Once upon a time, a handful of young boys scurried around a patch of grass, tossing a football back and forth, imitating their idols and narrating their own highlight reels. Maybe one boy was the grizzled veteran; maybe another was the brash upstart.
Maybe it was last week; maybe it was last century. Maybe it was Peyton versus Cam, or maybe it was “Johnny U” versus “Broadway Joe.”.
Those who think that there was never as striking a contrast in two dynamic quarterbacks as played out at Sunday’s Superbowl 50 need to roll the clocks back to January 1969.
Back then, at age 8, I wore “Johnny Unitas everything.” I painted a Baltimore Colts horseshoe on my helmet. (Some believed that Colt horseshoe really was a “U” for “Unitas.”). I wore ancient black high-top cleats. I had a bristle-top haircut just like my dad’s. I had “Johnny U” pajamas.
My best friend, Ted Fleming, was everything I was not. He was black; I was white. More importantly, I was a Red Sox fan; he rooted for the A’s. My parents went to the University of North Carolina; Ted would get his MBA at Duke. More to the point, he liked New York Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath, if only to spite me.
‘Where have you gone, Johnny U?’
The difference between Unitas and Namath in Superbowl III was tantamount to a contrast of generations.
Unitas steered the Baltimore Colts, the team of the 1950s, and had famously led the Colts to the 1958 NFL Championship in what would later be called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The Hall of Famer broke nearly every NFL passing record and won three championships during his 18-year career.
“Unitas was never flamboyant or boastful, (but) he always got the job done,” New York Times writer Frank Litsky wrote upon Unitas’ death at 69 in 2002. “With his trademark crew-cut, drooping shoulders, crooked legs and black high-tops, Unitas in his prime would look comical.”
Unitas retired in 1973 with 22 NFL records to his credit. Unitas was the first quarterback to throw 40,000 yards, a mark only achieved today by 18 players, including Manning, who stands atop the current career leaderboard with over 70,000 yards.
“It’s the quarterback’s job to make order out of all of that chaos (going on across the field), and nobody did it better than Johnny Unitas,” said Manning, who himself was a “Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Winner” at the University of Tennessee.
Conversely, at the helm of the AFL’s New York Jets, was the flamboyant, bold, and brash “Broadway Joe” Namath, whose predictions of victory in the 1969 Superbowl, some thought, showed disrespect both for the Colts and for the game of football.
Then again, if you want to shut an athlete up, just beat him.
As it happened, Namath was as good as promised, helping to lead the Jets to a 16-7 victory over the Colts and earning game MVP honors, and as legendary baseball pitcher Whitey Ford once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.”
Despite being injured most of the season, Unitas did play in the 1969 Super Bowl, and he even mounted a scoring drive, but it was all too late to save the 18-point favorite Colts from a shocking loss to the Jets, Litsky said.
Later, when Unitas was asked how good Namath was, he replied succinctly, “Sixteen-to-seven.”
It was a time of transition, from our fathers’ sports icons and notions of quiet humility to, possibly thanks to television, an age of audacity: it set the stage for the showmanship of Mohammed, Reggie Jackson, Namath … Cam Newton.
The genie was out of the bottle, and he was wearing a full-length fur coat and platform soles. In the process football was changed for good.
“Cam, myself, guys like Neon Deion (Sanders), we were all part of a group,’’ Namath said in a recent interview with USA Today’s Josh Peters. “The game has transitioned, the players have transitioned, the attitudes have transitioned.”
So here we were again.
Superbowl III saw an America stretched taut between two generations, knee-deep in political discord and civil rights unrest, reeling in the wake of racially-motivated violence, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. eight months before.
And then there’s the American Superbowl at 50, telecast in HD to a country up to its ears in political friction…still mourning victims of recent racial violence, still pitting a war-torn, old school sharpshooter Peyton versus Cam, redefining the role of quarterback according to an entirely new level of swashbuckling athleticism and new heights in unabashed exuberance.
Some detractors have gone so far as to say that Cam should act more like Peyton. Manning counters that he wishes he could score more like Cam, adding that he’d celebrate like Newton if he scored as often.
A Little Dab’ll Do Ya
Many believe that, dancing is for clubs and TV reality shows. Many feel that, upon reaching the end zone for a score, one should “Act like you’ve been there before; behave like you’ll be there again.”
But we have been here. And we’ll be here again.
Notwithstanding the fact that Manning’s Bronco’s handed the Carolina Panthers a Superbowl loss Sunday, it was less any ancient wizardry nor any new brand of magic that was the deciding factor. No, it was that Newton felt the gravity of some seven sacks on the day, and never got into much rhythm. Manning finished what Unitas could not.
But rest assured, a torch has been passed. Somewhere, on a sandlot field this fall, a handful of young boys (or girls) will toss about a football. One or two may fancy themselves Peyton Manning, their father’s quarterback. One or two, however, will scamper past some line in the sand into an end zone, looked off into an imaginary crowd, and do “the dab.”
And about 50 more Superbowls hence, those same kids-grown-to-men can talk about the year that the genie was let out of the bottle and how he was wearing Versace pants and how football was changed for good.