"What else would you give your life up for?" asked Namath. On most subjects he already had his lines down pat: Old Joe was in the third quarter of his life and planned on living to be a hundred. He got goose bumps just thinking about the Super Bowl. It was his version of a soft-shoe act, the latest rendition of Broadway Joe. But this answer about his daughters cut through all that; he had chosen to frame it as a matter of life
"You don't flinch, right?" he said, his eyes suddenly glassy and his voice thick, as if something had lodged in his throat. "You'd sacrifice your life for your children."
The interview concluded shortly thereafter. The crew packed up and left, but Mortali lagged behind. There was something he was still curious about, a rooting interest he wanted to satisfy. His rented Taurus was still in park when Joe's next visitor arrived. He could make out the silhouette: beautiful, blonde, very leggy.
"Good boy, Joe," he said, addressing the rearview mirror. "You still got it."
Almost a year later, Namath received the Arthritis Foundation's Freedom of Movement Award. Joe was no stranger to charity work, having given freely of his time and his likeness to the March of Dimes. But arthritis was more than a charitable mission. Namath landed a deal with Boehringer Ingelheim pharmaceuticals and Abbott Laboratories to promote an osteoarthritis medication, Mobic. His appearances were well-attended by senior citizens as he traveled the country, urging his fellow Americans to join him in the "Arthritis Huddle." The erstwhile poster-boy of booze and broads now advocated a "winning game plan" that included proper diet, exercise and consulting with your doctor. This was one celebrity spokesman who knew whereof he spoke. Artificial knees were the least of his problems; osteoarthritis had wedged into joints traumatized by years in the game—his spine and his thumbs. He could no longer make a fist. He was often irritable. "It was never-never—out of your mind." Chronic pain, Namath warned, "can damage some relationships, not only with friends but even with family. When you're always grumpy or when you're always tied up with pain, it's a tough deal on everyone around you."
To hear him speak of the disease's emotional toll was to wonder how much his arthritic aches had contributed to the breakup of the marriage. On the other hand, if he had to suffer, he might as well get paid for it.
Namath's 40th high school reunion was held on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2001, at the Beaver Falls (Pa.) Holiday Inn out on Route 18. Rumor had it that Joe would finally attend. He had been in Pittsburgh the day before, promoting his arthritis medicine. "There were probably 20 people who stayed late at the bar," recalls Cathie Smith, the hotel's lounge supervisor. "They were all waiting for Joe Namath. They all kept saying he was going to show. And then he didn't."
Namath might have had a good time. Despite the divorce, he could have counted himself lucky to still be a prince in a room full of bad toupees and missing fingers (the telltale sign of a life spent in the mill). But reunions were curious propositions for him, as he was the one through whom everybody summoned dormant memories. He had to be on. He had to be Broadway Joe. The act was more difficult to pull off with old friends than strangers.
The good old days and the good old guys had little hold on him. A couple of years after Namath's divorce, Ray Abruzzese became ill with Parkinson's disease. He suffered tremors and anxiety attacks. Word got around, and friends called with best wishes. But not Joe.
"I'm shocked," says Bobby Van, Joe's partner in the Bachelors III night clubs. "They were comrades."