It’s been called the biggest upset in pro football championship history, yet the victory was predicted by the brash young quarterback who would engineer it.
The Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida was the site of Super Bowl III on Sunday, Jan. 12, 1969 as the NFL’s Baltimore Colts were about a three touchdown favorite over the New York Jets who represented the American Football League which was completing its ninth season.
The AFL had risen quickly to force a merger that would be in full bloom by 1970. In the meantime the younger league aimed to prove that it deserved to be showcased alongside the older grouping. No such proof had been provided in the first two title games that would become known as Super Bowls.
Jets QB Joe Namath guaranteed victory several times during game week and it all came true by a count of 16-7. Ten of those points came from the talented right toes of kicker Jim Turner who was in his fifth season with the Jets. His arrival in 1964 came as the team escaped sparse crowds at the ancient Polo Grounds in favor of largely full houses at the new Shea Stadium, especially when Namath came on board as “Broadway Joe” a year later.
Turner was among those interviewed on NBC-TV in the victorious postgame locker room. Regardless what was initially asked, his response would simply be “Welcome to the AFL.” Many players like this Utah State product took great pride in their league and were offended by the numerous negatives bandied about regarding the AFL’s level of play.
Let’s fast forward to 1977. Jim Turner is finishing his career with the Denver Broncos who will play in Cincinnati in late October. I identify an opportunity to talk to the kicker about the old AFL. The Broncos are on their way to the Super Bowl and hold on to defeat the Bengals 24-13.
After the contest I join two reporters talking to the kicker I idolized in high school. Jim’s opinion is sought regarding a comparison of the current Broncos with the 1968 Jets. He likes both but there’s a glow when he discusses the Jets whom he said had more firepower. He’s also asked about a recent TD he tallied on a fake field goal touchdown reception. “I was wide open and told myself not to drop it,” he recalled.
The duo departs and it’s just me and number 15 at his locker. I introduce myself and we shake hands. “Jim, do you have time to talk about the old AFL?” His response was quick and emphatic. “I always have time to talk about the AFL,” he stated.
I mentioned the “welcome to the AFL” comment and he took off from there. A smiling thoughtful response was punctuated with multiple friendly jabs to my shoulder. “It should still be the AFL and not the AFC within the NFL. We lost our identity. AFL football was wide open and entertaining, not systematic like so many teams today. The players had fun. We played some games in front of small crowds but the AFL survived and then thrived. That win over Baltimore meant so much to all of us who played in the early AFL,” he said before repeating that “it should still be the AFL.”
I thanked him and we again shook hands. “Thank you for asking about the AFL. This was my pleasure. I never get tired of talking about it,” he concluded.
Jim Turner welcomed the world to the AFL back in January 1969. I got my own personal welcome just under nine years later. It remains one of my favorite memories.
Next week: Reflecting on Anna’s state football title.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross is approaching a half century in sports media.