On Jan. 12, 1969, one of the more memorable pro football games in history occurred: the upstart New York Jets defeated the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in the third Super Bowl.
The happening of exactly a half century ago marked the first time a team from the American Football League had defeated an NFL team in the annual end-of-season contest that until then had been anticlimactic to the NFL championship game.
In terms of offering lasting memories, this Super Bowl ranks up there with such famous NFL championship games as the overtime one of 1958 and the Ice Bowl of 1967, as well as a half dozen or so Super Bowls over the last 20 years.
But this one is about the only one in which a major upset occurred, and it happened without the game having to be decided in the final moments like all the other unforgettable games.
I was 9 years old at the time, and I have not forgotten watching it.
Not only that, but I had somehow latched onto Joe Namath’s prediction of a win and the heavy underdog status of his Jets, and I was pulling hard for them.
I can still remember anticipating the game a day or two before it was played, and I have also not forgotten the total glee I felt when the Jets did indeed win, even though I had not really been a Jets fan until then.
I think I latched on to the underdog status more than the Namath brashness, although I still admired his charisma. Regardless, the game left me with a great memory to last a lifetime at an age when I was just becoming old enough to follow big-time college and professional sports.
Over the last few months I have been trying to document the other famous sports events I remember that are observing their 50th anniversaries of occurrence, and offering my memories of following them at such an impressionable age.
So far I have documented the 1968 World Series between St. Louis and Detroit that went an impressive seven games, the memorable 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and the 1969 Sugar Bowl between my SEC champion Georgia Bulldogs and Arkansas.
In the future, I also hope to maybe write about the Atlanta Braves’ first division title in 1969 and the World Series won by the “Amazing Mets,” as well as the memorable college football game between No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas in December 1969.
To get some detailed information on the Super Bowl III game, I went back and looked in both the Chattanooga News-Free Press and the Chattanooga Times before and after the game.
A United Press International story in the News-Free Press on Jan. 10 – two days before the game – sums up the atmosphere beforehand. The article gave no indication that it was going to be a game to be remembered for the ages in pointing out that Baltimore under future Dolphins coach Don Shula was an 18-point favorite.
This was partly because Green Bay had won the first two Super Bowls by scores of 35-10 and 33-14 over Kansas City and Oakland, respectively, and the AFL – which was a separate league -- was considered inferior to the much-older NFL.
“Until the AFL champion makes a better showing, few will be convinced the league has pulled even with the NFL,” said the story.
To add to the atmosphere of a likely easy Colts’ win, Jets coach Weeb Ewbank – who had coached the Colts in their famous 1958 NFL championship season -- said, “If you listen to people talk, it would be foolish for us to dress. But we’re going to.”
Although many people thought Baltimore would win easily, the Colts’ players and coach Shula did not openly downgrade the Jets in the media, though, and gave the usual talk of praising the opponents.
Perhaps a hint that the Jets might do well was the fact that they arrived and began practicing in South Florida two days before the Colts.
The paper also showed the usual pictures of the players and their wives relaxing before the game. One photo even showed Colts center Bill Curry – who later worked briefly with Baylor School – out by the pool with his wife before the game.
The now-famous shot often shown on TV of Joe Namath by the pool talking victory apparently did not run in the Chattanooga papers, although the former Alabama star QB had evidently been talking his team up for days, despite prognostications. That included a guarantee of victory at a Miami Touchdown Club event after being confronted by a rowdy Colts supporter.
One reason Baltimore was heavily favored was that the 13-1 Colts had defeated Cleveland, 34-0, in the NFL title game.
The Jets, meanwhile, had edged Oakland, 27-23, in the AFL championship game. New York, which was 11-3, had earlier lost to Oakland in the regular season in a memorable game in which the broadcast was cut off late in the game so that “Heidi” could be shown on TV as scheduled that Sunday night.
Besides quarterback Namath, the New York Jets were also led by running backs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell (a cousin of recent Kentucky standout Benny Snell Jr.), and receivers Don Maynard and George Sauer Jr.
Baltimore was led by quarterback Earl Morrall, who had admirably filled in for the injured Johnny Unitas and was the NFL MVP that season. The Colts were also supported offensively by running back Tom Matte and end John Mackey.
When the game began at 3 p.m. that Sunday on NBC from the Orange Bowl in Miami, the first quarter was scoreless, which was perhaps the first indication Baltimore was not going to win in a runaway as thought.
The situation began to turn New York’s way early in the second quarter, when Randy Beverly intercepted a Morrall pass in the end zone. That led to a long drive capped by a 4-yard TD by Matt Snell to put the Jets up 7-0.
It remained that way until the half, in part due to a play in which Baltimore receiver Jimmy Orr – a former Georgia walk-on – was wide open by the end zone on a flea flicker play, but quarterback Morrall did not see him.
In the third quarter, the Jets began dominating even more. After running back Matte fumbled on Baltimore’s first snap of the half, Jim Turner kicked a 32-yard field goal and later a 30-yarder.
In the fourth quarter, Turner kicked another field goal from 9 yards (when the goal posts were still at the goal line) to put New York up 16-0 and basically put the game out of reach.
Baltimore, which replaced Morrall with Unitas as quarterback in the second half, did score late on a 3-yard Jerry Hill run.
New York had become conservative and Namath did not throw a pass in the fourth quarter. He was actually replaced briefly by backup Babe Pirilli – another former Bear Bryant player from Kentucky – late in the third quarter after a thumb injury.
As the clock expired and the scoreboard said New York had won 16-7, excitement broke out amid the New York faithful – and with me. I can’t remember who all else among my friends were excited about the win, but I remember going over to my friend Kurt Schmissrauter’s house down the street late in the game, and I think his older brother, Joey, was kind of surprised Baltimore was losing.
Namath would go on to be the game MVP after a 17-for-28 day passing. Although he was the face of New York in the days leading up to the game, he was certainly not the only one who stood out that day for New York. Snell had 121 yards rushing, Maynard caught eight passes and defensive back Randy Beverly had two interceptions.
As to how the game was covered in the Chattanooga papers the next day, the Chattanooga Times ran a story on the front page with the headline, “Namath leads Underdog New York Jets of AFL To Colossal Super Bowl win.”
While the sports page was full of information about the game, local columnist Wirt Gammon Sr. did not mention it in his piece on three or four sports items, perhaps because the column had been written before the game.
The Chattanooga News-Free Press played the upset up big. One UPI story had the headline, “Joe’s Contagious Confidence Is the Story of Super Bowl,” while another story had this headline about Baltimore: “Nothing Right, Says Don Shula.”
News-Free Press sports columnist Allan Morris mentioned the game in his Monday column, saying, “Yesterday’s Jet victory has to be one of sports all-time upsets and is a point in favor of expansion.”
Always full of sports trivia, he pointed out that former Chattanooga Moc Johnny Green had been New York’s quarterback before Joe Namath, when the team was known as the Titans.
Even the News-Free Press editorial page had a piece about the game. In an editorial likely written by former editor Lee Anderson, the story said that everybody knew the Baltimore Colts were going to win the Super Bowl.
“Nobody much seemed to bother to ask the Jets,” he wrote.
Of Joe Namath, he wrote that people might not like his “frank evaluation” of his opponents and his jet-set type showiness,“but the guy certainly can throw a football and move a team, can’t he?”
That game would begin to make the Super Bowl the hyped classic it now is every year. And after Kansas City of the AFL beat Minnesota the next year in another slight surprise, the two leagues would merge into the NFL. The old AFL would become the American Football Conference (AFC), and the old NFL would become the National Football Conference (NFC).
More teams would start making the playoffs as a result, and that is why the Super Bowl is now in early February.
I actually heard Joe Namath speak years later. About 1991, he came to Chattanooga to speak in front of some group in connection with his role as a TV ad spokesman for the Flex-All 454 sports healing product.
Zan Guerry of Chattem introduced him, and I remember he said they had become good friends due to Mr. Namath’s role as a company spokesman.
About all I remember is that Mr. Namath, perhaps in his typical frank style, pointed out that his Alabama Crimson Tide had easily defeated the smaller Chattanooga team in football earlier that fall.
For some reason, I am not even sure if I thought during his speech of that day more than 20 years earlier when he led the Jets to that monumental upset win and I cheered loudly for him. He would go on to be known as the “Broadway Joe” playboy quarterback, and I don’t think I cheered for him or the Jets a whole lot after that day.
I did not interview him or meet him that day in Chattanooga, but looking back now, I wish I had, as I have tried to do in more recent years when covering an appearance by a well-known person.
I could have told him I was one of those in the minority, who, as a 9-year-old third-grader, thought his Jets had a chance to win. Maybe he would have gotten a kick out of it.
I have been wrong many times in the years since about predicting an upset for one of my teams. But on that day, I was right, and I still greatly relish that game that also gave thrills to so many millions of sports fans 50 years ago.
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To see the previous story looking back at another sports event of 50 years ago, the 1969 Sugar Bowl, click here.