1969 was the year that the New York Jets won the Super Bowl--Super Bowl III, to be exact. That 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts put the upstart American Football League--founded just nine years earlier as a rival to the venerable National Football League--on the sports map. At first the NFL had refused to acknowledge the AFL; and then, in the first two Super Bowls, the NFL triumphed: Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers had rolled over two other AFL teams.
But Super Bowl III proved that the AFL could play, too; soon thereafter, the two leagues completed their merger.
Yet Super Bowl III was perhaps even more consequential because it made a superstar out of a new kind of sports hero--or anti-hero, if you prefer--Jets quarterback Joe Namath.
Namath's path to football was familiar and time-tested--he came out of the gritty but football-crazed environs of western Pennsylvania; he then went to the football factory run by Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. From there he made his way to the Jets, and to greatness; he was named Super Bowl III's Most Valuable Player for leading his team to victory over the Colts.
But unlike most of his predecessors on the gridiron, who were notable for their crewcuts and ramrod demeanor, Namath was a true child of the 60s. His hair was long, and he wore a fu manchu mustache and bell bottoms. And he fully enjoyed the pleasures of New York City--that's why they called him "Broadway Joe." Indeed, for a time he co-owned a Manhattan singles bar, Bachelors 3, where he was linked to gamblers and other species of New York nightlife.
At first the suits who ran pro football didn't know what to do with Namath and his rowdiness; Broadway Joe had several high-profile spats with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle over legal and behavioral issues. But Namath knew the media, and how to play reporters and commentators. So he positioned himself as a Hugh Hefner-esque underdog, rebelling against fun-killing strictures of The Man.
For their part, football fans seemed to love it--Namath received lucrative endorsement contracts (including one TV commercial in which the ardently heterosexual Namath wore pantyhose). He even appeared in Hollywood movies.
Hobbled by knee injuries, Namath was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Rams, and his career came to an end in 1977. But during that time, the culture of pro sports was revolutionized: Athletes, who had once seemed so square and blue collar and boy-next-store-ish, were now flamboyant, sharp-dressing millionaires. And many of them had drug problems and sexual issues, which they suddenly felt free to go on TV and talk about.
All that was part of Namath's legacy, as well as his membership in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
If the 60s broke down the old rules of personal restraint, starting in a few college campuses and bohemian enclaves, the 70s will be remembered as the decade when sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll went mainstream, right into Middle America. -- And well-paid athletes and their entourages were at the forefront of this cultural revolution.
In political terms, these lifestyle-liberation changes caused a huge backlash: The Republicans were winning most presidential elections back then, and conservative strength grew steadily, as the Christian Right started to mobilize.
But culturally, on the national stage of celebrity, the Broadway Joe ethos of livin' large set an enduring pattern.
And it all began back in '69.