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."
As he prepared for his senior year of high school, the idea of going to college was remote. An older brother, John, was a career man in the Army, a warrant officer now in Vietnam. Joe was set on joining the Air Force and making it a career. What stopped him was a lot of touchdown passes and offers from precisely 52 universities, including Notre Dame—but not Alabama.
"I wanted to go to Maryland because I was stupid enough to think it was down South." he says. "I didn't know from outside Pittsburgh, man. All I knew was that I wanted to go south. A lot of kids from the East and Midwest do because of the climate."
Namath took the college board exams and failed to score high enough to get into Maryland. "You needed 750, and I scored 745, right? They wanted me to take it again, but I said to hell with it." He thought next of Penn State, but Maryland had to play Penn State the next few seasons and didn't want to face Namath. Maryland's coaches promptly called Bryant at Alabama, whom the Terps would not play, and Bear welcomed "the greatest athlete I've ever coached."
Despite his dismissal from the last two games of his junior season, Namath worships Alabama and relishes his experiences and successes there. Bryant is the greatest man he has ever known, Joe even had the hint of a Southern accent, his closest friends are from Alabama, and if there is anything that makes him mad today it is the Eastern press, which he calls "the Northern press."