• photo by Walter Iooss Jr.
  • photo by AP Images
  • photo by AP Images

Joe Namath Football’s living legend goes deep on fame, family and life as the leader of the underdogs

You were a very good baseball and basketball player in high school. Why did you choose football?
My mother wanted me to go to college, and that was it. I really did want to play baseball. My mother and father were married for 27 years, and then they split up. It had a tough effect on their lives. I was the last one at home, the youngest in the family. My three older brothers took on the responsibility of being dad to a certain extent. When I was a senior in high school, we as a family were deciding what Joe should do—to sign this baseball contract that was offered or to go to college. My brother Bob was sitting at the head of the table and looked at my mom and said, “Mom, what do you want Joe to do.” At the time, my mother was still working a couple of jobs. There was a chance to sign for a $50,000 bonus in baseball. My family was a blue-collar family from Pennsylvania. My dad worked in the steel mill. The most those guys made might be $5,000 a year. You think we’d be happy to get that much money. My mother just said, “I’d like Joey to go to college.” My brother Bobby hit the table with his fist and said, “That’s it, you go to school.”

How did you settle on Alabama?
I was still at home in August, trying to figure out what to do. I signed scholarships with a few different schools. At that time you could that, as long as the schools weren’t in the same conference. I wanted to go to the University of Maryland. They had a terrific head coach named Tom Nugent. He was a terrific head coach, who started the I formation at Florida State. He liked to pass a lot, and with his personality, he was just wonderful. But I took the College Board exams twice there, and missed by a handful of points the second time. I swear, if it wasn’t that day, it was the day after, there was a knock on the door unannounced, and it was coach Howard Schnellenberger from the University of Alabama. Later I had learned that Coach Nugent had called Coach Bear Bryant and said that I was still out there. My mother spoke to Coach Schnellenberger, and I sat there and listened, and after a while, my mother came back with one suitcase, and she said, “Take him. Joey, you go with Coach Schnellenberger to Alabama.”

You came into pro football at a unique time, when the AFL and NFL were beginning to compete for players. Did you have any apprehension about signing with the AFL being that it was so new?
The reason I signed with the Jets was based on the advice I got from Coach Bryant. He said, “I’m not going to tell you who to sign with, but I’m going to give you one bit of advice. Get to know the people you’re going to work with. Get to know the people you’re going to work for.” When I met Coach Ewbank, well what quarterback wouldn’t want to work with Coach Ewbank, who had coached Johnny Unitas and had won a championship already in the NFL. When I met the ownership, it was a lot more comforting then when I met the St Louis Cardinals representatives. I was in my dorm room a the University of Alabama, and I got word that there were two guys that want to sit down and talk to me, and they were the guys representing the Cardinals. The first negotiations took place in my dorm room. When they agreed to what I asked for, they wanted me to sign right there! They had the papers and everything. I said, “Wait a second! I haven’t talked to that New York team yet, and we have a bowl game coming up.”

In hindsight, was the style of play in the AFL and being in New York the best possible scenario for you?
I didn’t think about any of that. I was just happy to have a chance. I had torn ligaments in my right knee. I was surprised to get the offers I had, because I didn’t play a whole lot my senior year. Literally, I had torn ligaments in my leg that both the Jets and the Cardinals seemed to ignore. The first physical I got was from Jim Nicholas the orthopedist of the Jets. It took place in the men’s room at Toots Shor’s restaurant in New York.

What? How did that happen?
I had signed the contract. There was a media night held by the Jets. After I was done with the interviews, a fellow walked up to me and introduced himself. He said “I’m Jim Nicholas, the Jets orthopedist. I hear you have a bad knee.” (Laughs)  I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, I need to look at it.” He took me into the men’s room at Toots Shor. I’m standing up, my pants are down around my ankle, and he’s examining me. He had me in the hospital the next day and in the operating room the day after. 

And knee operations were pretty experimental at the time, unlike now.
That’s true. The good news is that Dr. Nicholas did a great job. He thought I could play pro football for four years. I was just so thankful thinking I would get to play for those four years. I had no idea I would play for 12 seasons. 

It changed your life forever probably.
Oh I’ll tell you how it changed my life and why I never complained and still don’t. If I didn’t hurt my knee, I would have been right in Vietnam. That was when the draft was going on, and it didn’t matter whether you wanted to go or not. If your name got called, you were going. My brother John was career man. He was 12 years older than me, and he served in Korea and Vietnam twice. I thought I was going to join the Air Force when I was a senior in high school, but then I started getting these baseball and football offers. The good Lord works in strange ways. I failed three military physicals. The surgeon general had to read a report to Congress that I was 4F, because I was still playing pro football. The way he put it was that being in sports, you have doctors and trainers around the whole time. In the military, your comrades are counting on your performance and you don’t have doctors around you all the time. If something happens to a soldier, they are putting the other soldiers in jeopardy. I simply wasn’t fit for it. 

Many of today’s NFL players have been vocal about how fines are handed out. It wasn’t that much different when you played, wasn’t it?
Very true. I’ll give you one example. Coach Ewbank knew his team. The year we won the AFL Championship, after we lost three games, about 10 of us decided we weren’t going to shave until we won the division. We heard some remarks about our facial hair from different people, but didn’t pay much mind to it. After we won the division, Coach Ewbank posted a letter on the bulletin board that was dated late September from the Commissioner of the league demanding that we shave. Demanding that we shave. Coach Ewbank didn’t show us that letter until after we clinched the division. We said, “Thanks coach!” But yeah, we were judged by the length of our hair, our shoes, everything.  My friend Jimmy Walsh later made a marketing deal for me where I shaved the Fu Manchu off on live television for a commercial.

Besides the Super Bowl, was winning the AFL Championship your fondest football memory?
That was the toughest game I ever played in and came out a winner. In the first quarter, I had a concussion.

Did you know what had happened?
We didn’t know from concussions then. Twenty years ago I was asked if I ever had a concussion, I said I don’t know if I’ve ever had concussion, but I’ve had a hell of a lot of smelling salts! The first time I ever found out about concussions was when I had my eyes checked in my middle forties. The eye doctor said, “Wow, I see you’ve had a few concussions.” I guess they can leave scars on your eyes in some way, the eye doctor recognized the trauma.

And that game was physically grueling.
Besides getting hit early, dislocating a finger in my left hand. Getting a needle in my right knee and my hand at halftime.  Mother nature was just relentless that day. We had 35-45 mile an hour cross winds. The temperature had to be in the 20s. The field was frozen. It was an ugly day and the Raiders were good. It was the toughest physical game that I ever played that we won.

Super Bowl III took your fame to a whole new level. You were famous already, but now you’re one of the most famous people on Earth. How did you cope with it? 
I learned on my feet. I didn’t know it would be that important. It became a way of life that helped educate me and appreciate where I am, where I was, and it helped me learn about myself big time. It helped me learn to control my emotions better. I can go to the grocery store today, I promise you; someone is going to say something to me, to talk about football. And it’s great, because it’s with a smile. How hard is it to say, “Thank you, Lord. These people are smiling.” It would be a heck of a different experience if these people were angry at me about something. We’re sharing a good memory. I’ve often said if you weren’t a New York Jets fan or Baltimore Colts fan, I bet most people that day were underdog fans, because everyone out there went through a time where they were an underdog

Did you ever have a moment where you realized how famous you were? When it became overwhelming?
No, what happened more is that I would lose my patience from time to time. I had to learn how lucky I was.  Sometimes, we all want our private time. We like to be able to move around and not be noticed. But being noticed is far better when it’s for something good. When we are little kids, we want to get a pat on the back from our parents or brothers. On the other hand, it can get to the point, where it’s like  “I can’t do this because everyone knows me.” You cherish that recognition, but you sacrifice some social liberties. You have to learn how to accept and live in a social way and not complain about it.” (Laughs) I went through a transition to being thankful. And it’s helped me over the years to get along with people. I think most things start at home. My dad loved people and was respectful to people. I learned that from my family. Honing that and appreciating that over the years has helped me live this life in a joyful way. People come up and say something to you. They’re smiling and I can see it in their eyes that they’re happy and want to say something, and honest to God, I consider that an honor and a pleasure.

In your playing days, I imagine players were trying to find privacy. Now with Twitter, you can interact with fans, but on your own terms.
Absolutely! I’m a football fan. I feel like I have a trained eye for what’s happening on the field. I have a good sense of humor and a lot of respect for the players and the game. It’s fun and it’s entertainment, and I enjoy sharing my views on football. I’m not the type of person to tweet every five minutes, but when I do it, it’s a good time.

What was it like to have an HBO documentary made about you?
I enjoyed most of it. I’m afraid I may have said a few things I rather not have said. (Laughs). There is a side of me that was uncomfortable about it. I don’t think I would have done it if HBO, NFL Films and my friends weren’t so sold on it being a good thing to do. I’m still feeling a little clumsy thinking about going to the premiere. I remember going to the premier of CC and Company, a motorcycle film I did with Ann Margaret. Seeing myself on the screen, I couldn’t sit through the whole picture back then. The only time I ever enjoy seeing myself on screen is as a football player. 

If you can pass down one piece of advice to the players of today, what would it be?
Look to learn more and take care of yourself. I wouldn’t have taken for granted my health.  I’ve been at it for more than half my lifetime now, taking better care of myself. I think regardless of what age we are, we need to understand our health is our greatest luxury.

And no regrets?
Oh, of course if I had a chance to do a bunch of things over, I would do a whole lot differently (laughs). But rather than have any regrets, I’m thankful.  Some of the things that are regrettable were blessings in disguise. I wasn’t a drinker. My rookie year, I picked up a safety blitz. My hip was black and blue. I got back from Boston, and I was in so much pain. I took a bottle a scotch. It was the worst thing I’d ever had. Well I ended up drinking it for about five years. Then I switched to vodka. I drank all the way up until I was about 42. Stopped for 13 years. Went through some changes in my family life, found an excuse to try to do it again. And I’ve been able to eliminate that. I’m thrilled with the life I have. If not for those foul ups I might not be here right now. There was a lot of tough times living through that. It’s a humbling embarrassing experience. But being able to endure, some of those things worked out to be a blessing in disguise.

And now, people can find you at BroadwayJoe.TV?
Yes, I do a weekly segment regarding the Jets football. We do some segments on the Alabama Crimson Tide. We talk about my life in football. It lets me stay active with the fans, and to try to be there for questions. Being able to do it from home has been important to me. It’s been a great experience to talk to fans and meet new people. I’m living a joyful life.

Visit Joe Namath at BroadwayJoe.TV or follow him via Twitter at @RealJoeNamath.


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