Was upset loss to Jets beginning of end for Baltimore Colts?

Some former players say team might still be here if not for Super Bowl III defeat

January 22, 2010|By Mike Klingaman | mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

For Bobby Boyd, the nightmares have subsided. Forty-one years after Super Bowl III, the Baltimore Colts' All-Pro cornerback can finally go the night without waking in panic, thoughts of The Upset haunting his sleep.

It took nearly this long for Boyd to shrug off the Colts' 16-7 loss to Joe Namath and the New York Jets in January 1969, a seminal moment in NFL lore and one that often is rehashed when the Super Bowl nears.

The ESPN flashbacks started early this year, thanks to Sunday's AFC championship matchup between the Jets and Indianapolis Colts - a showdown whose hype has salted the old wounds of Baltimore players and fans alike.

"I had nightmares about it for a long time," Boyd, 71, said of Super Bowl III, a game in which the Colts were favored by three touchdowns. "Many a time, I'd wake up thinking, 'Why didn't we try this or that?' Then I'd get up, angry, drink a Coke, watch TV to calm down and then try to go back to sleep."

About four years ago, those dreams stopped, said Boyd, still the franchise leader for career interceptions (57).

"But I'll be thinking about that game to the day I die," he said.

Moreover, Boyd and several teammates believe that the Colts' defeat might have triggered a chain of events that led to the team's exit from Baltimore in 1984.

The loss to New York soured ties between Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and coach Don Shula, who, fed up with the owner's sniping, left one year later to coach the Miami Dolphins.

"If we had won Super Bowl III, and continued to win, I certainly wouldn't have gone," Shula told The Baltimore Sun in 2008. "I'd still be in Baltimore, eating crab cakes."

And with a victory over the Jets, would Rosenbloom have kept the Colts instead of making that ill-fated deal with Robert Irsay in 1972?

And with Irsay out of the picture, would the team have skulked out, broken Baltimore's collective heart and landed in Indianapolis?

"The Super Bowl loss drove both Shula and Rosenbloom out of town," said Boyd, a Colts assistant from 1969 to 1972. "I was shocked. Then we wound up with Irsay."

Other Colts agreed.

"Things probably would have been much different had we not lost to the Jets," said Dan Sullivan, 70, then a starting guard for the Colts. "As I heard it, after the Super Bowl, Shula asked for a raise and Rosenbloom said, 'How can you ask for more money when you lost to a coach [ Weeb Ewbank] that I fired?'

"So Shula figured he'd better look somewhere else."

Two years later, the Colts won Super Bowl V, defeating the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13. But the victory was bittersweet for a team still scarred by the loss to New York.

"We all carried that [baggage] for a long, long time," Sullivan said. Even now, he said, "My mind will wander and I'll replay the game, with all its mishaps, and think: 'How did this happen? We were such a better team.'

"If I'm at a social event, and someone mentions Namath and the Jets, I don't say a whole lot. But the words send shivers up my back."

The stigma is worse for those such as Lou Michaels, the Colts' kicker who was denied a ring in Super Bowl III, and gone by the time the team won it all in 1971.

"I'll never accept losing that game. It gnaws at me," said Michaels, who missed two field-goal attempts against New York. The day belonged to his brother, Walt Michaels, the Jets' defensive coordinator who helped ambush a Colts team that had won 15 of 16 games.

"People say, 'Forget about it,' " said Lou Michaels, 74. "How do you do that when your brother has your Super Bowl ring? "

After Baltimore's championship in 1971, Michaels ran into Sullivan and asked to see his diamond keepsake.

"I took it off and handed it to Lou," Sullivan recalled. "He carried it into a corner of the room and cried like a baby."

If one play summed up Super Bowl III, it was the flea-flicker that the Colts tried just before halftime. With his team trailing 7-0, quarterback Earl Morrall handed off to Tom Matte at the Jets' 41. Matte swept right, stopped, and lateraled the ball back to Morrall.

The Jets were fooled. Standing all alone near the New York end zone, waving his arms frantically, was Baltimore receiver Jimmy Orr.

"What else could I do? Yelling wouldn't have done any good in the Orange Bowl," said Orr, 73. "I was open from there to Tampa."

The play had produced a touchdown earlier that season. But this time, somehow, Morrall failed to spot Orr and threw instead toward fullback Jerry Hill.

The Jets intercepted as time ran out.

Even in Sheridan, Wyo. (pop. 17,000), where he lives, Hill is asked about the play ad nauseam.

"This time of year, TV runs that game 24/7, even out here," said Hill, 70.

His response? "I'm still waiting for us [Colts] to come back in the fifth quarter and get our act together."

And Orr? Two years ago, while participating in a celebrity golf tournament in Jekyll Island, Ga., Orr spotted Namath standing across the room.

"Joe was about 15 yards away," Orr said. "When he saw me, he started waving his arms and grinning."

The game mythicized Namath, who had guaranteed a victory for the upstart American Football League, which was still a year from merging with the established NFL. The Jets' win gave credence to the AFL and eased that union.

"That game still haunts us," said Fred Miller, 69, the Colts' Pro Bowl tackle and defensive captain.

"I admit that our losing helped bring the NFL together. But why did it have to be us?"

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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