September 12, 2010

1964: Jets Debut at Shea Stadium Before Record Crowd

The New York Jets franchise took a significant step forward on September 12, 1964 when they played their first game at the new Shea Stadium. For four seasons (three as the Titans, one as the Jets) the club had played at the badly decaying Polo Grounds and had difficulty drawing fans. The move to the new stadium solved that problem immediately, as there was a crowd of 45,497 on hand, the largest to attend an American Football League game to date.

Since the new ownership group, led by David A. “Sonny” Werblin, had taken over the former Titans franchise from the bankrupt original owner, Harry Wismer, following the 1962 season, the club had gone through a revitalization process. There was a new name, new uniforms, and highly-respected new head coach in Weeb Ewbank. Now they were moving into a new stadium and the only remaining question to address was the quality of the players.

To that end, another significant change for 1964 was that the team was able to sign some high draft picks – something that had not happened during the Wismer era. The biggest prize had been FB Matt Snell (pictured at left), the first draft choice out of Ohio State who had also been selected in the NFL draft by the rival Giants (third round). Other signees from the draft who would have an impact were Gerry Philbin out of Buffalo in the third round, selected as a linebacker but who would play defensive end as a pro, and LB Ralph Baker from Penn State, chosen in the sixth round.

The Jets, coming off of a 5-8-1 season in ’63, faced the Denver Broncos in the season-opening game, a club that had been the worst in the AFL with a 2-11-1 tally. Head Coach Jack Faulkner came to the team amid great expectations in 1962, but after breaking even at 7-7 that year, the Broncos had regressed. In an odd arrangement, QB Jacky Lee was obtained from Houston, where he had backed up veteran George Blanda for four years, as part of a two-year lease agreement (the Broncos gave up DT Bud McFadin and a first round draft choice as part of the deal). He was to be returned to the Oilers after the lease was up, where no doubt it was anticipated that the 37-year-old Blanda would be ready to retire and Lee, having gained experience as a starting quarterback, could step in.

Lee’s first regular season performance was a poor one. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 127 yards and three interceptions. Star end Lionel Taylor contributed a fourth interception on an option pass, and in all the Broncos couldn’t move the ball and turned it over five times.

The Jets, with the lanky and immobile Dick Wood at quarterback, took advantage of the turnovers and gave up none of their own. Wood threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to TE Gene Heeter in the first quarter and in the fourth quarter connected with star flanker Don Maynard, who made an outstanding catch that resulted in a 39-yard TD. In between, rookie placekicker Jim Turner connected on field goals of 11 and 27 yards in the second quarter and 21 yards in the final period.

Two Gene Mingo field goals provided the only scoring for the Broncos, who were as close as 13-6 in the fourth quarter, but following that the Jets scored two touchdowns and a field goal to win easily, 30-6.

While Wood completed just 9 of 18 passes for 144 yards, two of them were touchdowns and none were picked off. Maynard was the top receiver with four catches for 101 yards and the TD. But the star on offense was the rookie fullback Snell, who gained 82 yards on 22 carries and scored the final touchdown. It was a good start to a season in which he would rank second among the AFL’s rushers with 948 yards.

The Jets outgained the Broncos with 247 yards to 192. They also sacked Lee five times, while Denver’s defense never got to Wood, and were flagged three times while the Broncos drew 9 penalties. FB Billy Joe led Denver in rushing with 41 yards on 9 attempts, and Lionel Taylor and HB Charley Mitchell both caught five passes, with Taylor gaining 61 yards.

Aside from Snell’s performance, the other player for the Jets who drew attention was Ed “Wahoo” McDaniel (pictured at right), a middle linebacker who had been obtained from Denver. A 6’1”, 235-pound Native American (Choctaw and Chickasaw) who was a professional wrestler on the side, McDaniel had played college football at Oklahoma under legendary Head Coach Bud Wilkinson. He was drafted by the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers in 1960 but failed to make either club. After catching on with the Houston Oilers as a guard, he was dealt to Denver and returned to his regular position of linebacker. As Coach Faulkner put it, “he was a tough guy, but he wasn’t very big…he didn’t have great speed, but he gave you effort.”

McDaniel’s acquisition hadn’t been considered a major one by the Jets, but he made it into the starting lineup and became an instant fan favorite. From the first time he made a tackle and his name was announced over the public address system to each occasion that his face appeared on the big Jetorama screen, the crowd cheered wildly. After awhile the PA announcer simply asked “Who made the tackle?” and the fans shouted back “Wahoo!”

There were times when that likely wasn’t the correct answer to the question, for the announcer began asking it on most every gang tackle and, it was said, on occasions when McDaniel was nowhere near the play. But it became a popular part of Jets home games for the remainder of the season. Owner Werblin, an entertainment executive who knew how to market talent, had McDaniel’s last name removed from the back of his jersey and replaced with “WAHOO” thereafter.

New York ended up with another 5-8-1 record in ’64, placing third in the Eastern Division. However, Coach Ewbank was assembling the pieces that would bring greater excitement and success, and overall home attendance jumped from 91,000 in 1963 to 298,000. Denver also repeated its 2-11-1 tally of the previous year; Faulkner was let go after a 0-4 start and replaced by former Cleveland Browns star Mac Speedie.

As a footnote, Jacky Lee lost his starting job to the equally-ineffective Mickey Slaughter. Rather than preparing him to be a starting quarterback, the leasing deal only made Lee less appealing to his original club, the Oilers, who sat him back on the bench when he returned in 1966.