Namath was lovable rogue
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

There always seemed to be something magical about Joe Namath, a rebel at a time when the country appreciated one. He was cocky, but in a likable way. The image of the swinging bachelor as much as his rocket-like arm helped make him the most glorified football player of his time.

 Joe Namath
Knee injuries took their toll in the second half of his career, but early on Joe Namath was one of the NFL's top quarterbacks.

He was Broadway Joe, the guy who guaranteed a Super Bowl victory for a three-touchdown underdog New York Jets team -- and then delivered. He was a charismatic presence who became a larger-than-life figure. At 21, he was a star. At 25, he was a legend. His road roommate said it was like traveling with a Beatle.

"The late `60s and the early `70s were times of compelling social and political upheaval," wrote Tony Kornheiser in Inside Sports, "and Namath, with his antiestablishment shaggy hair, mustache, white shoes and Life-Is-a-Bacchanal philosophy, became a symbol of inevitable, triumphant change. The antihero."

If there ever was a right athlete at the right time, it was Namath. "If he did it all again now, Joe would not rise to the same heights," said former teammate John Dockery in the early eighties. "The antihero is passe; Joe came at the time he was destined to come."

He was a lovable rogue, admired by men and adored by women. It was a time when he could get away with "I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde," and not be bashed by some women's group.

There is the story about Namath preparing to leave a bar with a woman who was maybe a 6. Teammate Ed Marinaro was disappointed that Namath didn't have a 10 on his arm. "Eddie," Namath said, "it's three in the morning, and Miss America just ain't coming in."

People ate it up. What would happen today if somebody, say a certain President, made a comment like that?

But Bill Clinton never won a Super Bowl, either. Namath's triumph came in probably the most significant game in the history of Roman numerals. The Jets' 16-7 upset of the Baltimore Colts established credibility for the American Football League.

This came four years after the Jets' signing of the Alabama quarterback for a reported $427,000, an unheard-of figure in those days, and a Lincoln Continental. Namath provided the upstart league with the atmosphere of big bucks, Broadway glamour and the headlines that had been the sole property of the National Football League.

His signing triggered a recruiting war with the older league. With salaries becoming inflated for highly rated collegiate players, the NFL, fearful of the cost of competition, eventually offered the AFL a carrot, and the two leagues merged.

How many athletes have ever forced a merger between two conglomerates? How many have quarterbacked the winning team in the upset for the ages?

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Namath also is the only quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a 14-game season, one of the three times he led the NFL in passing yardage. But despite all his early successes, the Hall of Famer didn't put up outstanding numbers in his final years, hindered by gimpy knees and numerous operations.

Of his 13 years in the pros -- 12 with the Jets and a final season on the Los Angeles Rams' bench in 1977 -- only nine times was he healthy enough to play more than six games. Only once did he throw more than 20 touchdowns in a season. Only twice did he throw more TD passes than interceptions. And he finished with 173 touchdown passes and 220 interceptions.

He was born on May 31, 1943 in Beaver Falls, Pa., a steel-mill town located 28 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Joe Willie -- as his friends called him -- grew up in an area of Beaver Falls known as the Lower End, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. (Namath would get into arguments with some Alabama teammates when he would defend African-Americans).

At Beaver Falls High School, Namath excelled in football, baseball and basketball. Six baseball teams sought to sign him, with the Chicago Cubs reportedly offering him a $50,000 bonus. But Namath declined, opting for college.

After being rejected by Maryland because his college board scores were not high enough, he enrolled at Alabama to play for Bear Bryant. The legendary Bryant would one day call his rebellious quarterback "the greatest athlete I ever coached."

As a sophomore, Namath led a senior-dominated team to a 10-1 record, completing 76-of-146 passes for 1,192 yards and 12 touchdowns. Late in his junior season, Namath broke curfew, and Bryant dropped him from the team for the last regular-season game and the Sugar Bowl.

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As a senior against North Carolina State, Namath suffered the first injury to his right knee. On a rollout, his knee collapsed under the impact of an abrupt stop. Two weeks later, Namath's knee collapsed again. He injured it a third time practicing for the Orange Bowl. It was not expected that Namath would play in the bowl, but with No. 1 and undefeated Alabama losing to Texas, he came off the bench. Though he played splendidly and was voted the game's MVP, the Tide lost 21-17.

The next day -- Jan. 2, 1965 -- Namath signed his three-year contract with the Jets. Owner Sonny Werblin saw more than Namath's passing arm. It was gilt by association.

"Namath has the presence of a star," Werblin said. "You know how a real star lights up the room when he comes in. Joe has that quality."

Brought along slowly by coach Weeb Ewbank, Namath became the Jets' starting quarterback midway through his rookie season. In 1967, in his third season, Namath lit up AFL defenses for 4,007 yards and 26 touchdown passes.

The next year, he passed the Jets to the AFL's Eastern Division title. In the championship game against the Oakland Raiders, whom the Jets lost to in the Heidi game six weeks earlier, Namath threw three touchdown passes despite icy winds in New York. His six-yard touchdown pass to Don Maynard in the fourth quarter overcame a 23-20 deficit, giving the Jets a 27-23 victory and a berth in Super Bowl III on Jan. 12, 1969.

At a Miami Touchdown Club dinner three days before the game, Namath answered a heckler by saying, "We're going to win Sunday. I guarantee you." His brazenness made headlines, though many journalists passed it off as bluster or self-delusion.

It was neither. Namath calmly directed the Jets on four scoring drives, completing 17-of-28 passes for 206 yards and being voted the MVP in the victory over the stunned Colts. The Jets were the first AFL team to win the Super Bowl.

Namath reaped a harvest of awards for 1968: AFL MVP, Hickok Belt winner and Pro Player of the Year.

In 1969, Commissioner Pete Rozelle told Namath to sell his share in an East Side bar, Bachelors III, because gamblers frequented it. If Namath didn't, he would be suspended. In June, he announced his retirement from football because of the dispute. However, Namath's love of the game prevailed, and a month later, he sold his share of Bachelors III and returned to the Jets.

Injuries continued to trouble him in the seventies and Namath would throw more than five touchdown passes only three times in his final eight years.

His endorsements kept him comfortable, with his panty-hose spots and his shaving off his mustache for $10,000 being his most famous commercials. He acted in movies and on television as well as in the theater, but was not another Olivier.

Through the years, Namath has maintained his status as an icon. Unlike another legend, Joe DiMaggio, Namath goes out of his way to be people-friendly.

"I'm lucky," he said. "I was born with the gift."