by Kevin Burton
Amble through the archives of the beloved but bloated national spectacle the Super Bowl, and savor a delicious piece of American history.
What we witness Feb. 13 will be a reflection of its time no doubt, a dazzling offensive display like a laser light show, marinated in money, a cold corporate capsule.
In the old days, the fun days, it was anything but. And the subsequent Super Sundays owe their splendor to what took place 53 years ago today in Miami.
Dial Super Bowl III up on You Tube and it’s close to unwatchable for the modern fan. Winning quarterback Joe Namath threw zero passes in the fourth quarter. He had fewer than 200 yards passing, no touchdowns. They weren’t exactly lighting it up.
But Super Bowl III in many ways represents the beginning of the NFL. Final score, New York Jets 16, Baltimore Colts 7.
“Super Bowl III, in addition to being one of the most shocking upsets in sports history, was also one of those rare games that historians look to as a turning point in the growth of the NFL,” said Steve Sabol of NFL Films on one of their documentaries.
To fully appreciate the game it must be placed in two contexts. The sporting context reflected the national one. The 60s Vietnam and Civil Rights era turbulence had its reflection in the sports culture of the times.
The AFL was born in 1960 as an alternative to the established NFL. Without the NFLs traditions, AFL teams felt free to play a loose free-wheeling kind of football. The old guard viewed the new league as Mickey Mouse. Anything different, that didn’t look like them, was viewed as inferior, when it was considered at all.
But by 1966 the AFL had established a toe-hold with football fans. The upstart league also began to attract top-level college talent, most famously Namath.
Under the threat of losing more talent to the AFL, the NFL agreed to a merger. But for the first four years under the merger, the two leagues continued their separate regular seasons. At season’s end they had what was not yet called the Super Bowl. It was called the AFL-NFL Championship. To most it was an afterthought, so decidedly un-super that there were 30,000 empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum for the first game.
In the first two games, dominant Green Bay Packers teams coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi, steamrolled the best the AFL had to offer, first Kansas City, then Oakland. Anyone sold on the inferiority of the AFL needed only to point to these two showdowns.
Later, some observers would say that it was Lombardi’s Packers team, not necessarily the NFL as a whole, that was superior to all competition. They said after Lombardi retired from the Packers, the playing field was even.
But nobody on the NFL side or in the media was buying that. It took Super Bowl III to open their eyes and shut their mouths. Namath became the man of the moment. They called him “Broadway Joe.”
“Namath’s arrival in professional football in general and in New York in particular really heralded a new age in football,” said former New York Post columnist Larry Merchant. “He was a revolutionary figure in much the same way that Muhammad Ali was.”
“He stood for everything that establishment people were afraid of, individualism in a corporate team game like football. For a guy to wear white shoes and have long hair seemed like heresy.”
Then from Namath, in the lead up to the big game, more heresy.
“I went to the Miami Touchdown Club to get an award from the AFL. So it was my turn to get up and I got up to the podium and about the time I’m getting ready to talk, a guy in the back of the room says ‘Hey Namath, we’re gonna kick your…,’” Namath recalled.
“I said ‘whoa, wait a minute you guys been talking for two weeks now,’ meaning the Colts fans and the media,” Namath said. “You guys been talking for two weeks now and I’m tired of hearing it. I’ve got news for you. We’re gonna win the game, I guarantee it.”
That started the firestorm. It was just the kind of bulletin board material that coaches hate to give the opposition.
But if the Colts were inflamed by Namath’s boast, their play didn’t show it. The Jets throttled the Colts in a way the 16-7 score doesn’t indicate. Baltimore played a flat, turnover-plagued game that could not be rescued by the late-game appearance of their sore-armed superstar quarterback Johnny Unitas to replace starter Earl Morrall.
NFL apologists called the game a fluke, until a year later when AFL Champion Kansas City put an even worse beatdown on Minnesota in Super Bowl IV.
That, in glorious fashion, brought the curtain down on the AFL. To this day underdog types revel in their triumph.
History would view Namath as a charismatic but mediocre quarterback. His baseball equivalent is Nolan Ryan, a pitcher who had a lot of strikeouts, but middling talent overall.
In terms of a presence though, Namath was right on time.
“It was a very volatile time and football was defined and had a course as a result of Super Bowl III” recalled ESPN’s Chris Berman.