It’s with great pride that I get to close out our 2010 Class of TJB Hall of Fame inductees with a pair of running backs that were integral to the success of the Jets during the team’s golden age. While Joe Namath’s name shone brightest during that era, the team’s many accomplishments could not have been possible if not for the dedication of two men born in Georgia, Fullback Matt Snell and Halfback Emerson Boozer.
During their 19 years of service in New York, Boozer and Snell combined for 9,420 rushing yards, 95 rushing & receiving touchdowns, as well as 332 receptions for 2.863 yards totaling a whopping 12,283 line of scrimmage yards between 1966 and 1975. The two were one of the great backfield pairings of the Jets, not just because of power and speed, but because of their will and determination to win and the two are often mentioned together reverently among Jets fans, so we thought it appropriate to induct them together.
Forging the Trail
For the many trails blazed by Matt Snell during his time with the Jets, there’s no more symbolically appropriate position than the one actually played during his career. As a fullback of the 60s and 70s, Snell forged the way with powerful blocks for halfbacks like Boozer & Mathis, and drove for hard yards. In all his years Snell averaged over four yards per carry just four times, but that was the game of the era: bruising and physical and predicated on running the ball. For the Jets, Snell was the heart of the offense.
Even after his career ended, Snell continued his pioneering ways as the very first athlete to be featured in the Miller Lite retired athlete commercials of the 70s and 80s.
While the Jets fan base was being built during his early days as an AFL player, Matt Snell had two key roles in that development, not only did his choice of the Jets help strengthen the fans resolve, but he worked to build Shea Stadium during his summer vacations from college, helping to create the Jets fan base two times over during his career.
Snell was a three year starter at Ohio State and was considered the epitome of a team player during his time as a Buckeye. As a sophomore, Snell played right fullback (a role responsible for blocking for LFB Bob Ferguson and LHB Paul Warfield), then as defensive end the next year, and then finally as a senior Snell was the featured fullback in the offense. That year, Snell won the team’s MVP and was an object of the Giants draft affections, and was drafted by the Giants in the fourth round of the 1964 NFL Draft.
Never missing an opportunity to create headlines, new Jets owner Sonny Werblin sought to make his first big splash by drafting the powerful Ohio State fullback Matt Snell in the first round of the AFL Draft, thereby allowing the Jets to offer Snell a significantly better contract.
“Sonny Werblin thought enough of me, after drafting me number one to come out to Ohio State himself to try and convince me that the AFL was sound, it was solid,” said Snell in an interview for NFL Films. “I decided I wanted to play ball and I could play right away [with the Jets]. Everyone considered the AFL inferior … I didn’t think that.”
It was a strike by the upstart AFL over the more established NFL and it helped to energize the Jets fan base in New York. The Giants wanted Matt Snell for their team badly, and to see Snell choose the Jets over the more renowned Giants was a symbolic moment for the Jets and maybe just as important, for their fans. It was a win for the Jets, but it was also a move that only sought to embolden Werblin to get even more aggressive the next year, in which the team drafted Joe Namath.
As a rookie, the bruising 220 pound Snell proved Werblin’s gamble right, with a Jets record 180 yards against the Houston Oilers, and in running away with the AFL Rookie of the Year honors with over 1300 yards (945 on the ground) from scrimmage and six touchdowns. Of course, that honor was another preceding moment for the following year’s Rookie of the Year, Joe Namath.
Snell’s crowning moment of his career came in the third AFL-NFL World Championship (AKA Super Bowl III) game, when the Jets played the 1968 NFL Champion Baltimore Colts. While much of the nation firmly believed that the Colts were the superior team – and Joe Namath took the all the headlines with his guarantee talk and MVP honors – it was Snell who on badly injured knees, kept the Colts defense on the field as the heart of the Jets ball-control offense during the 16-7 upset of the Colts. Snell was a key element in winning, and on a larger scale, his presence allowed the Jets to become the first AFL team to win a Super Bowl, thereby solidifying the AFL’s place in the professional football landscape.
In addition to putting the ball in position to set up three Jim Turner field goals to put the game away in the second half, Snell carried the ball 30 times (a record in a Super Bowl record 121 yards at the time) and in the second quarter, went 4 yards around the left end to score the Jets’ first score and only touchdown in Super Bowl history. Like everything in Snell’s career, he was a pioneer finding the end zone for the Jets in the Super Bowl, now he’s just patiently waiting for someone else to follow his path …
No Second Fiddle
For all the ground and pound that Matt Snell showed during his career, the smaller Emerson Boozer was his elusive complement during the early days, but was just as gritty a player by the end. While he was a quick player, Boozer didn’t just get by on his speed alone. He was dedicated preparer, knowing that the hard work of football began long before the start of the season – a key to his longevity in the league. Boozer was also a bone-jarring blocker, known league wide for his ability to not only take, but to give a hit whether in pass protection or in the running game.
Boozer played collegiately at Maryland State College now UM Eastern Shore, one of the few schools that offered him a scholarship (and who just inducted him into their Hall of Fame) and when it came time to play in the pros it was the last year of separate drafts between the AFL & NFL. Boozer was drafted in the sixth round by the Jets over the Steelers seventh round selection and just like Snell, he joined the AFL and played his whole career with the Jets.
At the time the Jets drafted him, the team needed a halfback for coach Weeb Ewbank to pair with Matt Snell, the team’s entrenched fullback. While a rookie, Boozer played as a halfback, and he totaled five rushing touchdowns in platoon duty with veteran Bill Mathis.
Encouraged by his first year, Boozer worked even harder to become the starter in 1967, the year the Jets laid the foundation for their famous 1968 season. With Matt Snell injured, the Jets used Boozer as a focal point of the Jets rushing game. Boozer became a name in the larger football community, known for his ability to break and elude tackles as well as his “second-gear” to break long gains. Boozer’s slippery style drew comparisons to Gale Sayers – impressive company to keep.
Like Sayers, Boozer’s speed was fleeting, even for him to hold onto. During the first half of the 1967 season, Boozer stunned the world with 13 touchdowns from scrimmage in eight games, and with ten rushing touchdowns halfway through the season, it was assumed the halfback would break the league record. Sadly though, in a game against Kansas City, Boozer suffered a knee injury that completely changed the course of his career. Despite playing just half that year, Boozer still led the AFL in rushing touchdowns for the season, a testament to the type of year that could have been.
After the injury, Boozer was no longer the same speed merchant he was earlier, but Boozer’s work ethic proved what an asset he was to the team over the remainder of his career. Boozer re-invented himself and became a goal-line option for the Jets, and coach Chuck Knox guided Boozer into a new role, riding a new trend in football as a pass blocking back. As a blocker for Snell and Namath, Boozer was part of 1968 and 1969 teams that lost just seven games in two years and won the Super Bowl title.
During the famous game against the Colts, it was Boozer (along with Winston Hill) who cleared the way for Matt Snell’s touchdown run. Asked last year about that game, Boozer replied that it wasn’t the flash of the game he remembered. “I remember the grunt work,” Boozer told NBC Sports. “Very tough yardage we were grinding out the way we were very capable of doing. That team could hold the ball for long periods … we could hold the ball for a long time. And that’s what we needed to do against Baltimore – establish our dominance with the run.”
Boozer’s blocking and grunt work was a key element in the game plan that day for Snell’s domination of the Colts, and ultimately for the victory. That plan wouldn’t have worked without Boozer’s determination to make it work.
Later in his career, Namath used Boozer more as a third-down pass catcher in 1970, and in 1971, with Snell injured again, Boozer had a career high in carries. In 1972, the Jets rated the top offense in football and Boozer’s ability to block and score near the goal line was an invaluable part, Boozer led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (11) for most of the year before injuries ended his season after 11 games. Boozer also scored the first regular-season over-time touchdown in NFL history on a short pass from Joe Namath in 1974 to beat the rival Giants, sparking a 6 game winning streak after a dismal 1-7 start to that season.
While he was known initally for his speed, Boozer will be remembered as a determined player who made the most of the opportunities given to him, culminating in a remarkable career, beyond touchdown totals or stats. It was his efforts away from the ball, in acting unselfishly for his teammates. that Emerson Boozer helped the Jets to reach the ultimate prize and is why he is a true example of what we value for the TJB Hall of Fame.