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Tad made a point to watch them as they walked toward the multiplex, father and daughter, blood and light, dissolving into the crowd at the mall. Then he spread out his Racing Form, ready to ponder the odds.
In another year's time, Namath's daughters would return to live with him in Tequesta. But by then he couldn't seem to stay sober for long. Old friends would hear things through the grapevine. He drank too much wine at Michael's in Santa Monica. He was pounding vodka tonics at Clarke's in Manhattan. Early one morning at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., he was seen wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, nursing a beer at the bar.
An appearance for College Sports Network—a new venture from the creators of Classic Sports—was cut short after too many vodka tonics. Producers of a promotional interview featuring Namath complained that their footage was useless, as he wasn't making much sense. "He was definitely pretty soused," says Christian Red, a New York Daily News sports-writer who attended the event. During the taping, a bloodshot Namath even asked Red's girlfriend to fetch him a drink. "More vodka than tonic," he said.
Twelve days later, on Dec. 20, 2003, Namath attended a game as a member of the Jets' Four Decades Team. It was a night game, and he had been drinking steadily since that afternoon. Before the first half ended, ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber asked him for a few words about the struggling Jets. "I want to kiss you," slurred Namath. "I couldn't care less about the team struggling."
Within a month Namath was an outpatient at Hanley-Hazelden, a West Palm Beach rehabilitation facility specializing in the treatment of older adults. "I've embarrassed my family," he told Jeremy Schaap, his biographer's son, now a reporter for ESPN. "Every time in my life that something has gone askew, alcohol has been involved.... I'm convinced that I need help."
Namath's request for a smooch quickly became fodder for late-night monologues and drive-time rants. Just as inevitable were references to the sideline incident as a "wake-up call." Perhaps, it was a curious bit of good fortune for Sonny Werblin's creation to be seen drunk on national television. Maybe that was the only place for him to hit rock bottom, there in the vast wasteland.
So what about Joe Namath? What becomes of him? The clues, the signs of his ever-potent magic, are there on the morning of June 25, 2003, some six months before the incident on ESPN. The Jets are hosting a press conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Times Square. Its ostensible purpose is to announce that Joe Namath has been named the team's "ambassador-at-large." As such, he would shill for a new stadium in Manhattan. "Four decades of Jets football, absolutely wonderful," says Namath. "I get goose bumps thinking about it."
He speaks from a lectern. Behind him, beyond the wraparound window: Broadway. "I was standing right outside, there," he says, referring to the famous nighttime shot on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. From there to here, night to day, then to now, Broadway is transformed. It is not unlike the Super Bowl: well-lit, huge, homogeneous, a corporate theme park. The Olive Garden chain of restaurants, one of them situated directly below Namath, now provides the universally accepted standard for Italian cuisine. Broadway's small-time hustlers have been replaced with big-time ones, their signs like the banners of nation-states: Morgan Stanley, McDonald's, Budweiser and, of course, Disney.
The sportswriters remain obediently enthralled for the better part of two hours. Some of them were there way back when; others were just kids. But Joe appears to have aged better than them all: tanned, energized, healthy. He's wearing a green tie with a gray double-breasted suit. His teeth are as white as his shirt.
"We're gonna bring them a stadium somehow," he says. Now, at the age of 60, he is finally leading a pep rally. So what if he's hustling? It's his hustle, in furtherance of a higher purpose. It has become part of his patrimony.