- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

Everybody has their favorite memory of Super Bowl III, aka the Game That Changed Pro Football Forever — everybody who goes back that far, that is. Maybe it’s Matt Snell scoring to put the Jets ahead of the Colts, the first time the AFL had ever led the NFL (in a Real Game, anyway). Or perhaps it’s the shot of Joe Namath jogging off the field, right index finger aloft. For me, though, it’s Curt Gowdy, NBC’s play-by-play man, calling Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule a word that can’t be used in this newspaper after the telecast was over — but before the videotape machine had been turned off.

Nobody in the television audience heard Gowdy’s utterance, only the guys in the NBC sound truck and maybe a few more back in the studio. The only reason I’ve heard it is that I managed, some time ago, to obtain a copy of the live feed of the game (in a plain brown wrapper, naturally). Just before the tape runs out — there’s no picture at this point, just sound — Curt makes his feelings known about Maule … and about Howard Cosell, too.

You see, Gowdy, who died Monday at 86, was the voice of the fly-in-the-ointment American Football League, and he took a fair amount of grief for championing the league’s cause. He was anything but a shill, though; he was too knowledgeable about sports, too much the professional, for that. The problem was more with his broadcasting colleagues — and untold numbers of other sports fans. They just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that, by 1968, the AFL’s best teams could compete with the NFL’s.

“I was accused of rooting for the [AFL],” he once told the Denver Post, “but I was just telling the facts.”

Which is why Super Bowl III was the finest hour of Gowdy’s illustrious career. Not only did the Jets, with their 16-7 victory, pull off “one of sport’s greatest upsets” (as he kept reminding viewers), they also proved Curt right. After nine years of struggle, the younger league really had pulled even with the older one.

Every once in a while, I’ll pop the Super Bowl III tape into the VCR — kind of like I do with “The Godfather.” Gowdy’s death seemed as good a time as any to revisit the game. On this occasion, though, I wanted to listen as much as watch. I wanted to be reminded of what Curt had said, of how he’d handled this most shocking turn of events.

One thing about the game I always forget is how much bad blood there was between the teams. There was the AFL-NFL rivalry, of course, but there was also Jets cornerback Johnny Sample’s personal vendetta against the Colts, who had traded him in 1960 after tiring of his truculence. Also fanning the flames, Gowdy noted, was that the Jets were “anywhere from 18-to-22 point underdogs, more than the College All-Stars [were] against the Green Bay Packers last August.”

(Think about that for a minute. In the opinion of the oddsmakers, the Jets — a veteran club that had beaten the AFL’s previous two Super Bowl representatives — had less going for them than a collection of recent college grads, thrown together for a few weeks in the summer. Such was the extent of the nation’s myopia.)

Chippiness abounded in SB III, especially as the Jets began to pull away and the unimaginable became inevitable. It all started when Sample drove his knees into Colts back Tom Matte while the latter was lying on the ground at the end of a run late in the first half; Matte sprang to his feet, got in Sample’s face and nearly started a fight.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, Sample got rough with receiver Willie Richardson along the Baltimore sideline. Colts tight end Tom Mitchell, who wasn’t even in the game at the time, responded by swinging his helmet at Sample and whacking him from behind. This being 1968, the officials kept their flags in their pockets.

Soon, Matte and Sample got into it again, prompting Gowdy to remark: “There’s some hard feelings going on now in this game. Johnny Sample has sorta been the boy that has stirred it up.”

Only in the final few seconds can any vindication be detected in Gowdy’s voice. I’ll turn the microphone over to him:

“If you don’t think that isn’t a dejected Baltimore bench right now… . They were anywhere from 18-to-22 point favorites. They were ridiculing the Jets and the AFL. The Colts [were] called one of the greatest teams in the history of pro football… . Twenty-two seconds remaining… .

“Remember, the AFL beat the NFL 13 times in exhibition games to 10 [losses]. Now, they said, ‘Those are only preseason games.’ But with a common draft, the AFL has been coming on, and they’ve showed it here today… .

“Eight seconds to go. Watch this Jet team when this game’s over. They were as big an underdog as a bunch of College All-Stars for that College All-Star Game and they were insulted… . They said it would be years before [the AFL champ] played a close game [against the NFL champ], and they almost shut out the Colts today.”

It was only justice that Gowdy got to broadcast the game — rather than, say Ray Scott of CBS, the NFL’s network. Who better than Curt to put the event in perspective, to describe the feeling not just inside the Jets, but inside every AFL player — and every former AFL player. After a decade as pro football’s redheaded stepchild, the league had finally arrived.

Just as well, I suppose, that nobody heard the exchange in the broadcast booth after Gowdy signed off. A muffled voice on the tape, probably color man Al DeRogatis, says, “Boy, I want to see those newspaper stories tomorrow.”

To which Gowdy replies: “I want to see Tex Maule, that —————.” (He was suggesting that SI’s Maule, who had once worked as a publicist for the Rams, was a toady, an NFL house man.) “He downgraded and sneered and laughed at the [AFL] …”

Muffled voice: “Howard [Cosell]. He’s been saying it, too.”

Gowdy: “Oh, Howard. Where is Howard?”

Howard would resurface on “Monday Night Football,” extolling the virtues of Namath and Co. in the debut game between the Jets and Browns. It was stuff Curt Gowdy had been saying for years, though, before almost anyone else. Then, as always, he was “just telling the facts.”

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