In previewing Sunday's Jets-Dolphins game, head coach Rex Ryan this week invoked the gods of smashmouth and one of the members of the Green & White pantheon.
"This is going to be a physical football game. It's going to be a great throwback game," said Ryan with obvious relish. "We've even got throwback jerseys on, so bring it on.
"It's Winston Hill Day. Winston may play left tackle for us. We'll see."
Hill might decline that honor, having turned 68 just last week. But the most decorated player in franchise history will be in attendance at the game and, 33 seasons after he departed from the Jets, he will be the honored guest at halftime ceremonies along with a rosterful of teammates, friends and family members.
"I don't know how much overdue it is," Hill told newyorkjets.com. "It's the most exciting thing I've been involved in for some time. I appreciate the Jets organization for doing this for me."
The Jets and their fans appreciate him right back. Hill is still the same humble man who worked his way up from the small town of Joaquin and Weldon High School in East Texas, through Texas Southern University and all the way up to the Super Bowl III Jets, for whom he was Joe Namath's blindside protector.
"Leaving a small country town and coming to New York City, I don't think anything could be more of an eye-opener than that," Hill recalled of his 1963 arrival in the Big Apple from Crabcake City — the Baltimore Colts drafted him, then released him that year. "The Jets gave me an opportunity and it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I'll never forget."
Hill donned No. 75 and ran with his opportunity, keeping would-be sackers away from Namath's knees and opening holes for Matt Snell, Emerson Boozer and the Jets' ground attack.
His excellence was recognized early as he was selected to play in the AFL All-Star Games of 1964 and 1967-69 and then after the merger in the NFL Pro Bowls of 1970-73. The eight all-star berths remain the franchise record.
"Look, I Made It"
Along the way, Hill and his 1968 teammates played in the most celebrated game in AFL-NFL history, Super Bowl III. Hill recalled the excitement of that game at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 12, 1969, when the Jets subdued the Colts, the team that let him go five years earlier, 16-7.
"The game before the Super Bowl, I think most of my teammates would agree with me, was a little bit more exciting as a player," Hill said of the 27-23 AFL Championship Game victory over the Oakland Raiders. "Getting to the Super Bowl, well, we had a lot of confidence back then. We were looking forward to playing, but we didn't know how important that game was, or I didn't. I just knew we were in it.
"It was tough for me because I'd been drafted by Baltimore [11th round, 145th overall]. Getting a chance to play them again, it wasn't a thing of revenge. It was just being able to say, 'Look, I made it.' "
Through the years, Hill's legend grew. He was named the Jets' offensive MVP after the 1970 season. He played in 195 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in franchise history, with 174 straight starts. He was named to the AFL's All-Time Team as the second-team tackle and, in 2003, to the Jets' Four Decades Team. He broke his leg in the 1965 preseason but missed no regular-season games. He had his throat stepped on in 1974 but didn't miss a game.
After a three-game stop along with Namath on the 1977 Los Angeles Rams, Hill became quite the restaurateur, opening up Winston Hill's Ribs and Stuff in Denver. Today he's not as hands-on as he used to be but still has an interest in three Colorado dining establishments. He still comes back east several times a year, to play in Namath's and Larry Grantham's golf tournaments and to visit his grandchildren.
A Trendsetter at Tackle
Through it all, he has remained the same down-to-earth gentleman he always was. Rex Ryan remembers how he was, because Rex arrived on the Jets in 1968 as a tyke along with his dad, Buddy, whom Weeb Ewbank hired to be his defensive line coach.
"When you're a kid, well, he was always just a great guy. In fact, he was maybe the biggest guy out there, which automatically grabbed your attention," Ryan said of Hill, who went 6'4" and 280, big for a tackle in those days. "But he was just a great athlete. Thumbing back through some of my football card knowledge, he was a tennis player at Texas Southern. That'll tell you a little bit about his athleticism, his feet and everything else.
"In fact, he was probably one of the trendsetters for the bigger offensive linemen that teams went to. Teams are always looking for those great big guys who are nimble and great athletes. D'Brickashaw [Ferguson] has a style that's probably similar to Winston Hill's."
Add that to Hill's approachability for a young kid of 5 or 6 years old just learning the game, and no wonder Ryan later on owned an English mastiff, probably as big as Hill, whom he named "Winston." No wonder Hill is one of the members of Ryan's personal trinity that also includes Namath and DE Gerry Philbin.
Ryan, of course, will be coaching in Sunday's game. But his thoughts will join the celebrations and reminiscences of others this weekend. Hill will arrive Friday along with his wife, Carolyn. Then he and 15 of his teammates and Jets alums will participate in a full weekend schedule that will include watching the Saturday morning walkthrough practice at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center, a dinner in his honor that night, and Sunday's Meadowlands festivities.
Celebration of a Great Career
The impressive list of those planning to attend includes former Super Bowl era teammates Al Atkinson, Ralph Baker, Randy Beverly, Boozer, Earl Christy, John Dockery, John Elliott, Dave Herman, Namath, Randy Rasmussen, Jeff Richardson, John Schmitt, Mike Stromberg and Steve Thompson, plus longtime Jets public relations director Frank Ramos. Also on hand will be Jason Fabini, not a Hill contemporary but a former Jets left tackle just like the guest of honor.
Even Winston's 91-year-old mother, Eulalia, will be in attendance and will meet some of his old friends for the first time.
Hill is overwhelmed by the attention.
"The game always takes a second seat," he said. "There's nothing like the opportunity to get a chance to perform. The National Football League — that's what the game is all about. That is the game. But my teammates, I think of them often and call them constantly. I think my phone bill is pretty reflective of the amount of calls I make a month. I try to keep in touch with as many as I can.
"I didn't know how many would be coming back. That's exciting to have so many teammates take time out from their busy schedule to come back."
And close to 80,000 other friends in the Meadowlands stands will be glad to help Winston celebrate on his special day.