Those were happy years, through the mid-1990s. Everybody seemed to notice his glow when he was around the family. "So content," says Tom Werblin, the son of the late Jets owner, Sonny, who would visit the Namaths while vacationing with his own family in nearby Jupiter. In Deborah, he saw "a sweet girl, totally devoted to Joe." Olivia and Jessica clearly worshipped their father. "You could see it in their eyes," says Werblin. Meanwhile, Joe had become someone Sonny's son had never imagined: frolicking with the kids in the pool, bringing them by Jet Ski to a tiny island in the inlet, taking them to the movies, teaching them how to cast.
What Deborah sought in Fiji, Joe found on his dock, harbor to his private paradise, where his own stars were harmoniously aligned.
In December 1991, Joe was assembling a swing set for the kids when his left knee gave out. The left was supposed to be his good knee, but it had been the one doing most of the buckling lately. Finally, the very notion of a good knee, however relative, had become as obsolete as the joints themselves. He fell by the swing set, in the backyard. He had never fallen before. For years, the doctors had been warning him that artificial knees were an inevitability. But only now, with his younger daughter a year old, did he opt for surgery.
"I didn't want to take any chances when I was carrying Olivia," he said. "I had to have this done."
The rehabilitation lasted for months, during which time Namath learned to use a walker. But now as ever, his physical state had no bearing on his ability to move merchandise. He had reached a new level of ubiquitousness as the relentlessly cheery face behind Flexall 454, an analgesic balm, and the Wiz, a New York City-based consumer electronics chain. In 1992 Namath became the first corporate spokesman for NFL Properties Inc., the league's licensing arm. Jimmy Walsh, now with six kids of his own, was keeping busy. Later that year, Walsh cut a deal for Namath to endorse Ambervision sunglasses, guaranteeing a minimum of $1.25 million over the next decade.
Like his contract with NFL Properties, it would provide a steady six-figure income into the next millennium—enough to help Namath take it in stride when NBC let him go the following year, after six seasons with the network. "Had I been a younger guy, I'd have been angry," he said. Finally, he knew better. At 50, he had learned who he was, and what he wanted.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his wife, who found that being Mrs. Joe Namath came with its own set of complications. "It's not easy being married to someone who's as big a legend as Joe," says Shirley Mays. "Not because he isn't nice and wonderful and everything else. But you kind of lose your identity."
Deborah was 21 when they met, 22 when they were married, and 23 when Jessica was born. Her own ambitions went into abeyance, melding with a legend that people regarded as public property. Still, she became far more than just Mrs. Joe Namath; she became his driving force. She wanted him to be well-spoken. She wanted him off the booze. And she got what she wanted, for hers was the approval he sought.
"She had great influence over him," says Howard Felsher, a producer who offered the genial Namath a job as host of Family Feud. "Every time he made a comment, he looked to her for approbation." When the deal suddenly collapsed, Deborah couldn't have spent too long mourning. While the money might have been good, being the wife of a game show host was not what she had envisioned when she married Joe Namath. She had other aspirations.
"I was stunned when I first saw her," says Al Hassan, Joe's old friend. Without makeup and without that Nordic shimmer, she belied her husband's famously advertised preference for blondes. But she was gorgeous, and more than that, Hassan found her knowledgeable about art-house movies and theater, as she spoke Chekhov and O'Neill. "She wanted to be an actress," he says.