In the days before diplomacy

Before players became so well behaved — in terms of their public pronouncements, I mean — Super Bowl Week was a lot more entertaining. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across a story that ran after the 1968 AFL title game between the Jets and Raiders.

Joe Namath’s team rallied to win the game, 27-23 – then went off to slay the NFL champion Colts, the biggest upset in pro football history. The visiting Raiders, who thought they were the better club (and may well have been), could only go home and stew for seven months.

In the walk-up to the Super Bowl, Jets cornerback Johnny Sample was doing what he did best: mouthing off. Sample was one of the early trash talkers — not quite as quotable, perhaps, as Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, but heck, Fred was practically Oscar Wilde.

One day Johnny was holding forth about the cornerback position — and about the notebook he kept that had detailed information on every man he covered. The Raiders’ Fred Biletnikoff, a future Hall of Famer, was just “an average receiver,” he’d decided. “You can’t compare him to the great receivers.”

This was a strange statement coming from Sample. Biletnikoff, after all, had torn him up in the AFL title game, catching seven passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. (In fact, Raiders owner Al Davis told The Boston Globe’s Will McDonough, “Fred has eaten him up the last three times he has played against him, and every time he does, Sample says he’s had a cold.”)

An enterprising reporter for the Oakland Tribune called Biletnikoff to get his reaction to Sample’s remarks. Fred was in a Los Angeles hospital at the time recovering from a collarbone injury that Johnny, apparently, had something to do with.

“The way I feel about it,” he said, “[Sample] should write a new book. He was really trying to shake me up in the first quarter, slapping at me and trying to talk me out of my game.

“When I dropped one on the 1-yard line, he said, ‘That’s the way it’s going to be today.’ But after I started beating him he didn’t say much for the rest of the game. I figure the game went 25 percent his way, 75 percent my way.”

I’m saving the best for last. Sample was suggesting at the Super Bowl that he might retire after the game — and it did, indeed, turn out to be his last season. How did Biletnikoff feel about that?

“I hope he doesn’t,” Fred said. “I’d like to play 14 games a season against him. That way I’d know my family is secure for a long time.”

Anyway, that’s what happened one day before Super Bowl III. Anybody say anything interesting today?


The Jets' Johnny Sample (24) and the Colts' Tom Matte (41) go facemask-to-facemask in Super Bowl III.

The Jets’ Johnny Sample (24) and the Colts’ Tom Matte (41) go facemask-to-facemask in Super Bowl III.