It was almost like old times last week for a pair of ex-Alabama quarterbacks, Joseph William Namath of the Jets and Bryan Bartlett Starr of the Packers. Both were returning to play after injury and surgery, but there ends all similarity between Swinger and Straight Arrow.
Namath's heroics started (and ended) a week ago Sunday against the 49ers in Shea Stadium. As the Jets' pro tern quarterback. Bob Davis, lay writhing with a sprained ankle midway in the second quarter, the packed stands exploded because the fans knew Namath would now have to play. "There was this great feeling of the whole stadium just swelling with emotion," said John Dockery, Jet cornerback, sometime flanker, last-string quarterback and Harvard '66. "The aura and the frenzy that accompany him still make me marvel." Another Jet was said to be so overwhelmed that he started to stand at attention in the huddle.
Off target with his first two passes, Namath made the fans marvel as he led the Jets, behind 17-0, to near victory by throwing for three touchdowns. Although the 49ers ultimately won 24-21, the crowd stood and roared. Just wait till Joe took on the Cowboys Saturday in Texas.
In practice last week Namath acted his old self, alternately charming and arrogant. He spoke only to favored reporters, boycotting others because of stories dating back to the Bachelors III scandal. Off the field, among his teammates, he was loose. On the field, he was stiff and had no zip on the ball because of an elbow bruise suffered in the 49er game. He tried to throw the same pass to Don Maynard seven times and ruefully admitted, "I missed him seven times."
Namath would have needed every bit of his old zip against the Cowboys, who stunned the Jets before Joe got his hands on the ball. Rookie Isaac Thomas ran back the opening kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown, and after less than 12 minutes Dallas led 28-0, one of the touchdowns being set up by an interception of a Namath pass, aimed once again at Maynard. Namath passed five times with only one completion, and Coach Weeb Ewbank decided he had had enough. "We're not going to throw anyone to the wolves," Ewbank explained. Namath allowed, "He didn't get any argument out of me."
Despite the Cowboys' crushing 52-10 win, a horde of fans passed up the home-town heroes to crowd around the Jet bus. They had only one cry: "Joe! Joe! Joe!"
By contrast, Starr's return to the Packers a week ago Sunday against New Orleans was undistinguished (eight out of 17 for 166 yards and one interception in a 29-21 loss), but it had the overtones of old-fashioned sentiment, like a Lawrence Welk waltz. Almost forgetting, or so it seemed, the honors and acclaim of years past, Starr was genuinely moved at having been named "tri-captain"-along with Willie Wood and Gale Gillingham—by Coach Dan Devine. "I appreciate the gesture," said Starr. "That did touch me deeply. I'd often felt I could make a contribution in that line, but nobody ever offered me a chance, although I want to say I feel we had outstanding leadership all through those years. It touched me anyway, and it made me want to do as much as I could for this team."
For Starr, now 37, coming back is not easy. In and out with injuries since 1968, he underwent surgery last July on a biceps tendon in his throwing arm, and three weeks later he needed additional surgery to seal a leaking artery in the arm.
Starr is not yet as strong as he would like to be—in last Sunday's 16-16 tie with St. Louis he completed two of five for 31 yards and had two interceptions before being replaced—and his future is of concern to Devine. Rookie Scott Hunter (still another ex-Alabaman) has averaged an interception every eight passes, and Starr's late-season performance will determine what Devine will do with the Packers' two upcoming first-round draft choices. Must he seek another quarterback? Devine quickly comments, "I wouldn't want Bart to think he was just in there as a guinea pig, to see what he can do, because that isn't true."
Well, not quite.