It is the Rams' ball on the 50, third quarter, second and eight. Joe Namath drops back to pass, looks downfield, sees no one open. Then, with his celebrated quick release, he unloads to Tight End Terry Nelson for 11 yards up the middle and a first down in Viking territory. Thunderous cheers from 55,168 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the sort ordinarily saved for last-second, 80-yard touchdown bombs. It is the first pass completion in professional football for Namath to any teammate but a New York Jet. It is history of a sort.
Namath played only the third quarter of the Rams' opening preseason game with Minnesota last Saturday night—a 22-17 loss, as it were, for the home team—and his performance was scarcely remarkable, three completions in four attempts for 34 yards, but it was enough to win him the adoration of his new constituents. Anything shy of four straight interceptions and a goal-line fumble would have sufficed, so eager were they to embrace him. Starting Quarterback Pat Haden's beauty of a 36-yard touchdown pass to Willie Miller might as well have been a no-gainer up the middle so mild was its reception in comparison with that accorded Namath's 11-yarder.
For that matter, Namath's mere appearance on the field recalled Lindbergh at Le Bourget. It was as if he were seen as one who had come to deliver the Rams from the plague of near-misses they have suffered in recent NFL playoffs. Namath is an unlikely Messiah, and in the past few seasons he has not been all that good a quarterback, either, but no one in Los Angeles had forgotten that once, long ago in 1969, he did take a team that was not supposed to win to victory in the Super Bowl.
After his debut Namath spoke with affection of his new friends in Southern California. "That ovation gave me a great feeling," he said, his famous aquamarine eyes humbly downcast. "I hope the people here are happy with me." Such statements are in keeping with the "just-one-of-the-boys" posture he has adopted in his new circumstances. But it would be a mistake to say that Namath, for all of the plain-folks protestations attributed to him, has blended unobtrusively into the Ram picture.
Hiring Namath, as the Rams discovered after he signed as a waived free agent last May, is like having Farrah Fawcett-Majors on the payroll. People like that get noticed. Namath remains what he has been from the beginning of his amply chronicled career: a media supersubject. That he should have departed one celebrity-swollen community for another is fitting for one who, while his once formidable skills decline, has become increasingly famous for being famous.
In his brief stay with the Rams, Namath has been the subject of two major press conferences, one in Los Angeles at the time of his signing, the other when he reported to the Ram training camp on the campus of California State University at Fullerton. In each, he conducted himself with his usual aplomb, although after the first, which involved some lame jokes on his legendary fondness for women, he confided to a New York journalist that some characters in the L.A. press seemed a bit intrusive for his tastes. The remark, subsequently published, did not endear him to the local press.
But in training camp Namath has sought to escape rather than exploit the media. Oh, he might do an interview with Rona Barrett from time to time, but mostly he has held himself apart. A pleasant enough young man named Wayne Lyttle has served him as chauffeur, amanuensis and protective shield. If one wishes an audience with Namath, one first locates Lyttle. There has been such an aura about Namath in camp that the veteran Los Angeles Times columnist, John Hall, felt impelled to inquire of Ram public relations director Jerry Wilcox, "Say, just what is the procedure around here for talking to Joe Namath?" To simply walk up and introduce oneself, as one might with a lesser athlete, seemed to Hall, in the atmosphere of the Ram camp, nothing short of barbaric.
Namath is still all business on the field. He labors long hours honing now jagged skills, adapting himself to a new system, making the acquaintance of new teammates. His afflicted legs are so hidden beneath a network of braces and bandages that he appears to be making his way on prosthetic devices, but he is astonishingly quick on his feet for one so handicapped. Because of his lame knees, though, he does no running. When his teammates trudge complainingly by on their laps of the field, they find Namath supine, eyes averted, intent on stretching exercises.
Namath takes his laps after practice—and not on dry land. When Namath's teammates have been dismissed from their labors, Lyttle drives onto the field and hurries his employer away to the campus pool, where each day he swims up to 64 laps, nearly a mile. The aquatic program was devised by Ram trainer Gary Tuthill as a means of increasing Namath's stamina while preserving his fragile limbs.
In truth, Namath is in tip-top shape for a 34-year-old on his legs. He reported to camp at a svelte 187 pounds and has gained only half a pound since. His arm seems as quick and strong as ever as he zings his passes with authority. For all of his specialness, he seems also to have won the confidence, even the affection, of his fellow players. "Joe Namath," says Defensive End Fred Dryer, "is a terrific guy."
He may be, but he will have to earn his way into the starting lineup. Ram Coach Chuck Knox will alternate Namath and Haden throughout the preseason games and not decide upon his starter until the week of the regular-season opener with Atlanta Sept. 18. Whoever finishes ahead will remain in office until injury or abject failure dislodges him, for Knox has no wish to perpetuate the Rams' sorry history of quarterback rivalry that began a generation ago with Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin and reached a nadir last season when Haden, James Harris and Ron Jaworski scrambled for the top spot.
Haden eventually won the competition and he is still officially first string, but he got there only after Knox and L.A. owner Carroll Rosenbloom were vilified as racists. Harris, one of the few black quarterbacks in the professional game, has been dealt to San Diego, and Jaworski is now in Philadelphia, but the controversy still lingers in some circles. Harris, a kind of black hope at a position dominated by whites, was never given a real chance, his supporters insist, before Knox turned to the blond and blue-eyed Haden. Racism is no longer the issue, but Knox does not want an unsettled situation this year. "A repeat of last year's quarterback thing," says Dryer, "is something this team cannot endure."
Certainly Haden has had his fill of it, even though in Namath he has a formidable rival who is his nearly exact opposite in most respects. Namath is hobbled, while Haden is nimble enough to scramble. Namath is 10 pounds lighter than usual; Haden, at a still-bantam 182, is 10 pounds heavier. Namath, the media darling, remains above the battle; Haden is among the most accessible of athletes. Namath has the Latin-lover look; Haden is the reincarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Princeton hero, Hobey Baker, who in another time, among persons of different taste, would be the all-American boy. Joe Namath is the pluperfect bachelor; Haden is married.
Namath has a reputation as a braggadocio, as reflected in the title of an early autobiography, I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow 'Cause I Gel Better Looking Every Day. Haden, in collaboration with author Robert Blair Kaiser, also has a book on the shelves, My Rookie Season with the Los Angeles Rams. But Haden was so embarrassed by the amount of work Kaiser devoted to the project he suggested that Kaiser should receive most of the profits. Kaiser, who has collaborated with such towering egos as lawyer Melvin Belli, was flabbergasted by Haden's humility. He also refused to change their 50-50 agreement.
It is reasonable to assume that Namath will spend his off-hours in Beverly Hills' Polo Lounge or some such film colony watering hole; Haden may be found in a library. A graduate in English literature from USC, he will complete his Rhodes scholarship studies next June at Oxford, working in a field that involves philosophy, economics and politics.
The dual life of athlete-scholar favors Haden with rare perception. "Here in L.A. it's show business," he says. "At Oxford it is all intellectual. One part of my life is physically and emotionally stimulating. The other is mentally exciting. Winning the Rhodes was the best thing that's happened to me. I know now there are lots of things to experience, lots of people to see. I want to do it all. Oxford is not like an ordinary university. It's very different from going to USC, where there were serious students, of course, but where a lot of people were there just to have fun or, yes, to play football. At Oxford everyone is very serious about getting an education."
For all of his own seriousness about getting an education, Haden, who is 10 years Namath's junior, is equally intent upon being the Rams' starting quarterback. He was enjoying himself playing on the Oxford croquet team when he learned Namath had been signed. "Before I left for England I was told that anybody they brought in would have to beat me out," he says. "I thought to myself that I'd rather have Joe Namath here than a lot of other people. I knew I could learn from him, and I also knew that he wouldn't be playing forever. All I can do this year is prepare myself, pick up my rifle, so to speak, and keep marching. I know I'm a better quarterback than I was last year, so I'm just going to play like hell. So will he. If he beats me out fair and square, I'm not going to groan and complain.
"I've got a lot of football ahead of me. It's not as if I had led the Rams to five Super Bowls or anything. I had a very average season last year, nothing spectacular. But playing quarterback on this team is comparatively easy. You don't have to score 35 points a game with our defense. And we can run the ball. Football is not that tough a game. I don't subscribe to the theory that it takes five years to make a quarterback in the NFL. The hardest thing is handling the pressure, and I've had some of that."
Namath may have one considerable advantage over his young rival in that he is an acknowledged field tactician—and Knox has announced that he will experiment with having his quarterbacks call their own plays this year. At least during the preseason. Since John Hadl departed three years ago, all Ram plays have been sent in from the sidelines, either by messenger or by wigwag, systems that have proved successful enough—four straight division titles and a 44-11-1 record—but that have also been a bit dispiriting for the signal-callers and even some of the other players.
"I think maybe what's been missing on this team," says Dryer, "is the spontaneity, the freedom of the quarterback to make his own mistakes. When he calls a play and it's successful, the whole team is picked up. This is what Joe Namath has been famous for—literally drawing plays in the dirt. Enough has been done to depersonalize football; this is still a sandlot game at heart."
"I know that if I played quarterback, I'd want to call the plays," says Ron Jessie, the Rams' acrobatic wide receiver. "Figuring out a defense, pulling something off, that's leadership. And that's important to a quarterback. Stepping into that huddle with authority and emotion, making crucial decisions in the heat of battle, doing something unusual, being the master of your own strategy. Take all that away from a quarterback and you put him at a mental disadvantage."
Until last Saturday, Haden had not been free to call his own game since his brief experience with the World Football League's Southern California Sun two years ago. The third quarterback, rookie Vince Ferragamo, had never called his own plays—not in high school, not at the University of California, where he first played college football, and not at Nebraska, where he finished his undergraduate career. Namath, meanwhile, had pretty much run his own show in his 12 years with the Jets.
But a preseason game, particularly an opener, is not a proper showcase for tactical genius. Against the Vikings, Namath was instructed to give the ball whenever feasible to his untested running backs, rookie Wendell Tyler from UCLA and second-year man Jim Jodat. Both responded with fine games, Jodat leading all rushers with 65 yards, but the premeditated strategy robbed Namath of much of his initiative. Ferragamo, playing in only the fourth quarter, called every play but one, Rod Phillips' seven-yard touchdown run off tackle, a play sent in by messenger. But because Ferragamo was unaccustomed to the freedom he had been granted, he was not offended by this minor usurpation of authority.
Haden had the most freedom of choice, but he was operating with only a few plays and finished his half calling a fairly conservative game. He was also disappointed with himself. "I gave them an easy seven points with a bad handoff [which resulted in a John Cappelletti fumble and a quick Viking score] and I threw a bad pass for an interception." But Haden also led all passers, completing six of 12 for 104 yards.
For Minnesota, Fran Tarkenton, that other aging quarterback, played only the first quarter but led the Vikings to a 16-0 lead. The Rams rallied to go ahead 17-16, but just when they seemed to have the game won, the Vikings went to the kick-blocking tactics that had destroyed Los Angeles in last season's NFC title game. With only 1:27 to play, Nate Allen cruised in and blocked Gerald Vaught's punt, scooped up the ball and ran it back 23 yards for a touchdown, giving Minnesota its 22-17 win.
After the game Namath was humble in a wry sort of way. He rolled his eyes when he caught sight of the newsmen swarming about his locker, but he endured the questioning with mostly good humor. When an especially friendly reporter asked him if he had found a place to live yet in the Los Angeles area, Namath, hurrying toward the showers, replied, "No." Then, smiling, he added, "I've gotta make the team first."
That, of course, is precisely what Ram fans expect of him—to make their team first. First in all of the NFL.