Na­math, Jets for­ever changed the NFL 50 years ago

The Norwalk Hour - - SPORTS -

Last Satur­day marked the 50th an­niver­sary of the most im­por­tant pro­fes­sional foot­ball game ever played, and mil­len­ni­als, hang onto your selfie sticks: The Jets won it.

That’s right, the New York Jets. Those Jets. The Jets of the Fake Spike, the Butt Fum­ble and the great­est Dear John let­ter ever writ­ten: “I re­sign as HC of the NYJ,” sin­cerely, Bill Belichick.

And also, the Jets of Joe Na­math, who put the fran­chise on the map and, on Jan. 12, 1969, or­ches­trated the vic­tory that for­ever changed the NFL and set the Su­per Bowl on the path to the wretched ex­cess it rep­re­sents now.

I have learned that on Feb. 3, Su­per Bowl Sun­day, Na­math is ex­pected to take part in some sort of ac­knowl­edg­ment of that game, al­though every­one con­nected with it is cloak­ing his role in mys­tery.

“I have been ap­proached to do some­thing, but I don’t know whether I should be the one to give that in­for­ma­tion out,” Na­math told me by phone on Fri­day. “I con­sider it an honor to have been asked, but things could change.”

“We haven’t an­nounced plans yet but we do an­tic­i­pate a recog­ni­tion mo­ment,” Brian McCarthy, the league’s vice-pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said via text. But he, too, re­fused to fur­nish any other de­tails.

At the very least, it’s good to know that some type of a nod back­ward will be made by a league that seems re­lent­lessly de­ter­mined to bury its past.

The NFL has no prob­lem pro­mot­ing fool­ish­ness like a half­time show fea­tur­ing the likes of Bruno Mars or Ma­roon 5, but when it comes to rec­og­niz­ing its debt to some­thing that hap­pened 50 years ago? For­get it. Might scare off the kid­dies.

The Jets, too, have been no­tably low-key about cel­e­brat­ing the great­est mo­ment in fran­chise his­tory, no doubt not want­ing to re­mind their long-suf­fer­ing fan base that a half-cen­tury has passed since their one and only Su­per Bowl ap­pear­ance.

In truth, this year’s Su­per Bowl should be a cel­e­bra­tion of Na­math — Broad­way Joe for those of you just tun­ing in — and the 1968 Jets, the AFL cham­pi­ons who were fully ex­pected to fol­low in the foot­steps of the Chiefs and the Oak­land Raiders as the lat­est sac­ri­fi­cial lambs to be served up to the mon­sters of the NFL.

Al­though a merger of the two leagues had been kicked around, a third straight de­feat by the sup­pos­edly ju­nior half of the Su­per Bowl — which, in­ci­den­tally, was still called the AFL-NFL Cham­pi­onship Game at the time — would have pro­vided plenty of am­mu­ni­tion for those who wanted to keep the leagues sep­a­rate.

The Jets’ sur­pris­ingly lop­sided vic­tory over the 18-point fa­vorite Colts told the doubters not so fast. The Chiefs’ vic­tory the next year over the fa­vored Min­nesota Vik­ings not only evened the score but ce­mented the equal­ity of the leagues. Fifty-two Su­per Bowls later, the NFC has won 27 times, the AFC 25.

“It’s hard to over­state the im­por­tance of that game,” said Na­math, who was named the Su­per Bowl MVP al­though by rights, the honor prob­a­bly should have gone to his team­mate, Matt Snell. “If we hadn’t have won, I think the leagues still would have merged, but the mar­riage wouldn’t have been as good. It would have been kind of like a shot­gun mar­riage, some­thing no­body wants but some­thing we had to do.”

In the half-cen­tury since that game, the Su­per Bowl has grown bloated out of pro­por­tion. It is now less a sport­ing event than a spec­ta­cle, a na­tional hol­i­day fea­tur­ing mounds of fried food, gal­lons of beer, a lot of over­pro­duced TV com­mer­cials and oc­ca­sional glances at the game it­self.

All of that prob­a­bly would have even­tu­ally hap­pened any­way, but the Jets vic­tory over the Colts surely has­tened the process.

“I think about it now,” said Na­math, who turned 75 last May. “But at the time, I didn’t un­der­stand what was tak­ing place. That was be­yond what I was think­ing about. All I was think­ing about was play­ing in the big­gest game of our lives.”

And win­ning it. In the en­su­ing 50 years, Na­math be­came the pro­to­type for what we now have come to know as the sports su­per­star. He made movies, owned a night­club, sold shav­ing cream and panty­hose on tele­vi­sion. And in his later years, he has moved on to other pur­suits. These days, he heads a char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion and has writ­ten a book, “All the Way: My Life in Four Quar­ters,” sched­uled to be re­leased around Fa­ther’s Day.

But none of it would have been pos­si­ble with­out a sin­gle mo­men­tous foot­ball game that hap­pened nearly 20 years be­fore Lady Gaga, the “star” of Su­per Bowl L — that’s 50 — was even born.

More than a few mem­bers of that Jets team are dead — Ge­orge Sauer, Win­ston Hill, Johnny Sam­ple, Larry Gran­tham — and the num­ber of fans who re­mem­ber watch­ing the game is dwin­dling. Be­cause of its ne­glect of its own his­tory, NFL games of the past are hardly re­mem­bered as fondly as old base­ball games or prize­fights, and the young fans the league so des­per­ately courts seem to want to only look ahead.

But for a few mo­ments on Su­per Bowl Sun­day, it ap­pears the NFL will break char­ac­ter and pay tribute to the day that changed the course of its his­tory.

Joe Na­math de­serves that mo­ment, what­ever it turns out to be. And it’s about time he’s get­ting it.

Fo­cus On Sport / Getty Im­ages

Joe Na­math drops back to pass against the Bal­ti­more Colts dur­ing Su­per Bowl III in 1969.

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