It was his voice coach, Arthur Joseph, who made the introduction in 1983, in the waiting room outside his studio. The space was adorned with photographs of famous students, among them Joe Namath, who arrived for his lesson just as Deborah Lynne Mays was finishing hers. Joe called her the next day, and they started dating.
Arthur's wife, Rebecca, was upset. "She's just a child," she told her husband. "Why are you introducing her to Joe?"
Deborah was, in fact, 21; Namath was now 40. But the voice coach did not share his wife's misgivings. "I trusted Joe's values," he says. He trusted Deborah, too. She was just starting out, keen and full of ambition, a striking girl with brown hair and brown eyes. "One had a sense about Deborah," says Arthur. "She was a very determined person. She was intense. She wanted what she wanted in life. And she went after it."
Deborah had spent most of her childhood in Ligonier, Pa., where her father was a partner in a plant that manufactured toner for copy machines. Ligonier is horse country; the Mayses belonged to the Pony Club and had access to a stable at a nearby estate. Deborah, the middle child, showed great talent as an equestrienne, riding English style, foxhunting and eventing. In 1977 her father sold his interest in the toner plant, and the family moved to the Outer Banks of North. Carolina. Deborah attended Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, where she was known as Debbie.
If Shirley Mays had misgivings about her daughter's dating a world-famous ladies' man, she got over them soon enough. "I could not speak for Broadway Joe," says Shirley. "That playboy person, I did not know." But Joe Namath was a darling. And there was something else Shirley liked. "Joe's a lot like my son—his mannerisms and his laid-back attitude," she says. "My son was extremely handsome. He had dark hair. He kept a lot of stuff inside, just like Joe." Deborah was very close to her brother, Jeffrey. "She worshipped him," says Shirley. Jeffrey liked to fish and have a drink, too. He and Joe probably would've gotten along famously.
But on Nov. 13, 1980, not long after Deborah moved to L.A., Jeffrey set out with a friend from Cape Hatteras in a fishing boat. At 6:30 p.m., the men were reported missing. Although they had no radio or flares, the 23-foot Sea Ox was a sturdy craft, built to float like a Boston Whaler. "We've got some encouraging news in that the boat is supposedly unsinkable," said Lieut. Tom Blisard, a spokesman for the local Coast Guard station.
The Coast Guard sent out C-130 planes and H-3 helicopters, which were soon joined by Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy aircraft, including E-2 radar surveillance planes that scanned 220,000 square miles without any sign of the boat. But nothing was ever recovered, not a trace of the boat or the young men. The search was called off after seven days.
"You can't fill a void," says Shirley, who remains haunted by the idea that her son is still alive. "It's very difficult to live with the unknown.... Each of us is handling it in our own way, the best way we can."
By we, she means the family, each of whom is defined by the missing son, the missing brother. "That is who we are. That is on our minds when we wake up at night. That creates the emotional fallout.... We were the all-American family. That blew us apart."
Namath's Courtship of Deborah was a quiet one, his intentions remaining unknown even to his oldest and closest friends. Joe had been in love before. But Deborah had something the others did not—good timing. Even the astrologer she had begun to see after her brother's disappearance predicted that Deborah would be married in 1984. "He was looking for a wife. He was ready to set-de down," says Hoot Owl.