We continue Hall of Fame week with the second of our tribute articles. Look out for more over the rest of the week. Today’s inductee is John Schmitt, Jets center for 10 years and the starter during Super Bowl III who was the embodiment of quiet determination and dedication.
Brian Bassett, TheJetsBlog.comEveryone knows the story of Joe Namath’s famous Super Bowl III guarantee. Fewer know the story of Jets center John Schmitt in that same game. It was Schmitt — suffering from full blown pneumonia at the time — who bore the brunt of the Colts ire at Namath’s bold prediction and still played the whole game.
Like many players of the day, John Schmitt was a local standout who was added to the Jets right at the start of Sonny Werblin’s ownership and overhaul of the former Titans. Schmitt went to high school at Seton Hall in Patchogue before playing college football at Hofstra University. Despite the Jets longstanding relationship with Hofstra as their practice facility, Schmitt was the team’s last player to attend to Hofstra before fellow TJB Hall of Famer Wayne Chrebet came to the team in the 1990s. Since playing the NFL, Schmitt has gone on to become a successful financier and real estate executive. But for a New York boy, to play for the Jets was a dream of a lifetime.
“The idea of a kid from Hofstra, an $8,500 free agent from 1964 going to a Super Bowl, it was unbelievable. I was so excited,” Schmitt once told the Daily News.
The embodiment of sacrifice
While Schmitt played 10 years for the Jets, much of his career was rarely if ever in the limelight. As the team’s center, while he was integrally involved in almost every snap of Joe Namath’s career, it wasn’t until much later that many fans really what a driving force Schmitt was for the team in winning the Jets only Super Bowl.
During the team’s 1968 playoff run, Schmitt started to feel ill. But it was the AFL Championship game against the Raiders that took any remaining chance of a quick recovery out of the team’s only center.
War took a toll on Schmitt. “I started to get sick during the (AFL) Championship Game against Oakland and then I really got sick.”
While the team might have spent a small fortune on players like Matt Snell and Joe Namath, there wasn’t much other money to go around. As a result, Weeb Ewbank looked for ways to scrimp and save. One way he could was at the center position thanks to the toughness and durability of his starter, John Schmitt.
“I never missed a game.” Schmitt later said. “Coach Ewbank, he didn’t like to spend a lot of money, so we never had a backup center. So we go down to Florida and start practicing and I can barely walk. I can hardly stand up, coughing up this blood and green-and-yellow stuff and they think I’m allergic to penicillin so they’re not giving me anything. But Coach Ewbank, in his wisdom, says, ‘Look, Schmitty, you’ve got to practice every day because the newspaper guys are around here and you don’t want them to pick up that you’re sick, the other team. Nobody will hit you, but you can’t let anybody know you’re sick.’
As his illness got worse, Schmitt was desperate to get better for the sake of his health, but also the team.
“So by Thursday of that week, I couldn’t walk, so I went into Coach Ewbank and said, ‘Coach, you’ve got to let me have some penicillin. I’m going to die anyway. If I die from taking it, fine. Just let me try it.’ So I did. But I was so far down in energy, so sick for so long.”
Still woefully under the weather, Schmitt suited up for what was the biggest game of his life feeling his absolute worst. Looking across the line from him was a team extra motivated to prove the Jets wrong thanks in part to Namath’s cavalier guarantee. The Colts defense was already one of the best in the league and took the field already enraged.
“They really wanted to f—— to kill us” Schmitt later said.
After the initial adrenaline wore off, the Jets started to assert their own dominance. In the second quarter, fullback Matt Snell got into a groove, gaining more yards through the running game. The Jets stunned the world by scoring a rushing touchdown against the Colts.
“[The Colts] had not had a touchdown scored against them on the ground all season, and they were in shock.”
The rest was history, but few are aware of how tough the game was on Schmitt. Schmitt refused to give up, and his teammates rallied around him.
“The Jets sent us a film of the game as a Christmas present the next year,” Schmitt told the Daily News. “You see me running to the line of scrimmage in the first quarter, the second quarter you see me jogging, the third quarter see me walking and the fourth quarter you see Dave Herman and Randy Rasmussen carrying me to the line of scrimmage. I’m not kidding you.
“I was so dirty, if you saw my uniform. My friends still kid me, ‘man everybody was white, you were black.’ I couldn’t stand up.”
Coaches often talk to players about the importance of “leaving it all on the field.” Schmitt’s spirit during the team’s Super Bowl run and over his ten years with the Jets embody that ideal. Never one to do the minimum, Schmitt tells an anecdote about not just leaving it on the field, but in the locker room as well.
Reeling from exhaustion and sickness after the team’s Super Bowl III win, Schmitt made it back to the team’s locker room for the postgame celebration. It was at that time, that Schmitt’s body finally gave up.
“We win the game and it was phenomenal,” Schmitt recalls. “We come in, we’re saying the Our Father and Joe was right next to me. And I lose my facilities. I start whining right in the middle of the Our Father.
“Joe looks at me and says, ‘Schmitty, no offense, but I’m out of here.’ He didn’t want to share my puddle with me,” Schmitt laughed.
Family comes in the strangest ways
Football was one family for Schmitt. His family back in the New York area was another, but as a young center for the Jets, he never imagined that he would gain another one in Hawaii in the most unlikely of ways.
In 1971, two years after the Jets Super Bowl victory, Schmitt was vacationing in Hawaii. During surfing lessons in Waikiki, Schmitt’s Super Bowl ring slipped off his finger.
“I went back out with set of flippers and a snorkel and nearly drowned looking for it.” Schmitt said. Sick from the effort and resigning that it was lost for good, Schmitt had a replica made, but had never publicly discussed what happened to his original.
Two years later though, something amazing happened. Schmitt’s ring was discovered by John Ernstberg, a lifeguard who was snorkeling in 20 feet of water. Ernstberg saw something shining in the sand on the ocean floor. While the story amusingly bears similarities to the backstory from Lord of the Rings, the ring never ruled Ernstberg. In fact, it was something that was likely forgotten about. The lifeguard had no idea what it was and stuffed it in a shoe inside a box. Ernstberg and his wife died in the 1990s but his great niece Cindy Saffrey inherited the estate and had overlooked the box for many years.
“She’s throwing stuff out,” Schmitt said of Cindy Saffery, “and she throws this pair of shoes on the floor, and luckily for me, the box fell out. She opens up the box, and there’s this ring. She’s fourth-generation Hawaiian, she has no idea what it was.
“It was a miracle. [Ernstberg] didn’t know what he had. He was a lifeguard making 50 bucks a week.”
The Saffreys took it to friends in sports and a gemologist, Brenda Reichel. Reichel recognized what it was — seeing trademarks from Balfour and had a score and a jersey number along with it being 42 grams of gold with real diamonds. With permission from the Saffreys, Reichel started hunting down the owner.
Schmitt got a call from Bob Corrente of the Jets. Corrente asked Schmitt if he was sitting down and told Schmitt a lady from Honolulu had his ring.
“My exact words were, ‘No f——’ way,” Schmitt said.
Reichel spoke with Schmitt shortly thereafter.
“John asked if the Saffreys wanted any money,” gemologist Brenda Reichel later told the GIA. “I told him they only wanted to give him back his ring. John broke down into tears. All of us were deeply moved.”
The story was an amazing feel-good story. Oprah Winfrey’s television network arranged for the Saffery family to come to New York to record the couple giving the ring back to Schmitt. While in town, the Safferys accompanied the Schmitt family to a game as guests of the Jets.
Before the Saffrey’s left New York for Hawaii, Samuel Saffery told Schmitt that they were now family, and that in Hawaii, families speak every week.
“So every Thursday for the last two-and-a-half years,” Schmitt told the Star-Ledger, “we speak.”
Good things — even great things — can come through loss and through the act of sacrificing your whole self. No Jet better embodies that ideal than John Schmitt.
For that reason, we are honored to induct John Schmitt into the TheJetsBlog Hall of Fame.
Note: Information contained in this article was compiled from the New York Daily News, Newsday, Star-Ledger and GIA archives.