This Week in Pittsburgh History: The Local Connections to a Super Bowl Upset

Three men with deep Pittsburgh-area connections played key roles in what's considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

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Super Bowl III was the first championship game to bear the trademark “Super Bowl” name. Played on Jan. 12, 1969 at the Orange Bowl in Miami, the game pitted the AFL Champion New York Jets against the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts. The Jets were 19½ points underdogs.

Three days before the game, Jets quarterback Joe Namath stunned reporters and fans alike by personally guaranteeing his team’s victory. Those who scoffed at the prediction could only shake their heads when the Jets stunned the Colts 16-7.

Three men with deep Pittsburgh-area connections played key roles in what’s considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

Namath, who was born in Beaver Falls, led his high school football team to the WPIAL Class AA championship with a 9-0 record.  Namath also was a standout guard in basketball and outfielder in baseball and after graduation, received offers from several Major League baseball teams including the Pirates, Yankees, Indians, Phillies and Reds. Explaining that his mother wanted him to get a college education Namath accepted a football scholarship from Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. Namath led the Crimson Tide to a National Championship in 1964. A year later, drafted by the Jets, he was named AFL Rookie of the year.

On the other side of the field in Super Bowl III was another Pittsburgh native, Johnny Unitas, who was considered one of the greatest NFL players of all time. Unitas, a graduate of St. Justin’s High School in Pittsburgh, attended the University of Louisville where injuries hampered his performance during his senior year. The Steelers drafted Unitas in the ninth round, but he was cut by head coach Walt Kiesling who didn’t think Unitas was smart enough to quarterback an NFL team. The Colts thought he had potential and signed Unitas in 1956. A year later, his first as a full-time starter, Unitas led the league in passing yards, touchdown passes and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. He would earn MVP honors again in 1964 and 1967 and lead the Colts to championship titles in 1958, 1959, 1968 and Super Bowl V. Injured during Super Bowl III, Unitas came off the bench, engineering the Colt’s only touchdown drive late in the game.

The final Pittsburgh connection to Super Bowl III was a defensive backfield coach named Chuck Noll. A day after the loss to the Jets, Noll interviewed for the head coaching job with the Steelers.

Learn more about the city’s past at The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh Facebook page.

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