TARPON SPRINGS — Earl Christy said throw it.
"I can still go, man!" the 75-year-old retired school teacher and former NFL player said as he ran an awkward down-and-out and hauled in the football in his condominium parking lot.
Over the years, I'd seen the ebullient Christy in the press box at Bucs games. He'd hand me his business card, which was actually his New York Jets football card. He was always delightful, chirping about his internet sports show or the Lord or his days in New York. His mind drifted sometimes.
Earl is feeling it. It's another anniversary. Fifty years ago Saturday, in Miami's Orange Bowl, Christy, a kickoff and punt return specialist, was a member of the underdog New York Jets of the American Football League that pulled off one of the great upsets in sports history, beating the heavily favored NFL Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. New York was led by a dashing, flashing quarterback in white shoes: "Broadway" Joe Namath, who famously guaranteed the win. That day changed everything.
I grew up in New York but had no memory of Earl Christy. But there he was at the condo, wearing his No. 45 Jets jersey.
"I'm going to hook you up with Joe," Christy said.
I smiled. Sure, Earl, sure.
Christy picked up his phone.
"Siri, call JWN."
Joe Willie Namath.
Sure, Earl, sure.
No answer. But then why in the world would Joe Namath, one of the iconic figures in American sports culture, know an obscure return guy? From my car, I waved at 75-year-old Earl Christie, a nice, harmless man.
Two hours later, my phone rang.
"Hey, this is Joe Namath. Earl said to call."
They are friends. Nothing has changed. Such is the power of the 1968 New York Jets. It all comes back to them at this time of year, what they did together, how they'll always walk together, even if some of them have a hard time walking.
"When you're in a huddle, you stay in the huddle," Namath said.
That's the way it has been with Joe Namath and Early Christy since they met at Jets training camp before the 1966 season.
"Me and Joe, it was like magic," Christy said. "We just hit it off."
"On our football team, we were in it together," Namath said. "We're still in it together. When Earl was a rookie, he connected with everyone. He was an enthusiastic man. He's been an inspiration for everyone that I know. I can't imagine him having an enemy."
"They have a kindred spirit," said Christy's wife, Belinda Womack, a longtime Tampa Bay gospel/jazz singer. "They both want to be the driving force in the room. They both want to smile no matter what."
Earl Christy of Perryman, Md., was an underdog. He starred at wide receiver at Maryland State (now Maryland-Eastern Shore). The Jets spotted Christy while scouting running back Emerson Boozer, Christy's teammate. Christy joined the Jets as a free agent defensive back and kick returner. His NFL career lasted only three seasons, 1966-68. He never took one back for a touchdown.
"But Earl mattered," Namath insisted. "It was a good vibe on our team. Earl was a big part of that vibe."
"They called me 'Mr. Personality,' " Christy said. He ran with Joe Namath of Beaver Falls, Pa., on New York nights.
"Joe Namath in New York — are you kidding me?" Christy said. "He was prince of the city. Women didn't gravitate to Joe — they'd levitate. Joe was the rock star.
"But no one saw him and us work. After practice, we would practice."
Christy had two key moments in that 1968 championship season as the Jets went 11-3 and win the AFL.
The first moment?
"The famous Heidi game," Christy said.
On November 17, 1968, the Jets visited the rival Oakland Raiders. The Jets took a 32-29 lead (Namath passed for 381 yards and a touchdown) into the final minute, which was exactly when NBC cut away from the telecast on the East Coast to show the TV movie Heidi. New Yorkers missed Oakland scoring 14 points in nine seconds to win 43-32. The final points came after Christy lost the ball at his 10-yard line on a kickoff return and Oakland returned it for a score.
"I wasn't able to talk about it for 20 years," Christy said. "My own teammate, Mark Smolinski, his elbow hit me, and the ball came out. Two touchdowns in nine seconds."
Namath doesn't remember exactly what he said to Christy after the game, but Christy said it went like this:
"We'll get 'em, man. We'll get 'em again."
The Jets beat Oakland 27-23 in the AFL championship game at New York's Shea Stadium. Christy had a part. After Oakland took a lead late in the game, Christy took the ensuing kickoff back 32 yards. Namath capped it with a TD pass to Don Maynard.
On to Miami.
The 13-1 Baltimore Colts were listed as 18-point favorites in Super Bowl III. Christy, Namath, all the Jets, knew they were playing for more than themselves.
"We were in the AFL, and we were proud," Christy said. "We weren't scared of Baltimore. We weren't scared of no one."
"We'd lost the first two Super Bowls to the Packers," Namath said. "If the AFL had lost three in a row, man, that would not have been cool."
It was left to Namath to deliver the signature moment of that week, for maybe all time, in the name of underdogs. Appearing at an awards banquet in Miami a few days before the game, Namath responded to a heckler in the audience.
"We'd been listening to stuff for 10 days, from Colts fans, Giants fans, National Football League fans," Namath said. "The Colts were the best team that ever played. Man, I'd had it. I heard this guy and told him, 'We're going to win the game. I guarantee it.' "
"That wasn't nothing, that was just Joe," Christy said.
Christy fielded the opening kickoff and took it back 22 yards. It was his only touch of the day.
"Imagine if I'd fumbled that one," Christy said.
He didn't fumble. The Jets didn't blink. Super Bowl III is always seen through the prism of history, but it was a dull game. The Jets screwed the Colts into the sod. Namath threw for 206 yards and was pinpoint when needed. The Jets used power running and interceptions from a bend-not-break defense for a 16-7 win.
"The 'Miracle Mets' came after, and so did the U.S. hockey at the (1980) Olympics," Christy said. "But we set the tone. It still resonates."
"You know, I get amazed even today, but then again I'm not," Namath said. "I know we touched a lot of people. When they saw us able to come through, it gave hope and touched every underdog out there."
The 1968 season was Earl Christy's last with the Jets and in pro football. He was released the following July. Teammates, Namath among them, were jolted. Christy was the first Jets player given a pink slip after Super Bowl III. He came to training camp in 1969 anyway, to receive his world championship ring. It has seven diamonds. Christy wears it to this day.
After the NFL, he played basketball for the Harlem Wizards show team. He used his college degree to become a school teacher, physical education — Coach Christy. He went into broadcasting, too, hosting a TV sports show in Wilmington, Del., Earl Christy's Superstar Sports Show. He became an ordained minister and motivational speaker. Christy retired from substitute teaching in Tampa Bay when he was 62. He still hosts his internet sports show. He had already been married four times when he met Belinda, who is also an ordained minister. They've been married six years.
"God said make a joyful noise," Belinda said. "That's what Earl does."
Next Saturday, Christy will be grand marshal at the Martin Luther King Day Jr. parade in Tarpon Springs. He'll speak at the church breakfast that morning.
"I told them to get over that you want him to speak for 10 minutes," Belinda said. "It ain't going to happen. Earl can't stop."
Joe Namath is 75 and lives in Jupiter. He has had both knees replaced. Broadway Joe and Mr. Personality stay in touch. Christy worked Namath's Connecticut football camp for decades.
"There is no telling how many children Earl made feel better," Namath said.
The 1968 Jets gather at reunions, including the 50th, which was held a few months ago at the Jets stadium in New Jersey. They talk about old times and their grandchildren. Some of the players from that team are gone. Some used walkers at the 50th. But it was as if they had never been apart. It was Miami again, it was Joe saying they'll win again. They'll always be the 1968 New York Jets, I thought, as Earl Christy ran another down-and-out and called for the football. A joyful noise.
"I promise you there's not a guy on those Jets who Earl hasn't influenced," Joe Willie Namath said. "That smile, that infectious belief in the good Lord. You'll be meeting a wonderful man if you have the honor to meet Earl. You'll be filled with his love. I guarantee it."
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.