Most of the historic front pages my father saved from the 1960s were weighty matters of the world: Vietnam, assassinations, elections, protests. And then there was Super Bowl III.
When the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts, Dad knew that paper was a keeper. This was the game that made the Super Bowl the Super Bowl. (In fact, neither of the Page One headlines in this Jan. 13, 1969, front page used the term, which wasn’t yet in wide usage.) Dad knew it was big and tucked the paper away for posterity.
I don’t write about this today to suck up to my boss, Jim Brady, who was a toddler during Super Bowl III but followed his father’s loyalty and became a lifelong Jets fan. My father wasn’t a Jets fan, but cheered for them that day and predicted their victory.
The Columbus Citizen-Journal, our morning newspaper in the late 1960s and the paper I carried for my first media job, didn’t seem to know quite what to do with the game. I wonder if the game would have made the front page if the Colts had won, as everyone expected. The first two Super Bowls had been anti-climactic: coronations for the Green Bay Packers against the inferior American Football League. The real championship games that year were the Pack’s legendary wins over the Dallas Cowboys on Lambeau Field in the NFL championship games. The Super Bowl wasn’t so much a championship game as an exhibition, akin to a World Series champion barnstorming in Japan in November.
It was the Jets’ win that made the Super Bowl a legitimate championship game.
Today the Super Bowl paper would probably have a celebration photo on the front page. This one just had a Joe Namath mug (presumably a post-game mug; he’s smiling with mussed hair and black smudges under his eyes). The Namath photo and Super Bowl story extending down in the middle of the front page under the banner headline is a bizarre layout I don’t remember seeing anywhere else. I can sense the reluctance of hard-news-junkie editors to give up the lead position entirely to a football game, so the Lebanon crisis gets the bolder headline and the lead spot over on the right, even though the Super Bowl gets the top headline.
I don’t know when we started using Roman numerals to label our Super Bowls (a ridiculous idea I wish they’d stop), but the story in the Citizen-Journal never called the game “Super Bowl III,” just the “Super Bowl” twice and the “third annual world championship” once.
A few other things I noticed about that front page:
- Those dogleg layouts like you see on the Super Bowl story (two columns, with one of them extending longer than the other around a one-column story) have been gone for a long time.
- That “Reds” headline is a great relic from the Cold War era. Both the reference to Communists and the need for shorthand words for long names so they’ll fit into one-column headlines. Go back a generation and headlines about World War II routinely referred to “Japs.” One-column headlines were the reason we knew presidents as FDR, Ike, JFK and LBJ. The combination of modular newspaper layout, the declining influence of newspapers and a string of presidents with shorter surnames did away with the practice of calling presidents by their initials. Some right-wingers, who like to remind people of the president’s Arabic middle name, call President Obama “BHO,” but it has never caught on widely.
- I was going to note that Today’s Chuckle was another relic, from the distant past of newspapers. But when I Googled it, I found that it’s still in business, syndicated to newspapers, continued today by Harlan Collins, the son of Tom Collins, who founded the feature in 1948. I can’t imagine that it’s still used by many, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’ve moved it inside the paper somewhere and I just breeze right past it when I’m looking at a print product. It really seems odd on that front page. I presume the thinking was that it provided a little smile among the other stories about war, brewing trouble in the Mideast, taxes and two stories about highway deaths. But they weren’t funny. And aren’t. I just read a week’s worth of chuckles without cracking a smile. They are as unfunny now as in 1969, but still apparently newspapers publish them. Remember this when some old-time journalist fusses about the trivial content that sometimes goes viral in digital journalism: Newspapers do contain lots of serious, important news, but they always also included comics, horoscopes, crossword puzzles, advice columns, TV schedules, bridge columns and apparently even still Today’s Chuckle. And I guarantee you, every editor who cut Today’s Chuckle fielded lots of calls from readers.
But back to the Super Bowl:
Namath is a football legend who made it into the Hall of Fame largely on the strength of this game and his guarantee that the Jets would win it. But his performance wouldn’t make the top 20, or even probably the top 30, performances by winning quarterbacks in Super Bowl history today. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 208 yards and didn’t throw a touchdown pass, a respectable performance. But the only other winning Super Bowl quarterbacks who didn’t throw or run for a single touchdown pass were Bob Griese in Super Bowl VIII and Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXVIII (but he threw four TD passes the year before and another in Super Bowl XXX).
The quarterback with the biggest impact on Super Bowl III was actually the Colts’ quarterback, Earl Morrall, who threw three interceptions and failed to throw the ball to Jimmy Orr wide open heading for the end zone, though he appeared to look right at him.
The offensive star of that game was really Matt Snell, who rushed for 121 yards and the Jets’ only touchdown. But Snell hadn’t guaranteed victory and he didn’t have a showy name like “Broadway Joe.” And, however much his teammates contributed to the win, Namath was the quarterback and he did deliver on his guarantee. He didn’t throw an interception and he drove the team down the field for Snell’s touchdown and three Jim Turner field goals. That wouldn’t win many Super Bowls, but with the Jets’ defense shutting the Colts out for most of the game, 16 points made for an easy win.
Back to my Dad: My brothers and I were expecting a similar blowout when the Colts and Jets played. The Colts had two MVPs at quarterback. Johnny Unitas was the greatest quarterback of all time, four times named the league’s best player, including the 1967 season. But a preseason injury to Unitas made Morrall the starter and Morrall won the 1968 MVP, leading the Colts to a 13-1 record and the Super Bowl. Unitas would be healthy for the Super Bowl, and my brothers and I debated whether the Super Bowl starter should be the best quarterback ever or the best quarterback of the year.
Namath, seemed just a sideshow, a pretty boy guaranteeing victory to grab some pre-game attention before the world’s spotlight moved on.
But Dad thought Namath and his Jets might win. I don’t know if he really thought that or just wanted to be contrary. Dad could do either: see something others were missing or just enjoy a chance to stir his sons up.
But Dad was only a casual football fan. My brothers and I were big fans, studying stats and strategy and spending our Sunday afternoons in front of the TV (Monday Night Football didn’t start until 1970) and other afternoons playing football in the back yard.
Dad was an Air Force chaplain who didn’t approve of the kind of womanizing and partying that were part of the Namath legend. But he liked an underdog and he enjoyed the Jets’ legendary Super Bowl win. So he slipped this front page in among his keepers. I’m glad he did. It was historic.