Although it’s been 36 years since quarterback Joe Namath led the New York Jets to the Super Bowl III victory over the Baltimore Colts, that championship game remains one of the most-talked about in NFL history.
That’s because Namath’s larger-than-life persona dominated the media the week before the game and only grew to mythical proportions afterward. Before the Jan. 12, 1969, game in Miami, the Jets were 18-point underdogs, yet the flamboyant 25-year-old was undaunted. After all, he had meticulously studied the opponent’s tapes and discovered an older, slower Colts team with a defense that he knew he could easily beat with his quick-releasing arm and skilled offensive teammates.
In fact, Namath was so confident of a victory that during a dinner honoring him three days before the game, he told the crowd, “The Jets will win Sunday. I guarantee it.” True to his word, he guided the Jets to a 16-7 win, earning the game’s Most Valuable Player trophy.
“Three words come to mind still: we did it,” says Namath, 61. “That’s it. We did it. As a player, I don’t care if you are a number one draft for a pro team, you should have two goals: One, make the team, and two, win the championship. When we did it, those were the first thoughts that I had, ‘We did it.’
“For the football players, it’s the biggest game of their lives,” he says. “I remember that our wide receiver, George Sauer, couldn’t get over the enormity of the situation. He said, ‘Look how big this is!’ And that was the third Super Bowl. Our perception was it was the biggest thing we’d ever seen. 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.”
But Namath was a winner, and a popular one at that. He became one of America’s most adored cultural icons. Suddenly he was as big as the Beatles and bigger than Frank Sinatra; even Elvis Presley was a huge fan. Broadway Joe landed movie roles, his own television show and numerous endorsement deals, ranging from furniture and sneakers to airlines and cologne. But football has always remained his first love.
“You have to have a passion or a strong desire for football because it’s such a hard game,” he says. “You take pride in being able to survive alone and go from step to step, knowing that the game is so tough.
“My love for football came out of my background, where I was brought up, and 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.”
From Beaver Falls to Broadway
Raised in Beaver Falls, Pa. (pop. 9,920), Namath was the fourth son to John, a steel mill worker, and his wife, Rose, a maid. Namath’s athleticism was nurtured by his entire family. His brothers, John and Bob, taught him how to throw a football, while his other brother Frank saved his shoeshine money to buy him a basketball for Christmas. His father would buy Namath a new baseball glove before he’d buy himself a new shirt. His mother stayed up late altering his brothers’ old sports uniforms to fit him.
“In Beaver Falls, we treated people alike for the most part, at least my family did,” says Namath, who is known for his kindness to both corporate chairmen and cashiers. “That’s one thing that to this day started at home in Beaver Falls. So I carry that with me for sure, my respect for people that was taught to me by my family. That’s probably the biggest, most important thing, and it’s the first time I’ve ever talked about that.”
Namath remained unaware of the possibilities that beckoned beyond the horizon. Indeed, he wasn’t even aware that the town in which he resided was small. While he didn’t relish the idea of working in the steel mills, he didn’t dare dream about leading a jet-setting life. “You know, I wasn’t looking for much,” he says. “I was looking for better, but I wasn’t looking for much.”
In 1961, he landed a scholarship to the University of Alabama, where he played for the legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. On occasion, Namath finds himself repeating Bryant’s words to daughters Jessica, 19, a University of Alabama student, and Olivia, 14. “Because they make good sense,” he says. “It always has something to do with right, wrong, preparation, determination and reality. We talk about life: you’re going to be confronted with some tough things in life. Things aren’t just going to be a merry venture all the time.”
After his career at Alabama, where he helped his team win the 1964 college national championship, Namath signed a $400,000 contract with the Jets. He played with the Jets from 1965 until 1976, becoming the first quarterback to pass for more than 4,000 yards, and spent a season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1977 before retiring.
He discussed some of his football days in the 1969 autobiography I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow . . . ‘Cause I Get Better-Looking Every Day. The subject of a 2004 unauthorized biography, Namath has no plans to write another book anytime soon. “I’m not brave enough at this point because there are a lot of things that I know are interesting, fun, deep and emotional, but I don’t know that I want to share those things,” he says. “The last person I remember asking me to do it was Jackie Onassis. I found it so difficult, so difficult, telling her that I wasn’t interested!”
The next chapter
Namath still works for the Jets, but as an ambassador-at-large, filling a similar public relations capacity that he held with the NFL for a decade. The Hall of Famer makes public appearances on behalf of the team and serves as a cheerleader for their campaign to build a new football stadium in Manhattan. “I feel at home there,” he says. “I know I belong.”
But he spends most of his working days helping fellow sufferers of osteoarthritis, a joint disease that has plagued him since 1965. After numerous knee injuries and surgeries, he had his knees replaced in 1992. “They are wonderful but not perfect,” he says. “I can do whatever I need to do. I can golf, I can chase my daughters a little bit, and I use an elliptical machine. I can do about anything except play basketball.”
Namath is leading the charge against osteoarthritis by serving as spokesman for the Arthritis Huddle (www.arthritishuddle.com), an educational movement designed to improve communication about treating the disease. “When people have osteoarthritis, the quality of their lives deteriorate,” says Namath, who received the Arthritis Foundation’s Freedom of Movement Award in 2001. “They don’t feel like going out; their relationships get strained because they’re always in pain and they feel isolated. They don’t have to be that way. We show them where to go and what to do.”
Namath, who is divorced, now lives along the Loxahatchee River in Tequesta, Fla. (pop. 5,273), with his daughters, four dogs and a cat. Once known for donning fur coats, Namath now has a penchant for flip-flops and shorts. (The furs are in storage.) His famous muscular legs that once modeled pantyhose are still impressively chiseled; the surgery scars have faded with time and a deep tan. The former hard-partying playboy now reads at night and goes to bed early, but a mischievous twinkle in his green eyes reveals that his life now is anything but dull. He’s healthy, sober and happy to be able to have the time to dote on his daughters.
“I believe in continuing to grow, so I keep fairly busy professionally,” he says. “But priority-wise, I want my own time to share with my family. Things change when you have children. I can go out and work 365 days a year, but then I wouldn’t be here. Why do it? ‘Well, you make more money.’ Well, yeah, but I never saw a hearse with a luggage rack.”