Joe Namath, ever the modern man, has taken to Twitter (@RealJoeNamath). The Hall of Fame quarterback doesn’t weigh in often, but every now and then he comes up with a gem. For instance, after the Denver Broncos upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, with Tim Tebow unleashing an 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime, Joe tweeted: “Can anyone picture Tebow goin out and havin a few tonight?!”
Broadway Joe certainly would have. He might even have had a few the night before. You can take the boy out of Beaver Falls, Pa., but you can’t take the Beaver Falls, Pa., out of the boy.
There are two reasons I speak of Namath in this column, even though he hasn’t buckled a chinstrap since 1977. The first is that HBO aired a fabulous documentary about him Saturday night — more about that later — and the second is that this is Super Bowl Week, and it’s hard to think about the Super Bowl without thinking about Namath. He’s one of the guys who made the game what it is today, the biggest event on America’s sporting calendar.
It wasn’t nearly as momentous when Namath’s New York Jets met the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III 43 years ago (the third of the four pre-merger Super Bowls pitting the American Football League champ against the National Football League winner). The first two AFL-NFL title games, after all, had been anticlimactic, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers manhandling the Kansas City Chiefs (35-10) and Oakland Raiders (33-14). And the Jets-Colts game figured to be even more of a mismatch. Don Shula’s Baltimore club, after all, had lost only one game all season.
But pro football spun off its axis that day. The Jets, 17-point underdogs, stunned the Colts, 16-7 — with Namath, a notorious gambler, playing a controlled, interception-free game. By 1972, football had replaced baseball as America’s favorite spectator sport (36 percent to 21 percent, according to the Gallup Poll). And, as HBO’s retrospective reminds us, Joe Willie Namath had a lot to do with it.
Namath was more than a star. He was a phenomenon. He was Elvis. Indeed, as popular and pervasive as the NFL has become, it can be argued that no quarterback — not Brady, not Peyton Manning, not Brett Favre, not Dan Marino — has ever been bigger than Joe Willie.
When you think about it, it was the perfect storm: a handsome, charismatic quarterback — much loved by the ladies — playing in the media capital of the world at a time when his sport was zooming into the stratosphere. HBO captures all this and more with vintage clips of shrieking female fans and interviews with the likes of Ann-Margret, who made a biker movie with Namath, “C.C. and Company,” that no Joe devotee would have missed.
Namath also had a television show, pitched products with the same dexterity he fired footballs and was about as ubiquitous as an athlete could be in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Sports had never seen anybody like him, a guy who wore his hair long, did commercials for pantyhose, had a llama skin rug in his apartment — and was as two-fisted off the field as he was on it.
You have to understand, before Joe came along, the other team in town, the Giants, had a quarterback named Y.A. Tittle, and Tittle was as bald as … Dwight Eisenhower. Nobody ever looked at Y.A., as fine a passer as he was, and said, “There’s a man who knows how to party.”
And now here comes Namath strolling down Broadway with his Fu Manchu mustache, his hot pink pants and his fur coat. Beaver Cleaver’s dad might not have approved, but plenty of the rest of America did — or, at the very least, was amused. That was the thing about Young Joe. He was a rebel, but he was a rebel with a wink. He knew that you knew that he was just cashing in while he could. Heck, in the demolition derby of pro football, who’s to say when your career is going to end?
That was doubly true for Namath. He’d torn up his left knee as a senior at Alabama and had major surgery on his right one after his third season with the Jets. By age 24, in other words, he had two bad knees. It robbed him of the Aaron Rodgers-like mobility he’d possessed in college — HBO’s footage of him scooting around for ‘Bama is startling — and turned him into an increasingly stationary target for pass rushers.
Then there was the booze. The documentary says it was Namath’s painkiller of choice, and the sheer volume of it — along with his busy nightlife — undoubtedly hurt his play at times. Truth is, as good as he was — and he was Hall of Fame good — he never became the quarterback he could have been. He had his moments, of course, great moments, but not nearly enough for one of such prodigious talents. Had he played in the era of arthroscopy — and in a period, perhaps, when there was more alcohol awareness — there’s no telling what he might have done. A Namath pass, the speed and the spin, was a thing of beauty.
True story: I made my first television appearance thanks to Joe. This was in the summer of 1975, when I was interning at a newspaper in Worcester, Mass. He’d started a football camp at nearby Nichols College, so I drove over to do a piece about it. A Boston TV station also had a crew on campus, and when I turned on the 11 o’clock news that night, there I was, walking across the field with the world’s most famous quarterback, scribbling madly in my notebook (and wearing a ghastly green sport coat that made it look like I’d just won the Masters).
Years later, I was working on a feature about Memorable Tie Games and interviewed Namath about a game between his Jets and the Houston Oilers in 1967. Why was it so memorable? Because he’d thrown an interception on the last play — and then, as the clock ticked down, fought off a blocker and made a touchdown-saving tackle to keep the score 28-28. It was borderline miraculous, given his general gimpiness.