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On This Date in Sports January 12, 1969: The Most Important Moment in NFL History

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In the biggest upset in the history of professional football, the New York Jets stun the Baltimore Colts 16-7 to win Super Bowl III at the Miami Orange Bowl. The Jets were 18-point underdogs, but not discouraged as Joe Namath guaranteed they would win. At the time, the AFL was still looked down upon, so the Jets win bolstered its credibility and made the Super Bowl into what it is today.

Joe Namath was a trendsetter, a star at Alabama he stunned the NFL when he chose the New York Jets in the AFL over going to the St. Louis Cardinals, who picked him 12th in the NFL Draft. The Jets gambled in picking Namath first overall in the AFL Draft and reeled him in with a record contract worth $427,000 over three seasons. The signing earned him the nickname Broadway Joe and was a shot across the bow at the NFL, who after becoming worried of losing players to the upstart league began to talk about a peace treaty that would lead to the common draft and the start of the Super Bowl one year later.

Joe Namath’s first few seasons with the Jets were somewhat of a disappointment as he often battled bad knees and turnovers. Though the original gunslinger helped bring excitement to the Jets who were looking to fill Shea Stadium, as the Weeb Ewbank who helped build the Baltimore Colts into a champion with Johnny Unitas looked to do the same in New York. In 1968, Joe Namath came of age as was named AFL MVP leading the Jets to an 11-3 record to win the Eastern Division. The Jets avenged one of their loss in the Heidi Game by beating the Oakland Raiders 27-23 for the AFL Championship. The Jets won the game on Namath’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Don Maynard on a blustery day at Shea Stadium.

After the Green Bay Packers easily won the first two Super Bowl, there was a perception that the game was a waste of time as the AFL was not worthy on the same field as the NFL. That year in the senior league it was the year of the Baltimore Colts who galloped their way to a 13-1 record led by Weeb’s replacement Don Shula, who was already one of the league’s most respected coaches under the age of 40. This was despite playing most of the year without Johnny Unitas, as his backup Earl Morrall was named NFL MVP. After beating the Minnesota Vikings 24-14 in the Divisional Round, the Colts avenged their only loss on the season with a dominant 34-0 win over the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship. So dominant was the win in Cleveland, that the Super Bowl, called that official for the first time was seen as nothing more than a formality.

The name Super Bowl came from the ball Lamar Hunt had seen his daughter playing with, added an official title to what had been clumsily called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The game was played the Orange Bowl in Miami for the second straight season, as there was not much of a demand to host the game. With the Colts installed as an 18-point favorite, the media treated the Colts as if they were royalty while the Jets were harassed and laughed at. This prompted Joe Namath to spout off, “We are going to win, I guarantee it.” The guarantee became the biggest headlines of Super Bowl week, laying the foundation to what became the media circus it is today. It was perfect, Joe Namath who was seen as the rebel quarterback from the rebel league battling the established NFL. It was perfect for the 1960s turning the Jets quarterback into a counterculture icon.

With Joe Namath’s guarantee drawing in more fans, the Super Bowl kicked off at 3:00 to see if the brash young man could be humbled, or show the old guard there was a new kid in town. After the Jets failed to score on their first drive, Baltimore looked like it was ready to control from the start driving down into the red zone. However, New York’s defense did not yield a score, as Earl Morrall failed to get the ball in the end zone, while Lou Michaels missed a 27-yard field goal attempt. The Jets won the first battle, as the Colts did not score in the first quarter. Though disaster struck late, as George Sauer fumbled at his own 12, setting up the Colts to take the lead as the second quarter began. The Jets defense would again save the day as Randy Beverly intercepted Morrall in the end zone to keep the game scoreless. The Jets relieved to dodge the first two bullets from Baltimore, appeared to play more relaxed as they moved the ball into Colts territory for the first time. The drive would go 80 yards, with Matt Snell scoring on a four-yard run to give the Jets a 7-0 lead. The next two drive saw each team miss a field goal as the Jets maintained the 7-0 lead into the closing moments of the first half. Once again the Colts drove down the Jets doorsteps, only to come away empty handed. As Earl Morrall missed a wide-open Jimmy Orr in the end zone and tried to force the ball to Tom Matte, but was picked off by Jim Hudson.

Down 7-0, the Colts looked to return to basics as the third quarter began. However, a fumble by Tom Matte on the first play of the third quarter helped the Jets extend their lead to 10-0 as Jim Turner nailed a 32-yard field goal. The Colts offense meanwhile was bogged down, going three and out on their next possession. The Jets had found their groove and again drove the field to set Turner up for a 30-yard kick to make it 13-0. With Earl Morrall struggling, Don Shula decided to call in the old master Johnny Unitas who had missed most of the season with a bad shoulder. Unitas, who was Joe Namath’s idle did not fare much better, as his first two passes were incomplete giving the ball back to New York. The Jets would again drive down the field as the third quarter came to a close, taking a 16-0 lead in the early stages of the fourth on Jim Turner’s third field goal of the game. The Colts would drive into Jets territory on Unitas’ second series, but like Earl Morrall, he was picked off by Randy Beverly. The Jets would look to extend the league again, but Jim Turner missed a 42-yard attempt. With time, beginning to slip away the Colts faced a desperate fourth down play on their own 20 this time Unitas saw Jimmy Orr on a 17-yard first down pass to get things moving. The Colts would eventually find the end zone on a one-yard run by Jerry Hill. The Colts still faced a long road back and little time to do it, as they recovered the ensuing on-side kick. It took just a few plays for Johnny Unitas to get the Colts down to the red zone, but the cranky arm would not come through this time, as three straight incomplete passes gave the ball back to New York. The Jets would run all but the last 15 seconds off the clock, as Johnny Sample tackled Willie Richardson to end the game, with the Jets stunning the world. Despite not throwing a touchdown pass, Joe Namath was named the game’s MVP.

The images of the game are like those in a time capsule for 50 years now. Joe Namath running off the field wagging his finger to say we are number one. It would not take long to realize the sports world changed forever that day. The game that was laughed at the game that was a mere formality, why even play the Super Bowl they said. The Jets win gave the AFL credibility, the type that led to further merger talks and eventually the leagues became one, with the AFL teams being brought to the NFL under equal footing in 1970. The Super Bowl would become the biggest sporting event in the world.

Years after the game, Bubba Smith claimed that some of the Colts including Earl Morrall may have thrown the game on purpose, while other suspected the game was fixed by NFL Commissioner Peter Rozelle to save the struggling Super Bowl and boost the AFL into his idle merger plans. While some wondered if there were other mystic fortunes abound. The Jets have sputtered since that great as Joe Namath was plagued by injuries the remainder of his career. As for the team in green, they have made poor decision after poor decision and have become more of a punchline as they have yet to return to the big game.