He is the high school hero from my high school years, the college hero from my college years. We are the same age, 54. The Class of 1961. The Class of 1965. For everyone, there is a public marker, a famous someone or couple of someones to follow through the stages of life. My 22-year-old daughter will be linked forever, I guess, with someone like Tiger Woods, watching him develop and grow older in public while she develops and grows older in private. My father was linked, perhaps, to Babe Ruth. I am linked to this guy, to Namath.
I don't know him, but I know his story as well as I know the stories of many of my best friends. Probably better. I know about Super Bowl III and the guaranteed victory, about the scarred knees that kept Namath from being better, about the late nights and the panty hose commercial and the movie with Ann-Margret. I don't have to do research on any of this. I just know.
He has been a reference point for me since...when? Late adolescence? Certainly since we were both 21. Who do you think you are—Joe Namath? I'm sure I said that to a friend who thought he was debonair, suave, cool. As a young adult Namath was out there where the rest of us wanted to be. He had a touch of that naughtiness that Dennis Rodman now overworks into grand paydays, that hip appearance and lifestyle that cause older heads to shake. While the rest of us were stepping into sensible clothes and moving into sensible lives, Namath was stepping out in Manhattan, going to Toots Shor's, co-owning a controversial bar, Bachelors III, running with beautiful women and famous men, and then putting those white shoes on his feet and black shoe polish under his eyes and slaying dragons on Sunday afternoons.
His autobiography, published in 1969, when he was 26 years old, was titled I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow...'Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day. What a wonderful thought. Namath had climbed out of Beaver Falls, Pa., and landed in the big time. This entertainment mogul, this Sonny Werblin, who co-owned the Jets, had given Namath all this money and made him an instant star, marketed him in the same way sports stars are marketed today, their ability magnified by endorsements and bright lights and tabloid headlines. This was a first. Namath was the start of it. Who could not watch?
"After we got engaged, Joe was playing in a golf tournament," Tatiana says. "This guy was yelling at him, 'Joe, you can't get married. Don't do it, Joe. Don't get married.' The guy wouldn't stop. I was right there. The guy knew it too, knew who I was. 'Excuse me,' I finally said. 'What about you? Isn't that a wedding ring on your hand? Aren't you married?' He said, 'Sure, I'm married, but that doesn't count. Joe should never be married. Joe.... 'I told him that Joe was getting married and that he should forget about it. He should go live his life through someone else now."
I say I understand.
The Brady Bunch.... "It's funny, the different things people remember," Namath says. "This is one of the big ones, The Brady Bunch. There's a guy who works at the Publix market here, and every time I go in, he shouts, 'Joe, I saw The Brady Bunch yesterday.' The show was just a fun thing to do. Bobby Brady had a problem in the episode. I was there to help."
His arrival in New York.... "They brought me up sometime after the 1965 draft, took me to Shea Stadium," Namath says. "I'd only been to New York once in my life, with a couple of guys from Beaver Falls to go to the World's Fair in '64, I guess it was. I was at Shea with all of these reporters, and Don Maynard, the Jets' future All-Pro wide receiver, was in the locker room. Someone took me to meet him.
"Maynard told me two things, the first advice I got in New York. The first thing was, he pointed at the reporters and said, 'See those guys over there? They're all around you now. They love you. But that isn't the way it's always going to be. When you get to the end, they'll all drop you and go along to someone else. That's the way it is.' I hadn't played a game yet, and we were talking about the end. The second bit of advice was, 'Save your receipts from the Triborough Bridge.' Everyone saved the receipts from the Triborough [which the Jets crossed en route from Manhattan to Shea Stadium] for reimbursement. The toll was 25 cents. Now it's $3.50. Can you believe it?"