Namath, Joseph William ("Joe")

views updated

NAMATH, Joseph William ("Joe")

(b. 31 May 1943 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania), Hall of Fame quarterback who, perhaps more than any other athlete, captured the rebellion, anti-establishment tone, glitz, glamour, and style of the 1960s.

Like dozens of other collegiate and professional quarterbacks, Namath is a product of the fertile high school gridirons of western Pennsylvania. His parents, both of Hungarian heritage, are John Andrew Namath, a millwright, and Rosal ("Rose') (Juhasz) Namath Szolnoki, a homemaker and later a sales clerk. Namath's parents separated eventually, but not before having three other sons and adopting a daughter.

Namath played all sports—often with African-American teammates—in their respective seasons, but he was cut from the Beaver Falls High School football team when he first tried out, because he was too small. Growing three inches and adding twenty pounds in each of his last two years in high school, Namath earned All-State honors in football and baseball in his senior year, with the football team going undefeated. He also starred in basketball. Thinking he would join the U.S. Air Force after graduation, he also considered other options, including professional baseball (he was offered a $25,000 signing bonus) and college football (he received close to fifty athletic grant-in-aid offers). His mother insisted that he go to college. Just missing the minimum scholastic score to enter the University of Maryland, he was touted to coach Paul ("Bear") Bryant of the University of Alabama by Maryland coaches who did not want Namath beating them while playing for another school on the Terrapins' schedule.

Although Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was still segregated and vastly different from Pennsylvania, Namath—helped by his extraordinary athleticism and easygoing personality—fit in nicely. He even acquired and retained something of a southern accent. Freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition in 1961, but as a sophomore in 1962 Namath contributed to the Crimson Tide's stellar 9–1 season and a 17–0 Orange Bowl victory over the Oklahoma Sooners. Disciplined by Bryant for a drinking incident, Namath sat out the last game of the 1963 season and Alabama's 12–7 Sugar Bowl victory over the Mississippi Rebels. Namath's senior season was bittersweet. In 1964 Alabama won the national championship, but Namath was injured in the fourth game of the season. Rolling out on an option, untouched, he tore ligaments and cartilage in his right knee. It would be a hallmark of the rest of his playing career. His knee was injured twice more that season, for the final time in preparation for the postseason Orange Bowl. Even limping, Namath played superbly, as he threw two touchdown passes and completed eighteen passes for 256 yards in a 21–17 loss to the Texas Longhorns. Inexplicably, Namath left Alabama without a degree, having missed out on All-America honors; he was not among the top ten Heisman Trophy vote-getters. Namath did, however, take a reputation as a hot professional prospect with him. The pro scouts loved his quick passing release, "football smarts," and leadership. Statistically, Namath, who experienced only three losses in his three varsity seasons, completed 203 of 373 passes for 2,714 yards and 25 touchdowns.

While the Vietnam War raged, a less deadly war between the American Football League (AFL) and the National Football League (NFL) was in progress. Bidding for talented players was escalating. The six-foot, two-inch and two-hundred-pound Namath was a first-round draft choice of the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals (NFL) and the New York Jets (AFL). It is sometimes erroneously stated that he was the overall first pick in the AFL draft. The wide receiver Lawrence Elkins of Baylor had that honor. Fortunately for Namath, the entertainment mogul David ("Sonny") Werblin owned the Jets, and he understood the value of having a star player.

Before playing a game, Namath's dark good looks graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Borrowing the sobriquet from the New York Yankees' first baseman Joe Pepitone, Namath became "Broadway Joe." His unprecedented three-year, $427,000 contract, at a time when established NFL quarterbacks were earning well under $100,000 annually, only added to Namath's aura. Flush with money and fame, Namath basked in New York City's glitz and glamour. Much was made of his playboy image, complemented by a "swingin' bachelor pad" with a six-inch-deep white llama rug. Namath helped the perception by saying, "I like my Johnnie Walker [scotch] Red and my women blond." Gossip columnists linked him with numerous starlets.

When it came time to perform on the football field, Namath—wearing white football shoes in a decidedly black shoe era—put up impressive numbers. As AFL Rookie of the Year in 1965, he passed for a respectable 2,200 yards and eighteen touchdowns. The next season he led the AFL in passing yards (3,379). In 1967 he fully matured as a player and exploded for 4,007 yards, becoming the first pro quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in a single season, a fourteen-game season. By this time the Jets were AFL contenders and "Joe Willie White Shoes," as he was called by some, was a media darling. He grew a Fu Manchu mustache and collected $10,000 for shaving it in a television commercial for Schick. Despite surgically scarred legs and knees, he even appeared in a panty-hose commercial. Other endorsements followed.

The pinnacle of Namath's career came on 12 January 1969. After "guaranteeing" a victory in Super Bowl III, Namath backed up his boast in Miami's Orange Bowl, leading the Jets to a 16–7 victory over the heavily favored Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts; Namath was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the game. It was the first Super Bowl victory for the fledgling AFL, and it added an aura of legitimacy to the younger league. If anything, Namath became an even bigger cult figure. People on the fringe of pro football fandom, especially those under age thirty, became willing converts, thanks to the counterculture quarterback and his maverick image.

Namath "retired" briefly and tearfully on 6 June 1969 when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle deemed unsavory a club (Bachelors III) in which Namath had a financial interest, because of alleged connections to gambling and organized crime. He divested himself of the club on 18 July 1969 before the 1970 season and returned to playing. Unfortunately, Namath would never again reach the heights of Super Bowl glory. Knee injuries that further robbed him of his mobility cut into his overall effectiveness. In 1970, 1971, and 1973 he averaged playing in only five games a season. In 1972 Namath led the NFL in passing yardage and touchdowns and was named to the Pro Bowl. In 1977 the Jets traded Namath to the Los Angeles (now St. Louis) Rams. Namath retired from professional football in 1978.

Respected by teammates and opponents alike, Namath was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, the same year that the Jets franchise retired Namath's number-twelve jersey. He engaged in sporadic stage and screen acting during and after his playing days and logged two seasons (1985 and 1986) in the broadcast booth on Monday Night Football on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Namath gave up his bachelor's ways in 1984, when he married a petite brunette, Deborah Lynn ("Tatiana") Mays. They had two daughters. Namath filed for divorce on 19 March 1999. He owns restaurants in New York City; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He also has served as a chairperson for the Leukemia Society Coin Campaign and is a national spokesperson for the Arthritis Huddle, an advocacy group for osteoarthritis sufferers.

Namath left the game having thrown for a franchise-record 27,663 yards and 173 touchdowns. He is remembered as much for his image and panache as for his flawless passing mechanics. Namath's Alabama friend Jimmy Walsh, who became his agent, said, "Eventually, Joe Namath the football player will not be as significant as the idea of him."

Namath, with Dick Schaap, wrote an autobiography, I Can't Wait Till Tomorrow, 'Cause I Get Better Looking Everyday (1969). Namath also wrote, with Bob Oates, Jr., Joe Namath: A Matter of Style (1973), which discusses his playing days with the Jets. Biographical information is in David Lipman, Joe Namath: A Football Legend (1968); Robert B. Jackson, Joe Namath: Superstar (1968); Phil Berger, Joe Namath: Maverick Quarterback (1969); Larry Borstein, Super Joe: The Joe Namath Story (1969); Marshall and Sue Burchard, Sports Hero Joe Namath (1971); John Devaney, Joe Namath (1972); Rose Namath Szolnoki and Bill Kushner, Namath: My Son Joe (1975); Jim Burke, Joe Namath: The Story of Joe Namath (1975); Rick Telander, Joe Namath, and the Other Guys (1976); and Martin Ralbovsky, The Namath Effect (1976).

Jim Campbell