Joe Namath made the Super Bowl truly 'Super'
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In reality, the Super Bowl began with Joe Namath. Nit-pickers will point to Vince Lombardi, whose Green Bay Packers won the first two games in the series between the champions of the National Football League and the American Football League. Technically, that is correct. But the Packers won those two games with such remarkable ease, defeating Kansas City 35-10 and Oakland 33-14, that there was little drama. It was men versus boys, times two.
The Game did not become The Event until Namath led the New York Jets to a 16-7 upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Broadway Joe, the roguish quarterback whose talent was exceeded only by his swagger, brought some welcome spice to the championship game. Millions flocked to their television sets to watch. Thirty years later, they still are watching.
"I don't know that a day goes by that I don't get reminded of that game," Namath says. "I never get tired of talking about it. It's a memory that never gets old."
The Jets, AFL champions with an 11-3 regular-season record, were 19-point underdogs to Baltimore. The Colts, coached by Don Shula, dominated the NFL with a 13-1 regular-season record and crushed Cleveland 34-0 in the NFL title game. The Colts had the top-ranked defense in the league and were considered one of the great teams of all-time.
As the odds reflected, most people felt the NFL was vastly superior to the AFL. Green Bay's easy victories over the Chiefs and Raiders only reinforced that belief. The NFL, with roots tracing back to 1920, was seen as the one true professional league. The AFL, born in 1960, was regarded as a pale imitation.
On the eve of the big game, former NFL quarterback Norm Van Brocklin was asked for his assessment of Namath. Van Brocklin, who would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, was head coach of the Atlanta Falcons at the time, and he was a firm believer in NFL superiority.
"I'll tell you what I think about Joe Namath on Sunday night -- after he has played his first pro game," Van Brocklin said.
The Falcons' coach spoke not only for NFL loyalists but also for millions of people around the nation who did not believe in any player or team with an AFL pedigree.
To a man, the Jets were irritated by that lack of respect, but none took it as personally as Namath. On Thursday night before the game, Namath was honored by the Miami Touchdown Club as its player of the year. As he stepped to the microphone, a voice in the crowd-belonging to a Colts' fan, obviously-called out: "Hey, Namath, we're going to kick your ass."
Most of the audience laughed.
"I said, 'Whoa, wait a minute. You guys have been talking for two weeks now' -- meaning the Colts' fans and the media -- 'and I'm tired of hearing it,'" Namath remembers. "I said, 'I've got news for you. We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it.'
"I didn't plan it. I never would have said it if that loudmouth hadn't popped off. I just shot back. We had a good team, but people were treating us like we didn't belong. I was fed up with it and I guess it just came out."
It was not until he sat down that Namath realized what he had done. He had guaranteed a victory. Surely, this would be the lead story in every newspaper and on every television sports show in the country. Those who regarded him as an arrogant loudmouth -- and many people did -- had more reason than ever to root against him.
Namath's supporters happily applauded his bravado. One thing was certain: Come Sunday, they all would be watching.
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