'69: The year Super Bowl was super

Friday, February 1, 2008

I remember my first Super Bowl like it was yesterday, but incredibly it was 39 years ago. The New York Jets were facing the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and I had just turned 10 years old that week. It was a big game where I lived in New Jersey and in my household. My mom's family is from Baltimore, and at the time the Colts were the one of the best teams in the NFL.

The Jets were the underdogs but they had Joe Namath, who was on the cover of every newspaper, magazine, and TV screen on the East Coast. Joe "Willy" had taken over Manhattan, the Delaware Valley and won the heart of every teenage girl in my neighborhood.

Coming by way of Bear Bryant and the Alabama Crimson Tide, Namath was young and brash, just like New Yorkers, and he played to the media in becoming a larger than life figure.

Many people do not know that the Jets were the team of destiny; it was a monumental year for aviation and space flight. Three days before kick-off (my birthday) on a runway in Bristol, England, the Concorde Jet had taken off on its maiden supersonic flight and would make three more tests flights that year, breaking the sound barrier on Oct. 1.

The first 747 Jetliner would also be tested later that summer, and NASA flew three Apollo missions.

1969 was a year that would be one of the most defining in American history and in football.

The Vietnam War was raging with 543,000 troops in country and my two eldest brothers had just come home safely late in 1968. I remember how worried we were when they were over there. My cousin Carl Stephan had lost his life in the jungle in 1967. Sports were a way of forgetting about our troubles for a little while in my house.

My other brother, a natural-born catcher was 12 and played on one of the best teams in the league, played middle school basketball, and was a tight end on the rec football squad.

I was 10 ten years old, playing my last year in "B" League at the Nottingham Little League on Balgowan's Bicycle Shop. I was drafted by Mercer Contracting later that fall for "A" league and my manager, Mr. Vivier, had lost his right arm in the Vietnam conflict. We were lucky to have him and it made me think of my brothers all the time and do well for them.

Most people cannot remember much about fourth or fifth grade, but '69 was one of those years that will be etched in my mind forever.

I saw my grandfather cry for the first time when Mickey (Mantalootch) Mantle retired from his beloved Yankees in March. He wept again later that year when boxer Rocky Marciano was killed in a plane crash

My sister wore bell bottom Levi jeans to school for the first time and my father was nuts about it.

John Lennon married Yoko Ono and the end of the Beatles was near.

I remember President Dwight D. Eisenhower died that year because one of my best friends was Dwight David Woods, named after the president. He was in my class and I remember we took an entire day to reflect on Eisenhower's accomplishments.

The Montreal Expos began play that year. I remember it well because Bill Stoneman threw a no-hitter versus my beloved Philadelphia Phillies early in the season. We were bad, but they were worse the rest of the year.

There was much tragedy too and the world was changing, forever.

I was scared to death of Charles Manson!

Dorothy (Judy Garland) died, how could that be?

Sirhan Sirhan was sentenced to death for killing Bobby Kennedy and Kennedy's older brother Ted drove the car in which a young woman died in a place called Chappaquid-dick. James Earl Ray got 99 years for assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

Probably the most significant event for me that year happened on July 20, when the whole world watched Apollo 11 set down on the moon. The world stopped that day and hope was renewed.

Apollo 12 would go back to the moon later that fall and the spaceflights must have changed some kind of magnetic field because in the World Series of '69', the "Amazing Mets" stunned the baseball world, beating my mom's Baltimore Orioles for the championship.

It would be the second time that year that a New York underdog would stun a powerhouse as the Mets joined Joe "Willy" for a confetti ride down Broadway.

Namath led the New York Jets to one of sport's biggest ever upsets on that January day, running off the field with a single finger raised to the skies to indicate who was number one. That one gesture said it all. A new generation had claimed its seat at the table of champions and sports would never again be the same.

I do not remember much of the actual game except that iconic gesture, but I do remember what happened after the game. All the neighbor kids came out and we played football in about eight inches of snow in my backyard and I got run over by Herbie Gallulo trying to make a tackle and broke my nose.