From a reporters’ loose-leaf notebook, before he learned how to type. (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
It was a long, hard cold journey on the Long Island Railroad returning from Jamaica, N.Y. that late December afternoon in 1968.
A defeated 16-year-old high school junior sat in an unheated car in one of those ancient railroad cars that seemed to be more broken than working, even way back then.
That teenager experienced a range of emotions from disappointment to despair to sadness to anger.
He had tried to get into the New York Jets locker room at Shea Stadium to interview a couple of players for his high school newspaper, The Vanguard, at W.T. Clarke High School in Westbury, N.Y.
He had received a letter in the mail from the Jets’ public relations department, allowing him entry after practice that week. So, with his reel-to-reel tape recorder in tow, he took a train ride into Flushing.
That teenager’s experience at interviewing?
None. Zilch. Nada.
He was going from nothing to the big leagues, to a team that was only a win away from going to the Super Bowl. The Jets needed to defeat their archrivals, the Oakland Raiders that Sunday, Dec. 30.
What audacity by the teenager.
However, he never got past the guard at the locker room door and was denied entry, despite trying to convince him otherwise with his piece of paper with a Jet green letter head.
So, then came that dispirited journey home with nothing to show for his time.
After returning to Westbury, the teen called his contact in the Jets PR department and explained what had transpired. He was told to return tomorrow.
So, his mother drove him to the Long Island Railroad station in Westbury and repeated his journey, departing the train in Jamaica and catching the E train to Flushing, N.Y., the Shea Stadium stop.
En route, a number of emotions danced through his head.
Excitement about doing the interview.
Hope, that history wouldn’t be repeated that day.
Dread, because he had never done this before.
What the hell are you doing, he asked himself.
After leaving the subway, the teenager entered the lobby and this time made sure someone important knew he was there.
The Jets had trained on a field somewhere nearby. Slowly, but surely, the team arrived and walked into the lobby and then the locker room. They had gotten into a snowball fiight outside. Joe Willie Namath, the legendary quarterback, had entered the lobby smiling and laughing, after having some fun with his teammates, whether he was hitting someone with his precision-line drive passes or being on the receiving end of a ball of packed snow.
Interviewing Namath was out of the question on that day. Too high a target for a 16-year-old who had maybe two or three clips from his high school newspaper.
So he decided on two “lower” level players who still had high profiles — Johnny Sample and Gerry Philbin, who had distinguished themselves on defense that season.
Both players graciously agreed to be interviewed.
Sample was first, then Philbin.
While the interviews were not of Ted Koppel or Anderson Cooper quality, the 16-year-old seemed to hold his own.
A sampling of the Q&A with Sample (even though the teen would learn in later years not to open with such a potentially controversial question):
First question: People call you a dirty player because they say you take cheap shots. What do you think about this this?
Answer: I play as hard as I can. What people say makes no difference to me.
Q: You say that the NFL blacklisted you. If you win the AFL championship game this Sunday, would you rather play Baltimore, your original team, or you don’t care who you play?
A: This makes no difference. I really love Baltimore’s team. The guys on the ball club are really nice. I’d rather play Cleveland than Baltimore, but no matter who it is, it’s just great to play in the Super Bowl.
Q: Why hasn’t this team collapsed this year like last year?
A: Well, I don’t think we necessarily collapsed last year. We played some tough ball games in the last end of the season. We were just unfortunate enough to lose the games. This year we had the best of the schedule, I think.
And then it was on to Philbin:
Q: People have been saying that the Jet defensive line is too small for prof football. What do you think about this?
A: Well, all I can go by is that we won the championship with whatever they call a small line and we’re the No. 1 defense in the league. IF that’s what it takes to do it then everybody should have a small line.”
A: Did it matter to you that Oakland beat Kansas City [in a special Western Conference playoff game]?
A: Yes, I was looking forward to play Oakland better than Kansas City to tell you the truth.
Q: Is it that Kansas City is better than Oakland?
A: No, I think that both are equal teams and one has better strengths here and there. All in all, I think we’re better off as a team playing Oakland than Kansas City. We have something to gain, to avenge.
The trip home was one of triumph.
The Jets went on to defeat the Raiders, 27-23, in the AFL Championship Game Sunday, Dec. 29, and then stunned the Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III, one of the biggest upsets of all-time.
The high school junior submitted his story to The Vignette, realizing the next paper would not be published until late January. One of the editors of the paper made it as though the author was inside the Jets locker room at the Super Bowl in Miami, forcing him to explain to his friends that the interviews were not done there.
Editor’s note: It’s incredible what you find when going through your archives. A writer found some Q&A’s from 50 years ago this week. I thought I would share his experience with you, even if it is a different kind of football. And oh yes, as you can notice from the photo at the top of the story, it has been written out (quite neatly, I might add). I didn’t take up typing until my senior year of high school, so I hand wrote all my stories back in the stone age. And an interview with the great Joe Namath would come the next summer at training Jets training camp at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. But that’s another story for another time.