One of the real treats of the 1970 AFL and NFL merger was that for three consecutive Thanksgiving Day games at Tiger Stadium in the early 70’s, Lion fans were finally able to see up close the star players and colorful championship teams from the rebel league.
And in all three contests the Lions devoured the best of the old AFL.
In 1970 John Madden’s big bad Oakland Raiders featuring Daryle Lamonica, George Blanda, Fred Biletnikoff, and Ben Davidson fell to Detroit 28-14.
The following year Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs featuring Len Dawson, Willie Lanier, and Jan Stenerud lost to the Lions 32-21.
And for Thanksgiving Day 1972, the most colorful and celebrated football player of his era, quarterback Joe Namath and his New York Jets landed at Michigan and Trumbull.
Somehow I had to see in person the cover boy that boldly predicted, and then produced, the famous upset victory over the Colts in SuperBowl III that accelerated the merger of the leagues.
And in storybook fashion, thanks to a couple of my classmates from Dearborn High School, three 16 year olds were able to see and meet Broadway Joe.
Jim Kwilos, ( an excellent artist), had done a huge oil painting of Namath and was determined to have him sign it. Of course the chances of that happening were very remote at best.
But after school let out on the day before Thanksgiving, Jim, another friend Bruce Szopo, (a huge Namath fan) and I decided at the last minute to drive to the Wayne State University football field where the Jets were practicing to see if we could get Namath to autograph Jim’s colorful painting.
After driving like mad down I-94, we ran out of the car only to learn that the Jets’ had finished practice and had gone back to the Pontchartrain Hotel downtown.
Back in the car, we raced down to the hotel naively thinking that somehow we were going to run into Namath.
Like, what are the chances?
But as we walked into the lobby, believe it or not, there was Namath, smiling away and standing with his teammates outside of the restaurant.
When he saw us coming with the painting in hand, (and stupid grins on our face I am sure) he smiled, stepped towards us and quickly admired Jim’s work. When he noticed that Winston Hill was depicted in Jim’s painting he called the tackle over and pointed it out. Namath kindly asked us our names, signed Jim’s painting and then signed autographs for Bruce and me.
“To Bill, Best Wishes from Joe Namath and all the New York Jets,” mine reads. (Jim later sold his painting to a dentist however Bruce and I still have the autographs framed with a Namath Sports Illustrated cover.)
As many of you know, a lot of the big sports stars can be total jerks to fans, but Joe Namath was especially gracious and genuinely friendly.
I don’t think our feet left the ground when we left the hotel.
The next day, I took the Michigan Avenue bus to Tiger Stadium, somehow landed a ticket, and then witnessed the Lions beat Namath and the Jets 37-20 to complete their an Thanksgiving Day sweep of those storied AFL teams.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that this all took place more than five decades ago and that I can still hold on to such a wonderful memory of Joe Namath and the good fortune of three delighted teenagers.