Saturday, December 27, 2014

The NFL's original "bad boy"

My memories of the NFL’s original bad-boy diva—Joe Namath—was that of this lanky guy looking “cool” in white cleats, slinging the ball with effortless ease all over the field. He didn’t always complete his passes—let alone to his own teammates—but he was always entertaining to watch; you never knew what was going to happen when he stepped into the pocket, where he normally stayed, because of his bum knees. That is something I also remember—Namath limping around on those gimpy knees, especially after a hard hit. And he was in all those television commercials and magazine ads. 

Namath was certainly was a “flamboyant” character as far as football players were concerned; that fur coat he wore for the coin toss at last year’s Super Bowl was something that older (maybe much older) fans would remember, making him the Dennis Rodman of his time. It was perhaps unfortunate that we saw another side of him that he was famous for back in the day, drunkenly hitting on a female sideline reporter on national television.
What I didn’t see or pay much attention to at the time (because I was still just a kid) was his off-field antics. Namath was of Hungarian extraction, the spelling of his family name originally “Nemet.” He grew up in the “Lower End” of the Pennsylvania town of Beaver Falls, a largely black and poor section of town. It clearly had an effect on his personality and attitudes. Namath had a reputation as a “delinquent” and “hustler” in high school, but one suspects that this was a reaction to his not sharing the same “values” typical of a still racially-polarized society, and his perceived rebelliousness against how people expected him to behave as a white youth.

In his 2005 biography of Namath, Mark Kriegel quotes one local sportswriter, Joe Tronzo, who felt it was his “duty” to tell readers this:

Probably more rumors have cropped up about Joe Namath than any other high school kid since I have been covering sports…

Among the stories are that he sawed a cow in half in the auditorium of the high school, punched a pregnant woman, punched a school administrator, bombed school board members’ houses, poured gasoline on a fifth grader and set him a afire, threw eggs at Richard Nixon…

There are some who have said that I have made a hero out of the worst juvenile since Cain took a sling to Abel…

If a kid has bad habits that is up to his parents, teachers and preachers to correct. Certainly it is not my job…

However, I do want to defend this Namath lad…he is not the ogre that he has been made out to be.

Obviously Tronzo was mocking the prejudices of some people against Namath, but on the other hand Namath did have serious issues with “authority.”  As the only white starter on the high school basketball team, he continuously antagonized his tradition-bound coach by imitating the flamboyant style of emerging black stars in the NBA. In one game, Namath showed his contempt for the coach when after being called to the bench for some unapproved on-court antic, he continued walking all the way to the locker room, followed by at least one other player in barefaced rebellion.

But as a high school quarterback, Namath was a well-known commodity all over the football world. Namath’s “bad boy” attitude and behavior “scared” many college recruiters—or at least the ones that bothered to visit him. Most who didn’t visit him were, however, “hot” for his quarterbacking services; he claimed to have received at least 52 standing scholarship offers. One problem for Namath was that he had been an indifferent student at best; his first SAT score was 730, and it didn’t improve on retest. The University of Maryland was Namath’s apparent first choice, but he simply could not reach the 750-point threshold required.

Namath ended up going to Alabama because they didn’t care what his SAT score was, they just wanted him to play quarterback. Namath admitted that is was a sometimes trying experience for someone of his background to play for a Deep South school. Kriegel writes that while touring the Maryland campus on a recruiting trip, a Southern recruit remarked on the black students on campus with a racist slur. It was recalled that Namath said “That’s bullshit. That’s nowhere,” and the comments were not repeated.

In his 1969 interview in Playboy magazine, he talked at length about the South and race—attitudes quite different than the ones I posted about that appeared in another Playboy interview around that time with John Wayne, who was an unapologetic racist:

Playboy: How did you like it when you arrived?

Namath: It was hell, man. I was a Northerner and 99 percent of the guys were Southerners. It was really lonely for guys from up North. We had a kid from Cleveland, one from Silver Creek, New York, one from Dayton and one from Rhode Island; but in our freshman year, they all quit.

Playboy: Why?

Namath: Partly because they couldn't cut it on the football field, partly because of scholastics, but mostly because they were just plain homesick. When I got to my sophomore year, only one other "Northerner" was on the team—and he was from Virginia. At that time, coming from the North and going to school in the South was rougher than it is today.

Playboy: In what way?

Namath: The race thing. It was really out of sight, man. My family lived in a part of Beaver Falls that was called the Lower End, a low-income part of town. It was a predominately black neighborhood and the guys I hung out with were black. Like, in high school, I was the only white boy on the starting basketball team and the four other guys were black; they were all friends of mine from the neighborhood. The only time I'd ever run into any kind of race thing had been when I was little, when me and a black kid went into a pizza place and got thrown out. The lady who ran it just told us to get the hell out, so we both left. But when I got to the University of Alabama—wow! Coming from where I came from, I couldn't believe it. Water fountains for whites were painted white; there were different bathrooms for whites and blacks; blacks had to sit in the backs of buses and whites had to sit up front. I just couldn't understand it.

Playboy: Were there any black students there at the time?

Namath: When I first got there, no. They integrated in my sophomore year, right after George Wallace, who was governor then, stood in the doorway and tried to keep them out.
Playboy: Did you ever get into any arguments about race?

Namath: Nope. Not a rough argument, anyway. But I did get the nickname Nigger, and that, of course, had to do with race. In my freshman year, I was sitting in my room doing something and one of the fellas picked up a picture of the Beaver Falls High School football queen and her court. My girl at the time was the football queen and the crown bearer was a black girl. The guy asked, "Hey Joe, is this your girl?" and I answered yes, thinking he was pointing at the queen. But he was pointing at the black girl. He said, "Oh, yeah?" and ran out and told everybody he could find that I was dating a black girl; so they started calling me Nigger. I had a lot of bad times in the beginning, but it all changed. They got to respect the way I felt and I think I might even have turned some of them around on a few things. In my senior year, they voted me captain of the team; and when I think about it—about me mixed in with a bunch of guys from Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida—I consider it a very high honor. 

Playboy: By the time you left the University of Alabama in 1965, did you see any evidence that race attitudes had changed?

Namath: Oh, I think they're getting more liberal in the South, I guess because they're getting more educated. But I don't think the South will ever be completely integrated; in fact, we probably won't live to see complete integration anywhere in America. The problem is stronger in the South, because that's where it all originated, but I see plenty of segregation everywhere. Even in New York, there's a lot of restaurants that don't like to admit black people. It's going to take a long time before the race problem gets straightened out, but it's changed plenty since I first got to Alabama.

Playboy: Why were you the only Northerner who didn't quit during that first year?

Namath: I wanted to quit about 15 times during my freshman year. I wanted to quit and play professional baseball. But I talked to a guy named Bubba Church, who used to pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was living in Mobile at the time and coach Bryant knew what I was thinking and, since he didn't want me to quit, he asked Bubba to come up and talk to me. Bubba explained that I could still play baseball after college and that getting an education was something I'd never regret; whereas I might look back afterward and be sorry I hadn't stuck in school. But I told him I didn't care, I just wanted to go home. Well, right then and there, Bubba just pulled some money out of his wallet and said, "You fly home. You can stay there if you like, but I think it would be better for you to come back." Well, after I got home, I decided maybe Bubba was right, and I decided to stick it out.

Namath claimed that he was right there when the first two black students entered Foster Auditorium to register for classes, accompanied by federal agents. “It was a thrill to see Vivian (Malone) walk through the door. We talked sometimes, and you couldn’t understand how much pressure she was under at the time.” Kriegel noted, however,  that a black player didn’t play on Alabama’s varsity team until 1971, and that Namath never questioned Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s racism. He didn’t like “conflict”—social, political or otherwise. It was “uncool.” He judged people by the way they treated him. He just “got out of the way” of people with racial hang-ups.

Although Namath claimed to have slept with hundreds of women during his time at the school, his “bad boy” image was not as much in evidence—or not reported—largely because he was in thrall of Bryant. He was the boss, and Namath obeyed him. Namath continued to awe the football world, even in his last game, an Orange Bowl loss to Texas in which he was still voted the game’s MVP. One thing that did happen his senior season that had an unfortunately lasting effect on his future was his first knee injury.

But the potential for future difficulties did not stop Sonny Werblin, owner of the budding American Football League’s New York Jets franchise, from giving Namath an at the time outrageous $400,000 contract, most of which was bonuses. That kind of money turned someone of Namath’s character into an instant “diva.” Coach Weeb Ewbank had a reputation as a skinflint and penny-pincher with other players, but Namath went out of his way to offer an “alternative” to Ewbank’s control freak ways. Because of his continuing problems with his knees, Namath seemed to demand special “privileges” in regard to practice routines, which would have not sat well with teammates had not Namath sided with them in money and “authority” matters.

To Werblin, Namath was worth every penny, because in many ways Namath single-handedly made his investment. Kriegel notes that Namath’s Super Bowl III “guarantee” wasn’t big news at the time because, like Muhammad Ali, he was always making outrageous statements to attract the attention of the media. But when the Jets defeated the 18-point favorite Baltimore Colts, he wasn’t just this “loudmouth kid” anymore—something Howard Cosell admitted he thought Ali was before he stunned the boxing world by defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Namath brought instant credibility to the AFL, and two years later the league was integrated into the NFL. 

“Broadway Joe” didn’t just find “fulfillment” on the football field. He invested in a bar called "Bachelors III", where it was reputed that mobsters went to gamble, with whom Namath allegedly hosted in his own apartment.  When NFL commissioner got a hold of the news, he ordered Namath to divest of his interest in the bar. Namath, as rebellious as ever, announced that he planned on retiring instead of “selling out,” but eventually changed his mind. Namath spoke about this as well in his Playboy interview:

Playboy: Could you elaborate on that Sports Illustrated story about crap games with mobsters in your apartment?

Namath: I think Sports Illustrated might check out their stories a little more closely before publishing them. If they had, they would have discovered that my next-door neighbors are three FBI agents sharing a pad. Somehow, I don't think it would be very wise for mobsters to hold big crap games in a location like that. Actually, when I first read the story, I thought, shit, this is kinda funny; but then I got properly pissed off. I mean, they're implying that old Joe is tied up with Mafia people. In an issue some weeks later, they implied it again—only this time they had it in parentheses that Namath himself was never in the apartment when the crap games were going on. I think they were simply trying to back off. Beats the hell out of me how they got the story, but the son of a bitch who wrote it ought to be working for Looney Tunes. We're deciding whether or not to go ahead with a lawsuit.

Namath continued to make a name for himself on and off the field, in the company of countless women and numerous appearances on television shows and the occasional film. From 1965 to 1969 he managed to never missed a game with proper “management” of his knee issues; in 1967 he became the first quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season, and his notoriety was such that it was deemed by the producers of Monday Night Football to be good sense to schedule the Jets in its inaugural game in 1970. 

But after not missing a single game because of injury in his first five years in the league, Namath played in only half the schedule in his final seasons with the Jets, with the team never doing better than .500. He was still capable of giving an awe-inspiring performance, such as the 1972 game against Baltimore, when he dueled with Johnny Unitas in his last memorable performance. While Unitas threw for 376 yards, Namath threw for a career best 496 yards and six touchdowns on just 15 completions in 44-34 Jets victory. 

But that was Namath’s last hurrah. Four major knee surgeries did not keep him in the game. He ended his career with the Los Angeles Rams, where coach Chuck Knox did his best to keep him off the field. It is interesting to note that in all his years, Namath’s only two playoff victories came during that Super Bowl season. As much maligned as Mark Sanchez is, his four playoff victories—all on the road—astonishingly makes him the only Jets quarterback to win more than two playoff games in a career. But because Namath won a Super Bowl, he is untouchable and a forever beloved myth in the eyes of Jets fans. 

For someone with my long memories, and as much as Brett Favre remains my football “idol,” I have to admit that if anyone deserves as iconic a status in the annals of NFL history as Vince Lombardi, it should be Namath—who like Muhammad Ali, transcended his sport, if not always for the right reasons.

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