Joe Namath: the heart of a champion

29 May 2019 | 10:51

    Joe Namath is still a champion.

    And he doesn’t need to make good on a guarantee or flash his ring from Super Bowl III to prove it.

    Even though Namath played his last game as a New York Jet quarterback in 1976, he clearly has still got “it” in this town. Call it star power. Or charisma. Or duende, even. Just judge by the hundreds of people who flocked to 92Y on the evening of May 21 to watch an interview with the most legendary figure on the New York sports scene in the last 50 years.

    You read that right. Yes, we revered Jeter, Mariano, Seaver, Frazier, Reed, Reggie, Guidry, Messier, LT, Doc and Darryl, O’Neill and Keith, Simms and Eli and so many others. But Namath was, and is, loved — and there is a difference. Oh, and, by the way, I am a lifelong New York Giants fan.

    A City in the Palm of His Hand It was quite a scene at 92Y, where Namath was interviewed by ESPN TV and radio host Mike Greenberg. If the Jets fans in attendance could have tailgated inside the hall, they would have. A good number of otherwise seemingly sensible middle-aged men proudly showed off their replica Namath/Jets’ jerseys (No. 12, of course) and unabashedly chanted the fans’ war cry of “J-E-T-S JETSJETSJETS!”

    And Joe, whose new biography is entitled “All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters,” saluted them back. He didn’t quite guarantee that the Jets would eventually topple the Patriots dynasty. But he was unabashed in his affection for the Jets fans. “We’ll get them, we’ll get them, he insisted.

    It was easy to see why Namath, who turns 76 on May 31, has held this city in the palm of his hand all these years, even though he never won a playoff game after leading the Jets’ to their still-stunning upset victory over the Baltimore Colts. The Colts were favored by 18-1/2 points, on Jan. 12, 1969 — and, Namath mused, “We really didn’t like that.

    The Defiant GuaranteeThen, a few nights before the big game, Namath defiantly, if insanely, guaranteed the victory. Loudly and clearly. And in public. He confesses that it “didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time.”

    But his old-school coach Weeb Ewbank — what a great name! — greeted him the next day in practice and asked, alarmed, “What did you do?” Weeb (!) knew that Namath’s brazenness would fire up the Colts. Not that the ever-confident Namath fretted about it. He suggested at 92Y that if the Jets and the Colts had played 10 times, ”they might have won one!”

    It must have seemed like yesterday to Namath when he talked about leaving the field that day with his index fire pointing to the sky, as if to say, “We’re No. 1!”

    “I never did that before!” he marveled anew.

    Namath, he of the quick wit, white football shoes, endless endorsements, colorful nickname (“Broadway Joe”) and array of lovely young dates, was the first anti-establishment football player. Only Muhammad Ali had a higher profile among sports stars in the 1960s. Namath signed a pro contract for the then-enormous sum of $427,000 before his rookie year, in 1965. That was huge news in itself, and the amount proceeded to shake the economics of team sports.

    But it wasn’t all laughs and fun. Namath revealed another side of fame — how “lonely” he was when he first came to New York City. The star-struck kid, who hailed from Beaver Falls, Pa., and had played college ball at the University of Alabama, couldn’t believe meeting the likes of Yankees icons Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin.

    Hard-Earned Wisdom Namath spoke well and looked healthy at 92Y, but it has been a rocky ride. His most poignant moment during the interview came when he calmly discussed his long-time drinking problem, which has caused him embarrassment. “I had let down a lot of people,” he said. (He made it clear, too, that he has worked hard to address the drinking.)

    He didn’t shy away from talking about the time on national television when he hissed at sportscaster Suzy Kolber, “I want to kisssss you.” (“I hurt Suzy Kolber,” he acknowledged and then again apologized to her).

    Namath reminded the audience that they were not alone in their struggles and cautioned them that, if you think you might have a drinking problem, “you do!” His finest moments at 92Y came when he urged the audience members to deal with their demons and not be afraid to seek help.

    If you follow the career and after-football life of Joe Namath, you’ll encounter someone with the heart of a champion.

    And yes, I guarantee it.