Nothing Was Guaranteed

Hall of Famer Joe Namath on the twists of fate that defined his career—and sent him to the Jets rather than Vietnam
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PETER KING: I’ve always wondered what kind of pro career you would’ve had if you didn’t wreck your knee your senior season at Alabama in 1964. Do you?

JOE NAMATH: If I didn’t have that knee injury, I would have had to go to Vietnam. No question in my mind. What would have happened if I had to do a tour of Vietnam? I took three physicals with the military, the last one either my rookie year [1965] or 1966, I forget. All three doctors, bottom line, said it would be tough for me to be a soldier in my condition. They wouldn’t pass me on the physical. A lot of people said, “How in the world can you be a pro quarterback and take all those hits and not be able to serve in the military?” Well, there are doctors around you when you’re playing football who can take care of you. And in the service, there are men whose lives might depend on you, so you can’t have a torn-up knee. Bottom line, I didn’t trust my knee, and I sure wouldn’t have trusted it out there in Vietnam.

Funniest thing that happened with the knee was after the Jets drafted me and I signed—I came to New York and they had a press gathering at [the restaurant] Toots Shor’s. This guy comes up to me. Sort of looks like Ernest Borgnine. He introduces himself as Dr. James Nicholas, the Jets’ team doctor. He says, “I need to see that knee.” I said, “When?” He says, “Now.” So we go into the men’s room, I pull my pants down, and he examines me. He figures he’s going to need to do surgery.

Dr. Nicholas’ mom gave me a St. Jude medal at the hospital before surgery. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. I thought, Wait a minute, lost causes?I’d rather think of him as the patron saint of difficult tasks. So when I woke up from surgery, Dr. Nicholas says, “Everything went well. You might be able to play four years.”

And do you know what the last game of my fourth season was? The day we beat the Colts in Super Bowl III.

KING:So, about that Super Bowl and your guarantee of a victory even though you were such heavy underdogs. I always heard it might have been due to alcohol. Really, why’d you do it?

NAMATH: We were very confident going into that game, and we were really angry about being considered such a second-class team. But all week, Coach [Weeb] Ewbank told us not to say anything. So we didn’t, until this banquet late in the week. And I would never have said anything unless this guy in the audience—I never found out who he was—yelled out, “Hey Namath! We’re gonna kick your ass on Sunday!” And I fired right back at him: “I got news for you. We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.” If he never opens his mouth, I never say it.

So the next day at practice, Weeb really let me have it. He never swore. He just said, “Dadgum it, Joe! Darn it! Why’d you have to go give ’em something to put on the bulletin board?!” I just told him, “Coach, you’ve got us ready to win this ballgame. If they need something in the paper to get themselves ready, they’re in trouble.”

KING:You’re working with the Pro Football Hall of Fame on its expansion project this year. I’ll put you on the spot: What do you think of the selection process, with 46 media people deciding who gets in and who doesn’t?