"There's only three things I'm touched about," says Joe Willie, who naturally got that name down South. "One, the Northern press and how it ignores Southern football when I'll guarantee you that a team like Louisiana Tech can beat about 80 of these lousy schools up here. Two is the publicity that Notre Dame gets. And three is a joke about a Hungarian."
One other tiny thing bothered him when he first went to the Jets, after taking Alabama to three bowl games with seasons of 10-1, 9-2 and 10-1. He read a statement by a pro player who suggested that Joe might not want to "pay the price" with his big salary. "Can you believe that?" he said. "Why, you can play for Bryant for four years and not know how to pay the price for what you get out of life."
Considering that the most money Joe ever had at one time before he signed the Jet contract was $600, which he got for peddling some Alabama game tickets, he might have been justified in blowing the whole stack on a car, a blonde and a diamond ring. He had a shrewd business consultant, however, in a Birmingham lawyer named Mike Bite. At Bite's bidding he learned to spread the money out as he would an evening on the town. He takes only $25,000 a year in salary, and will through 1968. He has $200,000 in bonuses working for him over the next 100 years or something like that. And he was generous enough to let members of his family in on the loot. Two brothers and a brother-in-law are on the Jets' scouting payroll at $10,000 a year.
Contrary to popular notion, Joe did give the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted him in the NFL, some serious consideration. "And they weren't that far off in money," he says. "But they had it laid out wrong, like I had to do a radio show for part of my salary. I couldn't believe that. I said, Man. I'm just a football player, and what I make will be for football only." He did guess that the Cardinals, who had an established passer in Charley Johnson, might be dealing for him on behalf of the New York Giants, who had nothing, and one way or another, he wanted to "get to this town." Bear Bryant's only comment was that Ewbank had won a couple of championships at Baltimore, and if Joe was still interested in winning, he might give that some consideration.
He wasn't a winner right off, of course. The Jets' 5-8-1 record last season made New York the worst team Joe had ever played on. Admittedly, he didn't know the first thing about quarterbacking a pro team. He had the quickest delivery anyone had ever seen, and he got back into the Jets' exceedingly secure passing pocket, formed by Sherman Plunkett, Dave Herman, Sam DeLuca and Winston Hill—his "bodyguards"—so fast that Kansas City's All-AFL lineman, Jerry Mays, said. "He makes the rush obsolete." But there was so much he had to learn.
At Alabama he had raced back only five yards and released the ball in approximately 1.3 seconds. Ewbank, however, demanded that he get eight yards deep and go 3.2 seconds before throwing. His firmly braced knee prevented him from using the threat of the run, which he had done so well for 2½ seasons in Tuscaloosa.
He had to learn how to read defenses, how to look for tips among the defensive backs, how to hit his receivers on the break, how to set up when he threw, how to call audibles and how to convince his Jet teammates that he could lead them.
"Last year." says defensive end Gerry Philbin, "there was an undercurrent of resentment—nothing you could pinpoint, but it was there—about Joe's money and his publicity. That was at first. It disappeared when everybody found out what a great guy he is."
Curley Johnson, the punter, says, "Mainly we wanted to see how good he was. He really didn't throw the ball that damn well for a long time. Now, we know how good he is—the best."
Says the ace receiver Don Maynard, "At first he'd knock us over on short patterns. Now he's slacked off. His timing is great, and he adjusts to situations like a veteran." To this, George Sauer Jr., another top Jet receiver, adds, "He never knew how to throw on the break last season. The ball was always early or late. Now it's there."