Super Bowl Sunday is just days away. This week’s images do not come from a Super Bowl, however. Yet, the subjects of the photographs are two of the biggest names in Super Bowl history that spans 49 years come Sunday.
Let me start with Joe Namath. In one press conference and then in the third Super Bowl, the New York Jets’ “Broadway Joe” changed the NFL forever.
Namath guaranteed a victory over the highly favored Baltimore Colts from a lounge chair by the pool of a Miami Beach hotel. Along with his teammates, Namath backed up that guarantee on January 12, 1969. In doing so, Namath brought new fans to the game in such numbers that the league is now the runaway most popular of all sports.
My photograph comes from a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on September 28, 1975, which the Jets won 30-24. I have always cherished this photograph because of the intense stance and locked jaw of Namath the competitor, but also for the cleft chin and long hair that women adored. Namath was one of the game’s great outliers who broke from convention. Called the same often in my life, it is no wonder that Namath’s professional career amidst all his fabled escapades made him one of my favorites.
Namath only completed seven-of-14 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown that day. The game’s star was John Riggins, who ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns. A native Kansan, Riggins starred at the University of Kansas and helped the Jayhawks win the Big 8 Championship in 1968. He went on to immediate success with the Jets before signing as a free agent with the Washington Redskins.
In Super Bowl XVII on January 30, 1983, Riggins rushed for a then-Super Bowl record 166 yards on 38 carries as the Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins 27–17. He was named the game’s MVP. Riggins followed that up with a monstrous season in 1983, leading to another Super Bowl victory over the Los Angeles Raiders.
Sadly, I have no personal stories on Namath to share, but I do have one for Riggins. A group of high school friends and I began to play serous fast-pitch softball in the early 70’s, back when the game was hugely popular. We were a talented but rag-tag group in those early years and often never knew who was showing up for a game.
Our rightfielder, Kurt Nieman, was friends with the Riggins brothers. The youngest, Billy, often played centerfield for us. One hot and humid summer evening during those early years, we were playing the early game at Santa Fe Ballpark in Topeka. There were just a handful of people in the stands when we took the field with John Riggins playing third base. That alone is noteworthy, but Riggins was also sporting a huge Mohawk haircut, long before they became commonplace. That set off an immediate stir in the ballpark.
Word mystically spread throughout the area. The stands filled each inning, and the crowd kept coming long after the game as we sat with Riggins in the parking lot downing our post-game beers enjoying the grand spectacle.