On This Date in Sports September 21, 1969: The 98-yard Punt

It’s a punt for the ages as the New York Jets face the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium. In the second quarter, pinned against their goal line, Steve O’Neal, the Jets' rookie punter, rockets a punt from the Jets' one-yard line to the Broncos' one-yard line, the longest punt in NFL history. O’Neal’s 98-yard punt was helped as returner Bill Thompson missed the ball at the 33, allowing it to roll to the one.

The New York Jets were still feeling the afterglow of winning Super Bowl III. As they began the season with an extended road trip, they had proven the AFL belonged as the leagues were set to merge after the season, with AFL franchises getting equal footing. After starting the season with a 33-19 win over the Buffalo Bills, the Jets went west for Week 2 in Denver. The Broncos had begun their season with a 35-7 win over the Boston Patriots. Seeing the champion Jets in town was significant for Denver, as the Broncos had a record crowd of 50,583 on hand. It was the largest crowd ever at the time for a sporting event in Colorado.

One player not a part of the Jets Super Bowl team was Steve O’Neal. He was the Jets rookie punter, chosen in the 13th round out of Texas A&M. O’Neal had supplanted Curly Johnson in the preseason, impressing coach Weeb Ewbank. Johnson had been the punter for New York since 1961, when they were still called the Titans.

The Jets had lost to the Broncos on the way to Super Bowl III, so revenge was on the mind as they got off to a good start, taking a 13-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Justin Turner accounted for six points with a pair of field goals, while Bill Mathis had a one-yard run. In the second quarter, the Broncos began to take control as Floyd Little returned Steve O’Neal’s first punt for 53 yards, setting up a score at the one.

When O'Neal was asked to punt again, the Jets were trapped against the goal line on their next possession. With the ball at the one, Steve O’Neal had to punt the ball deep out of the Jets' end zone while contending with the goalposts, which were still at the front of the end zone in 1969. With Little resting, Bill Thompson lined up at the Jets 40 to take the punt. Instead, O’Neal caught the ball flush, sending Thompson scrambling back. The ball landed at the Denver 33 and took a favorable bounce. When the ball stopped rolling, it had come to rest against the Broncos goal line.

The 98-yard punt from Steve O’Neal would be a reprieve for the Jets, as the Broncos took a 14-13 lead on a 23-yard pass from Pete Liske to Mike Haffner. Liske would get a second touchdown pass in the third quarter to make it 21-13, connecting with Al Denson of 41 yards. Emerson Boozer would score on a three-yard run in the fourth quarter, but the Jets' two-point try came up short, as Denver won the game 21-19. Joe Namath had a pedestrian effort for the Jets, passing for 283 yards while completing 19 of 37 pass attempts with no touchdowns.

In the years since, Shawn McCarthy of the New England Patriots nailed a 93-yard punt in 1991, while Randall Cunningham had one that went 91 yards in 1989 against the Giants. The 98-yard punt, though it was in an AFL Game, is recognized as the official NFL record, as the merger saw the NFL absorb several NFL records into their stats. Steve O’Neal would play four seasons with the Jets and one with the Saints before leaving the NFL in 1973. O’Neal had a mediocre 40.7-yard average on his punts for his career. Since his career ended, he worked as a dentist in his home state of Texas.