'JOE WON'T BE PART OF THE MACHINERY'
On the day that Joe Willie Namath, age 26, wept and retired (see cover), the stock market did not crash. The trains did not stop running, and the boutiques did not begin to push sackcloth miniskirts. Random House, the publishers of Namath's forthcoming autobiography, I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow...'Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day, did not stop the presses nor did Paramount halt production of Norwood, the movie in which Namath will play this ex-marine. And in Beaver Falls, Pa., where Namath grew up, the steel mills did not shut down in mourning.
Now, that is not to say that there were no shock waves. Many sportswriters were deeply moved and extolled Namath's humanity, honesty and courage in the kind of rolling and symphonic prose usually reserved for the obituaries of lovable old prime ministers. The stock in Broadway Joe's, Inc., a chain of quick-lunch restaurants, fell to 9½ bid, off more than a point (which cost Namath, on paper, a cool $180,000). George Sauer, Pete Lammons and Jim Hudson vowed that if Namath wasn't going to play for the Jets they wouldn't either, and Coach Weeb Ewbank snorted, "This is what I got to put up with."
Of course, putting up with Namath has taken some doing over the years, for it is his belief that star quarterbacks are made of more valuable stuff than the run of prime ministers. Yet, there was no question that Namath's tears were real. There he was, in his New York saloon, Bachelors III, slumped behind a great steel bouquet of microphones and flanked by telecasters Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote and Howard Cosell. The floodlights blazing upon his face showed, without contrivance, the brimming blue eyes and the streaming cheeks. No one in the joint could doubt that Namath was overwrought, and, as he spoke, Frank Gifford seemed dazed, Kyle Rote showed pain and Howard Cosell looked as if he wanted to lie down in a coffin. Joe Namath announced that he was quitting professional football because he did not want to give up his interest in Bachelors III.
It is not a bad little bar, although a bit gloomy with its pseudo-Tudor decor and lighting so low one can hardly see the dozens of photographs of Joe Namath and various good-looking broads that hang on the walls. Whenever Namath actually arrives the saloon suddenly becomes hushed and the whispers begin to travel along the bar and among the tables: "He's here.... Here he comes.... That's him."
At his press conference Namath explained that he preferred holding on to his share of Bachelors III to playing quarterback. It was a matter of principle. He said he had not known that gamblers frequented the place and used his phones. He said he did not think it fair for Pete Rozelle to threaten him with suspension unless he sold his interest. "What place don't have people come in who bet?" he said. "My father bets. Can't I talk to him?"
Later that day Rozelle called his own press conference and said that Namath had been told three months ago that gamblers were hanging out in Bachelors III. Rozelle said that he was of the opinion that when people of "undesirable background" continued to associate with any player, the situation takes on "the appearance of evil, whether or not it actually exists and thereby affects the player's reputation, the reputation of his fellow players and the integrity of his sport." Rozelle also said that he had not one iota of evidence that Namath himself had done anything illegal.
Nonetheless, it has been reliably reported that phones had been tapped ("There were seven rats around," said a guy in the know. "Spying, drinking, eating, looking for something.") and that the D.A.'s office had planned to raid Bachelors III and subpoena Namath and his partner, Ray Abruzzese, as well as any known gamblers and bookies in the place at the time. But because of the furor surrounding Namath's retirement, the raid had to be called off.
Before Namath decided to quit he called his old roommate Joe Hirsch, a writer for The Morning Telegraph. He called his old Jets boss, Sonny Werblin. And he phoned Paul Bryant, his old coach at Alabama, who was out and didn't get back to Namath until he was leaving for his press conference. Bryant tried to talk him out of quitting, even offered to catch the next plane to New York. "Joe," he pleaded, "if these friends of yours really cared about you, they'd make you get out." Said Namath, "No, sir, coach, I know I'm right. I know I've got to do this." After 20 minutes of fruitless persuasion Bryant said, "Joe, have you gotten too big to pray?" Said Namath, "No, coach, no, sir, that's all I've been doing for two nights."
Given Namath's highly emotional makeup, it seems likely that sooner or later he will decide to un-retire. However, he will not automatically be welcomed back to pro football; first, his association (if any) with the dubious characters at his place must be cleared up to Rozelle's complete satisfaction.
There are many opinions about why Namath quit, and in Bachelors III last week the theories were as thick as the gloom. Some habitués saw his retirement as a classic conflict between the individual and the establishment. "Joe won't let football control his life or dictate how he lives," said a friend. "The Jets learned they had to suggest which plays he should call rather than tell him. They learned to suggest that he stay in camp rather than demand it. Joe won't be a part of the machinery." Another friend said, "Joe Namath is an individualist and he's a genius at what he does. Men like that have got to be treated differently. You've got to let them have some extra room to move."
In Bachelors III, where the jukebox is blaring Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In and the phone never stops ringing and the bell-bottom-and-sideburns crowd keep looking for whatever they hope to find, there is not much opportunity to discuss the ramifications of amorality or the subtleties of the establishment vs. the individual or even the philosophic responsibilities of a team leader.
But on the night that Namath quit, one of his teammates was in Bachelors III—Dave Herman, the offensive guard who has fought off the pass rushers who wanted to break Willie White Shoes in half. "Joe's retirement is a tragedy for football and for the Jets," Herman said, "and, yes, for Dave Herman and my wife and my two kids. Unless we win the Super Bowl again, people'll say it was a fluke. None of us thought we could win. We were the victims of the NFL superiority syndrome. But Joe kept telling us we could win and finally we believed him. Joe won it for us. I doubt we could do it without him. I believe in Joe, and if he told me there's a tiger behind me, I wouldn't look—I'd just jump. But Joe's a man of principle; he'd give it all up—football, everything—for a principle."
Of course, that raised an obvious question concerning Namath's principles in terms of loyalty to his team and allegiance to the sport that has so richly rewarded him. "There's a conflict of principles there, I suppose," Herman said. "He owes his greatest obligation to himself, I suppose."
Shortly before one a.m., the whispers began along the bar. "He's here...." And he was, and at his elbow was a blonde. Dave Herman greeted him warmly and offered to buy drinks for the house. Namath grinned and shook hands all the way down the bar. There were no more tears. Joe Namath looked as if he couldn't wait until tomorrow to see how good he would look.