Almost 30 years ago, I came home from school and Mom presented me with Matt Snell's autograph. She had been having lunch that day with Uncle Mike, and he showed her this little momento of an earlier night out. It was written on the base of what looked like a bar tab, not even the size of an index card. Uncle Mike had held Jets season tickets at Shea with my Dad for years, and he certainly recognized Matt Snell's almost perfectly square-jawed face from across the crowded bar. He asked that the autograph be dedicated to the biggest Jets fan Uncle Mike knew. The inscription reads, "To Marty - Go Jets - Matt Snell."
I just moved into my first house since leaving for college 22 years ago. Since that time, I have lived in dorms, in a rooming house in England, in a commune in St. Louis, in five different rented apartments in Philadelphia, and now here, in the East Falls section of the city, I live in my own house. Matt Snell's signature has always come with me wherever I have gone. I can't describe it. It's not something I show to people, and if I do, my little framed companion elicits no more than a slightly bemused, "Well, how about that."
I think I've unpacked everything. Lots of things are still sitting around in the dining room, waiting to be put somewhere. But my little framed detached base of a bar tab has yet to show. It's impossible that it should have gotten lost. I've always had it. I would not have thrown it away, and I know for a fact that my wife would not have either. It doesn't make sense. It simply does not make sense.
Here is Matt Snell on the cover of a program for a Jets home game at Shea against the Chargers in October 1966, a game Dad and Uncle Mike must have attended. The Jets won 17-16, and the player featured on the program scored the Jets' first touchdown of the game. Matt Snell emerges like a Marvel Comics character from what looks like a large gun, the barrel of which is obviously a gutted out football. Talk about mixed metaphors. Snell himself looks utterly impassive about the wanton destruction he is causing all around him, and without his helmet. And though all around him exists in color, Matt Snell's face is apparently black and white. The artist is renowned sports cartoonist, Murray Olderman.
By this time, Snell was a fixture in the Jets backfield. It's interesting that he was the focus of this particular program, which makes me think it was probably drawn a year or two earlier. By 1966, Joe Namath was already starting quarterback for the team and the franchise player and the League marquee all in the one. Two years earlier, Matt Snell was the first bonus baby of sorts for the Jets. Drafted in the fourth round by the New York Giants out of Ohio State, he was taken in the first round in the 1964 AFL draft by the Jets. This might explain a particular aesthetic choice made by Olderman. It would make more sense for players of AFL teams to be shown being thrown around by Matt Snell emerging from his football/gun, but take a closer look and see that at least one of the sprawling figures looks suspiciously like a member of the New York Giants, right down to the stripes along his leg and on the helmet.
Matt Snell had a couple of firsts. He is the first running back to gain over 100 yards in a Super Bowl. Throughout Super Bowl III he is seen lowering his head and placing one crushing blow after another on the heads of Colts defenders. Specifically, he knocked cornerback Rick Volk out of the game but apparently sent him flowers the following day, which was a nice gesture. Snell also emerged like a bullet out of a human-sized football/gun in his rookie year when he gained 948 total yards, which is somewhat remarkable by rookie standards. In a 16-game season, he would have gained well over 1,000 yards, which I realize is becoming less and less of a big deal. Successful running games are such a key to so many teams' success even now that many running backs are simply worn down to a nub. And this was true of Matt Snell. He would never approach his rookie yard mark again.
Part of that was the reliance on the passing game, but Snell would also spend most of 1967 out with injuries, and knee problems would keep him from his earlier efficacy for the remainder of his career, though he did go All-Pro in 1969. His last two seasons in the early 70's would simply be spent standing in a uniform. But when I was growing up, my mother constantly reminded me that Matt Snell was always expected to block effectively for Namath, and block he did, like a lineman. I feel this was intended as a lesson in unselfishness and that no important role is too small for anyone. I'm not so certain Matt Snell thought of it that way, but I'm sure it worked on me.
In 1973, a year after he officially retired, Matt Snell was also the first athlete to be featured in a Lite Beer ad. In the history of marketing, this is the equivalent of the first hit of DiMaggio's streak. Lite Beer ads were an institution for anyone watching a sporting event in the 1970's and 80's, and mostly, they were all worth watching every single time, no matter how stale they got. They were a reassuring reminder to me that I was not in school; I was at home on a weekend, watching sports on TV instead of, much to my Dad's dismay, enjoying a beautiful day outside. As we see in a lot of ads today, not every athlete is funny, but Dick Butkus, Billy Martin, Boog Powell, Tom Heinsohn, John Madden, Bubba Smith and, certainly, Marv Throneberry could be almost as funny as Rodney Dangerfield. Yet while Snell's ad may have featured the famous Miller Lite tag line for the first time, it was the only one (other than this one, I suppose) that was not written to be terribly funny. Firsts do not remain famous for long.