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The Sweet Life of Swinging Joe
Dan Jenkins
October 31, 1994
In this 1966 SI Classic, Joe Namath slips comfortably into his new role as New York celebrity and football's first megabuck superstar
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October 31, 1994

The Sweet Life Of Swinging Joe

In this 1966 SI Classic, Joe Namath slips comfortably into his new role as New York celebrity and football's first megabuck superstar

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Not according to Joe Willie, though. "I haven't thrown well since Alabama," he says. "Maybe it's my leg. I don't know. If I knew, I'd throw better. You hear a lot about getting the ball up here by your ear, but that's junk. It doesn't matter how you deliver as long as the ball goes where you aim it and gets there when it's supposed to. I don't know how I throw the ball, and I don't remember anybody ever teaching me to throw it. But there's a lot I have found out."

For one thing, Joe says, the quarterback who has to call a pile of audibles is a dumb one. "You're supposed to know what the defense will be when you're in the huddle. I'll only call five or six audibles a game now. Last year it was more. That's funny, too, because the public thinks it's a big deal if a quarterback can switch plays a lot at the scrimmage line. They think it makes him brainy. Man, most of the time it means he's stupid."

A simple thing it took Joe all last season to learn was that backs key on the mannerism of a quarterback and cover their areas accordingly.

"For example." he says, "about 80 percent of the time when the quarterback takes the snap, turns and races back to set up with his back to the defense, he'll throw to the right. That's because it's easier, more natural, to plant your feet when you start that way. On the other hand it's easier to throw left when you drop straight back, without turning around. There are defensive backs who'll play you for this, and, of course, you have to cross 'em up."

Among the defenders that have Namath's highest respect are Oakland's speedy Dave Grayson and Miami's Jim Warren, who was with San Diego a year ago. "All you can say about 'em is they play you tight and cover you. To beat 'em, you have to run what we call progressive patterns, you know, something that goes out. slant, down and in. The whole game is trying to get the defensive man's feet turned wrong."

Strangely enough, Joe finds that the ball has a tendency to turn wrong on his home turf of Shea Stadium. "It's my un-favorite place to play," he says. "Somehow, the wind swirls in there, and I don't like what it does to the balls I throw. It could be some kind of fixation. I don't know, like I have about throwing a night football. It's different, man, I swear. The coaches and the sporting goods salesmen say it's the same ball, but it isn't. It goes different. So does the ball in Shea."

It certainly went differently in Namath's first home game of 1966. He passed for five touchdowns as the Jets humiliated the Houston Oilers 52-13. Joe's hottest streak of all so far came in the fourth quarter of a game at Boston, where he had to hit 14 of 23 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns so the Jets could salvage a 24-24 tie. This sent the Jets into pure ecstasy. "He brought us back from a bad day in a real clutch situation," said Ewbank.

The supertest for both Namath and the Jets came last Saturday night, however, and they were more than up to it. While Shea Stadium shook from the noise of 63,497 New Yorkers—an alltime AFL record crowd—who had come to cheer their town's only winning team against unbeaten San Diego, Joe Willie's arm was right when it had to be. He threw a touchdown pass to Matt Snell early that gave the Jets a 10-9 lead, which they carried into the last 10 minutes. Then, after San Diego pulled ahead 16-10, Namath rapidly fired three straight completions and whirled his team 66 yards to the winning touchdown and the final 17-16 score. He had shown once more that he could deliver in the clutch, and the Jets had the only unbeaten record (4-0-1) in the AFL as proof.

If there is a single myth that Joe Willie would like to have destroyed about pro football, it is the widely held belief that the game's quarterbacks are pampered by opposing defensive linemen; that they are not "shot at," particularly himself because of his bad knee and what his drawing power means to the AFL.

"O.K.," he says. "How about the Houston exhibition in Birmingham in August? Don Floyd comes at me after the whistle, and I move to miss a shot and reinjure my knee. What's that? Of course, Don didn't mean to. He says he didn't hear the whistle, and I believe him. But he was comin' at me, and I kind of think he'd of hit me if he could have. What about the Denver game? I still got a wrist bandage and a sore back from that one. Johnny Bramlett, one of their linebackers, is a buddy of mine—he played for Memphis State—and he had me over to dinner the night before the game. His wife cooked an Italian feast; plenty good. too. But the next day he was after me like a tiger, and lied cuss me when he missed. He wanted to win, man. That's the way it is. I don't think any of our opponents are too interested in my health."

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