How Joe Namath and Henry V each pulled off a miracle

Joe Namath drops back to pass in Super Bowl III in 1969. Namath helped the Jets pull off a huge upset over the Baltimore Colts.
Joe Namath drops back to pass in Super Bowl III in 1969. Namath helped the Jets pull off a huge upset over the Baltimore Colts. AP

Fifty years have passed since Joe Namath’s famous retort to a Baltimore Colts fan who heckled him about the upcoming face-off with the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. “We’re gonna win the game,” boasted Namath. “I guarantee it.” While his bravado may not instantly recall that of Shakespeare’s Henry V for most sports fans, that king’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 shared key elements with Super Bowl III.

To say that the odds were against the Jets in 1969 is about as understated as saying that Broadway Joe was outgoing. The Jets, at that time in the AFL, were decidedly the underdogs against the NFL’s Colts. The Colts’ 16-7 defeat was as unexpected as it was inexplicable. It may as well have been caused by supernatural intervention. But surely Namath’s contagious determination that his team would win at least partly accounts for the Jets’ success. Namath, who was named MVP in the game despite throwing no touchdown passes, exuded positive thinking and faith in his teammates — traits at least as valuable as physical prowess.

Henry V, in Shakespeare’s play by that name, invades France to claim it as English territory. But he’s also goaded into war by an insulting gift from the French prince: a chest full of tennis balls, recalling the king’s past as a youthful playboy. Like Joe Namath, himself a renowned playboy, Henry fights back and admits no room for defeat. He vows to return the French prince’s mockery and repay his “shallow wit.” Of acquiring France he says, “we’ll bend it to our awe, / Or break it all to pieces.”

Once in France, the English make good on Henry’s promise by taking the city of Harfleur. But unrelenting rain and cold and a low food supply beleaguer his men, diverting them from Calais to a field nearby called Agincourt. Amid his army, Henry works to boost spirits. He assures them he won’t ransom himself to the French, leaving them to fend for themselves. And after a sleepless, prayerful night, he delivers his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech to rally his men and convince them they can defeat the French that day.

In truth, the English don’t stand a chance. They are seriously outnumbered. (Exact figures elude us, but the English had as few as 6,000 men and the French as many as 50,000.) The English are tired, sick and hungry. The French are so sure of themselves that, the night before the battle, they’re casting dice to claim English soldiers and their booty.

But the St. Crispin’s Day speech puts victory within English reach. So what if we don’t have as many men as the French, Henry reasons. That’s all the more honor we’ll get when, triumphant, we divide it among ourselves. And that honor will bond us together — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” — and make us the envy of anyone who didn’t fight today.

Historically, the English defeated the French because they were skilled at the long bow and because the French, riding horses bedecked in fancy, heavy regalia, sank into the mud created by the recent rain. French casualties, many of them nobility, numbered 7,000. The English lost only about 500. Although Shakespeare’s Henry attributes the outcome to God, Shakespeare the playwright credits King Henry’s leadership and magic with an audience.

Henry never goes quite so far as the Hanes Beauty Mist hosiery ad that confirmed Namath’s willingness to try anything — even wear pantyhose. But Henry knows how to play to a crowd, proving the timeless appeal of a story in which the underdogs prevail.

Lewis is a professor of English at Davidson College and author of “’The game’s afoot: A Sports Lover’s Introduction to Shakespeare.” Email: