(Namath throws during Super Bowl III. Photo by Walter Iooss Jr., Getty Images)
Three days before the kickoff of Super Bowl III, Jets quarterback Joe Namath was accepting the AFL MVP at a Miami Touchdown Club dinner. A Baltimore Colts fan interrupted the celebration and heckled that the Colts were going to kick the Jets' ass in the upcoming gamel. Namath, in the company of spectators and journalists, told the audience, "We're going to win the game, I guarantee you."
It was a bold statement to say the least. The American Football League, and its accompanying teams, was considered vastly inferior to the National Football League. In the Super Bowls spawning from the two leagues' merger in 1966, the NFL's Green Bay Packers dominated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I and then the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II. In Super Bowl III, the Baltimore Colts were 18-point favorites over the AFL-New York Jets.
"I wasn't trying to upset anybody or take the pressure off my teammates," Namath later said. "I just said what I felt because I was so sure we were going to win."
No one was better suited to make the guarantee than Joe Namath, who at 25 was already the biggest star the AFL had to offer. He drank heavily and partied frequently, wore his hair longer than normal, and was a symbol of the counter-culture that had begun in the 1960's. He was the highest paid athlete in professional football and the biggest draw as well.
Namath made good on his promise and led the Jets to a shocking victory. Though he didn't throw a touchdown, Namath went 17 for 28 and threw for 206 yards. The Jets' defense did the rest and held the Earl Morrall-led Colts to a mere seven points. Even when Johnny Unitas -- who was in every way the opposite of Namath -- replaced Morrall in the third quarter, Baltimore still couldn't generate enough offense. New York won it, 16-7, while Namath became the first quarterback to earn the MVP award without producing a touchdown.
As he walked off the field, Namath memorably wagged his finger to the Miami crowd.
Because of the perceived superiority of the NFL, the Jets' stunner over Baltimore is generally considered the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. Furthermore, it brought credibility to the AFL and closure for the merger that many critics felt would never last. The following year, the Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, proving that the AFL's success was no fluke.
Joe Namath was eventually selected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- an honor that was more for his AFL accolades than anything else. Though he won a pair of MVPs, Namath easily had some of the worst stats of any Hall of Fame quarterback: only once did he throw more touchdowns than interceptions in season; he had 47 more picks in his career than touchdowns; he threw over twenty TD's in a season just once; his career QB rating was a paltry 65.5 and his completion percentage was a mere 50.1%.
After the Jets' upset of the Colts, Namath became perpetually injured and led the Jets to only one more winning season the rest of his career. It didn't matter though, as it only took one title for him to become a respected figure in New York.
The next four decades weren't nearly as glamorous for the Jets. Following the triumph of their upset victory, the Jets failed to return to the Super Bowl and dropped behind the Giants, Knicks, Yankees and Mets in the New York sports landscape. Even Chad Pennington, the proclaimed second coming of Joe Namath, couldn't get his team over the top -- even though he provided greater numbers than Joe ever did. It wasn't until Brett Favre joined them that the Jets regained the attention of the sports world, although the results with Favre weren't nearly what they had expected.
Namath was lovable rogue [ESPN]