The Sweet Life of Swinging Joe (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:14PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:32PM
He happened first when he was a sophomore passing whiz who made Alabama coach Bear Bryant change his offense. He happened again as a junior when he proved to be such an away-from-the-field mover that Bryant had to kick him off the team for drinking and carousing before the last two games of the season. He happened again when he returned to take Alabama to the 1964 national championship on a gimpy leg. Then Sonny Werblin, the owner of the New York Jets, made him really happen when he gave him that $400,000 contract on the second day of 1965. No football player in history had ever been worth half that much. But this wasn't all. He quickly had to undergo an operation on his knee to have a torn cartilage removed and a loose ligament tied. And thanks to those splendid satirists Robert Benton and David Newman, the hip line in New York became, "Sorry I can't make your party, Sybil, but I'm going to the tapping of Joe Namath's knee."
He was already a celebrity then, but his image grew throughout 1965 when a certain amount of suspense built as to whether he would be drafted or whether his knee would allow him to play any football at all for Werblin's $400,000. During it all the wisecracks flowed like cocktails.
"I'd rather go to Vietnam than get married," he said as the draft board in his hometown of Beaver Falls, Pa., requested that he appear for his physical. Then after he flunked it and a lot of superpatriots bristled, as they did at Cassius Clay's attitude, Joe said with brutal honesty, "How can I win, man? If I say I'm glad, I'm a traitor, and if I say I'm sorry, I'm a fool."
Once when he was asked to point out the difference between Bryant and Jet coach Weeb Ewbank, Joe grinned and unwisely said, "Coach Bryant was always thinking about winning. Weeb is mainly concerned over what kind of publicity you get."
When a writer tried to tease him about his classes at Alabama, asking if he majored in basket weaving, Joe Willie said, "Nah, man, journalism -- it was easier."
But all of this was a year ago. Now in this season as he goes about the business of proving that he is worth every cent of his contract (he has thrown nine touchdown passes and put the Jets in first place in the American Football League's Eastern Division through five games), he is becoming the quarterback that Werblin gambled he would be -- a throwing artist who may eventually rank with the best -- and he is still a swinger. Namath may be Johnny Unitas and Paul Hornung rolled into one; he may, in fact, be pro football's very own Beatle.
He lives in a penthouse on New York's Upper East Side, one that features a huge white llama-skin rug, an Italian marble bar, an elaborate stereo hookup, an oval bed that seems to increase in size with each glance, a terrace and a couple of roommates -- Joe Hirsch, a writer for The Morning Telegraph, and Jet defensive back Ray Abruzzese, whom he knew at Alabama. Of Hirsch, Joe Willie says, "I got my own handicapper." Of Abruzzese, he says, "I got my own bartender," referring to Abruzzese's onetime summer job tending bar at Dudes 'n Dolls. And of his apartment, he says proudly, "I had the same decorator that Sinatra had for his pad."
He whirls around the city in his gray Lincoln Continental convertible, the radio blaring, parking by fireplugs whenever possible, wearing tailor-made suits with tight pants and loud print linings, grabbing checks, laughing, enjoying life, spending maybe $25,000 a year ("On nuthin', man") and wondering why anyone should be offended.
"I believe in letting a guy live the way he wants to if he doesn't hurt anyone. I feel that everything I do is O.K. for me and doesn't affect anybody else, including the girls I go out with," he says. "Look man, I live and let live. I like everybody. I don't care what a man is as long as he treats me right. He can be a gambler, a hustler, someone everybody else thinks is obnoxious, I don't care so long as he's straight with me and our dealings are fair. I like Cassius Clay, Bill Hartack, Doug Sanders and Hornung, all the controversial guys. They're too much. They're colorful, man. If I couldn't play football, I'd like to be a pro golfer. But I like everybody." Joe's eyes sparkle, as if he is getting ready to make a joke, and he says, "Why, I even like Howard Cosell."
Joe Willie's philosophy is more easily grasped when one realizes what he lifted himself up from in Beaver Falls. It is a picturesque but poor town in the hills about 30 miles outside Pittsburgh. He was the youngest of five children, and his parents were divorced when he was in the sixth grade. His father was a mill worker. He lived with his mother, and there was little money, so Joe shot pool, he shined shoes, he ran messages for bookies, he hustled; he got by. "Where I come from," he says today, "ain't nobody gonna hustle me, man."