"What about Joe Namath?"
He repeats the words, announcing himself again and again, reciting the line as both declaration and question, as if he were hearing his name for the first time. He varies the cadence, the accent, the timbre. He says it slow and sly and with an extra dollop of that southern syrup. He tries different styles: first, an anchorman; next, a color commentator; then, with the enthusiastic baritone of a game show host. What about Jo-o-o-o-e Namath?
Now he eyes the sportswriter suspiciously. This rehearsal, preparation for a voice-over, will not be part of the story. The sports-writer will gladly agree to these terms. They always do. The sports-writer belongs to the generation that adores him most. Even as a president once listed him as an enemy of the republic, kids rushed to buy popcorn makers and chocolate milk on his say-so. This sportswriter had been one of those kids. With each passing year, they love him more, but know him less.
The interview is to take place here, in a vacant locker room at the Orange Bowl. He had always been great in January in the Orange Bowl. In 1963, as a sophomore, with John F. Kennedy in attendance, he began by throwing a touchdown pass in a shutout of Oklahoma. In '65, he made his debut in living color, becoming MVP of the first prime-time bowl game. The night served as a pilot for a new kind of action series. He was cast as its leading man, Broadway Joe, a role that culminated in its greatest glory on Jan. 12, 1969, in Super Bowl III. They called him an antihero. But really, there's no such thing. Antiheroes morph into heroes. It's the American way.
Still, little in Namath's current appearance suggests such heroism. As standing can be painful, even on artificial knees of metal and plastic, he sits on a folding chair. The famous stoop in his shoulders seems more pronounced. He slouches, shirtless, a tuft of gray protruding from his chest. He is tan and thin. There is less of him than the sportswriter imagined. He doesn't look like Broadway Joe. Rather, he looks not unlike the sportswriter. He looks like somebody's father.
So what about Joe Namath?
At the height of his fame, he made—or rather, had made for him—a cult of his bachelorhood. Broadway Joe was a high priest of lush life, his affections sought by a sugar-frosted society of starlets and stews, all of whom sought to worship at an altar adorned with llama-skin rugs.
But now, the star seems a bit unsure at the sound of his own name. He's still practicing his voice-over. For what, the sportswriter does not know, doesn't care. Namath is selling something. Of course he is. This is the Super Bowl, the game he made, that highest sabbath in the American religion, the annual consecration of corporate culture, an event that celebrates 30-second spots as sagas and bookmakers as theologians. The Super Bowl evokes a star-spangled yin and yang, all those equal but opposing forces that create a prime-time culture: Coke and Pepsi, Miller and Bud, McDonald's and Burger King, Disney and Fox, Bloods and Crips, AFC and NFC. Only two things you can do here at the Super Bowl: you're buying, or you're selling.
The sportswriter understands his end of the transaction. He's purchasing another piece of the Guarantee. Thirty years have passed since the New York Jets were 18-point underdogs to the Baltimore Colts. Namath was high on scotch when he promised a Jets victory. I guarantee it.
For a generation raised on canned laughter, the Guarantee qualifies as a kind of performance art. He was bigger news than the astronauts returning from the moon. At least that's how they make it sound today. In fact, the Guarantee didn't even make the New York City papers. Not until after the game. But, hey, what do you want from sportswriters? Now they come around like pilgrims. Each year they become more devout.