Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath set the standard for athletic confidence by guaranteeing victory in Super Bowl III and rose to an iconic sports and pop-culture figure by combining his success for the New York Jets with his off-field playboy lifestyle.
So it's understandable that Topps has enlisted the charismatic football great as a primary spokesman for its 2011 football cards that feature special "Super Bowl Legends" and codes for collectors to try to unlock prizes at www.toppslegends.com.
"I'm holding one now that has our Super Bowl championship logo on it. It's a coin," Namath said in a phone interview before the NFL season began. "It's really a great selection of cards here."
"Oh, I'm always an ambassador for the Jets," Namath said. "I do my BroadwayJoe.tv, buddy, I keep up with the Jets and the Internet as well with Twitter and Facebook and the radio show also. I am a football fan, yeah. Specifically a Jet and Alabama Crimson Tide fan."
The Life spoke with Namath late last month to discuss football, trading cards and memorabilia collecting.
The Life: How'd you get involved with Topps this year?
Namath: Are you kidding? I've been involved with Topps since I was a professional. Actually I'm holding right now one of my rookie cards .
Having that experience of being on a card, you know that's a big deal for a ballplayer. When it first happens it's very special and it happened in a unique way to me because my first photo session was in the halls of Lennox Hill Hospital. And I had just had my first knee operation when I was still in bed about eight days later, and our media director Frank Ramos came in carrying shoulder pads, a jersey and a ball and said, "Joe, the show's gotta go on, buddy."
They got me out of bed on crutches, went out in the hall and put on the shoulder pads and jersey and I took my first picture there. I'm holding it now.
Over the years I've been on several cards and Topps and I have worked together on a variety of different cards that they have come out with, and this year we're doing a Super Bowl Legends package. And you know there are a lot of collectors out there with these cards, myself included with baseball cards. We're having an offer and some rewards, you might say there's a special card with the Super Bowl MVP in these different packages and on the back of the card are some numbers and if you get on your computer and get to ToppsLegends.com you can win some prizes. For example, a replica of Super Bowl rings and some other things, different cards that we have with coins on them representing the different teams that have won Super Bowls.
There are cards in our 2011 package that have a piece of the stadium the Super Bowl was played in for example. And ours was in the Orange Bowl and I actually have a card here with a piece of the old Orange Bowl stadium attached to my picture. So it's a really innovative way to add to the collector's list of cards to get, coins of each Super Bowl with players and memorabilia stamped on it, memorabilia facts and statistics. It's a lot of fun.
The Life: Did you think back while you were playing you'd still be hawking cards at 68?
Namath: No, that didn't cross my mind. Like I say, starting out in the '50s, looking at the guys on the cards and most of it was baseball for me back then, to me that was so cool to be on a card or to have your own card, man. And then to actually grow up and to have it happen to myself and maintain this throughout the years …
I think part of it, of course, shows you how strong the sport of football is and professional football and the guys that have helped it develop over the years. It's a fan base, you know we've got a lot of folks out there that love the sport.
The Life: Did you save any of your old cards throughout the years?
Namath: I do have several cards at home. You could imagine maybe all of a sudden … oh, gosh, 1965 we're going back 50 years, close to it. I've got a lot of memorabilia, yeah and a lot of cards. It's a matter of digging and finding them. I'd like to say that I've got everything in order, you know, every little magazine and every Topps card right in a specific spot; I know right exactly where to go to pull it out. But I don't. I know they're there.
The Life: There's one card in particular, I don't know if it will spring to mind, but there's a '72 Topps where you're wearing a somewhat unflattering wool hat, I don't know if you remember that one.
Namath: What are you talking about, unflattering? Are you crazy?
The Life: Well, the way it's sitting up on your head. But it's a nice hat, sure.
Namath: You're talking about the one in Shea, I think. The old warm-ups or something in Shea Stadium. It was cold, man! Yeah.
The Life: So you don't hold that against them?
Namath: No, no (laughs), that hat you're talking about a Jets stocking cap, right? Yeah, there it is, heck ya.
The Life: So do you still have that hat?
Namath: Oh, I don't know, I doubt that, man. I don't know that I still have that hat. I'd have to look.
The Life: Other than cards, what sort of mementos from your career have you saved? Which ones do you cherish the most?
Namath: Oh, well, wait a minute, I'm wearing one, my ring right now, my Super Bowl ring of course. You see we talk about some super meaningful things, yeah. That would be winning the championship and having that ring.
The other things that I have, I don't want to talk about those much. I mean you know I've got to still have a fur coat or two. The timing was right then and the timing is different now, not that I say I don't wear those things anymore, but I still do have a couple of them. I still have some football stuff that I actually wore and played in, yeah.
And of course, you know I saved a couple of trophies [that] were more meaningful for me and the team than others.
The Life: A lot of players for various reasons have auctioned off their collections. It sounds like you're not looking to do that yet.
Namath: Yeah, well, whatever it is I'm sure it's a good reason. I know that some of the trophies, for example, that if you're around the right situation and you win a championship or you get an MVP trophy, those kind of things my mother had donated to the high school back home. So we've got a bunch of things at Beaver Falls High School [Pa.] back there from yesteryear and I do have some at home.
Hey, these guys that have played the sport that are on hard times, healthwise going through some hard times and they need to make ends meet to a degree so, yeah, I hope I don't need to put different bits of memorabilia up for auction, but I don't know. I don't know what my family is gonna do down the road and if somebody wants it more than we do, then that may very well happen. I'm not sure it will (laughs), but you know that's the first time I've been asked that question. That's pretty good.
The Life: Comparing today's game when you played, do you think players today have as much fun as you did in your heyday?
Namath: Oh, I hope so. I hope so. You know one thing that hasn't changed since my heyday or from the era that I played and that's the longevity period. The average career in the NFL is still less than four years. You're not guaranteed that you're gonna be able to play from week to week. The body is not designed for the sport.
We read about a lot of those of us that were lucky enough to play a number of years and have some success. But I promise you there are far more guys we don't read about that have their careers cut short and hopefully have another way to carry out their life's passion. I hope they have another way because you're just reading about the stars or the guys that are lucky to stay healthy, man. It really is a tough sport.
If you're lucky enough to play four years it's remarkable. And that less-than-four-year average, by the way, is brought up by the likes of [Jets backup quarterback] Mark Brunell for example is going into his 19th season. You see he brings the average up pretty good. Any of those players who can last longer, they bring the average up and still the average is less than four years. That's a tough sport.
The Life: Yeah, the league just keeps churning through players.
Namath: Well, it's a great sport. Players want to play, we want to play, kids want to play. You know what, I talked to one of my nephews at home last week and they even have another league younger than the pee wee league! You know, for real, man. Pop Warner was one thing, then they moved down to the mighty mites because the kids wanted to play and the parents wanted them to play so much. And now they've moved down to 5- and 6-year-olds, the name escapes me, but they're younger than the mighty mites.
Yeah, so guys are gonna continue to want to play because the sport's great. It's just that our bodies aren't designed for it.
The Life: So who are some of the players today who you like watching play the most.
Namath: Well, I'm gonna start with Coach. I like watching [Jets coach] Rex Ryan coaching here. That's always entertaining.
And when it comes to players, my eyes are always on the quarterbacks and the offensive lines. So I marvel at some of the work that [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady have done over the years, Drew Brees continues to do, and [Philip] Rivers -- I'm just thinking of quarterbacks now -- and [Aaron] Rodgers. I like our young quarterback with the Jets, Mark Sanchez, not just because he's been successful in leading a good team to the conference championship the past two years but because of the way he carries himself. He's a humble young man who works awful hard. And his players and his coaches recognize that.
I marvel at the game. It's changed, you know, it's made a transition from the way it was when we played the game. They changed some rules, the coaches are smarter, the doctors are smarter, science is better, we're seeing a different animal out on the field. Bigger, stronger, faster, it's made a nice transition. As long as we can keep the number of guys healthy enough to play it, we're going to continue to be entertained.
The Life: You mentioned Mark Sanchez. Have you ever offered him any advice on how he can deal with playing in New York with all the distractions and media?
Namath: No, I've met with Mark and talked with him but never have offered him advice. I know he has a solid team around him, starting with his father and family at home. He's had good leadership and believe me, the Jets, Woody Johnson's group, they've done everything they can to bring a championship here and that means including the football teachers, the coaches under Rex Ryan for example are outstanding coaches.
It's their life's work, you know, these guys are eating, drinking, sleeping football 24-7. Brian Schottenheimer, the offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh [the quarterbacks coach], the two guys who work most closely with Mark Sanchez, it's their life's passion. It's what they do. So Mark's been getting a lot of good instruction and leadership and I'm just tickled with for his success. He's been lucky enough to have a good team to play for his first two years.
The Life: You're such an iconic figure with the Jets, do you think it's fair that Sanchez and whoever plays quarterback is always going to be compared with what you've done?
Namath: Yeah, I think it's fair. I was compared with what my three older brothers did back home in Beaver Falls, and so you're going to compare people. My first day in junior high school I was in the back of the room and the teacher calls the roll and he says, "Namath, Namath." I raised my hand. He said, "You got a brother Frank and Bob and John?" I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "You sit up here and keep your mouth shut."
You see that's another way of getting compared to things. So we make those comparisons. And I kinda like that. I'm thrilled, first of all, to be part of a championship team here. And any time we talk about that championship I'm just thankful, I promise you.
The Life: Who are you looking to see in the Super Bowl this season?
Namath: Oh, man, I wish we knew. I'd call home first and tell them to put something down on it if we knew that answer. I've always been, unless there's been major changes, I've been respectful with the defending champions first of all.
I don't think Green Bay has lost any players. I think they're actually getting some players back. They had a lot of injuries last year and still managed to play through them. So they get my respect to start with.
And of course New Orleans with Drew Brees there. San Diego didn't even make the playoffs last year and they had the best offense and defense statistically in the league. And New England of course, they just keep getting better. I'm amazed at how [Bill] Belichick can handle those draft choices and draft picks and have so many of them. And our team here, the Jets, having been to the past two [AFC] championship games you've gotta like their chances, too.
It's so hard, man. I'd love to see the Jets win it, but competition is tough and Lady Luck plays a major role.
The Steelers, look at the Steelers. They're gonna be in the hunt, too. We'd always used to say whichever team can keep getting better and avoid injuries. Well, Green Bay blew that injury factor out of the water last year, they had so many players get hurt. But they had guys step up, man and fill in. So the depth of different teams is gonna make a difference. And the Jets worry me with their offensive line depth at this point. If they can stay healthy they've got a good shot. If a couple of them go down, I'm not sure that the quality of the backups with the Jets are gonna step in at the offensive line.
Jim Wilkie is the editor of The Life and can be reached at email@example.com.