Half a century later, they will gather at MetLife Stadium and stand before the crowd to be celebrated for their once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
Don Maynard. Gerry Philbin. Dave Herman. Randy Rasmussen. Ralph Baker. John Schmitt. Emerson Boozer.
And, of course, Joe Namath.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that these men joined together to fashion one of the most remarkable victories in the history of professional sports. But the fact is generations of Jets players have come and gone and have been unable to duplicate what happened in the 1968 season, when the Jets pulled off arguably the greatest upset of all time by beating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Led by the swashbuckling quarterback who had guaranteed the victory a few days before Weeb Ewbank’s Jets went against Don Shula’s Colts, Namath helped fashion the unlikely win and thereby bestow instant credibility on the American Football League.
The win over the establishment NFL powerhouse Colts and quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall was a watershed moment and a precursor to the AFL-NFL merger that transformed the league into the sports behemoth it has become today.
Today’s Jets and Colts players have no earthly idea just how important that moment was. When they look out onto the field, they will see a bunch of old men.
Namath remains the most recognizable face — maybe the only recognizable face — in part because so many Jets quarterbacks and teams have come and gone since he captivated New York with his spectacular passes and larger-than-life personality. He remains a transcendent figure, a man whose opinions still matter to so many Jets fans desperately hoping for another Super Bowl run.
Namath himself can’t believe so much time has passed without another championship.
“It’s amazing to me,” he told me in a recent interview. “I’m a Jets fan, and I wish them nothing but the best. I want to see them win it all again.”
The absence of another title run since that time has built Namath into a mythic figure, and it’s hard to come up with another former player who has the kind of standing he does.
Jets fans wait for the next Namath.
So does Namath.
He sees quarterbacks with promise stand under center in the green-and-white, and he hopes.
They all showed promise but never delivered the ultimate prize. None of them has gotten the Jets back to the Super Bowl.
Namath now hopes Sam Darnold can be the heir apparent to his Super Bowl legacy, and he likes what he has seen. Namath told me during the preseason that he saw plenty of reason for hope in Darnold, that the former USC star has the physical and emotional attributes required for success.
“I think everybody would say that [the Jets are in great position with Darnold],” Namath said. “The fans know it. The team knows it. Certainly after seeing [Darnold], I feel that way. I think if you’re a Jets fan, we all know it.”
Jets fans have been teased with promise so many times before, and they are understandably wary of putting their hopes in Darnold.
Nearly 50 years after Jets-Colts in Super Bowl III, the 2018 Jets and Colts will play in front of their Super Bowl ancestors. The symbolism is delectable and provides the perfect backdrop to honor the Jets’ legends of 1968.
Most of them will see Darnold in person for the first time and perhaps get a sense of whether the 21-year-old quarterback can turn into another iteration of Namath.
It’s a lot to ask of Darnold, or any other quarterback, for that matter. But the young passer understands the legacy he has inherited and willingly bears the expectations.
Similarly, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck understands the pressure of following a more recent legend. He hasn’t yet lived up to Peyton Manning’s legacy, but Luck accepts the pressure.
Both quarterbacks understandably will be in the here-and-now on a day when fans can get lost in reminiscence from a bygone era. Luck is trying to come back from a shoulder injury that prevented him from playing last season; Darnold is trying to make the adjustment to the NFL after leaving USC a year early.
Jets-Colts 2018 is a far cry from the matchup of a half-century ago — the Colts don’t play their home games in Baltimore anymore and Shea Stadium no longer exist as the Jets’ former home — but it’s an important game for both teams. The Jets are attempting to build on last week’s convincing win over the Broncos and the Colts are trying to shake off a 1-4 start under first-year coach Frank Reich.
Darnold and Luck represent the present and future of their respective franchises, and the Jets and Colts will be committed to them for years to come. Whether they will fulfill the lofty expectations remains to be seen. But both seem up to the task and will do whatever is necessary to win.
They’ll take the next step in front of the heroes of the 1968 Jets, including the most famous Jet of them all.
Darnold has met Namath only once — before a preseason game over the summer — and he wasn’t born until nearly 30 years after the Jets won Super Bowl III. But he certainly feels the urgency of how Jets fans feel about winning another title, and he doesn’t shy away from the burden of hope — the Jets’ and their fans’ hope that he can deliver a Super Bowl victory the way Namath did nearly 50 years ago.