Joe Namath went from bad-boy jock to cosmopolitan raconteur and hero of one of the greatest underdog stories in American sports as he quarterbacked the New York Jets to a stunning defeat of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Namath first garnered national attention at the helm of the University of Alabama's football team and his graduation spurred a bidding war between the National Football League and upstart American Football League. He signed with the AFL's New York Jets in 1965 and quickly became the league's poster boy, dubbed "Broadway Joe" for his flair on and off the field. Adopting the free-spirit lifestyle and aesthetic of the 1960s, Namath became the first quarterback in the history of the game to pass for 4,000-plus yards in a season. In 1969, he made good on an impromptu guarantee of victory against the Colts in the third interleague championship game as the Jets proved the younger, brasher AFL could compete with the NFL. He transcended sports as a commercial spokesperson and much-in-demand guest on the popular variety shows of the period and later starred on a short-lived sitcom "The Waverly Wonders" (NBC, 1978). Upon his retirement in 1977, he remained active as a television guest star and icon of the sport. Though lacking the efficiency of football's great QBs, Namath arguably became its first modern superstar, leaving a legacy not just with his play but with the swagger he brought to it and his broader imprint on a radically changing popular culture.
He was born Joseph William Namath on May 31, 1943 in Beaver Falls, PA, 30 miles from Pittsburgh. The fourth son of steelworker John Namath and his wife Rose, young "Joe Willie" grew up in the city's blue-collar, largely African-American-populated Lower End neighborhood. As a result, he did not assimilate the racist tenor of American society at the time and, as a young baseball player, he idolized Dominican-born Roberto Clemente of the nearby Pittsburgh Pirates. His parents divorced during his freshman year at Beaver Falls High School, whereupon Joe went to live with Rose thereafter. He developed a rebellious streak and competitive swagger. Even as he bloomed into a star athlete in baseball, basketball and football, he also began earning a bad boy reputation. He was known to drink, smoke and hustle pool at local bars and accentuated his attitude by constantly wearing sunglasses. His senior year, he quarterbacked the Beaver Falls football team to an undefeated season and division title.
Upon graduation, Joe Willie fielded a number of offers from Major League Baseball teams to jump immediately into their farm systems, even as major college programs sought out his skills on the gridiron. He wanted to play with the Pirates, but opted for football in deference to his mother's desire that he go to college. Some schools passed when they discovered his less-than-all-American penchant toward vice, and, when Namath finally decided to attend the University of Maryland, his SAT scores proved too low for him to matriculate there. Waiting in the wings, however, was Bear Bryant, who coached the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide. It was a sports version of the odd couple -- Bryant, the no-nonsense old schooler notorious for buttoned-down and military-style discipline, versus Namath, a maverick who bucked convention - but Bryant lured the blue-chipper to Tuscaloosa. Namath's college career began auspiciously; on the first play of his first start for Alabama his sophomore year - the NCAA disallowed freshman student athletes from competing in that era -Namath winged a 52-yard touchdown pass. He went on to lead Alabama to a 10-1 record for the season and started the next at 8-0, but his partying ways were on a collision course with Bryant. After Namath was caught drinking and breaking curfew, he was suspended and sat out the team's trip to that season's Cotton Bowl. On the first game of his senior season, Namath suffered a knee injury, which would recur twice more during the campaign.
Despite the injuries and extracurriculars, he would lead the team to an 11-1 record and a No. 1 ranking - losing only to Texas in that year's Orange Bowl - but the injury would linger, causing periodic fluid buildups in his knee. Though 15 credits shy of his degree, Namath went pro in 1965, drafted by both the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals and the AFL's New York Jets. By 1965, AFL clubs were ramping up their bids against NFL counterparts for top talent, and the Jets wooed Namath to New York for a then-record $427,000 a year. Namath passed for 2,200 yards his first season after winning the starting job. He would take AFL Rookie of the Year honors, though the Jets struggled. A gunslinger with a penchant for taking chances with the ball, he upped his numbers in 1966 to 3,379 yards and 19 touchdowns but also tossed 27 interceptions. His air show ramped up in 1967 when he passed for 4,007 yards and 26 touchdowns as the Jets put up their first winning season, finishing with an 8-5 record. The 1968 season saw Namath lead the Jets to an 11-3 regular-season record and a berth in the AFL title game versus defending AFL champion Oakland Raiders. In a hard-fought game, Namath tossed an untimely fourth-quarter interception that allowed the Raiders to take a late lead. But he turned it around on the next possession for a drive that would become the building block of his legend. With only 55 seconds left in the game, Namath completed three passes to drive the Jets 68 yards for a touchdown and win the game 27-23.
That victory landed the Jets in the AFL-NFL Championship Game, which was established as a first step towards merger between the leagues and later redubbed the Super Bowl. They faced the NFL powerhouse Baltimore Colts. Even with their Hall-of-Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas sidelined most of the season, oddsmakers gave the Colts an 18-point edge. A reportedly drunk Namath, responding to a heckling Colts Fan at a Miami club three days before the game, guaranteed a Jets win and the ill-advised prediction was picked with much fanfare by the media. When the teams met on Jan. 12, 1969, the Jets delivered in a defensive battle, picking off Colts QBs Earl Moral and, in reserve, Unitas four times and holding them to one touchdown, while Jets fullback Matt Snell rushed for 121 yards and Namath passed for 206. Namath took the MVP award in the 16-7 victory. The win proved a watershed for the AFL, as it signaled that the upstart league could compete with NFL teams as the entities completed their merger.
The glow dimmed, however, in a post-merger dust-up with the NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Namath, who had become a gadabout denizen of New York's swankiest hotspots, decided to put his own stamp on the city's nightlife. He partnered on a swinging nightclub imprint, Bachelors III, which opened locations on New York's Upper East Side and in Boston and Florida. The New York club was frequented by celebrities and, problematic for the league, well-renowned organized crime figures. Rozelle demanded Namath sell off his interest, but, outraged at the intrusion in his off-field affairs, Namath announced his retirement. After some tense negotiations between the two sides, a bargain was struck whereby Namath sold his share of the New York club and the NFL allowed him to keep interests in the out-of-town locations. Namath took the Jets back to AFL championship game the next year but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. Still, he had been transformed from star into superstar. In 1969, he was lured to television for a talk-show co-hosted by sportswriter Dick Schaap. Namath's star drew some of the top talents in sports as well as entertainment, but the breezy, booze-loosened, often awkward show only lasted 13 episodes. Producer Joseph E. Levine attempted to make Namath an action star with the film "C.C. and Company" (1970), in which Namath played a tough-guy biker who turns against his compatriot riders to save socialite Ann-Margret. Not surprisingly, critics were not impressed.
Namath's chronic knee injury began taking its toll as of the 1970 season, when he only played five games. He would see minutes in just 23 games over the next three seasons and the Jets' fortunes faded accordingly. Namath remained a hot booking for variety shows such as "The Flip Wilson Show" (NBC, 1970-74), "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" (NBC, 1968-1973) and "The Dean Martin Show" (NBC, 1965-1974), and he did some contrived cameos on sitcoms such as "Here's Lucy" (CBS, 1968-1974) and "The Brady Bunch" (ABC, 1969-1974). As a commercial spokesperson, he famously donned a pair of Hanes Beautymist pantyhose, let Noxema "cream" his face in a series of ads for its shaving cream, mugged for Brüt aftershave, and joined a roster of sports stars hawking Dingo boots. Namath put together a full season in 1974, led the Jets to a .500 season, and earned the AP's Comeback Player of the Year Award, but the talent-depleted team continued to struggle in ensuing years. In 1977, the Jets waived Namath so he could attempt to make a fresh start with the Los Angeles Rams. He started the Rams' first four games, but the fourth would place a period on his career as he took a beating against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field and yielded the QB spot to reserve Pat Haden.
Namath rehabbed again, but the Rams stuck with Haden through their playoff run, and Namath retired at season's end. NBC gave Namath a shot at a regular TV gig with "The Waverly Wonders," which debuted on the network's schedule in the fall of 1978, with Namath playing a former pro basketball player who finds work coaching a hapless high school basketball team while himself struggling to teach history. NBC only aired five episodes before yanking the series. Namath's ensuing ventures into narrative media would largely be confined to one-off jobs, as per guest shots on "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986), "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1978-1984) and "The A-Team" (NBC, 1983-87). He returned to feature films in 1982 in the anemic comedy "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," playing the football coach love interest of Barbara Eden. "Broadway Joe" even managed to score a Broadway gig in a replacement turn in the 1983 revival of "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" at the Circle in the Square Theater. In 1984, the notorious bachelor married actress Deborah Mays, and the couple welcomed the first of two daughters two years later. In spite of his low QB-rating numbers, marred by his voluminous interceptions, Namath was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
That year, he took a shot as a color commentator on "Monday Night Football" (ABC/ESPN, 1970- ) broadcasts, but he seemed ill-equipped for live game analysis and left after a year. He went on to be a periodic guest star on primetime TV, typically in gimmicky cameos as himself, as with a send-up of his silly non-sequitur "Brady Bunch" appearance on a football-themed episode of "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ). Namath divorced Mays in 2000. Three years later, he was named to the Jets' all-time team, but his boozing ways caught up to him when he joined fellow honorees on-field at a December Jets home game. Obviously drunk and slurring, Namath did an interview with sprightly ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber after the ceremony, leaning uncomfortably close to her and telling her twice he wanted to kiss her. It created a national tabloid stir, so in 2004, Namath announced he was seeking treatment for alcoholism. He spoke candidly of his lifelong relationship with alcohol in the 2006 best-selling bio Namath. Also that year, Namath returned to Tuscaloosa to begin work on completing his college education. Namath graduated in 2007 with BA in interdisciplinary studies.
By Matthew Grimm