They all want to know about the Good Old Days. They must have been good, a time before clogged arteries and enlarged prostates, before secondhand smoke, before pills to keep you happy and hard.
Broadway Joe was the coolest kid in America, an object of affection for girls and gangsters, a source of bafflement for bookmakers everywhere. He made a debonair comedy of most likelihoods. He walked off with Jagger's girls. He spilled drinks on Sinatra. He grinned his way through it all. The Raiders broke his face, and he caught a flight to Vegas, came back the next week, and set a single-season passing record. Namath had a concussion when he hit Don Maynard in the AFL Championship Game. He was still drunk the day he threw three touchdown passes against the Patriots in '66.
But that's not the stuff for a family newspaper. It's better to play along with these writers and their need for nostalgia. "I get a special feeling when I'm here," he says, quite unconvincingly. His tone is glum, but it's the best he can do.
The sportswriter leaves feeling deceived. But this regret won't last long. He'll give his editor what he wants, what the readers want, what everybody wants: the Guarantee and the Good Old Days. It's Super Bowl week. It's all good, and it's all on the house.
But what about Joe Namath?
He was advertised as a man who told it like it was. In fact, Namath didn't tell much at all. He didn't surrender intimacies. Sure, he'd be happy to rehash the Guarantee, especially for a fee. But his emotional life—family life—was never part of the deal. He'd show the famous scars on his knees. He'd even let you touch that grapefruit-sized ball of mangled tissue on his hamstring. But he'd give not a glimpse of the internal scar tissue. He'd talk about concussions and broken bones. But never the broken heart, his original wound. Years later, at the beginning of a new millennium, this is as much as he would allow: "I can remember as a three- or four-year-old, to this day, hearing [my mother and father] downstairs, talking or arguing about something. I was upstairs and I came to the top of the steps and I was crying because it got me scared."
Perhaps the fear was in his bones, something from his own father's boyhood lodged in the marrow, the knowledge that separation is inevitable. Families fracture. You can get left behind. "His daddy left him when he was in the seventh grade," says Jack (Hoot Owl) Hicks, for many years a devoted friend of Namath's. "He told me that was the saddest day of his life."
He survived, just as he would survive fame and drink and orthopedic ruin. He became a husband and a father. The standard-bearer for booze and broads had become an apostle of family values, even as the first baby boomer president was hustling an intern down the hall from the Oval Office.
Salvation through fatherhood, that's what Joe Namath had come to believe in. That's all he believed in. Try explaining that to a sports writer.
There was, it turned out, life after football. A decade after Super Bowl III, the edgier aspects of his image had all but worn away. He was softer, cornier, unobjectionable, ubiquitous. He was often seen in the vast wasteland of television: selling corn poppers and fryers, appearing as a guest star on such fare as The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast and The Love Boat. He also undertook intensive vocal training to forge a stage career, becoming a regular on the dinner-theater circuit.