For a while the coaches, Joe Kuharich of the Philadelphia Eagles and Weeb Ewbank of the New York Jets, tried to convince everyone that this interleague game was just another exhibition to test their rookies. Then the Jets started to make it a vendetta against "the other league," as they termed the NFL.
"It won't be an exhibition if we play it 10 times," said Jet Defensive Back Jimmy Hudson. "We want to show we belong with them," said teammate Larry Grantham. "I know I was blackballed by the NFL," said Corner Back Johnny Sample, "so you should know what I'm thinking."
Finally even the coaches relented a bit. Ewbank told a rookie who had been catching kickoffs and punts, "I'm not going to hold it against you because you fumbled last week against Kansas City, but I'm not going to start you in this game against Philadelphia." At about the same time Kuharich began to call the game the Poor Man's Super Bowl, "because we're going to be playing for pride and not a whole lot of money."
By the time the game between the Eagles and the Jets began last weekend at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, it was not too surprising that the players were thinking of it as something like the Saturday-night fights. The Jets' Sample first of all racked up Timmy Brown of the Eagles, and for several moments the two of them exchanged unprintable epithets at face-mask distance. "Sample always puts his knee in your head to push up on so he can get up," said Brown. "Football," answered Sample, "is not the cleanest game in the world."
Next Mike Ditka, the old straight-arm from Chicago who now plays for the Eagles, went into a pileup, seeking Gerry Philbin of the Jets. The referees wisely intervened midway through the introductions, but even they had no idea that these were only the preliminaries.
The main bout began late in the first quarter when Eagle Israel Lang took a swing pass from Quarterback Norman Snead and, with a good block from Ditka, ran for nine yards until he was smashed out of bounds by Hudson. Ditka, meanwhile, continued downfield and obliterated Sample with a vicious block. He got to Sample just ahead of Brown who, cutting across the field, tried to hit Sample with a flying forearm but missed.
Now Ditka and Brown were up and squaring off against Sample, who was joined by teammate Cornell Gordon. "Dammit," said Timmy Brown, "I had to miss so many punches in that TV film I made [The Wild, Wild West] that I missed all I threw at Sample." And Ditka said, "If I had hit Sample I would have broken my hand on his face mask." Eventually a semblance of order was restored, and the referees excused the four combatants for the rest of the evening. "Man, as much wrong as I do, they throw me out for nuthin' this time," said Sample. "I wish I had hit someone and justified gettin' kicked out."
Sample played in the NFL for eight seasons, during which time he made more enemies than friends. "They call me a smart guy," he says, "but I play only one way, and I've been a regular for 10 years in pro ball." Sample likes to talk constantly on the field to anyone who might listen. "He kept tellin' me not to have us throw near him," said Brown, "but when someone says that to us we want to throw there more."
Sample was released by all NFL teams in a complicated move a year ago, when he was unable to agree to terms with Otto Graham and the Washington Redskins. " Graham called and said I was getting too much money for a defensive back," said Sample, "so I told him he was making too much money for a coach." A few days later Ewbank, who coached Sample with the Baltimore Colts, signed him to play for the Jets. Sample now insists he is playing exactly the way he used to in the NFL.
The fights, unfortunately, were the most exciting moments of a fairly dull game that exposed AFL football to the city of Cincinnati which, incidentally, will have an AFL franchise for the 1968 season, if, indeed, it still wants one. The Jets led 13-3 at one point in the second quarter, scoring a touchdown, after they captured a five-yard Eagle punt on the Phillie 15-yard line, and two field goals. But they already had lost Quarterback Joe Namath because of an inflamed tendon in his left knee, and without Namath the Jets are the New York Titans of the forgotten Bob Scrabis days.