By Andy Piascik
There’s an old expression in Broadway theatrical circles that goes something like “Everything outside of New York is just Bridgeport.” Perhaps Broadway Joe Namath felt that way when he travelled to the Park City in 1967, perhaps not. But on one summer evening nearly 50 years ago, Bridgeport hosted an exhibition football game featuring the flamboyant Namath and the up-and-coming New York Jets.
In the years before professional football became the giant, billion-dollar entity the National Football League is today, it was common for teams to play exhibition games in nearby cities. For years, for example, the Yale Bowl in New Haven regularly featured NFL preseason games. There is no record of any exhibition ever having been played in Bridgeport before 1967, mainly because there was no suitable venue until the construction of Kennedy Stadium.
Built on land that was once an urban forest known as Beech’s Wood, Kennedy Stadium opened in 1964. It was a busy place from the beginning including as the home field for the football teams of the University of Bridgeport and Central and Bassick high schools. Kennedy was also the site for many years of the annual Champions on Parade competition that is part of the city’s Barnum Festival as well as for concerts by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Doors and Blind Faith.
After the opening of Kennedy, a Bridgeport resident named Al Lukachik began a drive to have Bridgeport host a pro game. Lukachik played football at Harding High School in the 1930’s as well as at Boston College, where he played on the 1940 team that posted an 11-0 record, won the Sugar Bowl and finished fifth in the Associated Press’s rankings. Lukachik’s efforts were ultimately successful but he died at the age of 50 some months before the game he helped organize.
The Giants held their preseason training camp at that time at Fairfield University and may have been considered. With their long history and huge area fan base, however, the Giants were less inclined to play at smaller venues like Kennedy, with its seating capacity of 15,000. Whether Lukachik and the other organizers ever approached the Giants is not known, and they eventually shifted their attention to the New York Jets of the American Football League.
Founded in 1960, the Jets were a logical choice for a game in Bridgeport because, as relatively new challengers to the Giants, they were looking to establish themselves among area fans. They were also secondary tenants to the Mets at Shea Stadium in Queens, barred by their lease from playing games there until the completion of the baseball season. In their short history, the Jets had played preseason games in Wilkes-Barre, New Brunswick, Allentown, Shreveport and numerous other cities. Included among those was a 1962 game before 9,000 spectators and 61,000 empty seats in the Yale Bowl, a stadium the Giants generally filled.
A college teammate of Lukachik’s, Mike Holovak, was the head coach of the Boston Patriots (as they were then known), one of the Jets chief rivals. The Patriots were a natural choice as the second team because they were, after the Giants and Jets, the closest pro team to Bridgeport. And because there were many in the Bridgeport area who rooted for Boston’s Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins, the game was an opportunity for the Patriots to woo new fans just like the Jets.
The match was set for Friday evening, August 4th, the first exhibition game of the 1967 preseason for both teams. The owners of the two teams agreed that all net proceeds would go to benefit the Rehabilitation Center of Eastern Fairfield County. Tickets were $10, $5 and $3 and temporary bleachers were set up at Kennedy that increased the seating capacity to 21,000. The game was broadcast live on New York radio station WABC-AM and was televised on tape delay on WOR Channel 9 at 11 PM that night. The Jets and Patriots arrived in Bridgeport by bus Friday afternoon and ticketholders were allowed admittance several hours before the 7:30 kickoff to watch both teams practice.
The game was a delight for Jets fans and a disappointment for those hoping for a competitive match as New York romped, 55-13. As is standard for exhibitions, the playing time of star players was limited, as the coaches used the game primarily to evaluate young newcomers trying to make the team. Joe Namath and a number of others played only one quarter after which the Jets already led by 28-0. New York running back Emerson Boozer scored three touchdowns and was awarded a sterling silver bowl named for Al Lukachik as the game’s outstanding player. The attendance of 16,000, meanwhile, was well below expectations.
Namath played despite having broken curfew the night before, a misdeed for which he was fined $500. It was reported he was at various Manhattan bars until 4:30 Friday morning and did not return to training camp in Peekskill, New York until just before the Jets departed for Bridgeport. Namath stated that he was distraught about his brother’s recent health problems and denied that he had been out drinking.
Information about how much money the game raised was not made public. There also seems to have been little to no public discussion about whether city officials deemed the evening a success. That five thousand tickets went unsold was undoubtedly a disappointment to all and perhaps cause for some to question both whether the venture had been worthwhile and whether it should ever be repeated.
Within a few years, that last point was rendered completely moot. In their endless quest for profits, pro football’s team owners decided that exhibition games would be played exclusively in venues far larger than Kennedy Stadium. Before long, they even forced fans to purchase tickets for exhibitions as part of the season ticket package at the same price as regular season games. The NFL colossus was rapidly growing and the need to drum up support by scheduling exhibitions in places like Bridgeport had passed. The game played on August 4, 1967 was thus truly a once in forever event.