In honor of the big game this Sunday... ("What?," you say? You don't know the game I'm talking about?! The Super Bowl, of course! Patriots versus the Giants! Yes, believe it or not, I'm a big football fan.) Anyway, neither of the teams in it this year is a favorite of mine, but I'll still be watching, along with much of the world. To tie in just a little with the occasion, I'm going to post some photos of one of American football's most trend-setting, popular, influential and, yes, controversial, superstars. I recently watched a fascinating documentary about him (Namath) on HBO and my subsequent research into him yielded several interesting (and some slightly revealing) pictures. The man is Joe Namath.
Namath was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town with a heavy Black population, on May 31st, 1943. A startling, multi-talented athlete, very proficient at basketball, football and particularly baseball, he was offered several contracts as a professional baseball player, but turned them down in order to attend college. Heading to the University of Maryland through their football program, he failed to meet the proper entrance exam test scores. He then was chosen by legendary coach Bear Bryant (shown with him here below on the left) to attend Alabama as a new quarterback, where he swiftly made his presence known to the shock and delight of many. He also was present on the tumultuous day desegregation occurred there, stunned by the very idea of segregation in the first place after having been raised in a mixed, northern neighborhood.
Even though he suffered severe knee injuries while playing for Alabama's Crimson Tide, he established an unbelievable record and was soon courted by professional football teams. After some wrangling, he wound up with the New York Jets, enjoying a three-year contract of over $400,000 in salary and perks at a time when top players usually took in around $50,000/year. (Would today's players even show up to practice for $50,000?) He was worth it, though. His lightning-fast ball-throwing prevented many defensive players from getting to him prior to launch and the force of his throws sometimes left bruises on the players catching the ball.
Namath, who had a face - depending on the moment - that alternated between ruggedly handsome and so craggy only a mother could love it, swiftly became a superstar of the sport, raising his low-profile team to new heights and ultimately a Super Bowl win in the third-ever such event. His team's victory over the seemingly invincible Baltimore Colts brought everything from adulation to begrudging respect. (They were favored to win by 17 points, but he went out on a limb publicly before the game by stating that he "guaranteed" that his team would win. And they did!)
Nicknamed "Broadway Joe" after a Sports Illustrated cover depicted him on The Great White Way in his Jets uniform, he seemed to be the first to do everything. He was the first player to wear white shoes (players that wear shoes that don't match their teammates' now can face fines), he grew a Fu Manchu moustache long before Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens got press for his (the NFL soon mandated that facial hair was not allowed) and he was the first to wear an outre, full-length fur coat on the sidelines (as one might expect, the NFL soon declared that all sideline clothing must be league-approved team apparel!) More importantly, he was the first NFL quarterback to ever pass for more than 4,000 yards in a single season (at a time when a season consisted 14 games, not the current 16!)
When he was forced to shave his mustache, he simply turned to a shaving cream company to film it for a commercial, making piles of money in the process. He endorsed clothes, cologne, boots... His most infamous commercial was for a pantyhose company and he donned a pair for the TV advertisement, saying that if they could make HIS legs look that good, then imagine what they could do for a lady's! He did a series of television ads with Farrah Fawcett, sometimes requiring them to be placed in a bathroom, towel-clad, together.
He had his own TV talk show, which was a success and featured tons of high-profile guests, but one year of it turned out to be all he could handle with his schedule. He also had part-ownership in a popular nightclub which caused him no small amount of trouble. (With the place accused of catering to shady figures amongst its clientele, he was forced to sell his interest in it or give up pro football.)
He was so hot that women chased him as if he was a rock star (and he didn't run very far or very hard from them!) There was a Joe Namath doll sold in stores and it even came with its own funky fur coat amongst the available outfits! He enjoyed the night life of New York City so much that it began to take it's toll on him. Booze helped deaden the immense pain he suffered in both knees. This was not the era we now enjoy in which players are penalized for roughing the quarterback (or even seeming to!) In his day, it was "Kill the Quarterback!" and he paid a very high price physically, often being crushed, pummeled and ground into the dirt.In time he had to have his leg almost completely taped before he could enter the field to play. (I'm lovin' this shot of several players just hanging out in their jockstraps!) After eleven years with the Jets, he played briefly with the Los Angeles Rams before having to quit finally, due to more injury, in 1977. Already by then he'd begun sporadically working on TV and in movies. In 1970, he'd costarred with Ann-Margret in the biker flick C.C. and Company, rolling around on the floor in a love scene with her. (Her husband Roger Smith was clearly not jealous as he had written the scene in question!) He'd also starred with singer-turned-alomst-actor Glen Campbell in 1970's Norwood, about two Vietnam vets readjusting to domestic life, and played the lead in the low-budget, low-brain, post-Civil War drama The Last Rebel in 1971. In 1972, he squired Miss Raquel Welch to the Oscar ceremony. (Did we really dress in things this understated at the Academy Awards back in the day? You can thank - or choose not to thank - Miss Joan Rivers and her cable-TV critiques for the elaborate clothing that is now back in vogue at the yearly event.) He was even roasted by Dean Martin and his outrageous band of cronies.
After his football career was finished, he alternated between TV series appearances (even starring briefly in his own, The Waverly Wonders, in 1978) and minor movies like Avalanche Express (1978) and Chatanooga Choo Choo (1984.) He took part in regional theatre and tours, even sojourning to Broadway in order to replace one of the leads in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial opposite Michael Moriarty, William Atherton and John Rubenstein. There were the obligatory guest shots on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, too, of course. He married in 1984 and had two daughters, who he adored.
His stint on Monday Night Football in 1985 came to a close over his drinking habits, but he swiftly got sober and stayed that way for over a decade. A 1999 divorce knocked the wind out of his sails and a lengthy period of sobriety came to a close. He started drinking very heavily and had an infamous public humiliation when a TV interview along the sidelines revealed his level of intoxication. Again, he gave up alcohol and began to concentrate on the positive. Now, after two knee replacements, he is free to spend time with his children and grandchildren, attend industry events or pursue his various favorite charities.
For better or for worse, today's players owe a certain amount of the glitz and glory that goes along with their profession to men like Namath who took the celebrity of sportsmen to an entirely new level. Sometimes I see a scintilla of resemblance between Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers (another #12) and him, though I think Rodgers is more committed to the lifestyle discipline that his role requires than Namath possessed in the free-wheeling '70s. Easily one of the sport's Top 100 players, even while plagued with pain and a roller coaster lifestyle, The Underworld salutes Joe Namath, his pretty green eyes and his hairy chest!