Tom Brady may well be the most proficient quarterback in history, the quarterback with the most Super Bowl rings in history, and he may well be the difference-maker in the upcoming Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, February 3.
But Brady won’t be a game changer, and I guarantee it. Thanks to rule changes made in the last 20 years to protect quarterbacks from gratuitous contact and knee buckling tackles, the game has changed the careers of Brady and other veteran quarterbacks more than Brady or others have changed the game. That rule change (think back to the 15-yard roughing the passer penalty in the AFC championship game against Kansas City) has done more to get Brady, 41, into his ninth Super Bowl appearance than the occasional deflated game ball.
Nor will the obscure 24-year-old quarterback for the Rams, Jared Goff, be a game changer, even if he leads the underdog Rams to an improbable win. He will join players like the Eagles’ Nick Foles as ones who have memorably been there and done that.
The stage was set for both of these quarterbacks and their assembled casts long ago.
The fact is that, other than halftime spectacles getting more gaudy and commercials getting more expensive, Super Bowls have not changed much since 50 years ago. That was when the New York Jets defeated the 18-point favorites, the Baltimore Colts, to put the fledgling American Football League on an equal footing with the older, and much more established National Football League. If the Jets’ victory was unimaginable in 1969, so was the idea of a game between the two competing league champions up until about 1965. At that time who would have thought that the august NFL, which had beaten back other upstart leagues by simply ignoring them, would ever deign meet the AFL on the field of combat?
A half century later it’s worth some trivia questions:
1.) Who was the quarterback of the victorious Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl and what was his prediction of the outcome?
2.) Who was the quarterback whose career success prompted the beginning of negotiations between the National and American football leagues that led to the first Super Bowl in 1967?
The answer to No. 1 is easy: Joe Namath, who was heckled at a press conference several days before the game and shouted back: “Hey, we’re going to win this game. I guarantee it.”
No. 2 is not quite so easy, and you might want to bet a beer or two. The answer is, yes, Joe Namath, who in his senior year led Alabama to an undefeated season and a narrow loss in the Orange Bowl. Namath was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL, which offered him a $100,000 bonus and a Lincoln Continental, and by the New York Jets of the AFL, which offered $427,000 over three years, plus the Lincoln — the highest bonus ever at the time.
Owners of both leagues, but especially the NFL, were so alarmed by the escalating bonuses being awarded that they conspired or — if that’s not a great word to use — gathered together to merge their leagues and have a single draft, thereby eliminating the competitive position that players were beginning to enjoy. The competition would stay on the field, not in the personnel office. Many believe Namath was the tipping point.
So the way was paved for a single league, with two divisions. And that in turn set up the first “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” as it was officially known. The term “Super Bowl” came about after informal use by some of the owners and newspaper headline writers. The Jets-Colts game was the first officially known as the Super Bowl.
In the beginning the American Football League was a poor cousin invited to the big house. Predictably the first two Super Bowls were runaways for the NFL: Green Bay, 35, Kansas City, 10; and then Green Bay, 33, Oakland, 14. The most memorable game of that era was not a Super Bowl but the “Ice Bowl” in 1967, played in minus- 15-degree weather in Green Bay and memorialized by Jerry Kramer in his bestselling book, “Instant Replay.” The Packers edged the Dallas Cowboys with 16 seconds remaining on frozen Lambeau Field.
To get to the Super Bowl, the Jets barely won the AFL title game against Oakland. The Baltimore Colts, meanwhile, rolled to a 13-1 record in the regular season and crushed Cleveland, 34-0, to become the NFL champion. Going into the Super Bowl, sports writers were gushing that the Colts were the greatest team in the history of the game. Norm Van Brocklin, the Dutchman, as he was known in his playing days with the Rams and Eagles in the old NFL, announced that the game against the Colts would be Namath’s “first professional football game.”
If Namath were a winner, it would only be for off-field publicity. Greeting the sports media poolside at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, drink in hand, Namath flashed his devilish smile: “I like my Johnny Walker red and my women blonde.” Not the usual pre-game repartee with the media.
The Namath guarantee was good, Jets, 16, Colts, 7. Namath — to paraphrase the title of his first book — couldn’t wait until tomorrow because he got better looking every day. His celebrity transcended sports. He posed in Haines pantyhose, for example, in a gender-bending commercial. What woman wouldn’t want to have legs as nice as Namath’s?
But he also had to fend off the rush of alcoholism. His rock bottom might have been the live television interview in 2003 when he told ESPN’s Suzy Kolber twice that he wanted to kiss her. He sobered up, however, and became an ambassador for the game. Fans in his hometown of Beaver Falls, PA, still marvel at how often he returns for the annual dinner in honor of his late high school coach.
With Super Bowl LIII looming (kick-off is set for 6:30 p.m.), and memories of Super Bowl III still vivid, I figure this is the time to share a story of meeting Namath in person just a few months after that celebrated, upset victory in 1969.
Compared to Namath’s story, mine is easier to recount — and not game changing in any way. In the fall of 1964, when Namath was leading Alabama to its number one college football ranking (though Arkansas also claimed the title that year), I was playing on my high school soccer team. When news of Namath’s signing bonus was announced my sports-obsessed classmates and I were aghast. It not only defied our logic (how could that huge sum make any economic sense?) but it also didn’t seem morally right — that much money for a guy who had never completed a pass in the pros.
Four years later times had changed. Athletes were shedding their “aw-shucks, I just do my talking on the field” personas. In 1964 Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and, after his defeat of Sonny Liston that year, trumpeted, “I am the greatest.” Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised clenched fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. And the Jets were going to win — Namath guaranteed it. Some of us who just four years before had found the $427,000 bonus unsettling now looked with awe at Namath’s braggadocio. Pretty cool, we thought. But what if he loses?
Afterward Joe Namath was Broadway Joe, the ultimate man about town and swinging single. He and two other single guys, singer Bobby Van and Jets teammate Ray Abbruzzese, opened a bar on Lexington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was called Bachelors III. Namath’s official involvement would only last a few months. The image-conscious NFL had found out that gamblers were associated with the place and forced Namath to give up his interest in the bar later that same year.
I was in Manhattan, working for Time magazine and living in Carnegie Hall — a studio on the 14th floor of the recital hall building. I’m pretty sure I watched the Super Bowl from Carney’s Tavern, kitty corner from Carnegie Hall on Seventh Avenue.
A few weeks later, I had a date. What to do? Putting on my best man-about-town swagger, I suggested we drop by Bachelors III. Maybe we’ll run into Namath. It was a miserable, late winter, rainy evening when we arrived. Outside the club, a doorman was trying to hail a taxi in the rain — the urban version of football’s hail Mary. Good luck with that.
And so we entered. There in the vestibule was a solitary man, in a winter coat, obviously waiting for the doorman outside and a vacant cab. I looked closer at the guy. It was Namath. At that moment, out of the blue, an idea possessed me.
“Hey, Joe, Rich Rein, great to see you.” As he accepted my handshake, I continued. “Have I told you about my friend, Caroline? Let me introduce you.”
Maybe for a moment Namath thought he really was supposed to know me. “Oh yeah, Rich. How nice to meet you, Caroline.” But in a split second, he had caught on to my improv routine. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said, flashing his devilish but genuine smile at my date, who — possibly lucky for me — was a brunette, not a blonde. “It’s great to meet you in person.”
We exchanged small talk, and regrets that Namath had to leave just as we were coming in. But next time we’d have a drink together. The doorman entered, a cab had been found. Namath left. An image of a devilish, $427,000 smile was left hanging in the air.