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Saturday, January 12, 2008

January 12, 1969

Why is today different from all other days?

Today is the 39th anniversary of one of the most important games in NFL history - and the most important game in Jets history. The New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III, a game played under overcast conditions in Miami's Orange Bowl. It remains a moment of pure lore in the sense of its central motif, of David defeating Goliath. The game, coming ten years after the famed NFL Championship between the Giants and the Colts, set in the stone the role of football as America's game. This, my son, is why this day is most important.

Two months from being born, I was there, wondering what all the fuss was about. Mom and Dad went to Brooklyn to watch the game with my grandparents. The Yankees had dominated in baseball, the Celtics in basketball, the Canadiens in hockey. The NFL was a part of the old way, the standard in selfsame consistent fashion. Representing the NFL that year, the 1968 Baltimore Colts are still today considered, statistically speaking, one of the greatest teams to ever play football. Yet the Colts made too many mistakes that day, while the Jets played surprisingly safe, conservative football. When you watch the game from end to end (as I do; I own it, you know) you appreciate just how business-like the Jets are throughout the game. Joe Namath did not throw a single pass throughout the fourth quarter. In interviews in the early 90's about the game, this comes as a surprise to him.

In six months after Super Bowl III, American men would look out onto the Sea of Tranquility and see the vast emptiness of space, the cold colorless terrain of the Moon. They would gape at the seeming eternity of the Void which, in truth, was merely an infinitesimal section of the universe in the sky above them, contemplating the meaningless of human endeavors. Yet if a fictional creature had bounced out of the strangely sticky gray silt and asked Buzz Aldrin the name of the current champion of American football, he would - even after his stunned amazement - have been able to answer easily: "The New York Jets."

For one year, the New York Jets were the outright defending champions of the game. Then, on the other side of 1/12/69, America changed vastly, its dynamics shifting Right in politics, yet toward personal freedom both in popular culture and in sports. Super Bowl III was a portion of that transition. The Jets won the game themselves, but the event became something greater than themselves. It was all happening with and without them.

A year after Super Bowl III, the Jets would lose in the playoffs to the Chiefs, 13-6. It would be the franchise's final postseason game for another 12 years - by which time, America was barely recognizable from what it had been before Watergate, the fall of Saigon, the Hostages in Tehran, and Super Bowl III. By the time the Jets lost on a last minute interception to the Bills in the 1982 AFC Wild Card game, Joe Namath's revolution in athletic personality had become de rigeur, while the Jets were considered a consistently losing team.

Yet there is something for Jets fans to keep hold of, even now. We will always be a part of a franchise that beat the ultimate Goliath. We will always be fans of the team that to which no one ever gave a chance. We will always be fans of the team that defied the odds, and in this way, we will always carry the mantle of the underdog, as we have in nearly every playoff game in which we have ever played.

...except for the one we played on January 12, 1999, thirty years to the date of Super Bowl III. The Jets owned home field possession of a divisional playoff game, this time winning as the favored team against against Jacksonville, 34-24. I will not lie. I remember that game, and I remember how good it felt for a few moments, knowing that my team was better than most in the NFL. It would not last for long. I kind of knew it at the time. I'm a Jets fan.

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