Former Jets receiver George Sauer Jr., a key player in the team's Super Bowl III upset win over the Colts who eventually left the sport because of his disillusionment with pro football, died Tuesday after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease in Westerville, Ohio.
He was 69.
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Sauer helped the Jets beat the heavily favored Colts, 16-7, in what is widely considered the game's greatest upset. In the game that Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed the Jets would win, Sauer led the Jets with eight catches for 133 yards, picking up the slack for Don Maynard, who was hobbled by a hamstring injury. The win was a turning point in football history, eventually leading to a 1970 merger of the NFL and AFL.
Sauer, who once called his sport "dehumanizing" because of its regimented lifestyle, retired from the Jets after the 1970 season at age 27, while still in his prime.
"We will always remember George Sauer for his role in the New York Jets' run that culminated with a historic victory in Super Bowl III, as well as the strength of his convictions off the field," Jets owner Woody Johnson said Saturday in a statement released by the team. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family as we say goodbye to someone whose unforgettable contributions will always be a part of this organization's history."
Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose father, Buddy, was the Jets' defensive coordinator on that championship team, said: "The thing I remember about George Sauer going back, I was a young kid when my dad was coaching with the Jets, and everybody knew about Don Maynard obviously, but the thing [is] George Sauer stepped up in the biggest moment. Obviously, [Sauer] was a tremendous player."
Sauer, who played for the Jets from 1965-70, was a four-time All-Star in the AFL. He played in 84 games and finished with 309 catches for 4,965 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Sauer was the son of George Sauer Sr., a former Green Bay Packers halfback who was the Jets' player personnel director when his son signed with the team in 1965.
The younger Sauer, who was born in 1943 in Sheboygan, Wis., and raised in Waco, Texas, was a star receiver at the University of Texas. The 6-2, 195-pound receiver played for the Longhorns' unbeaten teams in 1963-64.
Sauer didn't hide his disillusionment with the NFL, and left the league at the peak of his career. After leaving the sport, he wrote novels and poetry, and was a textbook graphics specialist in St. Paul, Minn., in the 1990s.
"When you get to the college and professional levels, the coaches still treat you as an adolescent," Sauer said in a 1971 interview with the Institute for the Study of Sport and Society. "They know damn well that you were never given a chance to become responsible or self-disciplined. Even in the pros, you were told when to go to bed, when to turn your lights off, when to wake up, when to eat and what to eat. You even have to live and eat together like you were in a boys' camp."
Sauer returned to football in 1974 with the New York Stars and Charlotte Hornets before leaving the sport for good.
Another former Jets receiver, Wayne Chrebet, paid tribute to Sauer on Twitter.
"RIP George Sauer," Chrebet wrote Saturday. "One of the heroes on the Jets Super Bowl III championship team."
Sauer had more than 1,000 receiving yards from 1966-68, and had his best year in 1967 with an AFL-best 75 catches for 1,189 yards and six touchdowns. His 309 catches rank ninth in franchise history, and he's sixth on the Jets in receiving yards.