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The Football Legacy Of Joe Namath

This column from the Weekly Standard was written by Stephen Barbara.
Roughly halfway through his new biography of Joe Namath, Mark Kriegel writes, with uncharacteristic formality: "It is difficult to imagine an activity more deleterious to the human knee than professional football." In a book written in a vein of street lingo, one that seems to roll along with the buzzing lifestyle Namath led in his heyday, it is a statement that cuts to the heart of the matter of Namath's career. Like that other great New York icon of his era, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath had bad knees.

Born with enormous gifts as an athlete -- in high school he considered an offer to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals before choosing to join Alabama University's football program -- Namath was prematurely aged at 23, forever one bad hit from the end of his career. More than the booze, the women, and the sheer glamorous fun of his life, it seems that the salient point about Namath is what he accomplished on those damaged knees. He won Super Bowl III with a New York Jets team representing what many considered an upstart league, the AFL. He broke numerous quarterbacking records of his time, earning himself a place in football's Hall of Fame. And along the way, he changed the game of football.

In relating Namath's life story, Kriegel has had the tricky task of finding the right note for his audience. For there is, to be sure, a wide difference in attitude between those who grew up with Namath as a boyhood idol, and those who have known Namath only as the tipsy figure notorious for a careless interview with NBC's Suzy Kolber ("I want to kiss you"). Kriegel has chosen, rather than a traditional biography, to create a thrilling rise-and-fall story of Namath's life.

Joe Namath was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, the home state of two other NFL legends, Joe Montana and Dan Marino. He came from a large Hungarian Catholic family of seven.

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Though wispy and small in his youth, Namath was gifted with speed, grace, cunning, and a mean streak of competitiveness. Kriegel's pages on Namath's childhood are sprinkled with nostalgic tales related by boyhood companions, each testifying to the young quarterback's natural talent.

Kriegel is also keen to show Namath as a childhood rebel. We see him enraging his nun instructors, hustling kids in a downtown pool hall, and generally developing the great braggadocio that would later earn him so much fame. We also see Namath as a young Casanova here, maintaining a professional silence about his early conquests even to his closest male friends.

But Namath's youth was not all mischief and athletic glory. Kriegel argues, indeed, that the central event of Namath's childhood was the dissolution of his parents' marriage, which may have been the root of his famous detachment with women. Better to play it cool than to risk the unpleasantness love can bring.

A star quarterback in high school, Namath's college of choice was Maryland, but poor SAT scores left him ineligible for enrollment. He was finally recruited by Alabama University's football program, run then by the legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, a Southerner with an air of God-like authority. As a Yankee in hustler's duds and Italian shoes, Namath initially made a ridiculous impression on the Alabama campus. But he eventually won the affection of Bryant, his teammates, and, indeed, the whole state, as he became the school's stud quarterback, leading the Crimson Tide to an Orange Bowl victory in 1962 and a narrow Orange Bowl loss in 1964 (in an otherwise undefeated season). Under Bryant's guidance, Namath added substance to his risky quarterbacking style, learning that he could sometimes fool defenses by not using his tremendous arm.

Having achieved national recognition at Alabama, Namath was considered a top professional prospect as graduation drew near. But in his senior year he also suffered his first major injury. In a midseason game against North Carolina he went down, untouched, in the middle of a play, after his legs had simply given on him. He was later diagnosed with torn cartilage and ligaments in the knee. The injury forced him to endure a weekly routine of blood and fluid extraction that would persist throughout his professional career.

Hurt knee aside, Namath signed what was then the most lucrative contract in football history, when the New York Jets offered him $427,000 for three years. The deal had been put together by Sonny Werblin, a legendary MCA agent who brought his expertise of the entertainment world to his ownership of the Jets. Knowing that fans would pay top dollar to see the flashy young quarterback, and relying on a shrewd use of the media, he left stodgier NFL competitors behind. That same year (1965), Namath was honored as the AFL's Rookie of the Year.

Namath's 12-season career as quarterback of the Jets was certainly volatile. Injuries forced him to miss the better part of three of those seasons, and even when (relatively) healthy, he did not necessarily bring success to the team. In fact, he only led three winning Jets teams. Sticklers for numbers will also note that, despite being the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards, Namath threw 220 interceptions against 173 touchdowns in his career -- a statistic that illuminates either his confidence in his arm or a blinding lack of caution.

Still, he achieved immortality in his great 1969 season, when he guaranteed that the Jets -- 17 point underdogs -- would beat Johnny Unitas's Baltimore Colts of the much-respected NFL. When the Jets went on to make the outrageous guarantee golden, Namath had helped pull off one of the great upsets in sports history.

For Kriegel, though, Namath's life off the field is just as interesting. Handsome, self-assured, and a slick dresser, Namath sometimes seemed more celebrity than athlete, endorsing everything from Ovaltine to Pantyhose in television commercials, and even starring (with little distinction) in a number of Hollywood films that hoped to capitalize on his fame ("C.C. and Company," "The Last Rebel," "Norwood." The word that comes up time and again in Kriegel's account of Namath in his heyday is cool, the adjective precisely capturing Namath's aura. He drank hard, he gambled, he was New York's number one bachelor (according to Kriegel a group of girls once abandoned Mick Jaggar to accompany Namath to a party), but he did everything with detachment and a seeming lack of effort. At a time of free love and widespread angst over government policies, young people saw in Namath's coolness an ideal to aspire to.

But Namath's individual ethic did not always endear him to his teammates, who sometimes complained that he was allowed to break the rules with impunity. And his extravagant bachelor lifestyle was apparently so alarming to authorities that he landed himself a spot on Nixon's "Enemies List" and a folder in the FBI's file cabinet.

Kriegel is not one to criticize Namath's lifestyle, but he does give careful thought to the question of whether Namath let his personal habits intrude too closely on his professional career. There are numerous stories in this book of Namath partying well into the mornings of game days, and even of Namath arriving at the stadium drunk and unsteady. In Namath's defense, it seems that alcohol was a salve for the excruciating pain he played and lived through, and it is also true that, to judge by anecdotal evidence, Namath sometimes played better under the influence of alcohol.

Rich as the passages on Namath's career are, scarcely 60 pages of this book are spent on the life Namath led after football, as though these glory-less years do not bear too much mentioning. Having done much that was wild and remarkable, Namath fell to cashing in on the royalties of his former work, both literally and figuratively. He played golf, he did television commercials, and occasionally he made what are called official appearances. In the early 80s Namath also had a disastrous string on Monday Night Football, providing bland commentary that did not reflect his true, usually harsh, opinions. He also tried his hand at theatre acting and singing, arts he had no talent for but approached with humble diligence.

In 1984, Namath, to the surprise of many, put an end to his swinging days when he married Deborah Mays, then an aspiring actress. It appears that she pressured Namath to snub his old buddies and to stop his drinking, demands the husband met. One is thus given to ponder an image of Namath as a whipped, slightly sad husband. Still, Namath found a new calling through marriage, becoming a devoted father of two daughters.

For Kriegel, the bitter end of "Broadway Joe" -- replaced by "Old Joe" -- was Namath's divorce of 1998, brought on when his wife decided to leave him for a doctor she had met in New York during a staging of Chekhov's Seagull. (The doctor was a specialist in penis and breast enhancement surgeries.) The final images Kriegel gives us are of a Namath returned to independence, but an independence entirely different from the kind he had enjoyed when the world had been at his feet in the 60s and 70s.

One question that arises in this biography is the effect Namath had on football, for Kriegel is aware that statistics do not reveal Namath's true contribution to the game. Before Namath, football was a team sport played by mainly anonymous men. Its annual contest generally featured an NFL team thrashing a weak side from the AFL. And by and large players were paid what they worth -- often not much, considering how many men make up a team.

But after Namath, football was a show, a kind of unscripted drama that viewers could see in prime-time -- on Monday nights, for instance. It featured an exciting yearly pageant -- the Super Bowl -- that was accompanied by much pre-game bluster. And it was an enormously popular game. As Kriegel writes, Namath "aroused a kind of interest [football] had never before seen. He raised attendance, viewership, and wages."

Unfortunately, Kriegel does not devote much space to considering whether these changes were for good or bad. For purists of the sport, it would seem that overpaid, spoiled players, excessive commercialization, and hype -- the artificial inflation of players' accomplishments -- have become common to football, even as the game has become more popular and entertaining. When Joe Horn of the New Orleans Saints pulled out a cell phone after catching a touchdown pass last season, presumably to call home to Mom, football's pure old days may have seemed appealing to many.

Still, the era that Namath brought in, with its huge contracts, its publicity men and slavish media coverage, and the tremendous pressure placed on players, has undeniably made the level of athleticism in the game rise considerably. As much as one is impressed by Kriegel's smart, stylish telling of Namath's glory days, he might have devoted a bit more space to discussing the broad implications of Namath's career. For it is there, in Namath's legacy, more than in tales of his glamorous swinging days, that one can see the true significance of Broadway Joe.

Stephen Barbara writes regularly on sports for the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

By Stephen Barbara

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