At the conclusion of my 1985 NFL replay, I will replay the 1969 AFL and NFL seasons with an “exclusive set” created by my best friend – Mark Zarb. I couldn’t think of a better way to begin this project than by replaying the most important exhibition game in professional football history, the New York Jets versus the New York Giants.
In 1969, the teams were fighting for attention and allegiances. The preseason game was seen as a turf war, which the Giants were afraid they were losing.
Months earlier, the American Football League’s Jets had upset the Baltimore Colts to win the third Super Bowl, creating instant credibility for a league that the N.F.L. long tried to ignore. No team represented the staid N.F.L. better than the Giants, a stable-but-mediocre flagship franchise. No team represented the surging A.F.L. like the Jets, with Broadway Joe Namath at quarterback.
“It was emblematic of an old, tired Model T against a Corvette,” Fred Dryer, a rookie defensive end on the 1969 Giants said.
George Vecsey of The New York Times summed up the perception of the Jets among the uneasy Giants and their fans in an article that ran before the game. “Right now, they are the champions of the world,” he wrote. “Does that make them the champions of New York?”
The Jets viewed the game with the Giants as a possible exclamation point to their Super Bowl victory, a way to extinguish lingering doubters close to home.
“People still thought over all the N.F.L. was better — better players, more established teams, stronger management,” kicker Pete Gogolak, who joined the Giants in 1966 after playing for the A.F.L.’s Buffalo Bills said during an interview. “It really wasn’t the case.”
The Giants viewed the game nervously. They had not made the playoffs the previous five seasons. They had little to gain and little chance of winning against the Jets, and were constantly reminded of that by fans and reporters leading up to the game, played in front of 70,874 fans at the Yale Bowl in New Haven.
“I remember the look on Allie Sherman’s face before the game,” Dryer said, referring to the Giants’ coach, who was entering his ninth season. “And everyone’s face. It was a look of fear, because people did a good job of putting the pressure on the inferior team.”
The Jets went on to win, 37-14. Giants fans serenaded Sherman with what had become a familiar refrain: “Goodbye, Allie,” sung to the tune of “Good Night, Ladies.”
Sherman was fired a few weeks later, at the end of a 0-5 preseason. Losing badly to the Jets seemed a tipping point.
I will do a follow-up post to see how the game played out on my tabletop.