A shirtless Jets quarterback Joe Namath and defensive line coach Buddy Ryan talk on a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., beach in the week leading up to Super Bowl III. The Jets beat the Colts in that game, one of the biggest upsets in sports history. (Associated Press)
It was mid-morning, not Joe Namath’s time of day. But it was his type of scene.
He was sitting alongside a Florida swimming pool in plaid shorts, his chest bare, fashionable sideburns covering his cheeks, a shaggy mop of black hair atop his head. People were hovering over him, peering at him
And he was displaying one of those grins as wide as Broadway — not quite arrogant, but captivating, super-confident.
He twisted in his chaise longue to sign an autograph for a young woman in a bathing suit. Then he turned back to a select group of sports journalists seated in a semi-circle, baking in the sun.
“Somebody wrote I was fined for drinking J&B Scotch,” Namath told us.
“Hell, I don’t even drink J&B ... unless they run out of Johnnie Walker Red.
“I was fined for missing the picture session.
The fine, supposedly, was $50.
Pete Rozelle, then the pro football commissioner, had come up with the bright idea of a Super Bowl Media Day. And Namath had slept in and ignored the event.
“They’ve got 10,000 pictures of us,” Namath said the next day at the New York Jets’ Super Bowl base. “Why do they need more than that?”
Super Bowl XLVIII is what it is now in 2014 because of what Joe Namath accomplished at Super Bowl III in 1969.
He was the most renowned figure in American sports back then.
And the most independent. He packed a mixture of a western Pennsylvania, mill town and Alabama football — with New York City imagery. A nocturnal creature armed with ample swagger.
A day after Namath had skipped the media day/picture session, he decided to skip his mandatory interview appearance. Another of Rozelle’s bright Super Bowl innovations: Gather all the athletes and coaches into a hotel ballroom and make them available for grilling by the journalists.
So it was that Coach Weeb Ewbank and the obedient athletes of the New York Jets, champions of the American Football League, were collected inside the window-enclosed ballroom of the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
All the Jets — minus one.
Ewbank was in mid-answer when we spied Joe Namath through the glass wandering nonchalantly toward the swimming pool. He was lugging a bundle of fan mail. He continued on by and plopped down.
One brave individual ventured outside to ask Namath a question. Namath quickly shooed the guy away and returned to his mail.
There he was outside — and we, perhaps a couple of hundred of us, were stuck inside listening to Weeb delivering his platitudes.
It was then that Si Burick, a columnist from Dayton, Ohio, whispered into my ear.
“Joe has agreed to talk to a few of us. Do you want to go?”
I drooled my response. And jumped onto the starting blocks.
One by one, we slipped outside to the pool, toward Namath, by invitation only.
There we gathered on pool chairs around Namath, a group of journalists who would become craggy and stooped through the years. But we were young and frisky in those days.
But never quite as frisky as Joe Namath.
The NFL and AFL were separated by pride and bragging rights back then.
The Packers, a five-season NFL championship dynasty, had defeated — never threatened — the AFL’s Chiefs and Raiders in the first two Super Bowls. Prominent NFL coaches — Vince Lombardi the foremost — had mocked the entire AFL.
Now the NFL was sending Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts, who had dominated their league, to Super Bowl III.
Namath mocked back at the NFL. He targeted Earl Morrall — the NFL vagabond who had guided the Colts to their championship after Johnny Unitas.
“There are five quarterbacks in the AFL who are better than Morrall,” Namath said in New York after he defeated the Raiders in the championship game.
Namath’s boast was neutralized by the odds before Super Bowl III.
Oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder had established Shula’s Colts as 17-point favorites over the Jets.
“I don’t know how Namath can rap Earl,” responded Shula in an NFL counterattack. “After all, Earl was No. 1 in the NFL. He’s the NFL’s player of the year.
“But I guess Namath can say anything he wants.”
At the Galt Ocean Mile, Namath smirked when he mentioned his underdog’s odds. Those of us privileged at sit poolside with Namath — eight of us, I think — felt pretty good about capturing his comments.
All but one unspoken comment. That morning.
Two days later at a Miami Touchdown Club dinner, Namath issued what remains these 45 years later the most pungent statement in the history of the Super Bowls.
“We’re gonna win on Sunday,” he said in his drawl as he accepted an award as Outstanding Player of the Year.
“I guarantee you.”
The quote created shockwaves as those loyal to the NFL snickered.
But that Sunday, Broadway Joe Namath delivered. Jets 16, Colts 7.
That night Joe Namath left the Orange Bowl escorted by two cops and a police dog. Joe had a lady snuggling on each arm. Perfect for his image.
Another of Rozelle’s bright ideas was smashed into smithereens that Sunday in Miami. The concept of two separate leagues with a baseball-style World Series had to be dropped.
The AFL owners insisted on becoming part of the NFL. Their teams became the greater NFL’s American Conference, joined by three clubs from the old establishment.
We laughed once at the Denver Broncos of the AFL, adorned in their vertical brown stockings.
Now nobody’s laughing.
For certain Peyton Manning won’t be gabbing poolside with a few reporters at the Broncos’ hotel in frigid Jersey City this Super Bowl week. He’ll be mobbed at the media interview events envisioned by Rozelle.
And Peyton won’t be predicting victory.
I guarantee you!
Jerry Green is one of two sports writers to cover every Super Bowl. He’ll be writing from the site of Super Bowl XLVIII this week in New Jersey.