SI Vault
William Johnson
June 16, 1969
Joe Namath said he was quitting football rather than obey Commissioner Pete Rozelle's edict that he sell his interest in a bar where bookies and gamblers reportedly hung out. But the betting was that Joe would be back
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June 16, 1969

Mod Man Out

Joe Namath said he was quitting football rather than obey Commissioner Pete Rozelle's edict that he sell his interest in a bar where bookies and gamblers reportedly hung out. But the betting was that Joe would be back

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On the day that Joe Willie Namath, age 26, wept and retired (see cover), the stock market did not crash. The trains did not stop running, and the boutiques did not begin to push sackcloth miniskirts. Random House, the publishers of Namath's forthcoming autobiography, I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow...'Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day, did not stop the presses nor did Paramount halt production of Norwood, the movie in which Namath will play this ex-marine. And in Beaver Falls, Pa., where Namath grew up, the steel mills did not shut down in mourning.

Now, that is not to say that there were no shock waves. Many sportswriters were deeply moved and extolled Namath's humanity, honesty and courage in the kind of rolling and symphonic prose usually reserved for the obituaries of lovable old prime ministers. The stock in Broadway Joe's, Inc., a chain of quick-lunch restaurants, fell to 9� bid, off more than a point (which cost Namath, on paper, a cool $180,000). George Sauer, Pete Lammons and Jim Hudson vowed that if Namath wasn't going to play for the Jets they wouldn't either, and Coach Weeb Ewbank snorted, "This is what I got to put up with."

Of course, putting up with Namath has taken some doing over the years, for it is his belief that star quarterbacks are made of more valuable stuff than the run of prime ministers. Yet, there was no question that Namath's tears were real. There he was, in his New York saloon, Bachelors III, slumped behind a great steel bouquet of microphones and flanked by telecasters Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote and Howard Cosell. The floodlights blazing upon his face showed, without contrivance, the brimming blue eyes and the streaming cheeks. No one in the joint could doubt that Namath was overwrought, and, as he spoke, Frank Gifford seemed dazed, Kyle Rote showed pain and Howard Cosell looked as if he wanted to lie down in a coffin. Joe Namath announced that he was quitting professional football because he did not want to give up his interest in Bachelors III.

It is not a bad little bar, although a bit gloomy with its pseudo-Tudor decor and lighting so low one can hardly see the dozens of photographs of Joe Namath and various good-looking broads that hang on the walls. Whenever Namath actually arrives the saloon suddenly becomes hushed and the whispers begin to travel along the bar and among the tables: "He's here.... Here he comes.... That's him."

At his press conference Namath explained that he preferred holding on to his share of Bachelors III to playing quarterback. It was a matter of principle. He said he had not known that gamblers frequented the place and used his phones. He said he did not think it fair for Pete Rozelle to threaten him with suspension unless he sold his interest. "What place don't have people come in who bet?" he said. "My father bets. Can't I talk to him?"

Later that day Rozelle called his own press conference and said that Namath had been told three months ago that gamblers were hanging out in Bachelors III. Rozelle said that he was of the opinion that when people of "undesirable background" continued to associate with any player, the situation takes on "the appearance of evil, whether or not it actually exists and thereby affects the player's reputation, the reputation of his fellow players and the integrity of his sport." Rozelle also said that he had not one iota of evidence that Namath himself had done anything illegal.

Nonetheless, it has been reliably reported that phones had been tapped ("There were seven rats around," said a guy in the know. "Spying, drinking, eating, looking for something.") and that the D.A.'s office had planned to raid Bachelors III and subpoena Namath and his partner, Ray Abruzzese, as well as any known gamblers and bookies in the place at the time. But because of the furor surrounding Namath's retirement, the raid had to be called off.

Before Namath decided to quit he called his old roommate Joe Hirsch, a writer for The Morning Telegraph. He called his old Jets boss, Sonny Werblin. And he phoned Paul Bryant, his old coach at Alabama, who was out and didn't get back to Namath until he was leaving for his press conference. Bryant tried to talk him out of quitting, even offered to catch the next plane to New York. "Joe," he pleaded, "if these friends of yours really cared about you, they'd make you get out." Said Namath, "No, sir, coach, I know I'm right. I know I've got to do this." After 20 minutes of fruitless persuasion Bryant said, "Joe, have you gotten too big to pray?" Said Namath, "No, coach, no, sir, that's all I've been doing for two nights."

Given Namath's highly emotional makeup, it seems likely that sooner or later he will decide to un-retire. However, he will not automatically be welcomed back to pro football; first, his association (if any) with the dubious characters at his place must be cleared up to Rozelle's complete satisfaction.

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