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Happy 50th! Jets Super Bowl rings survive ocean, fridge and toilet

They've been lost, found, stolen, dropped, sold, imprisoned, bequeathed and refrigerated. They've been to the bottom of the ocean and the bottom of a toilet bowl. They've been photographed, duplicated and damaged.

They've traveled the world, made grown men cry and united strangers. They've inspired.

The Super Bowl III championship rings, which just turned 50, have enjoyed a wonderful life on the fingers and in the jewelry boxes of the mighty men who earned them Jan. 12, 1969 -- the New York Jets.

These historic rings were the reward for a 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts, one of the biggest upsets in sports history. They're elegant, but understated by today's standards -- 14-karat gold with approximately 2 carats in diamonds. And they almost never happened.

Frugal coach Weeb Ewbank preferred watches over rings, but he was talked out of it by a players committee led by quarterback Joe Namath. Feelings were chafed, but the passage of time has turned tension into joy.

It weighs only 1.5 ounces, but it carries so much history. It's the first Super Bowl ring to actually use the words "Super Bowl." It has the score of the game and the score of the AFL Championship Game (27-23 over the Oakland Raiders). It has Ewbank's mantra: "Poise and Execution."

Each ring also includes the player's name and number. Remember that, because it'll come in handy on the amazing journey you're about to take.

After the 1971 season, John Schmitt took his wife on a vacation to Hawai'i, where he spent a few hours surfing with legendary Hawai'ian entertainer Don Ho. Life was good for Schmitt. He was 29, a self-made player who worked his way up from anonymous free agent to Super Bowl champion. He was Namath's center, and damn proud of it.

But that day on the shores of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Schmitt sobbed in the sand.

As he dragged his board back to the surf shack, he noticed his Super Bowl ring was missing from his right hand. He searched the beach. Nothing. He rented a snorkel and fins, and swam in the choppy waters until his thick arms ached. Nothing. It was hopeless. He went from hang 10 to hangdog. The mighty Pacific had swallowed his prized possession.

"I want to tell you, I was in tears," he said. "I was crying. I nearly drowned trying to find it."

Schmitt returned to his home in Long Island, New York, became a wealthy businessman after his playing career and replaced the ring with a duplicate. In the fall of 2011, he received a call from a Jets executive named Bob Parente, who began the conversation this way:

"Schmitty, are you sitting down?"

Through an implausible series of events, Schmitt's ring was found in a small wooden box, which fell out of a shoe, which was tossed out of a closet, which housed the ring for 38 years.

Are you ready for this?

In 1973, a lifeguard named John Ernstberg found the ring while snorkeling in 25 feet of water at Waikiki; his eyes were attracted to a shiny object on the bottom of the sea. He didn't know it was a famous ring, so he stashed it.

When the old lifeguard died in 2011, his great-niece went to his apartment to sort out his belongings. While rummaging through a closet, Cindy Saffery found the ring by happenstance. She threw out a bunch of shoes, one of which spit out the box. When she opened it, there it was -- buried treasure.

Saffery took it to her aunt's jewelry store in Honolulu, where they verified the authenticity of the diamonds. Still, they didn't know what to make of its historical significance. They asked a friend from the local ESPN radio station to take a look. He saw "Schmitt" and "Jets," and connected the dots.

There was a call to the NFL offices, followed by a call to the Jets, followed by the call to Schmitt, who was indeed sitting down.

"You talk about miracles," he said, smiling. "If you ask any football people, that the Jets won the Super Bowl and got this ring, that's one miracle. ... We got it back, half a world away, 40 years later. That's two miracles. Not many people get lucky enough to have two miracles."

Wait, there's more.

Schmitt met Cindy, her husband and two kids when they flew to New York on Oprah Winfrey's dime. Winfrey's company produced a reality TV show called "Lost and Found," which jumped at the chance to tell the story of the former Super Bowl champ and the miracle ring.

With cameras rolling, the family, which refused to accept his $3,000 reward offer, returned the ring to Schmitt. Once again, he was in tears, just like that day on the beach in 1971. They hit it off and enjoyed a whirlwind weekend in New York.

They traveled by limo to a Jets game -- 50-yard line seats -- and watched his old team rally from an 11-point deficit to beat the San Diego Chargers. Afterward, they went for dinner in New York City.

"Before they leave, Samuel, the father -- he's about 6-foot-6, deep voice -- he says, 'You know, John, in Hawai'i, we're now family and families speak every week, so I expect to speak with you every week,'" Schmitt said.

And so they do. There's a phone call every Thursday night, and they've been doing it for seven years.

"We've become a big family," said Schmitt, who has vacationed at their home in Hawai'i.

Make it three miracles.

Namath was the star of the team, the star of professional football and a star in any room. He was so popular after the Super Bowl that Elvis Presley invited him backstage after a show in Las Vegas. Namath loved the glitz, but he wasn't into the bling -- well, at least not jewelry.

Other than an ID bracelet in junior high school -- a present from his mother -- Namath didn't wear flashy rings or necklaces during his playing days. (Fur coats, different story.) Even now, at age 75, he keeps it simple -- a St. Jude medal around his neck.

Until it's time to be Broadway Joe.

When he goes out to a function or a sporting event, he will reach into "my humble little vault" and pull out his senior football ring from Alabama, a gift from legendary coach Bear Bryant, or his Super Bowl ring, which might be the most photographed piece of jewelry this side of the crown jewels in England.

"I share it with people," Namath said. "I let them see it. I take it off now and then and let a youngster, let a Jets fan wear it. Every time I take it off to give to a little guy or little girl, big guy or a big girl, I'm careful with it. Very, very careful with it, and I put it in their hand."

The NFL record book says Namath fumbled 33 times in his career. He's haunted by the 34th.

"I can remember the one time I dropped the ring and -- man. Oh, my God, my stomach jumped," he said. "It hit the ground and bounced. Oh, man. I picked it up to see if anything had come loose or was broken. And it survived. When I take it off and give it to somebody, I tell them to hold on to it because I dropped it once and, man, I don't want to get it dropped again.

"Of all the times I've shared that ring with a Jets fan, I was the only one to fumble -- the only one," he said with a laugh. "The handoffs have all been good, except the one time I didn't complete it properly."

Namath still has his original ring, which he cherishes more than ever. He acknowledged how the Jets' model has been dwarfed by the monstrous rings of recent vintage, but he's cool with that.

"Our ring tells a story," he said. "And I think our story is pretty incredible."

As a running back, Emerson Boozer was known for his catlike quickness. He was the master of the spin move, capable of embarrassing defenders.

About 10 years after winning the Super Bowl, he was on the receiving end of a stealthy move by a real feline.

One day at his Long Island home, Boozer noticed his ring was missing. He searched frantically for hours, room to room. It just disappeared, and it crushed him.

"He was upset because he always took special care and special precautions," said Enez, his wife of 50 years.

A month later, Enez found the ring while cleaning behind the furnace in the laundry room. It didn't take a lot of detective work to figure out how it got there. Their pet, Frisky, moved it from the bedroom.

A true cat burglar, that Frisky.

"He doesn't wear it that often, but he treasures that ring," Enez said of her husband, 75, who is battling health issues. "It's a magnificent ring."

"You haven't heard my story?" Randy Rasmussen asked. "I've got the best one of all."

It happened at a golf course in Norwalk, Connecticut, on an October day about 20 years ago. It started with a wardrobe dilemma.

When he got to the locker room, Rasmussen decided it was warm enough to wear shorts. He went to his car to get the golf shorts and, on the way back to the clubhouse, he discovered his ring was missing. His initial thought was that he didn't take it to the course, so he and his golfing buddies searched the grounds only briefly.

"I wasn't heartbroken right away because I said, 'I'll bet I left it at home,'" said the former offensive guard, who played more games (207) than any non-kicker in Jets history. "When I got home, I searched every chair, every corner, five times. Then you feel like an idiot because how can you lose something that valuable? But I did."

The years passed: One ... two ... three. Nearly four years to the day of his infamous round, Rasmussen received a call from a stranger who had the ring.

It was a fellow golfer who had spotted a gleaming object in the dirt at the intersection of two sidewalks outside the clubhouse. It was caked in so much mud that it took two days of soaking in water before the inscription was legible. He saw Rasmussen's name, and tracked him down.

"Think about this: The lawn mower had been going over and over it and over it," Rasmussen said. "It could've chopped it up, but it came back in great condition. It's incredible, to tell you the truth. Shocking."

Rasmussen, figuring the ring was worth about $25,000 at the time, was blown away by the man's kindness. He offered a cash reward, but the gentleman declined, preferring a husbands-and-wives dinner at a popular restaurant in nearby Greenwich. Rasmussen obliged, happily.

Now 73, Rasmussen is eternally grateful to have the ring in his possession. He called it a constant reminder of what they accomplished a half-century ago.

"I know we won," he said, "because I've got the ring."

Don Maynard was one of the best wide receivers of his generation -- and maybe the most eccentric. Born in a dusty corner of Texas, he came to New York in the late 1950s (first as a member of the Giants) with long sideburns, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.

He was different, so it should come as no surprise he stores his Super Bowl ring in a most unusual place.

His refrigerator.

"If the house caught on fire or something, ain't nothing in the refrigerator will get burned," Maynard said in his thick Texas drawl, explaining his odd storage choice.

The way he figures it, it's safe from home invaders, too.

"Nobody ever looks in the refrigerator unless somebody is hungry," he said, not trying to be funny.

Open Maynard's fridge, and you'll find milk, eggs and glittering diamonds.

Maynard, 83, lives a simple life in El Paso, Texas. The Pro Football Hall of Famer always keeps work gloves in his hip pockets, looking to do chores around the house. He doesn't wear his ring that often because he works with his hands outside, shoveling, hammering or raking. During his playing days, he worked as a plumber during the offseason.

Just because he doesn't wear the ring doesn't mean he doesn't cherish it.

"It means everything," his wife, Anna, said. "He's very careful with it and very proud of it. Nobody gets that ring unless you take a finger with it."

The late Buddy Ryan won two Super Bowl rings during his illustrious coaching career. The second came as the defensive coordinator of the celebrated 1985 Chicago Bears. The first came with the Jets, when he was a 37-year-old assistant in his first NFL gig.

This presented a problem when he sat down to make out his last will and testament. With two sons coaching football, Ryan decided to make them draw straws for first dibs. Rex won and, without hesitation, took the Jets. His twin brother, Rob, got the Bears.

"That's the team our family will always identify with," Rex said of the Jets, whom he coached from 2009 to 2014. "My father loved that team. The fans obviously identify him with the Bears more than they do with the Jets, but I think he knew the importance of that game. Weeb told him, 'You have to make a difference here.' And I guess he did."

Buddy Ryan, a tough SOB who fought in the Korean War, died in 2016. A big part of his legacy now lives on Rex's ring finger.

Ewbank, a Hall of Fame coach who died in 1998, bequeathed his Super Bowl ring to a grandson, Tom Spenceley, who hung around training camp as a teenager in the 1960s. Ewbank's defensive coordinator was Walt Michaels, 89, who still has his ring sans the original diamonds. They were reset a long time ago in a gift to his wife, Betty.

"I guess he decided she'd wear the diamonds better than he would," said Walt Michaels Jr., who owns a duplicate, as do his three siblings.

Mark Smolinski went out on top. After Super Bowl III, he retired from football and became a high school math teacher in his hometown of Petoskey, Michigan, a small lakeside town. He was a celebrity in the school, dazzling the students with his bling. It was too dazzling.

"I'd be at the blackboard and the kids were more interested in the ring than the class," said Smolinski, 79, the Jets' special-teams captain. "After a year, I just took the ring off. Whatever I was teaching, they were paying more attention to the ring. I didn't need that. I needed more attention on mathematics."

Smolinski still wears the ring on special occasions, but he retired it to a place where it won't cause any distractions.

His sock drawer.

Earl Christy returned the opening kickoff in Super Bowl III, but never touched the ball again -- ever. He was released the following summer, marking the end of his football career at age 26. It stung the team because Christy, with his infectious personality, was popular in the locker room.

In 2013, Christy sold his Super Bowl ring for $53,775, according to Heritage Auctions. Why? He said he's not bitter. He loves that team and still attends the reunions. So why part with such a treasured piece of memorabilia?

"I had a history of losing it," he said.

Christy's young daughter once dropped it in the toilet and flushed. Luckily, it was too heavy to go down the drain. Another time, it came off his finger in the snow. Not wanting to chance it, he ordered a duplicate and placed the original in a safe box. Then he got to thinking: If it's just sitting in a box, why not get money for it?

At least one other player sold his ring -- former defensive end Verlon Biggs, who died of leukemia at the age of 51. His widow sold it to a New Orleans jewelry store, which sold it to Heritage Auctions in 2016 for an undisclosed amount.

Christy said he doesn't regret his decision.

"I wouldn't have sold it if I couldn't make a duplicate," he said. "I'm not a materialistic person. The ring is great, but it's more about the fellowship, the memories and the joy of winning."

Gerry Philbin wears it every day, which explains the worn lettering, so you can imagine his shock when he received a phone call nearly 20 years ago from a concerned friend wondering why he had sold his beloved ring.

What?!

A New York newspaper reported that Philbin, one of the Jets' defensive stars, sold it for $12,000 via an auction house in Manhattan. Philbin, living in Florida, quickly figured out what had happened.

Years earlier, he took his ring to a Manhattan jeweler to have it resized. It was out of his sight for two or three days, during which time he suspects a copy was made and later sold after his jeweler friend had died.

Furious, Philbin contacted a New York attorney with the hope of suing the auction house, but the suit never materialized. To this day, it still bothers him. Sell his ring? Not a chance. He recalled a post-Super Bowl conversation with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, who told Philbin he'd appreciate the intrinsic value of the ring long after his Super Bowl winnings were spent.

"It's something that has no price tag," said Philbin, who always shuns memorabilia dealers. "It's priceless."

Larry Grantham enjoyed a storybook football career, from his legendary days at Ole Miss to defensive captain of the Jets, but his life away from the game was hard. He was an alcoholic who once spent a night in jail after being part of a five-car crash when he was drunk.

"My Super Bowl ring got me in the front door with clients," he told Jerry Izenberg of NJ.com. "My drinking sent me staggering out the back door. I verbally abused my kids."

Later in life, Grantham battled throat cancer and underwent hernia surgery, resulting in medical bills he couldn't pay. Desperate, he put his Super Bowl ring up for sale with an online auction house in 2009.

"The ring meant everything to him, so I'm sure that was a tough decision that he struggled with," said his son, Jamie Grantham. "The Super Bowl ring never left his hand. He wore it all the time. He was very proud of it and willing to share it."

Struggles notwithstanding, Larry Grantham's heart was filled with goodness, and that goodness resulted in the return of his ring.

Freedom House, a New Jersey drug-and-alcohol treatment center he had supported for more than a decade, found out about the online auction and immediately raised $18,000 in an effort to buy back the ring for Grantham. When the president of the auction house heard the backstory, he took down the ring from its website and overnighted it to Grantham. The $18,000 went toward his medical bills.

Grantham, who died in 2017 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was sober for the final 33 years of his life. He raised $1.3 million for Freedom House, holding an annual golf tournament that drew many of his former teammates. He often spoke to the patients, telling old football stories and letting them hold his Super Bowl ring. Eight years ago, the center dedicated a wing to Grantham.

These days, his ring resides in a safe-deposit box in Alabama, not far from his son's house. Those who know Grantham never will forget his reaction when it was returned after its brief stay in online limbo. The old linebacker, known for his gritty toughness, broke down and cried.

Winston Hill's ring was stolen out of his car on a drive from New York to Colorado in 1970. He and his wife had stopped for a night at a motel, and they left the ring and her Super Bowl pendant -- given to the players' wives -- in a suitcase in the trunk.

Shrugging it off, he replaced the ring and used it for the rest of his life as a tool to teach the values he treasured -- effort and commitment. The team chaplain during his playing days, Hill enjoyed speaking to large groups and sharing his ring. His daughters, Hovlyn Hill May and Heather Hill, joked that strangers wore it more than he did.

"He used his fame from the Super Bowl win to connect with people and inspire them," Hovlyn said.

Best known as Namath's blindside protector, Hill was one of the most revered players on the team. He was deeply spiritual, unselfish and soft-spoken -- until game day, when he morphed into one of the most dominant left tackles of his generation.

Hill wasn't into individual accolades, and he certainly wasn't a fan of jewelry, but he knew the ring could help others. When he spoke to kids, he urged them to find their "inner ring." In 2014, he spoke at Valley High School in tiny Gilcrest, Colorado, where Hovlyn teaches. A homecoming crowd saw the ring and heard his message.

In November 2015, a few months before he died, Hill was honored by his alma mater, Weldon High in Gladewater, Texas. As a young boy, he couldn't play football because there was no team for blacks in the segregated town. That same school now has a wall mural of Hill, Super Bowl hero.

That night, he addressed a packed stadium, then gave his ring to one of the players, who passed it to the next player. It went through the entire Weldon team.

"It was always fun to see those little fingers in that giant ring," Heather said.

Fittingly, Heather Hill, an accomplished soprano, sang the national anthem Oct. 14 at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets celebrated the 50th anniversary of their only Super Bowl team. On the field, she was surrounded by her father's former teammates.

She wore her father's old jersey, No. 75, beneath a green and white Jets jacket. Around her neck was a gold chain. Hanging from the chain, between the 7 and 5 ...

Look closely ...

Closer ...

His Super Bowl ring.

Related Video
Super Bowl III champion gets lost ring back 40 years later
Super Bowl III champion gets lost ring back 40 years later
Former Jets center John Schmitt lost his Super Bowl III ring and he tells the remarkable story about how he got it back 40 years later.
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