Joe Namath: A New York Kind of Hero

He drank with Sinatra, hung with Elvis, made Richard Nixon’s enemies list, dated Raquel Welch, Mamie Van Doren, and countless other women, and somehow found time to play football.

Joe Namath would have been a star quarterback no matter where he played. But he wouldn’t have become Broadway Joe, say, in Cleveland, Ohio. Namath was the right hero at the right place and time: New York City in the 1960s.

By 1965, New York was ready for a hero like Joe Namath. The city had been in the doldrums for years, grappling with crime, dirty streets, polluted air, and a vanishing manufacturing base, all indications of a city in decline. Broadway, once the symbol of glamour and glittering opening nights, had become in Jimmy Breslin’s words, “a busted-out whorehouse with orange juice stands.”

Then Joe Willie Namath came to town. He was a young man out of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, by way of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he’d been the star quarterback of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide. Our hero didn’t ride into town on a charger. Namath owned a new Lincoln Continental convertible custom painted green and white, the colors of the New York Jets. The Jets added the car to sweeten an already sugarcoated deal that included the unprecedented signing sum of $400,000. The AFL Jets, a mediocre team in a second-rate league, needed Namath and needed him badly.

Namath during his record-setting days at the University of Alabama

Namath already was something of a legend before he hit town. During the three years he quarterbacked for the University of Alabama, he led his team to a 29–4 record, three bowl appearances, and a 1964 national title. He also earned the 1965 Orange Bowl MVP Award.

Sonny Werblin, one of the owners of the Jets, went full throttle to sign Namath. Werblin, who’d been a mover and shaker in the entertainment industry, knew if his team ever hoped to conquer the Big Apple and the AFL, he’d need more than a talented quarterback. He’d need a player with movie-star magic, a guy who could put fans in the seats and draw eyes to TV screens on Sunday afternoons. And Namath delivered the goods. By the end of his first season, he was voted AFL Rookie of the Year.

“I like my Johnny Walker Red and my women blonde.” — Joe Namath

When he signed with the Jets, the excitement surrounding Namath landed him on the cover of the July 19, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated, along with the headline “Football Goes Show Biz.” The photo showed Namath, all smiles, dressed in his Jets uniform, standing against the lights of Times Square. One of his teammates took a look at the cover and nicknamed him “Broadway Joe,” and the name stuck. What also stuck was the image painted by Robert H. Boyle, who wrote the feature Sports Illustrated article. He described Namath as “a real ring-a-ding-a-ding finger-snapper, a girl ogler, a swingin’ cat with dark good looks who sleeps till noon.”

New York hadn’t seen a character like Namath since the days of Babe Ruth. The kid with shaggy hair from Beaver Falls was made for New York City. He was charismatic and unconventional, New York’s lovable bad boy. He wore low-cut white cleats instead of traditional black. And he fancied full-length fur coats. Yeah, Namath was so cool he could sport a fut coat on the sidelines. He was so cool he could star in a TV commercial for Hanes Beauty Mist pantyhose and guest-star on the Brady Bunch, Laugh-In, and other TV shows. He was having fun, and New York was having fun along with him. But he had plenty of critics, too; finger-waggers who didn’t approve of what he did off the field.

Namath was a single guy in the Swinging Sixties, and he swung. He partied in his penthouse on the Upper East Side, and in clubs around town, including his own place called Bachelors III, on Lexington Avenue. He was brash and audacious as New York City itself. “Some people don’t like this image I got myself, bein’ a swinger,” he told Jimmy Breslin. “They see me with a girl instead of being home like other athletes. But I’m not institutional. I swing. If it’s good or bad, I don’t know, but I know what I like.”

One night Namath and two friends are drinking in a Manhattan nightspot. On their way out the door, they pass Mick Jagger and the Stones sitting at a table with two gorgeous women. “Come on, girls, let’s go.” says one of Namath’s pals. “We’re having a party at Joe’s place.” History doesn’t record Mick’s reaction when the ladies followed Namath and his friends out the door. Maybe he wished he had the moves like Namath.

Namath made for colorful copy off the field, but it wasn’t his nightclubbing that mattered. What mattered was his performance on the stadium grounds. During the 1967 season, he set a record for passing more than 4,000 yards, a record that stood for a decade. His quick release, long passes, and foreseeing the moves of the defense with split-second timing redefined quarterbacking. But it was Super Bowl III, New York Jets vs. Baltimore Colts, that cemented Namath’s status as a legend.

Super Bowl III

Oddsmakers had the Jets as 18-pt underdogs going into the game, their defense no match for the NFL Colts, one of the greatest football teams in history. Three days before the game, Namath attends an awards dinner where he’s honored as outstanding player of 1968. A heckler shouts to Namath that the Colts are going to kick his ass. Namath shoots back, “Hey, I got news for you. We’re going to win on Sunday. I guarantee it.”

Namath’s guarantee made headlines. He put himself in the hot seat, and his haters couldn’t wait to see the Jets defeated and Namath eat crow. But as Tex Maul wrote the following week in Sports Illustrated, “[Namath’s] talent is as big as his mouth — which makes it a very big talent, indeed.”

On January 12, 1969, Joe Namath led the Jets to a 16–7 upset victory over the Colts and rocked the sports world. Decades later Brian Costello would write in the New York Post, “For many people, Namath will always be 25 years old with his right index pointed to the sky, jogging off the Orange Bowl field as the Super Bowl III MVP, his famous guarantee realized.”

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Larry Rosler

Founding editor of Highlights for Children's Boyds Mills Press, now working independently with writers for young readers.https://reedsy.com/larry-rosler