By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
MIAMI, Jan. 29 -- On an industrial road so close to the airport that the rumble of a jumbo jet can make your feet shake, the Comfort Inn and Suites rises unfashionably over the grumble of commerce. In the parking lot, workers painted new white directional arrows Monday afternoon and, inside the pink edifice, Pio Delgado peered at a visitor strangely.
"Right here, really?" asked the hotel's shuttle bus driver.
Once this was considered a fashionable part of town, the site of a sprawling resort where celebrities came to stay and flight attendants frolicked by the pool. And on the very plot of land where the Comfort Inn and Suites now towers stood the Playhouse, considered at the time to be among the area's finest banquet halls. Which is where three nights before Super Bowl III on Jan. 12, 1969, the Miami Touchdown Club brought a brash young New York Jets quarterback named Joe Namath to receive its outstanding football player award.
Namath stepped before the crowd, and although his Jets were enormous underdogs to the Baltimore Colts, he said: "We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it."
Guarantees haven't been the same since.
You see them everywhere now: bold proclamations for the most mundane. A Gonzaga University basketball player guaranteed the Final Four in 2004. The Bulldogs lost in the second round to Nevada. UCLA running back Chris Markey promised a win over Notre Dame this past fall. UCLA lost. And last September the Detroit Lions' Roy Williams assured everyone that his team would beat the Chicago Bears. It lost, 34-7.
"Anytime you make comments like that you have to get your team motivated behind you," Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher said Monday afternoon. "So if that's what you have to do, that's what you have to do."
Back when Joe Namath spoke through the smoky haze inside the Playhouse, there was no need for motivation. He wasn't trying to cosmically inspire the Jets, sequestered 30 miles away in Fort Lauderdale. If anything, he was probably trying to play games with the Colts, who represented the football establishment, an old guard that didn't understand spontaneous comments made by 25-year-old quarterbacks in banquet halls.
Mark Kriegel, the author of "Namath, A Biography," said Namath had privately been telling friends not to bet the points that weekend but to bet the odds, which at the time stood 7-1 against the Jets winning. The quarterback had watched plenty of film on the Colts and knew they could be beaten.
"My argument is he set the Colts up beautifully," Kriegel said. "Everything he learned as a teenage pool hustler in [his home town] Beaver Falls [Pa.], he put to use on Super Bowl week. He conned the Colts out of a Super Bowl."
The guarantee of victory, while spontaneous, was just a part of that larger plan.
Still it's hard to know just what impact Namath's great proclamation had. The banquet was in the evening, after many writers had long finished their stories and were either out to dinner or enjoying the ceremony from the back of the room. There were no television cameras to capture the moment, and the only mention of the guarantee the next day was 12 paragraphs squeezed into the bottom of the Miami Herald.
Otherwise, some of the most famous words in sports -- words that would in some ways launch a new era of bravado -- went almost unreported until the game itself, when announcer Curt Gowdy said something about it on NBC. It wasn't until afterward when Namath proved right and ran off the Orange Bowl field signaling No. 1 with his finger that everyone realized how great a story it really was.
Now it has become the foundation for a sports cliche.
Inside the Comfort Inn and Suites, Jose Roncal, the bell captain, stood next to Delgado. "You can't predict something," he said. "It's like when a hurricane comes. They say it may go here, it may go there. No one knows."
Delgado shook his head.
"That's what makes the game fun," he said. "The guy talking is probably going to go out into the game and get whacked."
Which in the end is what guarantees have become, silly pregame banter that find their way onto television and spin out of control on talk radio. Whatever mystery Namath's words had, trickling slowly over the following days from a banquet hall, would have been lost the moment they became an intro on "SportsCenter." There was a magic in that moment that can't be replicated. He said it first, then it happened. And no victory, no matter how thrilling, can ever be as perfect as that one.
"It wasn't a contrived moment," Kriegel said.
From Boston, where he runs the Northeastern University Center for Sport in Society, Peter Roby chuckled into the phone. He has watched many players make silly guarantees over the years, always amused when their pictures come up on the television and their names dominate a week's worth of news cycles.
"I think they're starving for attention," he said. "They're trying to get their careers started in the media."
But in the smoky room of the Playhouse, before a rapt audience watching sports change before its eyes, Joe Namath was doing something else entirely.
He was just trying to think of a new way to win a football game.