Among the thousands of images left behind by America’s biggest sporting event, a few live on as indelible. During this week leading up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, we look back daily on a select precious moment and appreciate the story behind it. Fifth in a seven-part series.
The Super Bowl is not a solo act, but if there were others besides Joe Namath involved in the one that changed everything, history has done a darn poor job identifying them.
When the subject is Super Bowl III, which celebrated its 50th anniversary Jan. 12, all we focus upon is the New York Jets quarterback. There were other accessories to the biggest upset in Super Bowl history – Matt Snell rushed for 121 yards, George Sauer had eight catches for 133 receiving yards, Randy Beverly had two interceptions. But Namath, like Washington on the dollar bill, is the lone figure imprinted upon this game.
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There are a couple ways to go when trying to decide upon the one Namath photo that best captures the charisma he lent what had been a fairly bland and predictable exhibition of old NFL superiority the first two Super Bowls. He was that vital to the moment, providing more than just one classic pose.
How about the famous shot of Namath at poolside at the Jets hotel in Ft. Lauderdale a couple days before the game? Completely relaxed, shirtless, smiling and stretched out on a lounge chair shooting the breeze with a handful of media types while a few of his more matronly fans were reaching over the back of his chair to get in a word or get an autograph.
Brent Musburger, who was working for a Chicago radio station and writing an occasional column at the time, was seated to Namath’s right in that photo.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s the only picture I got the athlete to autograph for me,” Musburger told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in reflection. He, of course, went on to become a network TV play-by-play fixture and today is the face and voice and managing editor of a site tailored to sports betting, the Vegas Stats and Information Network.
“You think I could come to Atlanta a couple days before the Super Bowl and six of us get into the hotel and have a private conversation with the quarterback on either team?” he said, chuckling.
“The picture to me shows how far the Super Bowl has come. I have friends who went to Super Bowl III in Miami for $12 a ticket,” he said.
Some came to believe that was where Namath issued his famous victory guarantee. It came, however, at night, during an award dinner for the Miami Touchdown Club.
As Namath told the New York Post late last year, “For 10 days or more, we’d been hearing and being told that we were underdogs – big underdogs. But you know what? We all are underdogs from time to time in our life and I just got tired hearing about it.
“When someone said something, a wise guy yelled out something at me, I had to let him know how I felt. I told him, ‘Hey buddy I got news for you, we’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.’ ”
This was not, mind you, an era that celebrated smack talk. And by today’s standards what Namath said was hardly incendiary. But as years passed, his spontaneous utterance became the stuff of legend.
Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if Namath wasn’t as good as his word. The 17-point underdog Jets beat the Baltimore Colts 16-7 at a time when hardly anyone believed an AFL team capable of hanging with the established NFL. Proving that possible, the Jets victory legitimized the merger between the two leagues.
“It was the most important win ever in a Super Bowl game. It was most important decision – it was by far not the best performance. The outcome itself was critical to the merger going forward,” Musburger said.
Given the almost transcendent nature of the victory, there is one other Namath moment frozen on film that is considered indispensable to the moment. This one not before the game, but rather immediately after.
There is nothing left to say. It is the gloom of night at the Orange Bowl, Namath leaving the stage after fulfilling the guarantee, people all around him in various stages of celebration and disbelief, the winning quarterback cutting through the almost smoky confusion with a single raised index finger.
Among those who captured that shot from the perfect angle was noted Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss. He also shot the poolside photo, but he considers the Namath walk-off the personal favorite of all Super Bowl photos.
As he wrote in the Players’ Tribune: “If you took this same photo today with a digital camera, it wouldn’t be blurred. It would be tack sharp. But it wouldn’t have the same feel. It’s dreamlike. Somehow, it captures the fleeting moment of Joe.”