The wind at Shea Stadium can create illusions. It blows in from the outfield, whirls erratically inside the bowl, curls around the knees and down the coat collars of people in their seats, rouses little dust devils from the infield dirt and can make a thrown football dance like Joe Namath on a night out. Thus the wind brings an element of luck into quarterbacking at Shea, where the pass must be played like a bank shot and the passer is never quite certain where the invisible backboard is going to be.
The wind was part of the reason why neither Namath, who is growing into his job as quarterback of the New York Jets, nor Daryle Lamonica of the Oakland Raiders was very effective as a passer last Saturday on a cool and gusty evening. Throwing sometimes into, sometimes across and sometimes with the deceptive wind, both Namath and Lamonica seemed totally unlike the American Football League's two leading passers, which is what they had been. But there was nothing illusory about the way the Jets whipped the Raiders 27-14, thereby establishing themselves, after years of frustration, as probable champions of the AFL's Eastern Division.
The Jets have got off to fast starts before and have excited their fans into unreasonable expectations. For the past two seasons they fared only as well as did the quick arm and aching knees of Namath, their offensive leader. When Namath was good, so were the Jets. When he was not so good, there was gloom at Shea. The difference now is that the Jets can win without Namath throwing for a mile and a half and a dozen touchdowns a game. They beat Oakland, the toughest defensive team in the league, with their own defense—particularly the rush line and the linebackers—and with a solid running game built around the power and speed of Halfback Emerson Boozer, who can hardly walk for most of the week but can hardly be stopped on game day.
Namath proved his increasing maturity as a quarterback by calling an intelligent game against the Raiders, who a week earlier had beaten Kansas City, the AFL's best team. With the big Oakland line coming at him hard and facing a frequent blitz, Namath fell back on the repeated use of a play the Jets refer to as 25 Lag.
Four things can happen off the 25 Lag. It can turn into a reverse, a pass or a reverse pass. But usually it turns into a draw play, with the 207-pound Boozer, from Maryland State, taking the ball, pausing for an instant to judge the flow of the incoming linemen and then choosing the course on which he wants his sore feet to carry him. If the rush is jamming up the inside, Boozer flees to the outside. If the rush is circling outside, he picks a route up the middle. "To put it simply, he runs to daylight," says Jets Coach Weeb Ewbank, using the phrase that Green Bay's Vince Lombardi was responsible for inserting into the argot of football.
Boozer, in his second season as a pro, is plagued by bunions on a pair of wide, gnarled feet. He thinks the bunions come from not having had the right kind of shoes when he was a child. After a game he spends hours sitting with his feet in a tub of hot water. For a couple of days he walks as if his shoes were full of glass. Painful though they are, he refuses to have the bunions cut off, because some of them are on his big toes. "The big toe is what controls your balance," he says. "If they go to fooling with your big toes, it's liable to ruin you. I would rather hurt."
When Boozer talks of hurting, Namath knows what he means. Namath has had his own problems in that area, with two operations on his right knee and bursitis in his left. Last season, before the second operation, Namath could barely move around on the football field. He could not set himself firmly to throw, and he was an easy target for rushers once they fought through the Jets' strong pass-blocking barrier. Namath also was unwilling to accept being tackled for a loss. The result was that he threw 27 interceptions. This year Ewbank has convinced Namath that an occasional loss of yardage is inevitable, and Namath will go limp and accept a knockdown before trying a dangerous, hurried pass.
Namath is concentrating more this season. He is better at finding his receivers because he has a clearer idea of where to look. That does not mean that his attitude toward the way he makes his living was frivolous in his first two years with the Jets, and neither does it mean that Namath has given up Manhattan's Upper East Side bars and discotheques. It merely means that he is somewhat older and a bit wiser.
"Joe has matured a lot in the last year," says a close friend of his. "He doesn't go for the teeny-bopper, discoth�que scene so much anymore. He's better able to tell who his friends are and separate them from the ones who just want something from him."
Namath, sitting around his two-bedroom penthouse apartment at 76th Street and Second Avenue in New York on the night before the game with the Raiders, agreed that his life has altered slightly. He was sunk deep into his couch, and his feet were lost in the nine-inch-high pile of a white llamaskin rug that costs $175 to clean and another $75 to lay, an expensive proposition in the smoke and mushroom-soup air of Manhattan. There are Victorian chairs, a Swedish chandelier, a bar made of an antique Spanish chest, and in the two bathrooms the furnishings are 18-karat gold. Namath shares the apartment with Ray Abruzzese, a defensive back on the Jets' taxi squad, and Joe Hirsch, who writes about horse racing. The security in the building, with television spy eyes in the walls, is intensive, and Namath needs it. In the fall, at least, he is New York's leading sports celebrity, and New York is a town where athletes can get their clothes torn off by adoring mobs the way actors or singers do in other places.