Replaying Super Bowl III, Namath and the '69 Jets Meet and Beat the Colts Again

updated 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's not that Joe Willie, Bubba, Johnny U and the rest of the old gang weren't up for the game. They were more than eager to restage Super Bowl III, the classic 1969 shoot-out between the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts. It's just that there's only so much you can ask a body of 50 or so years to do. "The adrenaline gets going through you," confirmed Tom Matte, the onetime Colts running back, "and your mind says you can do it. But your body says you can't."

Conducted at Baltimore Memorial Stadium before 14,000 local fans howling for vengeance, the Oct. 27 "Legends Bowl" marked the 20th anniversary of the game in which the upstart Jets of the American Football League brought low the renowned Colts of the National Football League by a score of 16-7, achieving instant respect for the younger of the soon-to-merge leagues. That Super Bowl is remembered as a David-and-Goliath battle between the brash, rebellious Jets, led by the cocky young hotshot Broadway Joe Namath, and the veteran Colts, epitomized by the aging, ailing legend Johnny Unitas. The Colts were considered a shoo-in, and their anticipation of victory was only whetted when Namath, asked if the Jets would win, confidently announced, "I guarantee it." Jets coach Weeb Ewbank was badly disconcerted by the remark, which he thought the Colts might find provocative. "I do wish it hadn't upset Weeb, but I didn't regret it the day it happened, or the day of the game, or the day afterward," said Namath the night of the replay. He even repeated his boast for the Legends Bowl, and once again made good on it, but not without a twinge or two of mortality. "My arm's never been a problem," Joe said, "but the wheels go flat now and then."

Joe Willie wasn't alone in feeling that way. By the middle of the minimal-contact match, in which ball carriers were stopped not by bone-jarring tackles but by having Velcro flags ripped off their pants, a number of the 47 combatants were gimping around with pulled muscles and stressed ligaments and calling for oxygen—or cold beer. John Elliott, the Jets' defensive tackle, summarized his game plan in the third quarter. "Right now," he said, "I'm just hoping to survive this thing."

His Jets did better than that. After a scoreless first half, during which the erstwhile heroes took turns dropping passes and displaying infirmities, the Jets' Ralph Baker picked off an errant Unitas pass and ran it back for a touchdown. ("I threw to the wrong guy!" groaned Unitas.) Minutes later, the Jets went ahead 12-0 when Namath hit Johnny Sample on a 10-yard slant pass and Don Maynard missed his second extra point, to derisive hoots from his own bench. The Colts came limping back when Earl Morrall, in for Unitas, threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Tom Mitchell, but moments later a five-yard sneak by Babe Parilli put the game out of arm-weary reach. The Colts scored again in the waning seconds, and the final score was 18-13.

This time the outcome did not disturb most of the losers. As soon as the gun sounded, they lumbered on field to hug the Jets with genuine affection. Only Bubba Smith, whose explosive quarterback sacks once made him a Baltimore demigod, seemed put out by the defeat. "Man," groaned Bubba, sweat coursing down his glowering visage, "the same thing happened tonight. I was devastated then. To night too!"

Afterward, Namath spent half an hour signing autographs for his excited fans. Later in the locker room he shared his finding that there are two things in life one never gets tired of. "One is staying healthy," confided Broadway Joe, grinning wearily. "The other is coming out ahead."

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