It was a play that symbolized the futility of the Jets franchise, made worse by the fact that it occurred against the Patriots, a moment comical to outsiders and horrific for those involved.
The Butt Fumble of 2012? That, too.
But this was Sept. 17, 1960, the second game in Titans / Jets history, a 28-24 loss at the Polo Grounds in which Chuck Shonta of the Boston Patriots returned a fumbled punt attempt by the Jets 25 yards on the last play of the game.
“Stupid football,” Titans owner Harry Wismer said afterward in Newsday’s account.
“I don’t give a goddamn what Mr. Wismer says,” coach Sammy Baugh responded.
In The New York Times, Gordon White wrote, “If the American Football League lasts a hundred years, the Titans, New York’s entry in the circuit, may never again be the victims of as rude a jolt as they received last night.”
As it turned out, the AFL lasted only 10 years and the Titans three before changing their name to “Jets,” and they were, in fact, victims of many ruder jolts. Did we mention the Butt Fumble?
The point is, the tone for the next half-century-plus of Jets football was set in that wild first season — not all of it bad.
Six days after the debacle against the Pats, the Titans won by the same score in the same stadium, this time against the Broncos, when they scored off a blocked kick with 15 seconds left.
Newsday’s Stan Isaacs was moved to proclaim pro football “the greatest game since ring-o-levio.” (Ask your grandparents.)
The franchise was born in 1959, a charter member of the AFL, fronted by Wismer, an oil executive who in 1953 had been the play-by-play announcer for the first prime-time, national NFL package, Saturday nights on the DuMont Network.
Wismer held a series of news conferences in his Park Avenue apartment leading up to the inaugural season, introducing Steve Sebo — recently fired after a 7-1-1 season coaching Penn — as general manager and Baugh, one of the best quarterbacks in history, as his head coach.
Isaacs wrote of Baugh, a Texan from central casting, “He looked as if he had just parked his horse on Park Avenue.”
Baugh, who was 45 and had been out of the NFL since 1952, said he hoped to find an experienced quarterback; journalists and fans immediately began to suggest he do the job himself.
Executives and coaches were the easy part; players were another matter for a league taking on the mighty NFL.
One early addition was a receiver named Don Maynard, who had played with the Giants and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL.
Newsday’s Ed Comerford wrote that Maynard “didn’t impress in two seasons with the Giants and played Canadian football last year. His scouting report says: fast, but butterfingered.”
Maynard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
The Giants, who were in the middle of a run of six conference titles in eight years, were an unavoidable presence for the Titans. (Wismer said the name was chosen because “titans are bigger and stronger than giants.”)
The home schedule sought to avoid days on which the Giants played, necessitating some Friday night games, a nod both to pragmatism and to the early notion that the AFL and NFL could peacefully co-exist. Not so much, as it turned out.
In January 1960, Giants executives Jack and Wellington Mara sent AFL commissioner Joe Foss a letter suggesting cooperation between the leagues could be achieved, but only if he voided the contract fullback Charlie Flowers had signed with the Los Angeles Chargers — after the Giants earlier thought they had him locked up.
Oh, and one other thing: Tell the Titans to move to a different city.
“It is our opinion that every city is a one-team city,” the Giants wrote.
“I violently disagree with the Giants’ view about a one-team city,” Wismer responded, then added, “I also resent the lack of confidence the Giants have in the people of New York.”
Baugh and his ragtag roster showed up for camp in Durham, New Hampshire, to find dire conditions, including food so bad coaches and players sharply criticized the fare in a story in the Times headlined, “If Titans Have a Hungry Look, It’s Because They’re Starved.”
Said ends coach Hugh Taylor, “I haven’t seen a grape since I got here.”
After going 1-4 in preseason, the Titans opened at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 11, against the Bills. They won, 27-3, after Baugh yanked starting quarterback Dick Jamieson for Al Dorow, who spent the previous two years in the CFL and would start the rest of the season for the Titans.
“That’s why you carry two quarterbacks, ain’t it?” Baugh said. “One guy doesn’t, the other does.”
The problem was not the Titans’ performance; it was the weather. Paid attendance on a rainy, windy night was 5,727 in the cavernous old stadium.
Disappointed, Mr. Wismer?
“Disappointed, hell,” Newsday’s Jack Mann quoted the owner saying. “We got the league started, didn’t we? They said we couldn’t even do that.”
The Jets went on to go 7-7, playing a number of high-scoring games in keeping with the AFL’s reputation. Ten of the 14 were decided by seven points or fewer, capped by a 50-43 loss to the Chargers at the L.A. Coliseum on Dec. 18.
After a 28-27 loss to the Raiders on Oct. 28, Dorow said, “Boy, some defensive team. We have to score 60 points to win . . . I wouldn’t feel safe with a 52-0 lead.”
Dorow finished with 2,748 passing yards, 26 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions, and led the team in rushing yards with 453. He also was given an offseason job as the Titans’ chief scout and public relations man.
Maynard had 1,265 receiving yards and six TDs. Art Powell had 1,167 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.
The often comical season took a tragic turn after an Oct. 9 loss to the Oilers at steamy Jeppesen Stadium in Houston when a guard named Howard Glenn died following the game.
Initially, he was believed to have succumbed to the heat, but he later was deemed to have broken his neck, either against the Oilers that day or initially on a play against the Dallas Texans the week before on which he was knocked unconscious.
In 2017, Glenn’s death would have been the biggest sports story in the country; in 1960, it received only modest coverage.
After the home schedule was over on Nov. 24, Wismer said he had lost $250,000 for the season, about $150,000 more than he expected to. But he vowed to try again in 1961.
“Of course we’ll be back,” he said. “We’ll be back here for the rest of our lives.”
Paid attendance slipped from about 114,000 to 36,000 by 1962, a season during which the league had to take over the team’s financial affairs.
After ’62, the Titans were sold to a group headed by Sonny Werblin, who renamed them the Jets in 1963, moved them to Shea Stadium in 1964 and signed Joe Namath in 1965.
The rest of Wismer’s life lasted only until 1967, when he died at 54, shortly after falling down the stairs of a Manhattan restaurant and fracturing his skull.
Home field: Polo Grounds
Owner: Harry Wismer
Coach: Sammy Baugh
Notable players: Don Maynard, Larry Grantham, Al Dorow, Bob Mischak, Art Powell
Statistical leaders: Passing yards, Al Dorow, 2,748; rushing yards, Dorow, 453; receiving yards, Don Maynard, 1,265; touchdowns, Art Powell, 14; interceptions, Fred Julian, 6
Key stat: Titans led the AFL in both points scored (382) and points allowed (399)
Schedule quirk: To avoid playing on same day as Giants, Titans had three home games on Fridays, one on Saturday and one on Thanksgiving in addition to two Sundays
Tragedy strikes: After an Oct. 9 game in Houston, guard Howard Glenn, who had been complaining of fatigue, was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died that night, reportedly of a broken neck, at age 26. He left behind a wife and child.
Memorable moment: The Titans won their opener, 27-3, over the Bills, after which Newsday’s Jack Mann reported the players “came whooping into the clubhouse as if they’d just won a Rose Bowl game.” Only 5,727 paid to watch a miserable weather day, including Bill Johnson of Jackson Heights, who told The New York Times, “It was wide-open football. The Giants are gonna bite their fingernails when they see this team work.”
Memorable quote: “This is like waking up on Christmas morning and looking at the pretties. I reckon it’s time to find out which toys will hold up.” — coach Sammy Baugh on the first day of training camp.
Sept. 11 Buffalo, W 27–3
Sept 17Boston, L 28–24
Sept. 23Denver, W 28–24
Oct. 2at Dallas, W 37–35
Oct. 9at Houston,L 27–21
Oct. 16 at Buffalo, W 17–13
Oct. 23Houston, L 42–28
Oct. 28Oakland, L 28–27
Nov. 4Los Angeles, L 21–7
Nov. 11 at Boston, L 38–21
Nov. 24Dallas, W 41–35
Dec. 4at Denver, W 30–27
Dec. 11at Oakland, W 31–28
Dec. 18at Los Angeles, L 50–43