icon. n. 1. An important and enduring symbol. 2. One who is the object of great attention and devotion; an idol.
If ever there was a player who could be considered a true icon in New York Jets history, it’s Joe Namath. Indeed, there may be no player more identified with the franchise, no man more inextricably linked with New York and the Jets. Even the most casual of football fans — as well as millions of older Americans who lived through it — know of Broadway Joe and The Guarantee, and the Jets upset of the NFL’s mighty Colts in Super Bowl III. It’s a moment locked in the annals of football history, a moment in time when the game transcended the sport itself.
For many Jets fans, Namath will always be beloved because he’s The One: The Quarterback who led the Jets to their first, and to this point, lone championship. And for many, that one game is reason enough to enshrine him in the TJB Hall of Fame. However, he means much more than that to this franchise, to the NFL and all of professional sports.
Born on May 31, 1943, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, in the heart of steel country, Joseph William Namath quickly became a Pennsylvania athletic legend — a high school basketball player who could dunk, a pitcher who was given offers from six teams (including both the Yankees and fledgling Mets), and a state championship-winning quarterback in a state where football is king. He was recruited by multiple Division I colleges, but eventually chose Alabama and legendary coach Bear Bryant, where all he did was go 29-4 during his tenure and win a national championship in 1964. Bryant famously referred to Namath as “the greatest athlete I ever saw.” Namath also had the distinction of being the only player Bryant ever called up to the top of the tower from which he used to oversee practice — years later, Bryant said, “I would’ve carried him up if I had known then how good he was.”
Despite a knee injury sustained in his senior year (the first of many), Namath was drafted by both the NFL and the rival AFL in November of 1964. The NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals selected him 12th overall, but after Sonny Werblin and the young Jets chose him first overall, he signed a three-year deal worth $389,000 — the most any athlete had been paid up to that time. The record-setting deal captured back pages across the country.
It also proved to be a great investment. In 13 games (9 as starter), Namath threw for 2,220 yards and 18 TDs, winning Rookie of the Year in 1965. He continued to improve from there, passing for 3,379 yards and 19 TDs his second season, leading the team to its first non-losing record in franchise history (6-6-2). In 1967, the Jets had their first winning season ever behind Namath (8-5-1), while he also was the first man in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards (with 26 TDs in the process).
Of course, while wowing fans on the gridiron, Namath was also wowing New York like very few athletes have. To say he launched himself into the bright lights of the big city may be an understatement — Joe was the brightest light on Broadway, the epitome of the “booze and broads” swingin’ 60s. “I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde,” he said, and then did everything he could to leave no doubt about it. Unlike athletes of old, who kept their off-the-field activities and out of the press, Namath was a new breed who made no secret of his active social life, allowing himself to be seen in nightclubs and bars, and often in the company of attractive young women, starlets and Playmates. He had a penthouse featuring a llama-skin rug and a gigantic oval bed with a mirror over it, and was part owner of Bachelors III, a popular nightclub. At a time when America was discovering a freer social and sexual self, the handsome football antihero Namath was at the cultural forefront, leading the way with a wink.
Although he was paid very well by NFL standards, Namath would become one of the first athletes to make more off the field than on it, endorsing everything from Ovaltine to typewriters to panty hose. He shilled for airlines and famously shaved off his Fu Manchu mustache for Schick razors (and for an at-the-time staggering $10,000). He had a short-lived hamburger chain (Broadway Joe’s) as well as ill-conceived employment agency with Mickey Mantle (Mantle Men/Namath Girls). He was in movies, on TV (“The Joe Namath Show” is the late 60s at its finest — go-go girls, big stars and Dick Schaap), and on (and in) numerous magazines. The constant bombardment of athletic endorsements and cross promotions that is common practice today found its true start with the Namath’s winning smile and cross-over sex appeal. For the first time, people other than hardcore football fans were watching the game on TV, especially women.
And Namath gave them something to watch.
One of the lesser-known facts about Namath was that under the glitz of Broadway Joe was a serious football student. In an era before headsets and sidelines playsheets, he called all the plays for the offense. At a time when only coaches watched game film, Namath spent hours with the projector (“the one-eyed monster” as he called it, “which sees all.”). He would break down defenses and study his opponents’ weaknesses for hours on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, it was this keen study that lead to The Guarantee . . .
The 1968 season was undoubtedly the greatest in the annals of Jets history — the Heidi Game notwithstanding. Namath was peaking as a player, and threw for 3,147 yards and 15 TDs while leading the Jets to an 11-3 record. His favorite two downfield targets, George Sauer (66 receptions, 1,141 yards, 3 TDs, 17.3 yards/reception) and Hall-of-Famer Don Maynard (57 receptions, 1,297 yards, 10 TDs and a staggering 22.8 yards/reception) fueled an offensive attack that also featured a punishing ground game as Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer combined for nearly 1,200 rushing yards. In the AFL championship game against the Raiders, Namath and co. avenged the Heidi game 27-23 — with Joe throwing for 266 yards and 3 TDs, including the winning score to Maynard — and punched the Jets (and his) ticket to NFL immortality.
The 1968 league championship was supposed to be a blowout as the oddsmakers had the Baltimore Colts as heavy favorites — and why not? They were 15-1 going into the championship game, had shut out four teams along the way, including the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the conference game. They had a great defense and quarterback Earl Morrall had enjoyed a better season than the balky-kneed Namath. And oh yeah, they had a fellow by the name of Johnny Unitas — only the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL — coming off the bench. How could the Jets, out of the lowly AFL, even compete with the champions of the vastly superior NFL? The oddsmakers were giving them 18 points. Forty-nine of 55 newspapers also picked the Colts to win, and to win big. It was to be the biggest sporting mismatch since a giant named Goliath was to face off against some little guy named David, and Namath, a winner his whole career, didn’t care for it . . . .
And they did, 16-7.
The stunning victory by the “lesser” Jets earned the entire AFL massive respect and opened the door to the two leagues merger a year later. It also signaled a new era for football, making the game a true entertainment that drew even casual fans. The Super Bowl, as it had been christened two days beforehand, had arrived.
Despite only throwing for 206 yards and having no TDs, Namath was named the game’s MVP, mostly because he called a brilliant game. He had the Jets pound the ballyhooed Colts defense on the ground, rushing Snell 30 times for 131 yards, and giving Boozer 10 carries — he didn’t even attempt a pass in the 4th quarter, content to run the clock out on the Colts, and the NFL’s dominance over the AFL.
It was a victory for the ages.
Namath and the Jets came back strong the next year — he threw for 2,734 yards and 19 TDs on the way to going 10-4 — but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs. Namath’s knees were getting worse, and his commitments and activities off the field started putting stress on his game. Three of the next four seasons he missed significant time due to injuries, although when he played, he produced — in 1972, he played in all 14 games and lead the NFL in passing yards (2,816) and TDs (19), while the team went 7-7.
From there, although Namath continued to play well, time and the NFL had caught up to him. By 1976, his Jets career had wound down, and the next year, he played in only four games for the Los Angeles Rams before calling it quits. He continued to endorse products and businesses, while also trying his hand at acting and broadcasting, among other things. Finally though, after highly publicized ups and downs, he has ultimately turned to the role he knows best: being Joe Willie Namath.
During his career, he earned all-league accolades four times and was named to the all-time AFL honor team in 1969. He was also elected to four AFL all-star games and one AFC-NFC Pro Bowl. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, and his number 12 was retired by the Jets the same year. Nearly 40 years later, he is still the Jets career leader in passing yards (27,057) and TDs (170). He still is the author of the Jets lone championship. He is still the most famous player ever to wear a Jets uniform.
Joe Namath is still the Jets icon.