Joe Namath had swagger. Every kid who picked up a football wanted some of that. His white shoes were his trademark. He had a quick release, traveling a country mile. And he was an advertiser’s dream. Fifty years later, is Joe Namath is a legend. Whether that exemplifies success or a cautionary note. His life has been many ups, many downs, but he still comes round. Joe bounces back, he is a survivor.
In 1965, Joe Namath was drafted by the New York Jets out of Alabama. I believe he boosted the American Football League to the point the NFL was forced to merge to create one league. Yes, the AFL and NFL had been in talks, although there was no common draft and they competed for talent. Namath gave the AFL enough star power and swagger that merging made sense, and both leagues prospered.
The early days of the AFL were lean ones for some teams. Ownership changes and as well as relocations were necessary but with a network contract, and getting the NFL to play a championship game, gave the new league standing and the potential for growth.
Namath came into the AFL with a bum knee, requiring a major operation before he ever suited up for the Jets, who gave Namath a rich contract. In terms of what the AFL and eventually the NFL received from Namath’s long scoring passes and his panache, was the best investment a team ever gave a player.
Namath was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, and many thought he didn’t deserve it. Just based on his numbers: 13 seasons, 27663 passing years, 173 touchdown passes, 220 interceptions, 50.1 percent of passes completed, a 65.5 percent passer rating. For a modern quarterback in the Hall of Fame, these are mediocre statistics. But statistics along do not tell the story of Namath’s impact on pro football.
Yes, Namath was injured a lot. These were the days that hits on quarterbacks were much different than today. Quarterbacks could be blindsided, hit below the knees, hit in a defenseless position and tackled viciously as a runner. Namath played on awful playing fields, not the manicured or nice cushy synthetic fields of today. The knee surgeries of fifty years ago are medieval compared to the 3-D MRIs and arthroscopic surgery techniques now. Namath’s first knee surgery was done without MRI technology or the less evasive medical techniques now available.
In 1967, Namath became the first quarterback to throw for over 4000 yards in a season. These were 14 game seasons 9 (16 game seasons started in 1978). He was an All Star in four of his first five seasons and famously quarterbacked the Jets over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Prior to the game he made his famous repeated assertion to a heckler, “We’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.”
After his 1969 season, Namath and the Jets struggled. In the next seven season, he had three good years, but the Jets got old, went through a succession of head coaches and watched other teams like the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders own the AFC (the majority of the teams from the AFL).
Namath’s body began to break down. He had four surgeries on his knees, three torn ligaments in his right shoulder, one in his left shoulder, a broken wrist, a broken cheekbone, a broken ankle, two severed hamstring muscles, and dislocated fingers. He even tore up a knee trying to tackle a linebacker in a preseason game.
In 1977, Namath engineered a trade to the Los Angeles Rams, where he could only play in four games before calling it a career.
Despite what Namath did on the football field, he was larger than life off the field. From his legendary bachelor about town antics, to his Bachelor III nightclub controversy, to his Fu Manchu mustache and long hair, his fur coat, the llama rug in his apartment, his sexy television shaving cream commercials, his panty hose commercial, and then Hollywood came calling.
In 1969, Namath and sportswriter Dick Schapp hosted an interview show for the New York area. Over the next couple of years he starred in the films Norwood, C.C. & Company and The Last Rebel. After he retired he took on a sitcom, The Waverly Wonders, which died, but he moved onto stage work including musical theater. Namath was a television color analyst for several networks and had a short run on Monday Night Football.
Namath’s main job was being Joe Namath. He gave speeches, did corporate events, made appearances for the Jets, attended autograph conventions, he made his living being Joe Namath. If you wanted Joe, you paid. Namath kept a firm grip on the Joe Namath brand.
In the early 1980’s, he was finally ready to settle down and got married. After two daughters, his wife, who wanted success as an actress, changed her name, moved to California with the kids and divorced him. He was 57. After giving up bachelorhood, drinking, and finally settling into family life, his life changed.
During a televised game in 2003, Namath was being interviewed by ESPN reporter Suzy Kolber when an inebriated Namath said he wanted to kiss her. He was obviously not in control, but she was, brushing it off and sending it back upstairs. The fallout for Namath was immediate, it was instant news. He said he was so wasted that he didn’t even know what had transpired till the next morning. He asked his closest friend to get Kolber’s number and ask permission to call her. He apologized to her privately, and he apologized publicly. Then he went into rehab to deal with his addiction. He didn’t hide from his problem. Give him credit for that.
“I had embarrassed my friends and my family and I could not escape that feeling,” he said in his book. “That shame is where I found the strength to deal with the addiction.”
Since, Namath has gone back to being Namath, but without the alcohol. He’s 76 years old, living a quiet life in Florida, a doting grandfather now, and written his third book, All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters. He’s also a spokesperson on television for Medicare helpline, knee braces and Sketchers footwear. Joe still has fans, they might be in the geriatric set, but he still gets their attention.
All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters is a more interesting read than I expected. Namath was much more reflective than I imagined, owning up to mistakes and far more knowledgeable of team contributions along the way. He was quite direct about the Kolber incident and the role of alcohol in his life. This wasn’t a “kiss and tell” book, he omitted a lot about his social life during his Jets days, I suspect that is covered in his other books.
The bookends of the book is Super Bowl III, as he divides the book into the four quarters of the game, and of his life, as he reflects back on his life during each quarter. He doesn’t solely rely on his memory to recount the game, he reviewed a YouTube video of Super Bowl III and made notes.
I’ve noticed that people formed their opinion of Namath long ago, at least my generation did, and it was more based on his public persona than his football play. He retired in 1977, so most people never saw him play – football, that is. What was cool then, the male animal swagger, women throwing themselves at him, that’s looked upon differently today, although it still happens in sports, entertainment and politics. Namath didn’t get in any trouble back then, the closest he got was being accused by the NFL of consorting with unsavory people (Namath was a partner in the Bachelors III bar) and forced to sell his interest. He could also be accused of being a very mediocre actor, but he did actually work on his craft. He was never arrested for anything, was not a defendant in any high profile lawsuits, didn’t defraud anyone in investment schemes. He didn’t shove any old ladies down stairs or steal candy from babies, but there was a sense that Namath was damaged goods. It wasn’t until his high profile divorce and drunken episode on television that his reputation took a major nosedive.
Maybe Namath is a relic of the old male-sexist days of the 1960’s, even though he really wasn’t a sexist male, he just enjoyed the times and being a celebrity. If you see his television commercials, I don’t think Namath is a great pitchman today. Back in his football days, Namath sold razors, shaving cream, popcorn poppers, panty hose and a long list of other products. He had that country-boy charm and he oozed charisma. I’ve watched him at an autograph show, he’s incredibly charming and he makes an instant, genuine connection with people. Is it an act? No, I don’t believe that. Certainly, he can dial up the charisma, he’s well-mannered and very respectful, his mother saw to that.
Joe Namath will always be a cultural icon of the 1960’s. In his prime, when he dropped back to pass, magic happened. It was like Oscar Robertson had the basketball, or Willie Mays was at the plate or Arnold Palmer stepped up to the tee, or Muhammad Ali climbed into the ring. Like Ali, when the game or match was over, and the camera switched on, the personality flowed forth.