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Original Issue


It's crazy, sure, so don't run out and bet all your money that it will happen, but Edwin Shrake, in a moment of sheer fantasy, writes a letter to a friend describing how Joe Namath (see cover) and the New York Jets set the sporting world on its ear


Jan. 14, 1969

Dear Max,
Needless to say, we were all delighted to receive your cable and learn that you are alive, though we remain concerned over addressing you in a hospital in such a remote part of the world. Dons was especially happy about the cable, and I wish you could have seen the faces of your children when she told them their father had not perished. Courageous family that you have, I must admit their hopes of ever seeing you again had begun to lag. After all, we got the news on Thanksgiving Day—served up with the ice cream and hot pumpkin pie, in fact, just as Kansas City finished beating the Oilers on television to give the Jets the division title—that your plane was missing somewhere in the Mato Grosso, probably between the Serra dos Parecis and the Gi-Paranà River, and this cable nearly two months later was the first we had heard since, other than assurances that the search was being pressed forward, etc.

I was aware that the vast area into which you had disappeared is inhabited by thousands of tiny mean fellows with poison-tipped arrows, trophy huts full of soft ball-sized human heads and an unwillingness to listen to Christian reason. "He will march out with a bottle of gin and a jar of olives," your wife kept repeating—staunch girl. But, frankly, I put your chances as no better than I gave the Jets back in August when I saw that photograph of Joe Namath wearing a mink coat.

As your motor stopped, or wing fell off, or whatever happened, your beloved Jets (an affection I have never been able to fathom, but every man has got to kill his own snakes) were a couple of games or so ahead of Houston. However, I know how nervous that made you. I recall our last conversation, in the back room at P.J. Clarke's on the evening NBC cut the Jets off TV in the final minute of the Oakland game and replaced them with Heidi, An hour later we found out that the Jets had blown a three-point lead in that final minute and had somehow contrived to lose the game by almost two touchdowns. "I always felt like a nasty person for not liking Heidi," you said. "It's a rotten story that old people keep pushing off on children, and nobody ever really liked it except a few 8-year-old girls. But in this case I'm glad NBC did it. I couldn't have watched that final minute without doing myself severe emotional damage."

You ordered several Gibsons and placed them about on the tablecloth as if you intended to play checkers with them. "Last year almost took my measure," you told me. "Not being the serious student of the game that I am, maybe you don't remember, but with four weeks to go the Jets led Houston by one whole game. Then New York lost three out of four, the Oilers won three out of four, and the Jets went down the rat hole again. Could it happen this year? Could it? Could it!" You clutched my sleeve, and I saw Frankie, the ma√Ætre d', look at you rather anxiously. "Last year I had a theory that the trouble with the Jets was that they had too many Texans. This year they have even more—nine or 10 of them are starters, if you count Curley Johnson, the punter. Sauer, Maynard and Lammons, the three receivers, are all Texans. Too many Texans on a football team is like too much pepper in the soup!" you cried.

I'm sure that Texophobia was on your mind even as you flew over the Mato Grosso and may have contributed to your accident in some way. I can picture you swooping headlong into the jungle with a shout that Maynard is all thumbs. As the season proceeded toward its end without you, with many vagaries and odd bounces, the Jets skirting disaster, I was almost glad you were gone, "How lucky he is to be spared this," I said more than once. But I should have known it would be the Jets' year. Of their first seven victories, you will recall that they won four of them in the last few minutes—a sign fortune was smiling. It was the loss to Denver in the fifth game, I believe, that made a change in Namath. The five interceptions he threw in that game, combined with the five he had thrown in the loss to Buffalo two weeks earlier, convinced him that he should not be so reckless, that he should not insist on trying to drill the ball to a receiver who was well covered. Even before you vanished, Namath went one stretch of six games without throwing a touchdown pass. Weeb Ewbank said it was because of an alteration in style of offense, and that was partly true. Namath took to throwing more flares and short, quick patterns and began to use his running game more successfully, setting up those dozens of field goals by Jim Turner. Namath should have got credit for an assist on many of the field goals. But partly, too, the reason he didn't throw a touchdown pass for six games was simply ill luck; he was still completing passes to Sauer and Maynard, but they were not able to escape to the goal line.

I am digressing, Max. You know these things better than I. Let me get on now to the championship and the Super Bowl.

On that last road trip that kept the Jets on the West Coast for a week between games with Oakland and San Diego, Ewbank announced a $5,000 fine for any player caught outside the motel after the 11 p.m. curfew. That struck me as somewhat childish, but Ewbank has had his difficulties with discipline. You remember Namath holding out for $3,000 per exhibition game—a not unreasonable request, considering the moribund state of his knees—and Namath leaving camp last year and visiting one of those East Side saloons where the lonely pursue romance, and later being charged in a lawsuit with slapping a sportswriter around. There was something of a power struggle, hidden from view though it was, between Namath and Ewbank, as you know, but a truce was achieved by the elevating of Namath to offensive team captain, thus forcing on him the responsibility he had been both grabbing and rejecting for years. I am reminding you of all this, Max, merely because I am enclosing a newspaper photograph that was taken in the Jets' locker room the day they won the AFL championship. Look at the expression on Namath's face as he pours the champagne over Ewbank's head. Would you call that gratification?

I will not linger over the details of how Oakland qualified for the championship game, as I know you care little about what transpires in the Western Division. Suffice it to say that by the time the Raiders arrived in New York they had survived three very difficult games in a row, including the playoffs, and were in rather battered condition. The defensive line was ailing, a linebacker and a cornerback were out and Daryle Lamonica was a patchwork of bruises, though certainly game enough. Also, the Raiders' descent into JFK coincided almost exactly with that of a storm. By the day of the contest, it was 18° with a 20-mph wind, and snow was piled around the edges of the field behind those rolled-up tarps that look like huge green sausages. The players squatted around little portable heaters, but the wind whirls inside Shea Stadium and attacks from unexpected angles, and there was not much to be done.

For me it is incomprehensible why you were always so willing—even eager—to undergo the painful journey from Manhattan out to Shea and back. If you had almost given up the notion of an interesting life and had moved to Flushing, I could see why you would be willing to step over the railroad tracks or hike across the asphalt from your boat at the World's Fair Marina to watch your Jets' games. Otherwise, I wonder where does love of sport end and love of punishment begin? Even being in the club at the stadium was torture on championship day, not only because of the crowd but because it was unsettling to look out at the half-frozen faces looking in. I could see lots of urchins in stocking caps, fat red-faced fellows in sports shirts buttoned at the neck, tall girls standing back from the press of noses at the plate glass. It was like an illustration from some Victorian novel, all the yearning noses mashed against the glass, unable to come closer—and probably better off for it.

At least partly because of the wind, neither passer was accurate. The runners had great difficulty with their footing on the frozen ground. It was a dreary up-and-back game during the first half, with Namath completing only six of 19 passes but moving the team far enough for Jim Turner to kick two field goals (out of three attempts). Hewritt Dixon scored on a 34-yard run with a screen pass, and Oakland led 7-6 at intermission. "If only the Jets could win this one for Max," Doris told me. "Wherever he is, he'll know and he'll stand up a little straighter." I am sure this information did not reach Namath, but on the first play of the third quarter he threw a pass to Maynard, who had got behind George Atkinson on a skid-and-go. The run seemed to take half an hour, Maynard and Atkinson skating along on the icy ground, their arms flailing in exaggerated movements, David Grayson coming across with his head down like a speed skater as he tried to catch up, and I kept thinking the public-address system should be playing a scratchy recording of The Merry Widow Waltz. The play covered 73 yards and put the Jets ahead 13-7.

On the following kickoff that fellow Rademacher, the one you admire for his hitting on the Jets' special teams, chased a ball that was bouncing crazily over the ice as a dozen or more players slapped at it and fell down. He hugged the ball in both arms and skidded to the Oakland 14-yard line before taking a header. Snell and Mathis ran at left guard and tackle for a first down on the three. Namath tried his rollout after a fake into the middle, but Lassiter got him for a two-yard loss. On second down Mathis carried a flare pass to the one. With Snell leading, Mathis went in at left tackle to score on third down, and it was 20-7. In the fourth quarter another pass to Sauer allowed Turner to kick a 38-yard field goal. A Jet fumble provided Blanda with a 41-yard field goal to make the score 23-10. Game plans were out the window because of the weather. Every fourth play you heard the thunk of cold toes hitting hard bail. Namath was stunned by an elbow to the chin. Parilli replaced him and did not try a pass. Wells, Biletnikoff and Smith were open several times, but the wind blew Lamonica's passes away. The final score was Jets 23, Oakland 10, and I think nobody was disappointed that the game had ended. Namath completed 11 of 27 for 131 yards and one interception. Lamonica was 14 of 32 for 116 yards and two interceptions. On the ground New York had 68 yards to 56 for Oakland.

Max, you have never seen a group of people happier to go to Miami than the Jets. The AFL owners and officials could not conceal their pleasure, either. For years they had wanted a winning team in New York and now at last they had one. Half the population of this city went down to Miami for the Super Bowl, or tried. There was not a seat to be had on plane, train or bus, and hotel rooms were scarcer than Giant fans. I used your reservation at the Doral Beach Hotel; it finally paid off, this quirk of yours about booking rooms at the Super Bowl city a year in advance just in case the Jets would make it. I thought about you often, and warmly I might add.

The papers were full of stories about Namath being seen at the Bon Fire, the Racquet Club, the Palm Bay Club, here and there, but Ewbank denounced them as lies. I did see Namath, though, one evening in that restaurant, the Post and Paddock. He still was wearing his mandarin mustache and long sideburns, the Jets having decided to keep their face hair for luck, and he had on a maroon silk jacket, gray slacks and white shoes (more about that later). He was talking to someone, just slouching there by the table—you know how he stands, in the shape of a?—and smiling, knowing that everybody in the place was looking at him, and I heard someone say, "But of course he hasn't run into Billy Ray Smith yet."

The Baltimore Colts, who beat Dallas for the NFL championship, seemed very loose and relaxed for their first Super Bowl, being old heads at big games and not expecting too much trouble from the Jets. Baltimore has a very tough team—mentally tough, as coaches like to say—and they all work together with great cohesion, allowing no slackers. The Colts were 14½-point favorites. I thought they would win by more. So, I suspect, did they.

The Orange Bowl was filled up, naturally, and the spectacle was fantastic, hundreds of luscious girls prancing about, bands playing, balloons floating against that bright blue sky, colors everywhere, a feast for the eyes. Then out came Namath in his white shoes, and my heart sank. As you know from countless arguments with me about it, if I were to select the 10 best quarterbacks in professional football today, Namath would be somewhere toward the bottom of the second five. Maybe the white shoes have much to do with my opinion. I think white shoes are appropriate aboard ship or on a tennis or basketball court, but on a football field, Max, I hate to say this but they look, well, sort of arch, in the sense of being sportively mischievous. There is no question that Namath has a wonderful arm (he has to have, the way he so often throws off the wrong foot), but the shoes are not at all to my taste.

The Colts scored as soon as they got the ball. Jimmy Orr made the touchdown on a 27-yard pass from Earl Morrall. It was so easy that I believe it actually hurt Baltimore. Here they were, all geared up to play a fierce game, and instead of a manly struggle they just strolled right down the field and scored. An early touchdown, too simply obtained, can dull the mental edge of the team that scores it. The Colts seemed to lay back as though the rest of the afternoon would be no less of a lark. They were decidedly wrong.

Namath, you know, can be extremely sharp and just as extremely off, all in the course of one game. But when he is sharp he is astonishingly good, throwing the ball very quickly and precisely to a point. The Jets' main offensive strength is in pass blocking. Namath was keeping Mathis and Snell in the backfield for protection, and he was throwing beautifully. He mixed in a few of Ewbank's favorite draw plays to give the Baltimore rushers something to consider. The Jets were not able to run wide with any success, but Namath completed his first five passes before Turner missed a field goal.

In the second quarter Gerry Philbin leaped over a cut-block and smashed into Morrall, who left the field cradling his right hand in his left and bending over in pain and despair. He had a sprained thumb. Unitas came in. The Jets knew Unitas could not throw the ball far because of the tendonitis in his right arm, and so they crowded the receivers. Baltimore could not get consistent gains running against that quick Jet line, though the Colts kept trying to come back to their own left, refusing to believe that a 212-pound linebacker like Larry Grantham could not be brushed aside. With his arm obviously hurting, Unitas threw two interceptions to stop Baltimore drives. Namath began to look for Lammons, who caught four passes in the second quarter, one of them for 45 yards and a touchdown on a third-and-one situation. Turner kicked field goals of 37 and 21 yards and the Jets—amazing!—had a 13-7 lead at the half. Mackey almost scored in the last seconds, dragging Jim Hudson some 10 yards before Hudson could bulldog him down at the New York two as the clock ran out.

Starting the third quarter, the Colts pulled off a surprise. They put Tom Matte at quarterback, used two tight ends and ran from the old-fashioned T formation. With Tim Brown at left halfback, Baltimore began to eat up yards on the ground. Brown would carry the ball on a straight dive play or on a sweep, or Matte would keep it on a run-pass option, and the Jets were obviously bewildered. A 70-yard drive in 11 plays provided a touchdown, with Brown scoring from the six, and Baltimore was ahead 14-13.

The Jets had been worried how their rook'e tackle, Sam Walton, would fare against Bubba Smith. But Smith had not done much until a third and eight shortly after the Baltimore touchdown. Smith hurled Walton to the grass, bowled over Mathis and crashed into Namath—way too late, an official said. The 15-yard penalty put the Jets on their 35. On the next play there seemed to be a confusion about assignments in the Baltimore secondary. Lammons popped out all by himself, Namath lobbed him the ball, and suddenly the Jets were back out front by 20-14.

Baltimore then began another long drive that used the rest of the third quarter and lasted well into the fourth, ending with a fumble that Al Atkinson recovered for New York on the Jets' three. Throwing from his end zone, Namath hit Maynard coming across the middle at the 30. Namath twice connected with Sauer on sideline patterns against Lyles. Snell picked up 12 on a draw. The march was halted at the Baltimore 28. Turner entered to kick a field goal that would give the Jets a more than one-touchdown lead. Instead, Parilli, the holder, leaped up and passed to Lammons, who scored his third touchdown of the day. Jets 27, Baltimore 14.

The Colts decided to get serious. They abandoned their slow-moving T formation, and Unitas returned at quarterback. Mackey gained 21 on an end-around. Orr eluded Cornell Gordon for an 18-yard pass. Then Tim Brown took the ball on a halfback draw, seemed to get lost for a moment in the midst of a lot of milling bodies, reappeared and ran 33 yards for a touchdown. Jets 27, Baltimore 21.

I had a strong feeling Baltimore would win. But Namath was never better. He stayed with the short passes, got a nice gain on a screen to Boozer, and with one minute remaining it was third and five at the Baltimore 43. Everybody expected a pass—which probably should have been the call—but Mathis plunged for four. Fourth and one with 48 seconds on the clock. Ball on Baltimore 39. Turner tried a 46-yard field goal which was blocked by Fred Miller. Ball on Baltimore 42 with 41 seconds left. I knew what was going to happen. My only question was whether the pass would be caught by Richardson, Orr or Mackey. So who do you suppose caught it? Johnny Sample, the man who claims-the NFL blacklisted him. Sample ran back and forth across the field, and time was over before another play could be gotten off. The Jets had won 27-21. They nearly drowned Ewbank in the shower. They might have done it had the scene not been on TV, his gurgles audible to millions. Your wife was sobbing. "If the Jets can beat Baltimore, Max can beat the jungle," she said. Women have a keen sense for the upset.

Enclosed is the $50 I owe you for betting on Houston.

Yours contritely,