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Living Legends

These six titans are living icons of the sports world
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009

Maybe they appear once a century, legends of the sporting world, athletes who take their sports to levels of achievement never seen before. They stand tall, even among sporting giants, and their achievements are immortal. Joe Namath defied the football gods by guaranteeing a win against the mighty Colts, and backed up his words in the greatest Super Bowl upset of all time. Willie Mays ran madly toward the Polo Grounds fence, to the right of the 483-foot sign, and made "the catch" that turned the 1954 World Series. Michael Jordan scored a layup, stole the ball from Karl Malone, and sunk a 15-footer—all in under 40 seconds—to finish the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. Pelé made grown men look like children as he darted down the pitch, flipping upside down to bicycle the ball into the net. Wayne Gretzky glided on ice with unparalleled grace—once scoring 61 goals in 50 games—and tore up the old hockey record book. Jack Nicklaus shocked the world at the age of 46 by shooting 30 on the back nine at Augusta, becoming the oldest Masters winner in history. These legends in all fields are the standard-bearers, the living, breathing benchmarks of their endeavors.

JOE NAMATH

In sports, as in the world beyond arenas, 1969 was a year when everything seemed possible. Men hopped on the moon in July. Half a million people descended on Max Yasgur's farm for the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York, in August. In October, the Mets, once the doormats of the National League, beat the favored Baltimore Orioles in five games. But let the record show that the year of infinite possibility began on January 12, 1969, when the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts.

It was a time when sports could still surprise us in a good way. The Jets' embodiment of possibility was Joe Namath, a man who irked staid observers from the get-go. Four years before, his salary of $427,000—and a Lincoln Continental—was unprecedented. He was a renegade, a shaggy-haired roué who treated bachelorhood as a badge of honor and enjoyed living up to the name "Broadway Joe." "He was just a magnet," says teammate John Dockery. "It was like traveling with a rock star."

So much has been made of Namath's singular style, but substance served him better. His abiding virtue was courage, a deep courage built on creaky knees that wouldn't do his bidding in later years. He played football B. C.—Before Chivalry—before refinements to the roughing-the-passer rule could save your ass against the likes of Buck Buchanan and Deacon Jones.

But the name Namath will forever be associated with Super Bowl III, a game that is different from all the rest. The NFL and the AFL were leagues apart. Since that day 40 years ago, the name Joe Namath has been synonymous with the word "upset." The Colts were favored by 18 points, the largest of all Super Bowl spreads. Sorry kids, learn your history. Don't listen to the media: the Patriots beating the 14-point favorite Rams in 2002 doesn't even begin to measure up to what the Lilliputian Jets were facing two generations ago. Consider: the Colts were 13-1, outscoring opponents 402 to 144, meaning they dusted their opposition on average by 29 to 10. By comparison, the 11-3 Jets were thought by many to be just the third best outfit in the AFL, behind the Chiefs and Raiders, who both finished 12-2. In Earl Morrall the Colts had the leading passer and MVP. His backup was Johnny Unitas, a three-time MVP, who missed much of the regular season with an elbow injury. To make matters worse, the Green Bay Packers had destroyed upstart AFL teams by a combined score of 68-24 in the first two Super Bowls.

No wonder one columnist predicted a 55-0 Colts victory. Oddsmakers couldn't decide whether the spread should be set at 18 or 20 points. At a Miami Touchdown Club dinner three days before the game, Joe Namath fired back at a heckler in the audience, "We're going to win Sunday. I guarantee you."

From Baltimore's vantage point, Namath's words carried over eerily. From the outset, the Jets looked crisp and confident. Just a 49 percent passer for the season, Namath mixed his aerial and running attacks seamlessly. Eight tosses to end George Sauer gained 133 yards. Matt Snell, the 220-pound fullback, plucked 40 more yards from Namath's spirals and bulled for 120 yards on the grass, including the only Jets touchdown, a four-yard plunge that provided a 7-0 halftime lead. Three Jim Turner field goals stretched the lead, unbelievably, to 16-zip. A remarkable but undersold fact is that the Colts didn't score until 56 minutes and 41 seconds had elapsed.

By delivering on his prediction, Namath infused the AFL with respect and notoriety.

After the epoch-making 16-7 victory, the AFC set out on a decade-plus of dominance as the Chiefs, Colts, Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders won 10 of the next 12 Super Bowls, many of them blow outs. The lone NFC team to win was Dallas.


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