Stoop-Shouldered and sinisterly handsome, he slouches against the wall of the saloon, a filter cigarette in his teeth, collar open, perfectly happy and self-assured, gazing through the uneven darkness to sort out the winners from the losers. As the girls come by wearing their miniskirts, net stockings, big false eyelashes, long pressed hair and soulless expressions, he grins approvingly and says, "Hey, hold it, man—foxes." It is Joe Willie Namath at play. Relaxing. Night-timing. The boss mover studying the defensive tendencies of New York's off-duty secretaries, stewardesses, dancers, nurses, Playboy bunnies, actresses, shopgirls—all of the people who make life stimulating for a bachelor who can throw one of the best passes in pro football. He poses a question for us all: Would you rather be young, single, rich, famous, talented and happy—or president?
Joe Willie Namath is not to be fully understood by most of us, of course. We are ancient, being over 23, and perhaps a bit arthritic, seeing as how we can't do the Duck. We aren't comfortably tuned in to the Mamas and the Uncles—or whatever their names are. We have cuffs on our trousers and, freakiest of all, we have pockets we can get our hands into. But Joe is not pleading to be understood. He is youth, success, the clothes, the car, the penthouse, the big town, the girls, the autographs and the games on Sundays. He simply is, man. The best we can do is catch a slight glimpse of him as he speeds by us in this life and hope that he will in some way help prepare us for the day when we elect public officials who wear beanies and have term themes to write.
Right now, this moment, whatever Joe means to himself behind his wisecracks, his dark, rugged good looks and his flashy tailoring, he is mostly one thing—a big celebrity in a celebrity-conscious town. This adds up to a lot of things, some desirable, some not. It means a stack of autographs everywhere he goes ("Hey, Joe, for a friend of mine who's a priest, a little somethin' on the napkin, huh?"), a lot of TV and radio stuff, a lot of photography stills for ads and news, and continual interviews with the press. Such things he handles with beautiful nonchalance, friendliness—and lip.
Then comes the good part. It means he gets to sit at one of those key tables in Toots Shor's—1 and 1A, the joke goes—the ones just beyond the partition from the big circular bar where everyone from Des Moines can watch him eat his prime rib. It means that when he hits P.J. Clarke's, the maitre d' in the crowded back room, Frankie Ribando, will always find a place for him, while, out front, waiter Tommy Joyce, one of New York's best celebrity spotters, will tell everyone, "Joe's inside." It means he can crawl into the Pussy Cat during the late hours when the Copa girls and the bunnies are there having their after-work snacks, even though the line at the door may stretch from Second Avenue to the Triborough Bridge. It means he can get in just as easily at two of his other predawn haunts, Mister Laffs and Dudes 'n Dolls, places long ago ruled impenetrable by earth people or nonmembers of the Youth Cult.
October 31, 1994
Easing into the clubs and restaurants that he frequents, Joe Willie handles his role well. "Don't overdo it, man," he says. "I can hang around till 3 or 4 a.m. and still grab my seven or eight." He sits, he eats, he sips, he smokes, he talks, he looks, and maybe he scares up a female companion and maybe he doesn't. "I don't like to date so much as I just like to kind of, you know, run into somethin', man," he says.
Namath is unlike all of the super sports celebrities who came before him in New York—Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Sugar Ray Robinson, to name three of the more obvious. They were grown men when they achieved the status he now enjoys. Might've even worn hats. They were less hip to their times and more or less aloof from the crowd. Joe thrusts himself into the middle of it. Their fame came more slowly—with the years of earning it. Joe Willie Namath was a happening.
He happened first when he was a sophomore passing whiz who made Alabama coach Bear Bryant change his offense, lie happened again as a junior when he proved to be such an away-from-the-field mover that Bryant had to kick him off the team for drinking and carousing before the last two games of the season. He happened again when he returned to take Alabama to the 1964 national championship on a gimpy leg. Then Sonny Werblin, the owner of the New York Jets, made him really happen when he gave him that $400,000 contract on the second day of 1965. No football player in history had ever been worth half that much. But this wasn't all. He quickly had to undergo an operation on his knee to have a torn cartilage removed and a loose ligament tied. And thanks to those splendid satirists Robert Benton and David Newman, the hip line in New York became, "Sorry I can't make your party, Sybil, but I'm going to the tapping of Joe Namath's knee."
He was already a celebrity then, but his image grew throughout 1965 when a certain amount of suspense built as to whether he would be drafted or whether his knee would allow him to play any football at all for Werblin's $400,000. During it all the wisecracks flowed like cocktails.
"I'd rather go to Vietnam than get married," he said as the draft board in his hometown of Beaver Falls, Pa., requested that he appear for his physical. Then after he flunked it and a lot of superpatriots bristled, as they did at Cassius Clay's attitude, Joe said with brutal honesty, "How can I win, man? If I say I'm glad, I'm a traitor, and if I say I'm sorry, I'm a fool."
Once when he was asked to point out the difference between Bryant and Jet coach Weeb Ewbank, Joe grinned and unwisely said, "Coach Bryant was always thinking about winning. Weeb is mainly concerned over what kind of publicity you get."
When a writer tried to tease him about his classes at Alabama, asking if he majored in basket weaving, Joe Willie said, "Nah, man, journalism—it was easier."
But all of this was a year ago. Now in this season as he goes about the business of proving that he is worth every cent of his contract (he has thrown nine touchdown passes and put the Jets in first place in the American Football League's Eastern Division through five games), he is becoming the quarterback that Werblin gambled he would be—a throwing artist who may eventually rank with the best—and he is still a swinger. Namath may be Johnny Unitas and Paul Hornung rolled into one; he may, in fact, be pro football's very own Beatle.
He lives in a penthouse on New York's Upper East Side, one that features a huge white llama-skin rug, an Italian marble bar. an elaborate stereo hookup, an oval bed that seems to increase in size with each glance, a terrace and a couple of roommates—Joe Hirsch, a writer for The Morning Telegraph. and Jet defensive back Ray Abruzzese, whom he knew at Alabama. Of Hirsch, Joe Willie says, "I got my own handicapper." Of Abruzzese, he says, "I got my own bartender," referring to Abruzzese's onetime summer job tending bar at Dudes 'n Dolls. And of his apartment, he says proudly, "I had the same decorator that Sinatra had for his pad."
He whirls around the city in his gray Lincoln Continental convertible, the radio blaring, parking by fireplugs whenever possible, wearing tailor-made suits with tight pants and loud print linings, grabbing checks, laughing, enjoying life, spending maybe $25,000 a year ("On nuthin', man") and wondering why anyone should be offended.
"I believe in letting a guy live the way he wants to if he doesn't hurt anyone. I feel that everything I do is O.K. for me and doesn't affect anybody else, including the girls I go out with," he says. "Look man, I live and let live. I like everybody. I don't care what a man is as long as he treats me right. He can be a gambler, a hustler, someone everybody else thinks is obnoxious, I don't care so long as he's straight with me and our dealings are fair. I like Cassius Clay, Bill Hartack, Doug Sanders and Hornung, all the controversial guys. They're too much. They're colorful, man. If I couldn't play football, I'd like to be a pro golfer. But I like everybody." Joe's eyes sparkle, as if he is getting ready to make a joke, and he says, "Why, I even like Howard Cosell."
Joe Willie's philosophy is more easily grasped when one realizes what he lifted himself up from in Beaver Falls. It is a picturesque but poor town in the hills about 30 miles outside Pittsburgh. He was the youngest of five children, and his parents were divorced when he was in the sixth grade. His father was a mill worker. He lived with his mother, and there was little money, so Joe shot pool, he shined shoes, he ran messages for bookies, he hustled; he got by. "Where I come from," he says today, "ain't nobody gonna hustle me, man."
As he prepared for his senior year of high school, the idea of going to college was remote. An older brother, John, was a career man in the Army, a warrant officer now in Vietnam. Joe was set on joining the Air Force and making it a career. What stopped him was a lot of touchdown passes and offers from precisely 52 universities, including Notre Dame—but not Alabama.
"I wanted to go to Maryland because I was stupid enough to think it was down South." he says. "I didn't know from outside Pittsburgh, man. All I knew was that I wanted to go south. A lot of kids from the East and Midwest do because of the climate."
Namath took the college board exams and failed to score high enough to get into Maryland. "You needed 750, and I scored 745, right? They wanted me to take it again, but I said to hell with it." He thought next of Penn State, but Maryland had to play Penn State the next few seasons and didn't want to face Namath. Maryland's coaches promptly called Bryant at Alabama, whom the Terps would not play, and Bear welcomed "the greatest athlete I've ever coached."
Despite his dismissal from the last two games of his junior season, Namath worships Alabama and relishes his experiences and successes there. Bryant is the greatest man he has ever known, Joe even had the hint of a Southern accent, his closest friends are from Alabama, and if there is anything that makes him mad today it is the Eastern press, which he calls "the Northern press."
"There's only three things I'm touched about," says Joe Willie, who naturally got that name down South. "One, the Northern press and how it ignores Southern football when I'll guarantee you that a team like Louisiana Tech can beat about 80 of these lousy schools up here. Two is the publicity that Notre Dame gets. And three is a joke about a Hungarian."
One other tiny thing bothered him when he first went to the Jets, after taking Alabama to three bowl games with seasons of 10-1, 9-2 and 10-1. He read a statement by a pro player who suggested that Joe might not want to "pay the price" with his big salary. "Can you believe that?" he said. "Why, you can play for Bryant for four years and not know how to pay the price for what you get out of life."
Considering that the most money Joe ever had at one time before he signed the Jet contract was $600, which he got for peddling some Alabama game tickets, he might have been justified in blowing the whole stack on a car, a blonde and a diamond ring. He had a shrewd business consultant, however, in a Birmingham lawyer named Mike Bite. At Bite's bidding he learned to spread the money out as he would an evening on the town. He takes only $25,000 a year in salary, and will through 1968. He has $200,000 in bonuses working for him over the next 100 years or something like that. And he was generous enough to let members of his family in on the loot. Two brothers and a brother-in-law are on the Jets' scouting payroll at $10,000 a year.
Contrary to popular notion, Joe did give the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted him in the NFL, some serious consideration. "And they weren't that far off in money," he says. "But they had it laid out wrong, like I had to do a radio show for part of my salary. I couldn't believe that. I said, Man. I'm just a football player, and what I make will be for football only." He did guess that the Cardinals, who had an established passer in Charley Johnson, might be dealing for him on behalf of the New York Giants, who had nothing, and one way or another, he wanted to "get to this town." Bear Bryant's only comment was that Ewbank had won a couple of championships at Baltimore, and if Joe was still interested in winning, he might give that some consideration.
He wasn't a winner right off, of course. The Jets' 5-8-1 record last season made New York the worst team Joe had ever played on. Admittedly, he didn't know the first thing about quarterbacking a pro team. He had the quickest delivery anyone had ever seen, and he got back into the Jets' exceedingly secure passing pocket, formed by Sherman Plunkett, Dave Herman, Sam DeLuca and Winston Hill—his "bodyguards"—so fast that Kansas City's All-AFL lineman, Jerry Mays, said. "He makes the rush obsolete." But there was so much he had to learn.
At Alabama he had raced back only five yards and released the ball in approximately 1.3 seconds. Ewbank, however, demanded that he get eight yards deep and go 3.2 seconds before throwing. His firmly braced knee prevented him from using the threat of the run, which he had done so well for 2½ seasons in Tuscaloosa.
He had to learn how to read defenses, how to look for tips among the defensive backs, how to hit his receivers on the break, how to set up when he threw, how to call audibles and how to convince his Jet teammates that he could lead them.
"Last year." says defensive end Gerry Philbin, "there was an undercurrent of resentment—nothing you could pinpoint, but it was there—about Joe's money and his publicity. That was at first. It disappeared when everybody found out what a great guy he is."
Curley Johnson, the punter, says, "Mainly we wanted to see how good he was. He really didn't throw the ball that damn well for a long time. Now, we know how good he is—the best."
Says the ace receiver Don Maynard, "At first he'd knock us over on short patterns. Now he's slacked off. His timing is great, and he adjusts to situations like a veteran." To this, George Sauer Jr., another top Jet receiver, adds, "He never knew how to throw on the break last season. The ball was always early or late. Now it's there."
Not according to Joe Willie, though. "I haven't thrown well since Alabama," he says. "Maybe it's my leg. I don't know. If I knew, I'd throw better. You hear a lot about getting the ball up here by your ear, but that's junk. It doesn't matter how you deliver as long as the ball goes where you aim it and gets there when it's supposed to. I don't know how I throw the ball, and I don't remember anybody ever teaching me to throw it. But there's a lot I have found out."
For one thing, Joe says, the quarterback who has to call a pile of audibles is a dumb one. "You're supposed to know what the defense will be when you're in the huddle. I'll only call five or six audibles a game now. Last year it was more. That's funny, too, because the public thinks it's a big deal if a quarterback can switch plays a lot at the scrimmage line. They think it makes him brainy. Man, most of the time it means he's stupid."
A simple thing it took Joe all last season to learn was that backs key on the mannerism of a quarterback and cover their areas accordingly.
"For example." he says, "about 80 percent of the time when the quarterback takes the snap, turns and races back to set up with his back to the defense, he'll throw to the right. That's because it's easier, more natural, to plant your feet when you start that way. On the other hand it's easier to throw left when you drop straight back, without turning around. There are defensive backs who'll play you for this, and, of course, you have to cross 'em up."
Among the defenders that have Namath's highest respect are Oakland's speedy Dave Grayson and Miami's Jim Warren, who was with San Diego a year ago. "All you can say about 'em is they play you tight and cover you. To beat 'em, you have to run what we call progressive patterns, you know, something that goes out. slant, down and in. The whole game is trying to get the defensive man's feet turned wrong."
Strangely enough, Joe finds that the ball has a tendency to turn wrong on his home turf of Shea Stadium. "It's my un-favorite place to play," he says. "Somehow, the wind swirls in there, and I don't like what it does to the balls I throw. It could be some kind of fixation. I don't know, like I have about throwing a night football. It's different, man, I swear. The coaches and the sporting goods salesmen say it's the same ball, but it isn't. It goes different. So does the ball in Shea."
It certainly went differently in Namath's first home game of 1966. He passed for five touchdowns as the Jets humiliated the Houston Oilers 52-13. Joe's hottest streak of all so far came in the fourth quarter of a game at Boston, where he had to hit 14 of 23 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns so the Jets could salvage a 24-24 tie. This sent the Jets into pure ecstasy. "He brought us back from a bad day in a real clutch situation," said Ewbank.
The supertest for both Namath and the Jets came last Saturday night, however, and they were more than up to it. While Shea Stadium shook from the noise of 63,497 New Yorkers—an alltime AFL record crowd—who had come to cheer their town's only winning team against unbeaten San Diego, Joe Willie's arm was right when it had to be. He threw a touchdown pass to Matt Snell early that gave the Jets a 10-9 lead, which they carried into the last 10 minutes. Then, after San Diego pulled ahead 16-10, Namath rapidly fired three straight completions and whirled his team 66 yards to the winning touchdown and the final 17-16 score. He had shown once more that he could deliver in the clutch, and the Jets had the only unbeaten record (4-0-1) in the AFL as proof.
If there is a single myth that Joe Willie would like to have destroyed about pro football, it is the widely held belief that the game's quarterbacks are pampered by opposing defensive linemen; that they are not "shot at," particularly himself because of his bad knee and what his drawing power means to the AFL.
"O.K.," he says. "How about the Houston exhibition in Birmingham in August? Don Floyd comes at me after the whistle, and I move to miss a shot and reinjure my knee. What's that? Of course, Don didn't mean to. He says he didn't hear the whistle, and I believe him. But he was comin' at me, and I kind of think he'd of hit me if he could have. What about the Denver game? I still got a wrist bandage and a sore back from that one. Johnny Bramlett, one of their linebackers, is a buddy of mine—he played for Memphis State—and he had me over to dinner the night before the game. His wife cooked an Italian feast; plenty good. too. But the next day he was after me like a tiger, and lied cuss me when he missed. He wanted to win, man. That's the way it is. I don't think any of our opponents are too interested in my health."
If he stays healthy, Joe Willie Namath may achieve his deepest ambition, which is "to become known as a good quarterback, not a rich one." He may even become what Boston Patriot owner Billy Sullivan says he is now: "The biggest thing in New York since Babe Ruth." Slowly, because trying to fathom youth is always a slow process, you get the impression that Joe is quite serious about it and, despite his hip ways, is working hard to make it. Beneath the gaudy surface there somehow beams through a genuine, considerate and sincere young man. But he's going to be himself. He's going to do it his way, and nobody else's.
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.