, Namath wasn't too stubborn to change for the betterment of his team. The evolution was on full display when the Bills came to Shea for a return engagement in the Jets' eighth game.
A lesser man may have wanted to go out and thrown the ball all over the field on the Bills, a team that had made Namath look Pop Warner-ish back in Buffalo. But the Jets beat Buffalo, 25-21, while getting no offensive touchdowns. Johnny Sample's 36-yard interception return and a half-dozen Jim Turner field goals would be all the Green & White would need.
"There were maybe four or five times on third down when I threw the ball away," said Namath in Dave Anderson's game recap in The New York Times. "I can do that now. In years past, I had to force the pass, but now with our defense, I can throw it away, take the field goal and let the other team make the mistakes against our defense."
In the final game that season down in the Orange Bowl, Namath was efficient as he completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards. But the larger-than-life personality was a spectacular game manager, calling 43 running plays and watching Matt Snell total 121 yards on the ground and the Jets' only touchdown. Namath clearly knew what he had in a vastly underrated defense that dominated the Colts, picking off four passes, adding a fumble recovery and holding Baltimore to seven points.
After the scoreboard clock reached 0:00, Namath's teammates presented him with the gameball. And the great leader, who fully understood that this win was bigger than him, said he'd give it to the American Football League.
"It was a long time coming, a long time coming for the whole league," he said.