On January 2, 1965, quarterback Joe Namath spurns the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals to sign with the American Football League’s New York Jets. The contract, reportedly for $427,000, is the most lucrative signed by a rookie in any sport. The deal with Namath, a star at the University of Alabama for head coach Bear Bryant, is a coup for the AFL.
“I took both teams into consideration,” Namath told reporters in Miami Beach, Florida, where he signed the contract. “I wanted more than money. I was interested in the coach and the organization. New York City is a fine place. The sports fans are great and Weeb Ewbank is an outstanding coach.”
Said Ewbank: “I see in this young man the same qualities as [Baltimore Colts star quarterback] Johnny Unitas. He has size, quickness, courage and a wonderful arm.”
The AFL, founded in July 1959, was willing to do almost anything to lessen the NFL’s grip on the sport. With television contracts beginning to pump big money into professional football, the league offered lucrative signing bonuses to the best players in college football.
“We feel that in getting Joe, we got the No. 1 college football player in America,” Jets owner Sonny Werblin said at the news conference.
At least one New York columnist was impressed by Namath: “I’m convinced of one thing,” wrote Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “The Jets aren’t paying him enough.”
Like almost any record-setting contract that would follow, however, Namath’s deal was met with heavy criticism. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell griped that ”contracts like the one Namath got can be the ruination of the game.”
Contracts continued to increase, but the AFL and NFL agreed to merge in June 1966.
In 1969, before New York played Unitas’ Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Namath famously guaranteed a victory. The future Hall of Famer’s Jets beat the Colts, 16-7, in one of the greatest upsets in sports history.