Old friends and old fans had staked their claim on Joe long before Deborah came into his life. She was only six when he won the Super Bowl, but now she was left to consider the question of his identity, to reconfigure borders between man and myth, public and private, between her husband and Broadway Joe.
"She got hurt from so many remarks," says Shirley. Her daughter wanted a new life, as did Joe. "But he didn't have the courage to do it," Shirley says. "He doesn't like to do distasteful things. He'd been a star so long. He would let someone else be the bad guy, and she became it."
The couple made their stage debut in a Wilmington, N.C., production of Cactus Flower, a romantic comedy about a philandering dentist played by Joe. Deborah played his young girlfriend. "They were very affectionate, very lovey-dovey," recalls Chuck Kinlaw, one of the actors. "All Deborah talked about was how Joe was a god in New York."
He was big in Atlantic City, too, where the Claridge signed him for another musical, Bells Are Ringing. Originally, Namath and his bride were to appear together, but then Deborah decided against it. She was pregnant. The baby was due in October 1985.
With her own career on hold, Deborah took charge of Joe's. It was plain to see from the way he watched all those games on TV that he missed football. He would question the coaches. He would disagree with the announcers. The blood rushed to his face as he provided his own spontaneous, unexpurgated color commentary.
Do it, she told him.
Soon thereafter, Jimmy Walsh spoke with Roone Arledge, in charge of news and sports at ABC. Although Monday Night Football was about to head into its 16th season, Arledge's infatuation with Namath had hardly diminished.
The network boss had his reasons. Howard Cosell had left after the 1983 season. Don Meredith, whose "Dandy Don" act now seemed less dandy than bored, departed the following year. With ratings down 22% over three seasons, commercial time had been discounted. ABC was now owned by Capital Cities, a bottom-line outfit, which meant that the very survival of Monday Night Football was in doubt.
In Namath, Arledge saw the telecast's salvation. The man who saved a league could surely save the show. Joe, who had never broadcast a game, might have been a risk. But so what? Risk was at the core of Broadway Joe. "It was worth the gamble," said Arledge.
Namath would provide color in a booth with Frank Gifford and O.J. Simpson. Walsh got him huge money, two years guaranteed at a reported $850,000 per. A press conference was held at 21, and the writers couldn't have been more impressed with Joe's wife. Who'd have thought? The girl had a good head on her shoulders. "I'm the one," said Deborah, then midway through her pregnancy. "I pushed him into going for this. Blame me."