Urbanities

Geoffrey Colvin
Who Lost Super Bowl III?
Summer 1995

We can all recite the list: there was Woodstock and the 1968 Democratic Convention and Kent State and Hair. The King and Kennedy assassinations. Soul on Ice. Close to 30 years after the Great Change in America's culture, authors and filmmakers have pretty well settled on the defining moments of that era and iconized them as definitively as Mount Rushmore. But they've missed a big one. Maybe it seemed trivial in the grand sweep of world historical events. Certainly it was not overtly political or cultural at all. Indeed, it was only a game. But for millions of Americans this three-hour drama made the Great Cultural Change more real, more personal, vital, irrefutable—no joke—than any other. It was Super Bowl III, played on January 12, 1969. 

Yes, you're right in recalling that this was one of the most famous football games ever, and it has received tons of media attention over the years. But what hasn't sufficiently been appreciated is the enormous load of symbolic freight it carried, quite accidentally, thanks to the events of the just-ended annus mirabilis of 1968. The game slammed many of its millions of viewers hard in the chest, left them dazed and disoriented, because it was an almost perfectly framed ritualized combat between the Old Culture and the New Culture then at war in the larger society. And the New Culture won.

It may seem audacious or just silly to assert that any football game could exert such an effect. It isn't. We all know—even those who haven't felt it have seen it—that for many people sports hold more immediacy and emotional reality than almost any other part of life. When the University of Nebraska won the national college football title this past January, Nebraskans drove hundreds of miles across the state and waited in sub-zero cold outside the college bookstore in Lincoln to buy Sports Illustrated's commemorative issue—at a rate of 10,000 copies an hour. Many people expend more time and passion debating a coach's strategy or a player's value than settling important family matters. Everyone has witnessed (or joined in) acts of craziness—all of them acts of profound, intense identification with a team—that sports fans routinely commit. 

Sports reach into ancient parts of the psyche, especially the male psyche, that adore the pureness of the conflict, the formalized battle in which the two sides, symbolizing what ever the fan cares to see in them, fight it out to unambiguous victory and loss. While celebrating aggression, sports also contain it, codify it, give society a safe place to put it. Screaming for one group to beat the living daylights out of another is apparently something we're going to do no matter what. Asking citizens to do it en masse at an appointed hour and place on Sunday afternoon is not only less risky than letting them improvise; it also tells everyone, fans or not, that this form of theatrical violence as distinct from any other kind is something the whole community can legitimately participate in.

Deeply different communities provided part of the extra tension of Super Bowl III, when the Baltimore Colts confronted the New York Jets, teams whose very names evoked separate Americas. Baltimore was then a fairly grimy industrial city whose blue-collar Colts fans turned out in huge numbers to cheer players with whom they had at least this in common: they earned a living through punishing physical exertion. The Colts were a large enough part of the city's life that priests on Sunday morning would sometimes request divine assistance for the team that afternoon. No one ever, ever called Baltimore glamorous, and it's a safe bet that most of America almost never even thought of it.

New York, by contrast, was, well, the capital of the world, all flash and excitement, the bright, irresistible focus of most everything big. It made sense that plenty of New Yorkers would identify strongly with the Jets, a brash team in a vigorous young league out to make people notice. Johnny Carson loved to make fun of Mayor Lindsay for calling New York "fun city," but the whole nation laughed because New York was the center. It mattered. Hardly anyone said then that the basis of the U.S. economy was shifting from manufacturing to information and services, but it was—and as it did, no one could miss the sense that Baltimore felt like the past, New York like now.

On this day in January 1969, fans could not help but see a great deal at stake. It's hard now to recall the starkness of the conflict between the Old Culture and the New, or indeed much about the vanquished Old Culture at all. Begin by remembering that the Super Bowl was still a novel concept, and in early 1969 it resonated deeply with many of the turbulent events under way in the society. As a matter of bare facts, the Super Bowl represented simply a successful business being challenged by a promising startup: the National Football League had been around for decades, and in 1960 a few businessmen decided to finance some competition, calling it the American Football League. It became sufficiently popular that an interleague championship game made economic sense. Logical enough. But to the NFL's more numerous and more deeply invested fans, this felt like something more.

Identifying in a pre-rational way with their teams, like all sports fans, they saw the established order under assault.

This adrenaline-triggering situation loudly echoed others in the world at large. Cocky young people were speaking confidently about "the Revolution," and while this was obviously nonsense—surely, surely it was nonsense—there had nonetheless been those troubling events at the Democratic Convention in Chicago the previous August, when things had come just that close to getting out of hand. Also there had been similar problems in the streets of Paris the previous May, when the police had seemed by no means in control. Students at Columbia University had taken over the president's office in April; in a memorable photo, a long-haired, mustachioed rebel sat at the president's desk, wearing sunglasses, staring coolly ahead, smoking a cigar, looking just as if he were . . . in charge, For that matter, the North Vietnamese in January had startled the world with their Tet offensive, scoring advances so impressive that Walter Cronkite demanded, on the air: " What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war." Plenty of Americans felt the same way. All this had happened in just the previous 12 months. It was worrisome enough to make a person wonder about established orders and whether somehow they were all running out of luck at the same time. 

Reading the numerous articles written about Super Bowl III in the weeks before it was played, one is struck by bow many of the writers insist, just a bit too confidently, that the AFL is a "minor league," a bunch of third- stringers who can forget about ever matching the NFL. One senses a strong wish to be convinced that the NFL's seemingly natural superiority would be eternal. You want proof? Just look at the first two Super Bowls in which Lombardi's Packers crushed the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. (The Packers: in our New Culture world, where pro teams are named for sensory pleasures—the Jazz, the Heat, the Magic—it's difficult to summon an earlier age when an important team was christened after men who cut up beef carcasses and put the pieces in boxes.) Of course the Packers, now without Lombardi, wouldn't be playing in Super Bowl III, The Colts were the new league champions, by most accounts even better than the Packers, One could cling to a certain comfort in the NFL's established dominance, just as one could and many did—in the dominance of the police in Chicago and of the U.S.  forces in Vietnam. 

Even sharper than the symbolism of the established vs. insurgent leagues was that of the players, two players in particular. People naturally see all conflict as personal. Only in that way does it seize the imagination: Grant vs. Lee, the King vs. the Kaiser, Churchill vs. Hitler. The battle between the New Culture and the Old in the late sixties shaped up personally in several highly public arenas, gripping people according to their interests: Gene McCarthy vs. Lyndon Johnson, Abbie Hoffman vs. Mayor Daley, Gore Vidal vs. William Buckley. The most innocent and unlikely of these conflicts nonetheless packed huge emotive power in millions of American souls. It pitted Joe Namath against Johnny Unitas.

Namath was the quarterback for that year's presumed punching bag, the AFL champion Jets, and Unitas quarterback (though no longer a starter) for the Colts, Unitas, immovably established as true of the game's all-time greats, otherwise called little attention to himself. Namath was well on his way to greatness and was also a single young man from the sticks suddenly placed in New York City with a lot of money and notoriety. The press couldn't resist him. As a type, neither man was unusual. But the era made them symbols, and in casting an allegory of New Culture vs. Old Culture it would have been hard to do much better.

The largest point of difference between the two cultures was, of course, how they regarded deferral of gratification, which was either the foundation of civilization or a particularly priggish instrument of Establishment oppression. With this central value of the Old Culture under powerful siege, it was impossible not to see its fate being decided, single-combat-style, in this battle of one who embodied it vs. one who emphatically did not. 

Unitas was married with four children and lived in a Baltimore suburb. His idea of a pleasant evening was having friends over for his wife's lasagna and coffee afterward. He went to bed early and got up early, partly so he could make it to Mass before practice or a game. His haircut, a flat-top, appeared to require about three minutes of the barber's time. Rejection and sacrifice were the themes of his story: growing up poor in Pittsburgh, he earned spending money shoveling coal for 75 cents a ton. His talent was apparent in high school, but Notre Dame and Indiana turned him down before the much less exalted University of Louisville took him on. After college the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him, then never played him—not once. Dropped from the team, he signed with the semi-pro Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game. The Colts picked him up there in 1956, and 11 years later, his legend established, he signed a three-year contract at $100,000 a year. His view of the social revolution seemed broadly conventional. "Today they call 'em hippies," he said in 1968. " Ten years ago they were bums." Nearly everything about him was comforting, Eisenhower-era, likable, even admirable. He was one of the last players in football to wear the old high-top black cleats.

Namath lived in a penthouse in Manhattan's East Seventies. He liked staying up late, drinking, and women, and there is very little evidence that he denied himself any of these amusements. He certainly showed up hungover at some practices and probably at some games. He broke training, got into a fight in a bar. When he graduated from Alabama as one of the country's most celebrated college players, the new AFL teams competing with the NFL for talent were pushing salaries up. Namath confided to Alabama coach Bear Bryant that he hoped to get $100,000 a year. On Bryant's advice, he asked the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals for $200,000 and a Lincoln Continental ("I just always wanted one of those cars"). To his amazement, the Cardinals responded within a day: no problem. Thus began bidding that ended with the Cardinals and the Jets both offering an unheard-of $400,000; Namath decided he wanted to live in New York.

Unitas was perfectly clear on how he felt about this, and it was a picture of modesty and high-mindedness. "I've never been one to worry about what the other fellow had, like during the pro war, when some of those college kids were making the big bonuses," he told the Sporting News in 1967. "I was all for them getting whatever they could get. I never worried that I wasn't getting it. Some people in life, though, have a loaf of bread under one arm and are unhappy when they see another man who has two loaves of bread ." Could he really have been this serene? Maybe. In any case, it was the face he presented to the world.

It was far from what the world saw of Namath. Expressing the if-it-feels- good-do-it ethos then gaining strength, he told an interviewer, "As long as I like something and I feel I'm not hurting myself or somebody else, well, I try to do it." His hair was long; a goatee came and went; he grew a Fu Manchu mustache, then shaved it off when Schick paid him $10,000 to do so on camera. Unitas's tastes differed markedly. "Every boy can't have a lot of money to buy clothes, but at least he can be clean-shaven and neatly dressed," he told groups of high schoolers to whom he regularly spoke. "I can't stand kids with this long hair." Namath's vast wardrobe was urgently mod, and a friend reported he had more shoes than anyone had ever seen (Mrs. Marcos's closet having not yet opened to the public). He was the first player in football to wear white cleats.

If the Old Culture was valuable, if it worked—a matter that seemed suddenly, alarmingly in question throughout the society—then could there be any doubt which of these men would win? 

In the NFL loyalist view there was simply no comparison. Unitas was not just the greatest quarterback of the age but also, said many, the greatest of all tinge. San Francisco 49er coach Jack Christiansen said, very much in the language of the Old Culture, "As long as the Colts have Unitas, they could play with nine or ten girls and still beat other teams." For the September 1968 issue of Esquire, the editors asked a friend and teammate of Namath's to write an article based on an interview with him. Then, apparently without telling Namath, they asked a sportswriter named Al Hirshberg to append comments, mostly biting, which were printed in the article's margins. Namath praised Jets coach Weeb Ewbank by noting that, even when angry, he never tried to demean Namath by comparing him unfavorably with other quarterbacks he had coached, including Unitas. To anyone who could distinguish the gods from the groundlings of football, this was breathtaking hubris. Hirshberg asked incredulously: "Is it possible that Joe Namath really believes that Weeb Ewbank ever compared him to Johnny Unitas?" 

These two symbolized the cultural conflict of the era in other ways as well Don't trust anyone over 30? Unitas was 35, Namath 25. As the divorce rate began to rise and some thinkers even questioned the value of conventional families, who would prevail—the devoted family man or the swinging bachelor who said he "would rather go to Vietnam than get married"? Namath didn't go to Vietnam because his famously rickety knees got him classified 4-F; this didn't stop some from calling him a draft dodger. Unitas was too old to be drafted but visited Vietnam in 1967; on his return he reported, "I didn't see any long hair in Vietnam, but I met a lot of heroes." 

Then there was deportment. Unitas conformed to the longstanding athletic ideal of an earnest, modest straightshooter: you said sir and ma'am, and as for the opponents, they're a fine team, and we'll certainly do our best against them. Spurred by some Namath remarks just before Super Bowl III, Bubba Smith, the Colts' enormous 23-year-old defensive end, responded with as fine a statement of the old ideal as one will ever hear: "A football player who's real good doesn't have to talk. The Green Bay Packers were real champions. They never talked. They never had to. This is the way I visualize all champions—solemn, dignified, humble. My father coached me at Charlton Pollard High School in Beaumont, Texas, and he taught us to be humble off the field. Inside, I've got to feel I'm the best, but if I tell you I'm the best, then I'm a fool." 

Recalling this ideal takes effort. It's easy to believe that sportsmanship has always been a hazy concept among professionals, who after all don't pretend to be playing for anything but money. Yet standards of behavior have decidedly changed, mainly toward self-indulgence. By now we're accustomed to players spiking the ball after a touchdown, to linebackers doing little mid- field dances after tackles they're particularly proud of. This immodesty was unimaginable in 1969. We're also used to athletes announcing their own greatness, and while by 1969 Muhammad Ali had pioneered this practice, it remained sufficiently shocking to attract plenty of attention for Namath. He thought a lot of himself and said so, often. Someone asked him during the 1968 season if he ever thought about someday succeeding Unitas as the game's best quarterback. "No," he replied, laughing, "because I feel that way now." Worse, he openly disparaged the other side, saying the AFL had at least four quarterbacks who were better than the Colts' scheduled starter, Earl Morrall. Told the Colts were taking these insults seriously, he said, "If what I say upsets them, they must not be pros." And then, in the most famous quote of his life, he told a roomful of journalists a few days before Super Bowl III, with a double scotch in his hand, "We're going to win this game. I guarantee it." 

He guaranteed it! Oddly, in retrospect, this remark may have raised more cumulative blood pressure among those who felt the old order threatened than did any other development before the game. One, you simply did not say things like that the old ideal forbade it and two, didn't he know the Colts were 17- point favorites? Like the era's many other suddenly energized insurgents, Namath seemed to be denying all rationality, expressing placid confidence that the world really could be turned upside down. 

But how could it? Jimmy the Greek had explained in detail exactly how he had determined that point spread: four points because the Colts' offensive line was better than the Jets', four points because the Colts' linebackers were better, four points because their cornerbacks were better, two points for better running backs, and three points for "the NFL mystique and Don Shula's coaching." It was as clear and irrefutable as our superiority in Vietnam. Further, such reasoning worked: the point spread had accurately predicted the outcomes of the first two Super Bowls. This was the largest spread yet. 

By kickoff time, bettors had pushed it to 19 1/2 points.

Skies were cloudy all day in Miami on January 12. These were the days when Super Bowls still began in mid-afternoon, Eastern time, forsaking extra TV viewers avail able in the evening; but on this occasion the sun wouldn't get in anybody's eyes. As planned, Namath started for the Jets, Earl Morrall for the Colts. Unitas had suffered tendonitis in his throwing arm for months, and Morrall, until that season a career second-string quarterback, had come into his own at age 34; sportswriters had voted him the NFL's most valuable player of the season. So while the game began as a clash of forces with plenty of symbolic power, the exquisitely pointed conflict of Namath vs. Unitas would have to wait. 

The Jets won the toss and chose to receive. Lou Michaels of the Colts kicked off at 3:05 PM.

No one scored m the first quarter, which is not the way blowouts usually begin. A bit ominously, Morrall kept getting intercepted.

In the second quarter the Jets scored a touchdown when Namath handed off to fullback Matt Snell at the 4-yard line. The half ended: Jets 7, Colts 0.

The effect was disorienting. Still, things had plenty of time to return to their natural order. It was only halftime.

On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Morrall fumbled at his own 33-yard line. The Jets recovered and after a few plays kicked a field goal. On the next series of downs, Morrall threw an incomplete pass, then threw a completion for no gain, then was sacked for a loss. The Colts punted. Namath then commanded a drive that included four complete passes and set up another Jets field goal. The Jets now led 13-0 with 3:58 left in the third quarter. 

Suddenly, somehow, the situation had become desperate. The studied confidence of half time had vaporized. No Colts fan could any longer find a comforting thought. 

After the Jets' field goal, Curley Johnson's kickoff hit the goal posts, so the ball was brought out to the 20. Then the Colts' offensive unit took the field. But Morrall stayed on the bench. Out trundled Unitas.

This was, of course, electrifying: the aging, injured legend now the last hope to retrieve a near-hopeless situation. But on this day, in this game, in early 1969, it was much more. Now America's millions would see which culture, Old or New, was ascendant.

On his first play Unitas hand ed off to running back Tom Matte for a five- yard gain. Then he completed a pass for no gain, then threw another pass—incomplete. The Colts punted and the Jets took over.

The Jets pushed forward and early in the fourth quarter kicked another field goal. The score was now 16-0, almost reversing Jimmy the Greek's wide point spread. 

This was becoming incredible. 

On the Colts' next series of downs, their runners moved the ball to the Jets' 25—a prime scoring opportunity. Unitas threw incomplete. Another pass—intercepted, heartbreakingly, in the end zone. 

The Jets took over at their 20 but failed to score. On a fourth down punt, the ball went back to the Colts, who took over on their own 20.

Then Unitas began to do what he was famous for, putting together a rapid 80- yard drive that ended in a touchdown at last, with running back Jerry Hill going in from the 1.

16-7. 

With 3:19 remaining, the Colts tried an utterly predictable onside kick—and recovered. Hope dawned. Dear God, victory was actually possible—and far less improbable than anyone who didn't know Unitas would have assumed. This was just the sort of miraculous, waning—moments come back Unitas had spent a career pulling off. He had done it four times the previous season. In one of those games, against the formidable Packers, the Colts had trailed 10-0 with 6:22 remaining. Unitas had led a touchdown drive, followed by a recovered onside kick, and, with just 1:19 left, had added another touchdown for the victory. Some football writers said these dramatic finishes defined Unitas as a player. He was renowned for his "two-minute drill," a series of plays he would run in rapid succession, without huddles. When fans saw Unitas start the drill in a game's final minutes, they knew what was coming, and the excitement became almost unbearable. 

They saw him starting it now. Everyone remembered why he was an immortal. For a flickering instant, the old order opened its eyes and resumed breathing.

Now Unitas needed another touchdown, fast.

Two completions moved the ball 20 yards for a first down. 

It was happening. 

On the ensuing series Unitas's first pass was complete for a five-yard gain.

Here we go.

His second pass was tipped away by a Jet defender. His third pass was too short.

Two and a half minutes remained.

Unitas's fourth-down pass, if complete, would keep hope alive. If incomplete, then all was lost. 

Unitas fired at Jimmy Orr, an end. Jet linebacker Larry Grantham batted the ball away. 

Orr never touched it. 

At 5:49 PM the game ended. Namath loped off the field, head bowed, his index finger in the air wagging "Number 1." It's a piece of film every football fan has seen and will never forget.

The reasons for the upset are not especially dramatic. The Jets defense, which so effectively shut down the Colts offense, gets most of the credit. Namath actually played a fairly conservative game, passing less than usual. The failure of virtually anybody to predict the outcome, while remarkable, is easier to understand when one considers that the AFL and NFL played no interleague games during the season. 

But what did any of that matter? The Jets popped champagne corks in their locker room, the Colts sat morose and silent in theirs.

The question had been decided.

If the millions of Americans who rose blinking from their seats sensed they had seen the beginnings of a new world, later events would confirm the feeling—though few could have seen what was coming. The triumph of the New Culture, the ascendance of self-gratification, the demise of the old sports ethic that Bubba Smith so eloquently expressed all were part of the cultural unraveling that has shaped the past three decades and that continues to be reflected in sports. With the ideal of an athlete no longer defined by an elevated character, or by much of anything other than the size of one's contract, sports began to lose the place of authority they had held in the culture. Slowly but ineluctably they have come to be regarded as another form of programming. Their richer meaning has mostly been drained away. Nothing expressed the trend better than last year's baseball strike, which most Americans regarded as two groups of whining millionaires having a spat, without the dimmest consciousness that anything larger might be at stake. When the game returned, late, for the 1995 season, fans shrugged. What was there here to stir the soul? 

This emptiness, so characteristic of this age, is many years and many steps distant from January 12, 1969. But the road between the two is a straight one. Even at the time, Super Bowl III had the feel of a defining moment in the culture. In retrospect, its status is not in doubt.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you liked this story, you may also be interested in:
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: