If the Baltimore Colts had found a way to beat the upstart New York Jets on this date 50 years ago, running back Tom Matte might have been a Super Bowl MVP.
“I had a real good game,’’ Matte said Friday. “I had the longest run from scrimmage that stood for a long, long time, and I think my average was over 10 yards per carry, something like that.”
There is a lot about the Colts’ 16-7 loss in Super Bowl III that Matte would like to forget, but he did break away on a 58-yard run in the second quarter, and it would stand as the longest run from scrimmage in a Super Bowl for 15 years before Oakland Raiders star Marcus Allen broke it with a 74-yard run against the Washington Redskins in 1984.
Matte averaged 10.6 yards per carry, finishing with 116 yards rushing and 30 yards receiving. But all anybody outside Baltimore remembers about the game was that the Colts were 18-point favorites and New York quarterback Joe Namath made good on his brash guarantee three days earlier that the Jets would win.
Even a half-century later, Namath has not come out from under Matte’s skin.
“What did he have to lose?’’ Matte said. “Nobody thought they were going to win. He was just shooting his mouth off. We wanted to stick it in his ear, but he came out there, played one hell of a game.
“They had good coaching and they had other players on the team besides himself, but he had the big mouth. That was just Joe. We understood. We paid the price. We lost that damn game. It was not an easy thing to come home to Baltimore after losing to the Jets.”
And they didn’t just lose to the Jets. They were shut out for three quarters and trailed 16-0 when they finally got on the scoreboard on a 1-yard touchdown run by Jerry Hill with 3:19 left in the game.
It was a lot easier to see in hindsight how one of the biggest upsets in the history of professional sports was made possible. Jets coach Weeb Ewbank had coached the Colts for nine years and was still familiar with them six years after he had been replaced in Baltimore by Don Shula.
That was at a time when player movement was more limited and many of the Colts players had played for Ewbank during his final season in Baltimore in 1962.
“They took advantage of our defense,’’ Matte said. “Weeb knew the players because he had been with us prior to that time. He was a hell of a coach and they had some great players — not that we wanted to give them any credit, but to get where they went, they had to be a good ballclub.”
“Joe was a great athlete. Don’t take anything away from him. And he had a coaching staff that knew our game really well and knew our defense really well and knew our offense really well.”
Namath was named Super Bowl MVP, but several of his teammates delivered strong performances. Running back Matt Snell gained 121 yards on 30 carries and scored his team’s only touchdown. Receiver George Sauer Jr. caught eight passes for 133 yards. Jim Turner made three field goals, accounting for the nine-point margin of victory.
The game soon would become a legendary component of the quantum shift in the sports rivalry between Baltimore and New York. The Colts had beaten the New York Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” to win the NFL title in 1958 and also won a lopsided rematch of that game to win the championship again in 1959.
When the Colts lost Super Bowl III, the Orioles were getting ready to head to spring training for a 1969 season in which they won 109 regular-season games. They would be matched up in the World Series against a heavily unfavored New York Mets team, and everybody knows what happened.
The “Miracle Mets,” who had never come close to having a winning record in their previous seven years of existence, pulled another one of the biggest upsets in the history of professional sports, beating the Orioles in the World Series in just five games.
If that wasn’t bad enough, three months after Super Bowl III, the NBA Eastern Division champion Baltimore Bullets were swept in the playoffs by — who else? — the New York Knicks.
Matte, who is 79, chuckled at one last question about the most disappointing day of his NFL career: How long did it take for him to get over Super Bowl III?
“Still haven’t,’’ he said.