The names and events come from Joe Namath's time, from my time,
from our time, from 25, 30 years ago. Suddenly ancient history.
The real time is seven o'clock in the morning on a rainy Monday
in Tequesta, Fla.
"Who'd you meet who was famous?" I ask.
"All kinds of people," Namath says. "John Wayne. Was there
anyone bigger than that? The Duke."
July 13, 1997
"Frank Sinatra," Namath says. "I used to drink with Sinatra and
Dean Martin and Sammy Davis at Jilly's in New York. Those guys
were crazy. They stayed up all night. Every night. They didn't
have anything to do in the morning. Didn't have to get up. Me, I
had to go to practice. The good thing, though, was that the Jets
practiced late. I didn't have to be there until noon. I could
stay up pretty late and still get some sleep before practice
The four dogs who live in the white wooden house on the banks of
the Loxahatchee River--Friska and Palm and Augustus and Scout,
who is named after the girl in To Kill a Mockingbird--are awake.
They are all of different breeds, these dogs, all of different
sizes. They hurry in circles, bouncing off one another, looking
as if they were part of a circus act. They are crazy with the
excitement of a new day. Their toenails clatter across the white
"Who else?" I ask. "The Beatles?"
"No, I never met the Beatles," Namath says. "But I met Elvis. I
knew him a little bit. I will love Elvis forever for one thing:
the way he treated my father. I took my father to see him in
Vegas. My father loved Elvis. We went backstage afterward. My
father and Elvis got along. They sat on a couch for a half hour,
maybe 40 minutes, just talking about everything. It was
something to see, my father and Elvis, just sitting there,
bull-------- about football and music."
Joe's daughter Jessica, 11, appears. She already is dressed in
her school uniform and has eaten breakfast. She has fed the two
smaller dogs, but the two bigger ones still have to be fed. She
doesn't have the time to do it. Is that O.K.? Her sister,
Olivia, 6, is going to stay home with a slight fever and one of
those deep coughs that make a parent nervous.
Tatiana, Joe's wife, dressed in black, will take Jessica to
school. Joe will take care of Olivia, exult when she finds Horse
Facts, a library book that has been missing, sit with her on his
lap, read about the various horses, compare styles and breeds
with her, smile when she points out the picture of a spotted
horse with her big toe and correctly calls the horse an
Appaloosa. Isabel, the maid, will arrive soon to help. The two
cats, Poppett and Willie, aren't around; they're hiding
somewhere, doing personal business.
"Politics?" I ask.
"I spent some time with Ronald Reagan," Namath says. "My wife
and I had dinner at the White House once. Reagan was also at the
head table once when Dean Martin had one of those roasts for me."
"Not exactly," Namath says. "I was on Nixon's enemies list. I
don't know how that happened. I was at my boys' football camp in
Connecticut in 1973, and all these calls started coming in from
everywhere. From journalists in London and Paris. What did I
think about being on the enemies list? I get a laugh whenever I
see Carol Channing. She always brings it up. She was on the list
too. I still don't know how I got there."
"Maybe the long hair?" I say. "The image?"
"I don't know."
The largest dog, Scout, the border collie, sits at Namath's
feet. He rubs her head. He says he had a dog when he was a boy,
but when the dog died he vowed he would never have another one,
would never subject himself to the same pain of loss again. He
didn't have a dog for the longest time. Then he married Tatiana
in 1984 and she had a dog, and now he wouldn't think of being
without one. "Dogs just give you so much love, they stir up so
much emotion," Namath says. "Thirty or 40 times a day--every
day--these dogs will just give you a hit of love. How can you
He stares toward the bay, famous face, a Picasso kind of face,
all angles painted around the famous blue eyes. (How's he look?
you ask in your catty little way. He looks fine, great, I say.
Older, but fine. The hair is good.) Joe Willie Namath. The man
who signed a three-year contract with the New York Jets for
$427,000 straight out of college. The white llama rug on the
living-room floor. The mirror on the bedroom ceiling. Johnnie
Walker Red in the glass. Broadway Joe. Bigger than big.
He sips from his one cup of coffee for the day, a guilty
pleasure now, a hit of caffeine at this hour when he was once
just coming home.
"Tell me about the time you were on The Brady Bunch," I say.
He is the high school hero from my high school years, the
college hero from my college years. We are the same age, 54. The
Class of 1961. The Class of 1965. For everyone, there is a
public marker, a famous someone or couple of someones to follow
through the stages of life. My 22-year-old daughter will be
linked forever, I guess, with someone like Tiger Woods, watching
him develop and grow older in public while she develops and
grows older in private. My father was linked, perhaps, to Babe
Ruth. I am linked to this guy, to Namath.
I don't know him, but I know his story as well as I know the
stories of many of my best friends. Probably better. I know
about Super Bowl III and the guaranteed victory, about the
scarred knees that kept Namath from being better, about the late
nights and the panty hose commercial and the movie with
Ann-Margret. I don't have to do research on any of this. I just
He has been a reference point for me since... when? Late
adolescence? Certainly since we were both 21. Who do you think
you are--Joe Namath? I'm sure I said that to a friend who
thought he was debonair, suave, cool. As a young adult Namath
was out there where the rest of us wanted to be. He had a touch
of that naughtiness that Dennis Rodman now overworks into grand
paydays, that hip appearance and lifestyle that cause older
heads to shake. While the rest of us were stepping into sensible
clothes and moving into sensible lives, Namath was stepping out
in Manhattan, going to Toots Shor's, co-owning a controversial
bar, Bachelors III, running with beautiful women and famous men,
and then putting those white shoes on his feet and black shoe
polish under his eyes and slaying dragons on Sunday afternoons.
His autobiography, published in 1969, when he was 26 years old,
was titled I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow... 'Cause I Get Better
Looking Every Day. What a wonderful thought. Namath had climbed
out of Beaver Falls, Pa., and landed in the big time. This
entertainment mogul, this Sonny Werblin, who co-owned the Jets,
had given Namath all this money and made him an instant star,
marketed him in the same way sports stars are marketed today,
their ability magnified by endorsements and bright lights and
tabloid headlines. This was a first. Namath was the start of it.
Who could not watch?
"After we got engaged, Joe was playing in a golf tournament,"
Tatiana says. "This guy was yelling at him, 'Joe, you can't get
married. Don't do it, Joe. Don't get married.' The guy wouldn't
stop. I was right there. The guy knew it too, knew who I was.
'Excuse me,' I finally said. 'What about you? Isn't that a
wedding ring on your hand? Aren't you married?' He said, 'Sure,
I'm married, but that doesn't count. Joe should never be
married. Joe....' I told him that Joe was getting married and
that he should forget about it. He should go live his life
through someone else now."
I say I understand.
The Brady Bunch.... "It's funny, the different things people
remember," Namath says. "This is one of the big ones, The Brady
Bunch. There's a guy who works at the Publix market here, and
every time I go in, he shouts, 'Joe, I saw The Brady Bunch
yesterday.' The show was just a fun thing to do. Bobby Brady had
a problem in the episode. I was there to help."
His arrival in New York.... "They brought me up sometime after
the 1965 draft, took me to Shea Stadium," Namath says. "I'd only
been to New York once in my life, with a couple of guys from
Beaver Falls to go to the World's Fair in '64, I guess it was. I
was at Shea with all of these reporters, and Don Maynard, the
Jets' future All-Pro wide receiver, was in the locker room.
Someone took me to meet him.
"Maynard told me two things, the first advice I got in New York.
The first thing was, he pointed at the reporters and said, 'See
those guys over there? They're all around you now. They love
you. But that isn't the way it's always going to be. When you
get to the end, they'll all drop you and go along to someone
else. That's the way it is.' I hadn't played a game yet, and we
were talking about the end. The second bit of advice was, 'Save
your receipts from the Triborough Bridge.' Everyone saved the
receipts from the Triborough [which the Jets crossed en route
from Manhattan to Shea Stadium] for reimbursement. The toll was
25 cents. Now it's $3.50. Can you believe it?"
Broadway Joe.... "Sherman Plunkett [a 300-pound Jets tackle]
gave me the name," Namath says. "Sherman, he's not with us
anymore, used to dress right across from me, just this massive
guy. I used to help him take his pads off, he was so big. My
picture was on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED with Broadway in
the background, and someone had put a copy of the issue in
everyone's locker. It was kind of embarrassing, you know?
Sherman picks up the magazine and stares at the cover.
'Broaaad-way Joe!' he shouts. 'Broaaad-way Joe!' And it stuck. I
never minded it, really, because it was from Sherman and it made
people smile. I mean, I've never seen anyone say 'Broadway Joe'
without a smile on his face."
Howard Cosell.... "Howard and Dick Schaap were in my living
room," Namath says. "We were going to go somewhere. Howard was
talking. Ray Abruzzese, who was a safety on the Jets and my
roommate, came stumbling out of his bedroom. He said to Howard,
'Oh, I thought you were the television. I was coming out to turn
you off.' Howard was speechless. It was the best! Howard tried
to come back. He started calling Ray every name in the book:
'You Italian so-and-so.' It was too late. Ray just destroyed him."
Johnnie Walker Red.... "The first year , we were playing
up in New England, and I bruised my hip," Namath says. "It was
killing me, hurting worse and worse while we flew home. I got to
the apartment and asked my roommate Joe Hirsch, the turf writer,
to give me a drink of something. There were all these bottles. I
said, 'Give me whatever tastes the worst.' He gave me Johnnie
Walker Red. That was the first time I ever had it. It did taste
terrible, but it made the pain go away."
Drugs.... "I never saw a drug of any kind, not even marijuana,
in four years of college at Alabama," Namath says. "I was just a
couple of years before all that. Which was good. There were
amphetamines in pro football, greenies or whatever they were
called, but I was a quarterback and needed a clear head, so they
were out of the question. Other guys, though, you could tell
when they were using them.
"I remember standing in the end zone before one game, waiting
for the introductions. The two teams were next to each other. I
heard this sound, 'Uhhhhh.' I looked over, and there was this
defensive lineman for the other team, maybe six-foot-five, maybe
300 pounds, right next to me. He was sweating like crazy. His
eyes were all bloodshot. He said, 'Uhhhhhhh.' I said, 'Oh, my.'"
Alabama.... "Growing up in Pennsylvania, I never really knew
anything about racial discrimination," Namath says. "The one
thing I remember, I was maybe eight or 10 years old, and my
friend and I went into a pizza store. The woman said my friend
had to leave. I could stay, but he had to leave. He was black.
We both left, of course, never went back.
"Then I went to Alabama. Not only was the school segregated, but
the whole SEC was segregated. I was overwhelmed. I hadn't even
wanted to go to college. I wanted to sign a baseball contract. I
had offers from the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs and other
teams. My mother wouldn't let me accept any of them because she
wanted me to have an education. My brothers wouldn't let me.
Howard Schnellenberger, who was one of Bear Bryant's assistants,
came to my house just before the school year started. My mother
and brothers made me go to Alabama, right then, in Howard's car.
"The school was integrated in my sophomore year. The National
Guard was everywhere. You needed a pass just to get on campus. I
was as close as from here to that wall to George Wallace on the
steps of the auditorium as he stood outside the door when Vivian
Malone came to register. I've gotten to know her through the
years, just a terrific gal."
Jackie Gleason.... "I started coming to Florida in the winter
after my first year with the Jets," Namath says. "Dr. [James]
Nicholas [the team doctor] told me I should go somewhere warm,
for my knees. I got to know Gleason [who was a friend of
Werblin's] that winter. He challenged me once to a golf match
for $10,000. What could I do? I brought my checkbook just in
case. Here was the foursome: Gleason, Arnold Palmer, a doctor
from Honolulu who'd paid $10,000 to charity to play a round of
golf with Gleason, and me. We were rained out after nine holes,
but I was 7 up on Gleason. He was just playing bad."
Injury.... "The worst injury was not to my knees," Namath says.
"Before my final season , with the Los Angeles Rams [with
whom he signed after he was waived by the Jets that same year],
I tore off two of the three hamstring muscles in my left leg
while waterskiing. There was nothing they could do for that, no
way they could reattach the muscle. It really doesn't matter in
normal life, because the hamstrings mostly are used for running.
But in football.... I could take a one-step drop, and then I
couldn't go anywhere. That was it.
"The hardest part was coming onto the field. The Rams had a
thing where the whole team came out of the tunnel, jogged around
the entire field, then split up for calisthenics. I worried
every week about that. I couldn't run. Some of those joggers
were really moving. I couldn't keep up because my leg wouldn't
stretch out anymore."
Werblin.... "He was from the entertainment industry, so he had a
different idea about athletes as stars," Namath says. "Before
him, I think, the idea in sports was to keep stars down, so you
didn't have to pay them so much. Mr. Werblin thought that money
made people even more interested in stars. I learned a lot from
him. I'd go out with his wife and him four and five nights a
week, go to the best restaurants, to clubs like the Copa. I
remember once I went to see Funny Girl and after the show went
backstage to see Barbra Streisand. There was a picture of the
two of us in the New York Post the next day. Mr. Werblin was
upset. I wasn't wearing a tie. He said, 'Joseph, there are times
you have to wear a tie in public.'"
The theater.... "I fell in love with it," Namath says. "I'd done
movies, but in 1979 I got a call from a summer-stock producer in
Ohio to play the role of Hal Carter in Picnic. A great role.
William Holden did it in the movie. I didn't know if I could do
it, but I figured if the producer thought I could, then maybe I
could. So I did. I'd taken acting lessons. I took a class at
Hofstra University on Long Island while I was playing with the
Jets. It's hard. You go from one profession where you're one of
the best to a position in another profession where you're not
good, where you're at the bottom. It can be exhausting at times.
"A lot of people compare acting to sports. Eight shows a week
can be physically and emotionally draining. You do a lot of the
same things you do in sports--work with other people, develop
the production, get the choreography down, perform in front of
an audience--but the difference is that in the theater there is
no opposition. In sports, you prepare, try to make everything
right and then, when you perform, the opposition tries to
disrupt the choreography, ruin everything you've prepared.
That's a big difference."
Marriage.... "Leon Hess, a co-owner of the Jets, always would
say to me, 'Joseph, a man needs a family,'" Namath says. "I'd
say, 'Yeah, that's cool,' but I never really thought about it. I
went out with a lot of women, but I knew I wasn't in love. There
just wasn't that allegiance. I knew it wasn't love the way it
was supposed to happen.
"I met my wife in 1983 when I went to a voice teacher in Encino,
California. She was an actress and had seen the teacher the hour
before me. We talked a little bit and went out the next night,
and I've never been with anyone else since. She was younger than
me and didn't know anything about football. Her father did,
though. She called him and said she had met Joe Namath, and her
father started talking about me as a football player. Great
player. Then she said she was going out with me. Her father
said, 'Whoooooa, no!' Just like that. We've been married for
almost 13 years."
He could be a guy from my 35th high school reunion, standing
next to the hors d'oeuvres under the old school banner, filling
in the blanks and telling the old tales, the greatest hits, one
more time. Yes, yes. You don't say? Remember the day we put the
frog on the teacher's chair in biology class? Yes. Of course. I
could listen to this stuff forever. My time. Our time.
I have been to most of my class's reunions--every five years, be
there or be square--and watched the changes in waistlines,
hairlines, pocketbooks and what-have-yous that come to all of
us. I went to the 35th a year ago and saw more change than ever.
Maybe it was just me.
The drums didn't seem to beat as loudly as before. People
weren't in quite the same hurry. The other reunions seemed to
have been big on acquisition and accomplishment, on who was
doing what and making how much. That didn't seem to matter as
much at the 35th. Health and happiness were more important.
There used to be a lot of talk about drinking beers and doing
strange things. Now there was a lot of talk about golf. The same
guys who left the reunion 10 years ago in search of an
after-hours club where a patron had been thrown through a
plate-glass window went this time to the house of the class
president and star basketball guard. He was recovering from
"Do you drink anymore?" I ask.
"I haven't had a drink in 10 years and change," Namath says. "My
last drink was on March 24, 1987. My wife doesn't drink, except
maybe a glass of wine every now and then, and we made a deal
early on that I would see if I could stop drinking. I had to
know if I could quit. It was hard at the beginning...boring.
Every day, for about a year and a half, I made a little note in
a book about not having had a drink. I think there's a whole lot
to be said for being on the same page as your partner. I don't
put people down for drinking. A lot of my friends drink. I
drank. I owned a bar. For me, though, it wasn't right not to be
on that same page."
"Smoking?" I ask.
"I haven't smoked a cigarette since April 12, 1967," Namath
says. "I was with my mother and some people in Miami. Connie
Dinkler [a South Florida socialite] said, 'You shouldn't be
smoking, you're an athlete.' I said I was going to quit during
training camp. She said I should quit altogether, and my mother
should quit too. It was bad for our health. My mother said,
'I'll quit when Joey quits.' Well, that was it. I smoked cigars
every now and then when I played golf, but I quit in 1992. I had
a cigar before I went in to have surgery to replace my knees. I
just said, 'That's it.'"
The new knees work fine, much better than Namath expected. He
says he finally decided to have the surgery when he fell down,
smack, just like that, in the garden in 1991. Pain was one
thing, loss of stability was another. Walking and moving now,
with stability and without pain, amazes him. He had been
bothered by pain since the middle of college.
He is able to work out on a NordicTrack, play golf, swim, do
practically anything that doesn't involve a lot of bouncing,
such as running. His days are almost the flip side of what they
once were. He goes to bed early so he can be awake before his
children rise in the morning, ready to join them for breakfast
and send them off to school. He works out, plays golf, does
business during the day, then tries to be home when the kids
The goal is to be around. Home is the adventure now. His main
business activities are as a spokesperson for the Classic Sports
Network, which replays vintage sporting events and shows on TV;
CBS Sportsline, a national on-line service in Fort Lauderdale;
and NFL Properties. He travels sometimes for these jobs, travels
sometimes for autograph shows that pay as much as $60,000 for a
half-day's work, but his emphasis is on family. He says he
stopped doing television commentary on regular-season football
games a few years ago when he realized he was away for 22 of the
52 weekends of the year. Why miss 22 weekends with his kids? He
and Tatiana both put a moratorium on their acting careers after
Jessica was born.
"This doesn't mean I don't want to be active, to achieve,"
Namath says. "I want to be a contributor. This is just the best
for me now. I plan to be around for a long time. My mother's 85,
and I plan on living to be 100. This is only halftime. The
important thing to remember is your health. The things you do
now will determine what your health will be 20, 30, 40 years
down the line."
He seems at peace, but maybe at peace is too placid a
description. Contented? Maybe still too placid. Time has allowed
Namath to know and understand himself, to know what is important
and what is folderol. Better. Yes, that's what he is. This is
the middle of life, beyond the crisis. He eats more salads, less
meat, almost no salt. His weight is down to 187 pounds, same as
he weighed in college. His joys are simpler. A ballet recital
involving a daughter can be as exciting as a night on the town
anywhere. More exciting. Better.
What is important? Bryant is dead and Cosell is dead and Werblin
is dead and Wayne, Gleason, Martin and Davis are dead, and maybe
even Elvis is dead. Nixon and the enemies list are dead. Connie
Dinkler, who advised Namath against smoking, is dead. An
insulating layer of important older people just disappears.
Years bring a perspective. What is important?
"You lead a more quiet life now," I say.
"I have four dogs, two cats, two daughters and a wonderful
wife," Namath says. "I wouldn't exactly call that quiet.
Different, I guess."
It rains on and off all day. Namath tries to play golf but is
rained out after six holes. I spend most of the afternoon in my
hotel room, reading a play, The Seagull, by Anton Chekhov.
Tatiana is going to produce the play at the arcLight Theatre,
which is located in the basement of a church on West 71st Street
in New York City. This is going to be a family production.
Tatiana will play a role. Joe will also play a role.
"This is her thing," Namath says when we meet again at his
house. "It's something she always wanted to do. She's using her
own money. I wasn't going to be in it, but there's this
role--Dorn, the doctor. Everyone who read the play said I should
do it. Tatiana said I should do it."
"He's perfect," she says. "The character is a 55-year-old man,
still handsome, still attractive to women. He's traveled.
There's another character, Sorin, who's very bitter. Dorn tries
to give him advice. Sorin says, 'Easy for you to talk, you've
lived a good life. I haven't done any of the things you have
done.' I mean, who are we talking about here?"
The play had only four performances, June 24-26, because that
was all the money Tatiana had in her budget. The entire Namath
family spent a month in New York City, where Joe still owns an
apartment. Tatiana would love to live in the city full time. Joe
is not so sure. Florida has the weather. Florida has space. New
York City is still available: a 20-minute drive to the airport
and about a three-hour flight. Almost a commute. "Early in our
marriage we bought a farm in Connecticut," Joe says. "After the
first winter, we just looked at each other and came to Florida.
We've promised the kids that sometime we'll live on a farm
again, so I don't know. We'll see what happens."
He gives a quick tour of the house. Tatiana has done the
decorating in a French farmhouse style. Joe laughs when he shows
his own bathroom. It is the luxury of luxuries. The house in
which he grew up in Beaver Falls had one bathroom for the seven
Namaths--behind the coal burner in the basement. Go to the
bathroom? Go to the basement.
In his office there are a couple of LeRoy Neiman paintings of
Namath, and in the garage there are a few more football
pictures, but the house is far from being a football shrine. A
ball signed by Bubby Brister, the former Pittsburgh Steelers
starting quarterback and current Denver Broncos backup, sits in
the middle of a row of Namath's game balls on the top shelf of
the bookcase in the den. There was a charity auction at a golf
tournament, and Namath bought the Brister ball. What the heck.
"Classic Sports set me up with DirecTV last year," Namath says.
"I had that NFL season ticket, every game that's played.
Amazing. I could watch the Jets every week, here in Florida. Not
that there was a lot to watch, but I had the opportunity to do
it. That first weekend, I was a kid in a candy store. I sat here
"He usually doesn't do that, either," Tatiana says. "He's
usually good that way."
"My back hurt at the end of the day," Joe says.
Jessica is back from ballet class. Olivia's cough is better. She
will be going to school in the morning. The dogs? The dogs are
still everywhere. Tatiana is wondering where she will be able to
find a stuffed seagull. Two stuffed seagulls. The play calls for
one dead seagull, just killed, and another one stuffed and
"I called this taxidermist in New York, and the guy said, 'How
soon do you need it?'" Tatiana says. "That got me nervous. I
don't want anyone going out and killing a seagull. I said, 'No,
thanks.' A theatrical supply store says I can rent one for $950,
but $950? I'll paste white feathers on a rubber chicken before I
pay $950 to rent a stuffed seagull. That's more than the actors
Joe says he looks forward to the play. Am I familiar with its
history? He says Chekhov produced the play for the first time in
St. Petersburg. It closed after five performances. A few years
later there was a production in Moscow. There it was popular.
The play became a classic.
"It's a good play," I say. "I enjoyed reading it."
"All these different levels," Namath agrees. "A good play."
Chekhov. Who'd have thought? We talk about Chekhov. We talk
about the high cost of sending kids to college. We talk about
time. Namath mentions that this summer his football camp in
Connecticut will be in its 26th season. He looks forward to
seeing some of the guys from the old Jets who work with him.
"Twenty-six years," I say. "It goes in a hurry, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, but that's a good thing," Namath says. "What does it mean
when time flies? It means things are going O.K. It's when you're
having trouble that time drags. I've had some of those times in
my life. I don't mind when time flies."
I say I understand. I guess I really do.
Chekhov. Who'd have thought? The most interesting part about
getting older, it seems to me, is seeing how everything comes out.