Before he ran to fame as a member of the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, Matt Snell was a battering-ram of a fullback at Ohio State in the early 1960s.
Snell, who celebrates his 67th birthday today, was born Aug. 18, 1941, in Garfield, Ga., and spent most of the first part of his life as a wrecking ball, tearing down opposing defenses with his straight-ahead, run-right-over-the-top-of-you style.
After football, Snell turned his attention from the destruction of would-be tacklers to the construction of office space as the owner of a construction company in New York.
Despite the fact he played his final down of football more than 35 years ago, Snell is fondly remembered by two of the most loyal alumni bases in the sport: Ohio State and the New York Jets.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Snell said with a laugh about the way he is remembered. “I was pretty fortunate to play on some pretty good teams with some pretty good players in my time. But that’s been a long time ago. I haven’t even been around a football since 1972.”
Despite Snell’s contention that he gave up thinking about football when he retired from the game, his memory about certain aspects of his career remain vivid. For instance, he can still remember the impact of being recruited by and playing for Woody Hayes.
“It wasn’t always this way, but when I got to Ohio State in 1960, Woody was under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Snell said. “He had won a national championship a couple of years before that, but then people got to expecting that every year. The year before I got there, they had a losing season and that was just unheard of. So it was very tough playing for Woody in those days because he was really pressing.
“But I can also tell you that he wanted every one of his players to do the work that was necessary in the classroom. He always said that if you go to Ohio State and don’t get a degree, you’ve cheated yourself.
“Now, in my family, I was the first to go to college. I was the first one to graduate from high school, but I didn’t have good study habits. I guess I was like most football players in that I just wanted to do enough to get by so I could play football.
“Woody wouldn’t have that. He placed a tremendous emphasis on education and it was tough for me in the early going. But that education meant everything to me after football, and after me, all of my family has gone to college. I like to think that I set that standard for them and I’m proud of that. But part of that was because Woody challenged me to get that education.”
Snell was one of the first out-of-state recruits lured to Columbus by Hayes. He moved with his family at a young age from Georgia to Locust Valley, N.Y., where he became the 1959 winner of the prestigious Tom Thorp Award, given annually to the outstanding prep football player in Nassau County, N.Y. Former winners of the award include NFL Hall of Fame legends John Mackey and Jim Brown.
After spending the 1960 season on the OSU freshman squad, Snell got his first taste of varsity action as a sophomore the following season. Playing in a loaded backfield that featured All-America fullback Bob Ferguson and fellow sophomore Paul Warfield, Snell got only occasional carries but proved himself to be a valuable blocking back, often leading Ferguson into the line.
Ferguson won All-America honors for a second straight season in 1961 after rushing for 938 yards and 11 touchdowns. Four of those TDs came in the final game of the season as the Buckeyes rolled to a 50-20 victory over archrival Michigan.
In 1962, Snell switched to defensive end and was a member of the defensive unit that shut out Michigan 28-0 in Columbus that year. That is the last time the Buckeyes blanked the Wolverines.
The following year, he was back on offense and became a focal point of the backfield. Snell led the team in rushing that season and was voted the team’s most valuable player by his teammates. And he topped off his college career with a 14-10 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“Of course, in those days there was no bowl if you weren’t going to the Rose Bowl,” Snell said. “But I guess beating Michigan three times and beating them in your last game is a pretty good way to go out.”
Following his college career, Snell was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the New York Giants, the team he had followed as a boy. But the New York Jets of the upstart American Football League also selected him – in the first round. It was before the proliferation of television money and bidding wars between the two leagues for talent, so Snell’s decision ultimately came down to which team provided the best chance to play.
“The Giants had taken another running back – Joe Don Looney – in the first round,” Snell said. “They also still had Frank Gifford and Alex Webster and they wanted me to come in, sit behind them and learn for a year or two. I didn’t want to do that. I think you learn by doing and I saw the Jets as an opportunity to play right away.”
He joined the Jets for the 1964 season and earned AFL Rookie of the Year honors after rushing for 948 yards and five touchdowns. One year later, the team drafted a brash, young quarterback out of Alabama. Four years later, Joe Namath would lead New York to victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and change the face of professional football forever.
“We really had no fear of Baltimore in that game,” said Snell, who rushed 30 times for a game-high 121 yards while scoring the Jets’ lone touchdown in the 16-7 victory. “Baltimore played a zone defense in the secondary that we knew we could beat. We really thought very early in the week that we were going to win that game.”
In fact, Snell remembered that Namath’s famous guarantee of victory stemmed from something he’d heard from a teammate earlier in the week.
“We’d been watching film for a couple of days,” he said, “when (tight end) Pete Lammons stood up and told (Jets head coach) Weeb (Ewbank), ‘Don’t show us any more of that. We’re going to get overconfident. I guarantee we’ll beat those guys.’
“A day later, Joe is out at some function and says the same thing. Of course, he said it in public and that’s when it hit the newspapers.”
Namath, Snell and the rest of the Jets backed up the guarantee with the AFL’s first Super Bowl victory. A year later, Kansas City defeated Minnesota in Super Bowl IV and hastened the merger between the two leagues.
Earning the Super Bowl championship ring was the pinnacle of Snell’s NFL career and he made the Pro Bowl three times. But injuries became to take their toll. One year after the Super Bowl win, he injured a knee and had to have reconstructive surgery. Then he tore the Achilles tendon in his other leg the following year. After rehabbing that injury, he returned only to suffer a ruptured spleen.
“That made three years in a row that I would have had to rehab the entire offseason,” Snell said. “In those days, we had to have other jobs in the offseason to supplement our incomes. I just figured I was 32 years old and tired of rehabbing. I just decided to hang it up.”
Snell left Shea Stadium for Wall Street, and in 1973 became one of the partners for new stock issues for Defco Securities Inc. That same year, he was approached by an advertising firm to cash in on his football fame. He agreed and became the first television pitch man in the long-running “Tastes Great, Less Filling” ads for Miller Lite beer.
He remained with Defco throughout the 1970s before switching to construction after sitting on the board of directors for a construction company. In the early 1980s, he formed SCI Construction Ltd., headquartered in Jersey City, N.J.
Despite the fact he has not been back to Columbus for several years, Snell still remembers his alma mater with fondness.
“I haven’t been back since about 1995,” he said. “That’s when I bought my daughter there to look at the campus. She was getting ready to go to college and she was talking about all the places she was interested in. I told her she had to at least go look at Ohio State, and she did.
“It was a really nice visit and I enjoyed it very much. I’m usually not one to look back, but that was real nice.”
Today’s other Buckeye birthdays belongs to former defensive lineman and current linebackers coach Luke Fickell as well as former wide receiver Jimmy Redmond.
Lucas Fickell was born Aug. 18, 1973, in Columbus, and became a standout football player and wrestler at St. Francis DeSales High School. He was a four-year starter at Ohio State from 1993-96 and established a school record of 50 consecutive starts, a mark that still stands. After graduation, Fickell spent a year on injured reserve with the New Orleans Saints before beginning his coaching career as an OSU graduate assistant. He got his first full-time position at Akron in 2000 before returning to his alma mater in 2002 as special teams coordinator. Fickell was named linebackers coach in 2004 and co-defensive coordinator in 2005 … and some opine that he will eventually succeed Jim Tressel whenever the head coach decides to retire.
James Louis Redmond III was born Aug. 18, 1977, in Kansas City, and was an excellent receiver and state long champion out of Blue Springs South High School in Lee’s Summit, Mo. He signed with Ohio State in 1995 and spent much of his career as a backup to David Boston and Dee Miller. Unfortunately, his time as a Buckeye was also marred by leg injuries and run-ins with the law. Redmond missed all of the 1997 season with a broken leg, an injury that continued to plague him for two years. He also was cited four times for a variety of driving violations over a five-month period between September 1998 and January 1999. Redmond eventually left the Buckeyes and completed his college career at McNeese State in 2001. He played two NFL seasons with Jacksonville, mostly on special teams, finishing his career after the 2003 season with three receptions for 67 yards.
Also celebrating birthdays today: former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter; Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski; attorney/best-selling author Vincent Bugliosi; 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson; former Cleveland Browns running back Greg Pruitt; New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey; iconic film actor and Oscar-winning director Robert Redford; comic actor Martin Mull; actor Patrick Swayze; actor/comedian Dennis Leary; actor/director Edward Norton; actress Madeleine Stowe; actor Christian Slater; actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner (Theo Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”); Saturday Night Live funnyman Andy Samberg (who actually won a creative arts Emmy for “Dick in a Box”); ABC newsman Bob Woodruff; rapper and former House of Pain frontman Everlast (born Erik Schrody); and BSB staffer Jeff Svoboda.
Today would also have been the 74th birthday of baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Born Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Clemente became the first Latin American superstar in Major League Baseball, collecting 3,000 hits and carrying a .317 lifetime average over 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a 12-time All-Star, won a dozen Gold Gloves as a sleek right fielder, and was voted the 1966 National League MVP. Clemente was killed on New Year’s Eve 1972 when the airplane in which he was riding crashed while delivering medical supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. The following year, MLB waved its normal waiting period and Clemente was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
** I am pretty sure that I have no clue how to judge a gymnastics routine. But I am absolutely sure the sport’s point system ought to be scrapped with its convoluted tiebreaker system. In case you didn’t stay up late last night, China’s He Kexin and Nastia Liukin of the United States had identical scores on the uneven bars, but because something called execution marks were closer to perfect for the Chinese gymnast, she got the gold medal and Liukin had to settle for the silver. Meanwhile, there was a dead heat for second place over in the women’s 100-meter dash and the medals were not dispersed according to running style. Each competitor was awarded a silver.
** Earlier in the evening, U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone finished behind another Chinese gymnast in the vault competition despite the fact the Chinese woman fell to her knees on her second dismount. Again, the difference was supposedly in degree of difficult. But at least Liukin got a silver medal in her event. Sacramone went home with no medal, getting bumped to fourth place.
** Before yesterday’s rare win over St. Louis, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker told reporters, “We’re going to get this together. I’m convinced of that. We’re going to do it.” Look, I’m not as down on Baker as a manager as some others, but the dude is out of touch with reality. The team has no left fielder, no center fielder, no shortstop, no catcher, no bona fide leadoff hitter and no real cleanup hitter. Add to those holes the fact that the Reds’ supposed ace is 3-13 with a 5.59 ERA, and the fact that there is no real help on the way from the minor leagues. I have no idea how this team is going to be able to contend in 2009 and I suspect Baker doesn’t either.
** Apparently, the European economy is good. Six-time NBA all-star Shawn Kemp is making a comeback in Italy. The 38-year-old, who last played in the NBA during the 2002-03 season, will be suiting up this season for Premiata Montegranaro team in Italy. Contract terms were not disclosed but it is assumed the money is real good. You may remember Kemp as the guy who by 1998 had fathered at least seven children by several different women.
** CBS must really like its partnership with the Southeastern Conference and vice versa. The network recently signed a new 15-year contract for the rights to SEC football and basketball, marrying the two through 2023.
** Did you know that when former manager Dick Williams was recently inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at the age of 79, he was only the 11th oldest inductee? The oldest enshrine was former Philadelphia and Cleveland outfielder Elmer Flick, who was inducted in 1963 at the age of 87. Flick, a native of Bedford, Ohio, got to enjoy his Hall of Fame status for another eight years before dying in 1971 just two days shy of his 95th birthday.
** I’m not sure who decided this, but Friday, Aug. 29, has been designated as National College Colors Day, encouraging football fans nationwide to wear their favorite college’s colors all day. Not sure how that will jibe with Casual Friday, so best to check with the boss before painting your face.