Interview with Joe Namath

People, Seasonal, Sports, Traditions
on January 23, 2005
David Mudd

Here are excerpts from the recent American Profile interview withJoe Namath:

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I believe in continuing to grow, so I keep fairly busy professionally. But priority-wise, I want my own time to share with my family. Things change when you have children; your priorities change. Right now, I work and I'm at home. The work I do is basically public relations and advertising. The other kind of work doesn't take me away from home much.

Q: What are you doing with the arthritis organization?

A: We've been working both professionally and charitably with the Arthritis Foundation and we've formed what we call the Arthritis Huddle, a website that educates people, helps people deal with their situation with osteoarthritis. And if they have questions about other forms of arthritis, of course, we'll help them in that direction because there are more than 100 kinds of arthritic conditions.

Osteoarthritis is where your joints, whether they are in your hands or knees or hips, simply get worn out. So many people don't know how to deal with it because over the years, they haven't had the kind of experiences an athlete has. For example, I was always around a doctor and a trainer, no matter what went wrong with me, I had help. So all I had to do was follow directions and try to rehab.

I went home one time and my mother was really upset and sad and in pain. She had an arthritic hip and she didn't know what to do other than it hurt, and the doctor said, 'You're going to have to take this medicine.' What else does she do? It wasn't working, so that was the idea.

That was the basic idea, to educate people who have osteoarthritis. You see, when they have osteoarthritis, I'm talking about older folks, and younger folks have it too, the quality of their lives just deteriorate. They don't feel like going out. Their relationships get strained because you're always in pain or you feel isolated. They don't have to be that way.

What we want them to do is be pro-active, become active themselves, take some advice, follow some instruction. We show them where to go and what to do. The Arthritis Huddle is a positive; it's an educational tool that hopefully inspires people to do more than they think they are physically limited to do.

Q: When did you get osteoarthritis?

A: I've had it since '65 in my right knee and then I got it in my left knee. Mine was brought on through trauma, athletic injuries, football injuries. In 1992, I had them both replaced. My doctor in New York, Jim Nicholas, the Jets' doctor at the time, told me I would need artificial joints down the road, but when you are 25, 26, 27, so what? Big deal.

I injured my right knee first my senior year in college. I hurt it on five different occasions my senior year. At the time, we didn't have arthroscopic surgery. We didn't have the techniques we have today to repair injuries. I wanted to play and you'd tape it up and you'd go until it gave out again or you lost stability again.

Then whenever I went to New York, after I had signed my contract with the Jets, after a media get- together at Toots Shor's, a fellow walks up to me and introduces himself as the Jets' orthopedist, Jim Nicholas. "Hey, how you doing, Doc?" He says, "Hey Joe, I hear you have a bad knee." I already signed my contract, and that was without a physical and everything. Everyone in sports at the time was aware that the knee was bad because I wasn't even supposed to play anyway. I said, "Yes sir." He said, "Well I have to look at it." I said, 'OK Doc, when do you want to look at it?" And he said, "Now." I said, "Now?"

He took me in the men's room at Toots Shor's restaurant and I'm standing there with my pants down and he's examining my knee. Some dude walked in there and made a U-turn, I tell you what. He didn't know what was going on! Anyway, I had my physical there and he had me in the hospital the next day, and that's when we fixed the right one first. But I always had help. There are so many people out there with osteoarthritis that don't know what the heck to do. They need guidance, they need help, they need inspiration, so that's what the Arthritis Huddle is about.

We go from San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia, Indianapolis. We've gone all over the country. I just came back from Detroit. We've met with consumers and now we meet more often with doctors because our scientists, our doctors who are specializing in the up-to-date progress, we always travel with them so they can explain to the other doctors and the assistants who help doctors what the newest medications are and how they react on the body. It gets into heavy medical detail. For that, we always travel with a doctor.

Q: Are you in constant pain?

A: No. My hands, I have arthritis. My left hand, I had operated on last January. This one needs the operation but I put it off because I take the medication that keeps the pain down. It's simple osteoarthritis with the cartilage worn out between the last thumb bone and the first wrist bone, so it's bone on bone. What they did over here (left hand) with this tendon? Over here, they took it and they cut it up here ? you can barely see the scar ? and they cut it here and pulled that tendon down over here and rolled it up and put it between the thumb bone and the wrist bone. It's called the anchovy technique. My left arm, this tendon, has been pulled down and rolled up so it's not bone on bone, and it doesn't hurt anymore. My right hand will burn and ache a little bit.

Q: How are your knees?

A: My knees are good right now. They might hurt in a movie theater. They are wonderful but not perfect. I can do whatever I need to do. I can golf; I can chase my daughters a little bit. I use a Nordic track, an elliptical machine. There is some bending with the elliptical machine but it doesn't bend me that far. I can do about anything except play basketball. I don't jump; I don't do any jarring. Other than that, they are fine. I haven't had medication for my knees since probably June 1992. But I feel them; it's all relative.

There's not the constant pain that there was prior to the replacements. But they are doing well. My neck, if I just stretch, I've got no problems with it. I did at one time, but when we found out what it was, they put me in traction, put me on a stretching program and that was probably 20 years ago. I haven't had a problem with the pain, the spasms. I feel great. It's astounding.

Q: And you're an ambassador with the Jets?

A: Yes. I think I started that last year. I've been working with the NFL for 10 years prior to that, and in visiting with the Jets, we thought it was great. I thought it was great, and still do, that we got together and work together. I visit with the sponsors at various games or get together in the off-season at charity functions the Jets are trying to help out. Lupus is a big thing that Woody Johnson is helping out a great deal.

Basically, they're trying to get the stadium built in New York. We think it's a wonderful idea. Of course, you're not going to please everybody all the time. It's a tough go. If it's built, I really believe it's going to be a positive for New York and certainly for the team. It's going to be a lot of excitement. New York needs something like that. We don't have anything. When you are that far down the list, like 11th or 18th on convention space, it's pretty ridiculous. So, there are more than two sides to this, but one side is the governor and the mayor and the budget and finance people who show how this will generate tax income to make up the investment. The folks that are mostly against it have their reasons too that they feel legitimate about. So I work with them on that project for the last couple of years trying to get it out there, trying to get people to see the positive sides of it.

Q: Tell me about your relationship with the Jets? What does that team mean to you?

A: People mean more. It's New York fans, is what it is. It's people and the people who do wear the green and white there. They are welcomed to the family, so to speak. It may sound corny, the family stuff or part of the tradition. What tradition you have in professional sports doesn't seem to be as popular as collegiate sports, like the tradition of the University of Alabama or the tradition at Michigan or Notre Dame. The tradition of the Oakland Raiders or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? What does that mean? But the people that live it and feel it and share it together, that's what grows. In that profession, I performed for 12 seasons and you establish a tie with the people. It's all positive.

Even though you are meeting new people who are wearing the green and the white and new coaches and new owners, it's still the New York Jets, from all the way back to 1964 when they first started. The fans, those people that stuck with the team, now their children and grandchildren are there. So I feel at home there. I feel very comfortable there. I know I belong. I know when Winston Hill walks in or John Dockery or (Emerson) Boozer, we know we are there. This ownership has really reached out to the former players and wants them to know that they belong and come back. The ownership has been good at getting guys to feel like, 'We want you back. Come visit, come say hello.' That is what it's about, people and tradition and the fans.

Q: How often do you go up there?

A: It varies from year to year. I've only been to three games maybe at the Meadowlands this year. I went to the Miami game; I'll go to the New England game. I go whenever I can go or when there's a special thing that's going to take place, like the retiring of Joe Klecko's number on Dec. 26.

Q: You were at the University of Alabama recently.

A: Oh yeah. I go back there. It's like another home, kind of. I feel very comfortable there. My daughter Jessica is going there in January.

Q: Do you watch football every Sunday?

A: I try to watch the Jets every Sunday. With the satellite you can do it. I don't watch a lot of television, but the satellite and the NFL Ticket has been the best thing going for years for me. On Sundays, I make my schedule normally to where I can find those three hours to watch the Jets.

Q: Was it painful watching football after you left?

A: Missing it? You know what? No. Not being able to play, I came to the realization that I just couldn't play anymore. I knew I couldn't measure up or do it. So it's time to move on. What's you miss is the everyday routine with the people you're with. After a number of years, you get used to having that adrenaline rush for games and practices. Physically, that didn't diminish because where I went for awhile, in theater, I had more adrenaline rush. That was something.

Knowing that I couldn't play—I have two severed hamstrings in my left leg from water skiing and that was more debilitating my last 5 years than anything—that was the most debilitating thing. The knees, I just literally couldn't run and I didn't belong out there. I remember I had been injured against Chicago and we were out at practice that week and I wasn't practicing and Pat was practicing. And I was yawning. I yawned on the field. It was the first time I ever recognized I didn't belong there. I mean, where is my brain? I knew then that that was like the end of playing. If I could get bored or yawn or not be into it as much as I needed to be into it, I didn't belong there. If I thought I could play physically, then I probably would have felt differently.

Q: What was it about football that you loved?
A: See, I love baseball and basketball too. I really enjoyed sports. One of the reasons is I could do them well. If you can't do something well, I don't know that you fall in love with it or you miss doing it. You have to have a passion or a desire strong for football because it's such a hard game. And that is one of the things. You kind of take pride in being able to survive alone and go from step to step, knowing that the game is so tough. Then of course, it was a way for me to move on in life, from Western Pennsylvania and what future in the mills I would have had there to move on to school to move on to actually professional football and grow with the different environment.

I never loved to get hit; I am not a fool. You hear about guys saying, "I love to hit and I love to get hit.' Well, fine. I want to stay away from them. But the determination I believe comes from your family, what genes you have, the environment you're brought up in. The way I was brought up, boy when somebody told you that you couldn't do something, you had to really find out. And so attitude has a lot to do with life, period. Attitude is so important. If you are lucky enough to be around people that can work on your attitude and your perspective and show that there are different perspectives, you are a lucky person.

So my love for football came out of my background, where I was brought up and all of the other people competing. Then it developed into a necessary route to more important things, the bigger life, the bigger game after football. It's kind of like a stepping stone. But you have to have the desire to do it, man, because it is so tough, it is so tough. Everyone gets hurt. You've got to be lucky not to have the debilitating injuries and it takes a certain animal to work that hard physically, especially after you've made a little score. It's not easy.

It looks great when they're playing—we watch it on television or we see it—but we never see the valleys, what happens after the games to the losers for that whole week or the next three weeks when they're on a losing run. It's interesting what happens to the fans when their team loses two, three or four in a row. The whole group of sports people in that town, whether it be millions or hundreds of thousands, their attitudes become different. It affects their daily existence. It's amazing.

It's a tough sport. The average career, I think, is less than four years. Vinny Testaverde, God bless him, Jerry Rice and Brett Farve, those guys have been fortunate physically and tough physically, they bring up the average.

Q: What is it about football that makes it America's sport? People don't seem as obsessed about football and basketball.

A: You know what it is? It's once a week and once only for one thing. It's a battle each and every week. In our society, I believe the animal we are, we get so much stress and strain that is hidden from us throughout the week that we've got to have a place to let it out. And you may not even recognize it, but you go to a ballpark and everybody is letting out something, venting something. They are so excited and enthusiastic,

The game is choreographed; it is mental, it is physical, it is a battle. People can feel those hits when they are in the stadium, you feel them and you see the velocity of the players. It's a vicious, tough sport with some artistry; certainly, that is beautiful. It's beautiful to me when I see receivers stretching out or a man be able to block another man just right. As I mentioned earlier, it's all choreographed.

When I went from football to theater, I learned you are choreographing things on stage. People would ask me if there is anything similar to this. I would say, "Yeah. Every movement is choreographed to an extent: your timing, your practices, your rehearsals." This is all intertwined, the demands physically on the instrument, the tool. You've got to be ready to perform. It's all there.

The one thing you don't have in the theater, in my opinion, that you do have on the football field is the element of the opposition. There is someone over there all week long doing their choreography to disrupt yours. Your practicing all week long just specific steps and they are over there practicing too to disrupt it. So in a game, you never know really what you are going to get. You can practice, and that's what some coaches and teams are better at than others. Obviously (Coach Bill) Belichick and the New England Patriots have been able to find ways just to make a tweak here and a tweak there, split-second timing. It's a game of speed, seconds, quickness, and you've got to have the brains for the most part.

You can have some animals who aren't as quick and they can do some things that aren't as quick mentally, but the guys that can adjust when their choreography is thrown out of whack and come as close to that as they were are the winners usually.

People love the game. The real football fan understands all that. There's a lot that goes into it. One thing the players share with the fans is the valleys. Whether they come from losses or injuries or having friends hurt, the valleys are there. You have to stay strong to get through that. And you get support from your guys around.

When you are finished with football, things don't change when it comes to valleys. You are going to hit some and so a sportsman's life, if he's had the right teachers along the way, can go right back to basics. And start from there again. Because you've been knocked down before, and you know if you get up and try, you can work through it.

One time when I was a rookie in New York, a media guy asked me after practice one day, "Joe, how's your knee?" Before I was able to answer him, he said, "Oh, I'm sorry. You probably get tired of talking about your knee." And I was at a stage to where I would take things literally in a sense. I thought, "What don't I get tired of?" I started thinking about what I never get tired of.

And I go in the shower and I'm trying to figure this out. I was enjoying that shower and it dawned on me how good I felt and I related that to health. I figured out, boy, one thing you never get tired of in life is good health. You do get tired of food; you've got to push it away. Boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, need space sometimes. What do you never get tired of? The other thing I came up with was winning.

My mother loved me, I know that, and she's thrown me out of the house before. My mother threw an orange at me, chasing me out of the kitchen, and she loved me. She was just tired of me right there and then. What do you never get tired of? Staying healthy and coming out ahead. That was always fun.

Do you ever get tired of winning? You might start taking it for granted when you are a part of a great college or pro program. There was a time at the University of Alabama where if you weren't in the national championship hunt, it was a lousy season. Now, it's if you can beat Auburn, everything is fine.

Q: A lot of writers discuss how baseball is a metaphor for life. How is football a metaphor for life?

A: It's what I was talking about earlier. In life, you are confronted with a lot of things happening and you get knocked down a lot. Sometimes you're lucky and you're up there and people are patting you on the back. The reality of it in sports is it's a cycle: you're going to get knocked down again. Things aren't always the same. The only constant we have is change. And you learn to adapt in sports. You learn to live through some changes, even when it stinks and you think you can't go on. Change happens, you get it and you work hard. The one thing that is constant is change. Life is change and we're going to see it whether we want it or not.

You are taught in sports to adjust, to be adaptable, but continue to grow. I tell you what: sports are a lot less complicated! And sports are still just that, sports, games; it is not life. It is part of our lives at times, but don't ever confuse games with real life. Real life is the big game. As a player, as a sportsman, that is how you live real life. You apply what you've learned in sports because you have faced so much adversity. You come back, whether it's been physical, whether it's been belittling or humbling, you get those things and you learn to endure. You can't be thin-skinned in life if you want to be healthy. If you are thin-skinned, then you can't take any kind of criticism. We should all learn to take constructive criticism. Dealing with my 14-year-old, just forget about it. It's tough man! And people are like that everywhere. Sports are healthy for children. They learn to share things with their peers.

Q: How do your daughters process your career?

A: I don't know. You would have to ask them. The older they get, the more they know about it. It's not been something I've gone over with them. Mostly in teaching incidents in life, comparing things in sports, but I haven't had to tell them.

Q: Are they football fans?

A: Yes, although Jessie more than Olivia, but there's 5 years difference. Olivia has been to many games with me. They both go and enjoy it.

Q: Let's talk Super Bowl. When you first think back to your Super Bowl victory, what comes to mind?

A: As soon as you start asking, three words still: We did it. That's it. We did it. As a player, I don't care if you are a number one draft for a pro team or what, you should have two goals: one, make the team; two, win the championship. When we did it, those were the first thoughts that I had, we did it. That was the goal, to win the championship.

In my first knee operation afterward, Dr. Nicholas said, "Joe, everything went well. Your knees are fine and we think you can play four years." I said, "Oh, thank you, Lord. I get to play four more years of pro ball." Well, I played 13, but somehow we managed to win that Super Bowl in that fourth year. I don't know if St. Jude, who is still with me, had anything to do with it, but it just worked out timing-wise. Having that as the focus, the goal, to win the championship, when that sucker was 0-0-0, we did it. That is the first thing you think of when you mention it, yeah, we won it.

Q: What's it like walking on the field before the game?

A: For me, for Hudson, for Elliott, for Boozer, it varies from player to player, from John Dockery who was a rookie. It depends on your confidence level, how good a player you are and how you want to deal with this. What games you've been in in the past? I know it was colossal for John Dockery, it was colossal for all of us being in a championship game, but John went to Harvard. Thank God he spent more time in the classroom than on the football field, but here he is in a professional football championship in the world and Hudson, our strong safety, we actually just ran out for introductions, and we just, "Hey, this was our kind of game, man." We had been there.

In fact, Hudson went to Texas and I went to Alabama and we had played in the Orange Bowl when it was everything. That's why we felt it was our kind of game, whereas some guys might have been tentative or anxious. We were anxious. If you don't have that adrenaline running through you, then you're dead. What I've learned over the years was, and I teach it at our camps to the boys, is don't try to not be nervous. Don't try to get rid of that nervousness; utilize it as positive energy, and that can only come through your preparation. If you can prepare yourself, if you can convince yourself you're ready for anything that happens, then all of that stuff that's coming in you can be positive.

But if there are any doubts in your mind about how you are supposed to behave in a third and short situation versus a tight five-one defense or a six-one defense, if there is any doubt in your mind at all, then that is uncomfortable.

I was very comfortable; I was thrilled to be there. We had on our team also guys who had been there. Johnny Sample had won it with the Baltimore Colts. Our head coach had already won a championship with the Baltimore Colts and that carried over to the rest of the team. So if we didn't convince ourselves, if we weren't convinced because of the last 6-7 games we played that season, if we weren't convinced that our level of execution was on time for anybody, that we would be able to deal with anything, that would have been uncomfortable. But we were comfortable.

Q: Is the Super Bowl the same game now, or has all the hype and attention surrounding it changed the game?

A: For the football players and the basics, it's the biggest game of their lives. Some guys that are fortunate enough to go back more than once, I can't speak about that. We just had the one time and it was wonderful. But to be there and to be in that setting, back in Super Bowl III, I remember our wide receiver, George Sauer sitting there on media day, watching a bunch of people around. I missed media day. But George couldn't get over the enormity of the situation. He said, "My God, look how big this thing is!" And that was the third Super Bowl. Our perception was it was the biggest thing we'd ever seen. What has it grown into today? It's worldwide, for one thing, with the exposure. For the fans, more people are involved, absolutely. For me, the week leading up to the Super Bowl is one of the most fun times ever because you don't have a loser yet. Everyone is in town.

Q: How often do you wear your Super Bowl ring?

A: Only on special occasions.

Q: That and your fur coat? Where is your fur coat?

A: I've been asked a lot about the fur coats. I haven't had those on in a long time. I have a couple. They are hanging in the closet in the apartment over here. I don't wear them. I went through a transition when I started a family and kind of got away from wearing them.

One of them was this long full-length milk. It was great. I actually bought it for myself when I was living in California and it was Christmas. I was an alone bachelor so I bought myself a Christmas present. I think I wore it once. Boy, it was boss! There was a Boy Scout/Girl Scout function in New Jersey that had an auction, so I thought it was a good idea. What am I going to do with that coat? So they auctioned it off up there for the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts up there. It was cool.

So, no, I don't wear furs, but I have them. But if we go out to Utah or someplace that's cold, I will bundle up.

Q: Tell me about growing up in Beaver Falls, Pa.

A: It was great. We had a river on one side of town, railroad tracks on the other two sides of town. For a kid, it was wonderful. You could walk to school every day. All we knew basically was baseball, basketball and football, caddying, working. And that was about it. It was great.

Q: Did you have a drive to get out of a small town?

A: At the time, I didn't know it was all that small of a town. Like every 17- or 18-year-old, I was looking to move, do something, discover. I remember the first time I was in New York. My first year, I compare myself to a little puppy, running around and getting into everything. That's the way I was in New York and that's the way I was coming out of high school, wanting to go see.

Q: What about you now is because you were raised in Beaver Falls?

A: Everything, a lot of it. Everything begins at home. Your values, morally, how you feel about things, how you are taught, dealing with people. It was a humble beginning, in a sense. Whenever folks get in a situation, materialistic things start to change a lot. They still have, but in a humble respect. It's not a grandiose kind of lifestyle in Beaver Falls nor is that kind of thing my lifestyle.

Beaver Falls, the people, the blue-collar hard workers with determination. You had to earn what you got, more or less. That's everywhere, but there are places that are more affluent. We were a small steel mill town. I guess it was the work ethic, you knew you had to contribute to keep going.

In Beaver Falls, we treated people alike for the most part, at least my family did. That's one thing that to this day started at home in Beaver Falls. So that I carry with me for sure, my respect for people that was taught to me by my family and my environment at home. That's probably the biggest, most important thing. It's the first time I've ever talked about that or thought about that. No one has ever asked me that question. There are a lot of things you take from home and they are all important.

Q: When you look back to a 12-year-old boy in Beaver Falls and then to the life you've led, what comes to mind?

A: You know, I wasn't looking for much; I was looking for better, but I wasn't looking for much. It's all relative, I guess. I can see when I was 12, well first, the family situation had changed right at 12 (when his parents divorced). I was wrapped up in sports. There wasn't anything besides sports. And you had to work, whether it was taking ashes out or caddying or working for the city finally. So it was sports. It wasn't even girls, that much.

Q: I don't believe that. I've read your book.

A: Now you've got to understand that Dick Schaap was a lot sharper than I am and he was able to put down some things. I say change is constant. I remember one time I said I didn't like red-headed ladies. What am I, crazy? I look at that now and say, "How stupid could I have been? I'm judging somebody?" Live and learn, hopefully learn. I don't feel that way now.

Q: Are you going to write another book?

A: You know, possibly. For many years, I had thought about and I talked with people about it. I'm not brave enough at this point because there are a lot of things that I know are interesting, fun, deep, emotional, and I don't know that I want to share those things. I'm afraid; I don't have the nerve as this point. The last person that I remember asking me to do it was Jackie Onassis, when she was working in New York at a publishing house. We had a dinner honoring the good Dr. Nicholas and we were talking. She was interested and their house was interested, and I found it so difficult, so difficult telling her that I wasn't interested!

But, yes, over the years, even when Mark (Kriegel) did this last unauthorized biography, I had met with him and talked with him. I said, "I think it's a good idea, but I don't want to do that." He said, "You don't have to do anything." That's when I found out it was unauthorized. I said, "OK, great. What am I doing here? What are we talking about?" He said, "I just want to talk to you." I said, "If I don't have anything to do with it, then why am I talking?" I think the book is special