Once upon a time, Joe Namath had good knees, he was fast and elusive, and he could dunk a basketball two-handed. Of course, he could always throw a football, much like a great fighter whipping a right cross directly from a hunched shoulder, full of sting and accuracy and more force than seemed possible. University of Alabama head coach Bear Bryant called him "the greatest athlete I have ever coached." But the knee injuries came in rapid succession toward the end of Namath's Alabama career, and the surgeries followed, and the brash, working-class quarterback from Beaver halls, Pa., quickly metamorphosed into that most poignant of icons, the young, wounded hero.
When he signed a pro contract in 1965 with the New York Jets of the upstart and ridiculed American Football League, Namath found himself fulfilling a role never before played: young wounded hero as cocky, antiestablishment media beacon. He was, after all, in New York City, and the lights were shining, the scribes scribbling, the cameras rolling. And Namath did have prior experience making headlines: He had been kicked off the Alabama team, for drinking and carousing, before the last two games of his junior season, only to return the following year and lead the Crimson Tide to the 1964 national championship on a gimpy right knee. Upon arriving in New York, he was a natural for a nation in the throes of a sexual revolution and in endless debate over an individual's right to "do his own thing."
Namath did his own thing. He grew a Fu Manchu mustache, wore white shoes afield, smoked cigarettes, invested in a boisterous Manhattan club called Bachelors III, starred in a panty-hose commercial and published an autobiography entitled I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow 'Cause I Get Better Looking Every: Day. A bachelor who loved to chase "foxes," he once proclaimed, "I'd rather go to Vietnam than get married." The swinging dude was also a bonus baby—remember that phrase?—and his first football contract, a three-year deal for $427,000, was considered huge enough by some to signify the decline of Western values, if not civilization itself. But Jet owner Sonny Werblin, a Hollywood impresario who understood hype, had planned it that way. Broadway Joe was precisely the man for Werblin, the Jets and, ultimately, the AFL. When Namath publicly guaranteed that the Jets would beat the National Football League champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, people saw it as heresy—not to mention lunacy. But Werblin saw it for what it was: youthfulness, confidence, show biz.
The Jets were 19½-point underdogs going into that game in January 1969. As grasping, underclass wannabes trying to dethrone the conservative, respected Colts, they represented rebels everywhere who dared to challenge the status quo. Before Namath the athletes who boasted publicly of their skills had been mostly boxers and black men and lower-class scrabblers with little to lose from censure. Just as white musicians usurped and popularized the licks of black rock-and-roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, so did Namath usurp the soul and cool of the black athletes he hung out with back in Beaver Falls. "We rubbed off on him," said one of those black friends, Butch Ryan. "He picked up our slang. He started liking soul food. He grew up just like us."
When the Jets stunned the Colts with their 16-7 Super Bowl victory, they shocked America, too. Underdogs everywhere rejoiced. Overdogs licked their wounds and reexamined their status; not the least of these was the NFL, which just four months later agreed to merge with the once-scorned AFL. The legend of Joe Namath, meanwhile, was guaranteed, forever disguising the fact that Namath, in his 13-year pro career, would play on just four plus-.500 teams. He peaked and faded fast. Wounded heroes do that.
Since his playing days Namath has metamorphosed into another being: a low-key married man and doting father of two children. Visiting last season's Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta, he looked tanned, lean and content at 51, even kneeling on artificial knees to pose with adoring kids who know him mostly as a famous guy who sells stuff on TV. As his agent Jimmy Walsh predicted almost 20 years ago, "Eventually, Joe Namath the football player will not be as significant as the idea of him." For a while there, though, the idea was real. And wild as can be.