Although the New York Giants were founded in 1925 by bookmaker Tim Mara, by 1960 they'd taken on the patina of old money. They played on the hallowed ground of Yankee Stadium, made regular visits to the NFL Championship Game and, much like the Yanks, had a loyal press corps highly protective of their team's preeminent status in the sports world.
"Don is the same gentle, down-to-earth Texan that he was when he arrived in New York 50 years ago."
When the AFL began play in 1960 and placed its Titans of New Yorkthe original moniker of the New York Jetsin the Polo Grounds, they were greeted with the same derisive Bronx cheer that welcomed the Mets two years later. Like those same Mets, in 1969 the Jets would turn the table on their well-heeled, long-toothed counterparts and prove themselves not only the class of the Big Apple, but the best in the world.Texas-native Don Maynard, the original Titan, was released by the Giants after being shunned by Coach Allie Sherman and shredded by the New York press. After a stint in the CFL, Maynard returned to the city to electrify the gridiron at the receiving end of countless bombs from Broadway Joe Namath. While Namath's exploits have been well-chronicled, Maynard's new autobiography, You Can't Catch Sunshine, completes the story of one of the NFL's most prolific scoring tandems. Gelf Magazine interviewed Maynard's co-author, Matthew Shepatin, for the inside story of a long-overdue look at the Jets' rise from the far hash mark of Joe Willie. The interview was conducted via email and was edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: Since Maynard played for the Giants before the Titans/Jets in the same New York market, it must have been a huge motivator for him to know that he was talented enough to be in the NFL.
Matthew Shepatin: When the Giants cut Don, the New York press labeled him an "NFL reject." Do I think Don looked forward to the chance to prove his critics wrong? You bet. At the same time, Don was the last guy to have a chip on his shoulder. When he arrived with the Giants as a rookie in 1958, he carried with him an easygoing, small-town attitude. When he came back two years later as a Titan, he was the same amiable, laid-back guy. Flash-forward to a few months ago: At a ceremony at the new stadium, Don is inducted into the first class of the Jets' Ring of Honor, of which he and Joe Namath are the only Hall of Famers. Well, Don is the same gentle, down-to-earth Texan that he was when he arrived in New York 50 years ago. He's still got the Levi's, the sideburns, and the cowboy boots with the No. 13 sewn into them. Honestly, he's the real deal.Gelf Magazine: How would Maynard's career have gone differently were there no AFL?
Matthew Shepatin: He would have probably had a great careeras a master plumber in El Paso, Texas. Here's the crazy thing about Don: He would have enjoyed his ordinary life as a plumber as much as he did his extraordinary life as a professional football player. With that said, the creation of the AFL gave Don a second chance, without a doubt. But the league gave a second chance to lots of hard-working folksmany of whom had been shunned by the NFL like Don, who had been told they weren't good enough, or exiled because they refused to conform to the league's outworn beliefs of how a player should act, look, or behave. From rebuffed owners to rejected players to African-American players to scorned coaches all the way down to out-of-work hot-dog vendors and ticket takers, the AFL symbolized real opportunity. Of course, for Don, the league provided more than a paycheck for playing football; it was the launching pad to a historic career, a championship ring, and ultimately the Hall of Fame in Canton. Not bad for a so-called NFL reject, huh?
Gelf Magazine: I'd venture that the nature of the AFL, with its need to grab some attention from the NFL, gave guys like Maynard a better stage to showcase their skills. Sid Gillman and other AFL coaches, along with the owners, were way ahead of the NFL in terms of seeing the advantage of employing an aerial attack. Three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust doesn't unseat an incumbent.
Matthew Shepatin: Yes, the AFL owners were well aware they didn't have the money to compete with the NFL when it came to acquiring top talent, at least not at the beginning. As a result, they focused on delivering fans an exciting, high-flying brand of football. That meant hiring pass-happy coaches like Sammy Baugh. That meant instituting innovations such as the two-point conversion. That meant spending whatever money you did have on great offensive weapons: blazing speedsters like Don Maynard, as well as wildly prolific passers like the ageless George Blanda, who sadly passed away days ago at the age of 83.Gelf Magazine: Who do you think were the top five from 1960 to 1970?
Matthew Shepatin: That's a tough one. I can guarantee you that nobody was faster than Don Maynard. He had two speeds: fast and scary fast. In 1970, the AFL selected their All-Time Team and Don was named the first-team wide receiver, along with the great San Diego Chargers' pass-catcher Lance Alworth. I'll agree with that. As for quarterback, it's hard to not go with Namath, although Len Dawson, Blanda, and Jack Kemp weren't too shabby behind the center.
Gelf Magazine: I know the UFL isn't positioning itself as a rival to the NFL in the way that the AFL was, but what can it learn from the general success of the AFL?
Matthew Shepatin: In a sentence: Get a major TV contract. That, more than anything, is why the AFL survived those early bumpy years when fan interest was hard to come by. You have to remember that it was the sweet five-year TV deal the AFL had negotiated with ABC in 1960 that inspired NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to come up with a similar deal for his league. How's that worked out for them? How has selling exclusive broadcast rights to the highest bidder panned out for the NFL? I'd say pretty well.
Gelf Magazine: What was it like to write an autobiography in conjunction with a player? That, I would think, takes a lot more understanding of a guy and cohesion with his "voice," in this case Maynard's, than writing a biography about a player.
Matthew Shepatin: Don is a natural Texas storyteller. He also can sing you the fight song to most alma maters. With a gifted old-time raconteur like Don, all I had to do was listen as he spun me this tale of a cotton ginner's son who rode his grandpa's mule to school at age five, ended up coming to New York Citycowboy boots and easy drawl firmly intactand ended up smack-dab in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in sports history: the 1958 NFL Championship, aka The Greatest Game Ever Played; the Heidi Bowl, the first Monday Night Football game; and of course, the granddaddy of them all, Super Bowl III in Miami in January 1969, when the Jets upset the NFL's Colts.
Gelf Magazine: You've interviewed a lot of players. Is there anyone today, particularly someone from a small town such as Maynard, who reminds you of him?
Matthew Shepatin: I don't think it's a coincidence that Don Maynard was the first NFL player in history to have 50 games of more than 100 yards receiving, or that Jerry Rice would be the receiver to finally break that incredible mark in 1995. They are both from small towns in the South, but the key trait they shared, besides superhuman physical training and great breakaway speed, was their tremendous artistic innovation on the field. They were probably the wiliest route runners in history. They approached each game as a chess match. I pity the cornerbacks who faced Maynard or Ricethese guys were Anatoly Karpov with cleats on. As for today's players, I think you see some of that exceptional craftiness with New England's Wes Welker.
Gelf Magazine: What are the odds that Mark Sanchez and his fellow Jets can replicate the team's heyday? So far, they're off to a good start, but do their current players have the signature character traits of Namath, Maynard, Snell, et al, to win a Super Bowl within the next several years?
Matthew Shepatin: Ha. I think most Jets fans expect to win a Super Bowl within the next four months. Can that happen? Sure. Why not? They have the talent on both sides of the ball. The key will be their level of execution and poise. As a matter of fact, Don told me recently that those two wordspoise and executionwere running rampant through the Jets' locker room during that entire championship season of 1968. When it comes to poise and execution on the football field, we may never see a passing duo as good as Namath and Maynard. Maybe Montana to Rice. There are a few others, but not many. Not many at all.