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Super Bowl Superhero

Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegel

By Robert Stacy McCain | February 14, 2005

When Super Bowl XXXIX kicks off Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Florida, more than 140 million television viewers will tune in to watch the spectacle. The halftime show is not likely to be as sensational as last year’s MTV-produced extravaganza, complete with a breast-baring “wardrobe malfunction” by Janet Jackson. Millions, however, will watch the show simply to see the commercials. The ten most-watched TV events in history are all Super Bowls, and advertisers use the opportunity to debut their most imaginative ads. At about $2 million per 30-second spot—Anheuser-Busch alone will buy some $25 million worth of commercial time—the Super Bowl XXXIX broadcast will generate more than $100 million for the Fox network.

Oh, and there will also be a football game.

The commercial glitz and tawdry showbiz aspects of the Super Bowl have long since eclipsed whatever athletic significance the event once had. Much the same is true for Joe Namath, perhaps the man most responsible for making the elaborate hoopla of Super Bowl Sunday an annual ritual of American life.

Namath was one of the most gifted athletes ever to lace on a pair of cleats—the first pro quarterback to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season—but his celebrity status, his notorious booze-and-broads lifestyle, and his identity as a symbol of the’60s sexual revolution have obscured his tremendous athletic accomplishments.

His abilities carried Namath from the small steel-mill town of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania to international fame in the 1960s. He was the brightest star of the game at a time when televised sports were transformed from an occasional weekend amusement shown in black and white into the full-color prime-time spectacle of Super Bowl Sunday.

Few of the millions of viewers who tune in Feb. 6 will know that the Super Bowl wasn’t “Super”—neither officially nor in fact—until the third such game was played in 1969. The game originated with the 1966 deal that merged the National Football League with the upstart American Football League. Namath had something to do with that merger. In December 1964, when it was reported that the University of Alabama’s senior quarterback was prepared to sign with the AFL’s New York Jets for an unheard-of $400,000, the headline-making offer signaled that the new league meant to compete seriously with the NFL. The bidding war for football talent eventually prompted a merger, and as part of the deal, the NFL-AFL championship game was first played in January 1967.

More than 30,000 seats were empty for that 1967 game, a mere afterthought to the NFL championship game. As Mark Kriegel writes in his Namath biography, “Those foolish enough to pay $12 a ticket—an outrageous sum in those days—were rewarded with the Green Bay Packers’ less-than-exciting win over the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, a score that seemed to vindicate the notion of the AFL as a Mickey Mouse league.” The second NFL-AFL title match in 1968 was hardly more impressive: the Packers stomped the Oakland Raiders 33-14.

When the AFL’s Jets took the field at the Orange Bowl in Miami on Jan. 12, 1969, they were 18-point underdogs to the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. The game that followed, Kriegel aptly notes, was “sloppy, full of folly, frustration, and squandered opportunity.”But it was also “the stuff of legend,” as Kriegel says, and the reason was Joe Namath.

With his shaggy hair and sideburns, his dark Hungarian looks, and his slouchy posture, Namath defied the crew-cut all-American QB image typified by Bart Starr of the Packers and Johnny Unitas of the Colts. Shortly after he’d signed with the New York Jets, a Sports Illustrated cover photo featured Namath against a backdrop of Broadway lights, and the nickname “Broadway Joe” stuck, caricaturing him (not altogether unfairly) as a cocky, high-living showoff.

The brash young quarterback from the brash young league upped the ante for the 1969 Super Bowl when, at a dinner the Thursday night before the game, he declared, “The Jets will win Sunday. I guarantee it.”

The Guarantee: With that one gesture, made in response to a heckler at a Miami Touchdown Club banquet, Namath ensured that the Jets’ 16-7 win over the Colts in Super Bowl III would establish a legend that another 35 Super Bowls (most of them boring, lopsided blowouts) could do nothing to diminish.

Like the championship game he made famous, the memory of Joe Namath today is more about showbiz spectacle than about football—and that’s a shame because Namath was easily one of the most talented players the game had ever known. No less a judge of football prowess than legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant pronounced Namath the greatest athlete he’d ever seen. In 12 pro seasons, Namath completed 1,886 passes for 27,663 yards and 173 touchdowns, despite repeated injuries to his famously damaged knees.

Whatever his feats on the field, however, Namath was more than a football player. He was a symbol, an icon of an era of sudden cultural change. Namath’s star ascended at a time when several forces, including rising affluence and advances in communications, converged to help create a huge audience for televised football, the advertising revenue to pay for it, and the technology to produce it.

Kriegel notes that the 1965 Orange Bowl, Namath’s final game for Alabama’s Crimson Tide, was “the first major team sporting event to be [televised] at night” —advances in television technology had only recently made such a broadcast possible. Prime-time televised sports have now deeply ingrained themselves into American culture, and Joe starred in the first episode, completing an Orange Bowl record 18 passes in a losing effort against the national champion Texas Longhorns. The next day, the New York Daily News called Namath “the most exciting thing on television.”

If he is now remembered less for his athletic ability than for his Broadway Joe persona, Namath himself is at least partly to blame. He was a world-class womanizer who never bothered to conceal his “love-’em-and-leave-’em” attitude.

Joe was in his prime at the very dawn of the sexual revolution, a revolution he helped to advance. In the index of Kriegel’s book, the line for “Namath and women” tells the reader to “see women,” and under “women,” the reader is referred to 31 separate pages. Sports fans today are accustomed to reading about the sexual adventures of athletes—the rape accusation against NBA star Kobe Bryant, the use of strippers to recruit players at the University of Colorado, ad infinitum—but it was not always thus. Old-time NFLers like Starr and Unitas were known as squeaky-clean family men. If athletics was once closely associated with moral virtue in the American psyche, Namath forever shattered that connection.

According to Kriegel, Namath’s amorous exploits were legendary even as an undergraduate at Alabama: “As his professors lectured in class, Joe would make mental lists of his conquests. ‘Just to see how I was doing,’ he said. Toward the end of his senior year, the list reached about 300. ‘But that’s a conservative estimate,’ he acknowledged.”

Were it anyone but Namath, such an estimate would be beyond belief. After all, this was Alabama—the Heart of Dixie, the very buckle of the Bible Belt—during the governorship of George Corley Wallace. But he was Namath, and who knows what wonders his green eyes, crooked grin, and dimpled chin might have worked with those Bama belles.

Namath’s appetite for alcohol was equally prodigious. In his quickie 1969 autobiography (modestly titled I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow … ’Cause I Get Better-Looking Every Day), Namath included a chapter called, “I Like My Girls Blonde and My Johnnie Walker Red.” He played with hangovers and sometimes had “a couple of Michelobs before practice.” The morning of the 1968 AFL championship game, Namath was spotted leaving a hotel, blonde in tow, at 8 a.m.

Despite his image as an icon of the ’60s counterculture, Namath was in many ways old-fashioned. Though he smoked some dope (it helped numb the pain of injuries), he was never part of the left-wing hippie scene. “I don’t like to get involved in politics,” Namath said after it became known he was on the Nixon administration’s so-called “enemies list.” He was patriotic. Of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he said during the height of anti-Vietnam War protests, “Every time I hear it before a game, it reminds me of where we are in the world, in life. I kind of thank God that we’re in this country. When I hear it, I get chills.”

There is irony in the Namath saga. His TV ads for shaving cream (with a then-unknown blonde named Farah Fawcett cooing, “take it all off”) and pantyhose (if Hanes “can make my legs look good, imagine what they’ll do for yours”) were once viewed as vaguely scandalous. But by the dawn of the 21st century, his image had mellowed in such a way that a real-estate investment firm hired Namath as spokesman at $1 million a year, saying, “He’s perfect for our demographic.”

Perhaps more ironically, one of the world’s most famous playboys ended up brokenhearted, a divorced father hopelessly devoted to his two young daughters. At 40, he married a young actress depicted by Kriegel as shallow and narcissistic. She eventually dumped Namath and took up with a Hollywood plastic surgeon. It was in a drunken stupor of self-pity after his divorce that Joe suffered his greatest embarrassment in 2003 when, during a sideline interview at a prime-time Jets game, he slurred at a female ESPN reporter, “I want to kiss you.”

Given Joe’s stardom, Kriegel observes that “the only place for him to hit rock bottom” was on national TV. Namath went into rehab and sobered up, and Kriegel concludes the unfinished saga of Broadway Joe with the star “tanned, energized, healthy,” his “teeth … as white as his shirt.” Still super after all these years.

Robert Stacy McCain is an assistant national editor with the Washington Times.

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