It is the Rams' ball on the 50, third quarter, second and eight. Joe Namath drops back to pass, looks downfield, sees no one open. Then, with his celebrated quick release, he unloads to Tight End Terry Nelson for 11 yards up the middle and a first down in Viking territory. Thunderous cheers from 55,168 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the sort ordinarily saved for last-second, 80-yard touchdown bombs. It is the first pass completion in professional football for Namath to any teammate but a New York Jet. It is history of a sort.
Namath played only the third quarter of the Rams' opening preseason game with Minnesota last Saturday night—a 22-17 loss, as it were, for the home team—and his performance was scarcely remarkable, three completions in four attempts for 34 yards, but it was enough to win him the adoration of his new constituents. Anything shy of four straight interceptions and a goal-line fumble would have sufficed, so eager were they to embrace him. Starting Quarterback Pat Haden's beauty of a 36-yard touchdown pass to Willie Miller might as well have been a no-gainer up the middle so mild was its reception in comparison with that accorded Namath's 11-yarder.
For that matter, Namath's mere appearance on the field recalled Lindbergh at Le Bourget. It was as if he were seen as one who had come to deliver the Rams from the plague of near-misses they have suffered in recent NFL playoffs. Namath is an unlikely Messiah, and in the past few seasons he has not been all that good a quarterback, either, but no one in Los Angeles had forgotten that once, long ago in 1969, he did take a team that was not supposed to win to victory in the Super Bowl.
After his debut Namath spoke with affection of his new friends in Southern California. "That ovation gave me a great feeling," he said, his famous aquamarine eyes humbly downcast. "I hope the people here are happy with me." Such statements are in keeping with the "just-one-of-the-boys" posture he has adopted in his new circumstances. But it would be a mistake to say that Namath, for all of the plain-folks protestations attributed to him, has blended unobtrusively into the Ram picture.
Hiring Namath, as the Rams discovered after he signed as a waived free agent last May, is like having Farrah Fawcett-Majors on the payroll. People like that get noticed. Namath remains what he has been from the beginning of his amply chronicled career: a media supersubject. That he should have departed one celebrity-swollen community for another is fitting for one who, while his once formidable skills decline, has become increasingly famous for being famous.
In his brief stay with the Rams, Namath has been the subject of two major press conferences, one in Los Angeles at the time of his signing, the other when he reported to the Ram training camp on the campus of California State University at Fullerton. In each, he conducted himself with his usual aplomb, although after the first, which involved some lame jokes on his legendary fondness for women, he confided to a New York journalist that some characters in the L.A. press seemed a bit intrusive for his tastes. The remark, subsequently published, did not endear him to the local press.
But in training camp Namath has sought to escape rather than exploit the media. Oh, he might do an interview with Rona Barrett from time to time, but mostly he has held himself apart. A pleasant enough young man named Wayne Lyttle has served him as chauffeur, amanuensis and protective shield. If one wishes an audience with Namath, one first locates Lyttle. There has been such an aura about Namath in camp that the veteran
Los Angeles Times
columnist, John Hall, felt impelled to inquire of Ram public relations director Jerry Wilcox, "Say, just what is the procedure around here for talking to Joe Namath?" To simply walk up and introduce oneself, as one might with a lesser athlete, seemed to Hall, in the atmosphere of the Ram camp, nothing short of barbaric.
Namath is still all business on the field. He labors long hours honing now jagged skills, adapting himself to a new system, making the acquaintance of new teammates. His afflicted legs are so hidden beneath a network of braces and bandages that he appears to be making his way on prosthetic devices, but he is astonishingly quick on his feet for one so handicapped. Because of his lame knees, though, he does no running. When his teammates trudge complainingly by on their laps of the field, they find Namath supine, eyes averted, intent on stretching exercises.
Namath takes his laps after practice—and not on dry land. When Namath's teammates have been dismissed from their labors, Lyttle drives onto the field and hurries his employer away to the campus pool, where each day he swims up to 64 laps, nearly a mile. The aquatic program was devised by Ram trainer Gary Tuthill as a means of increasing Namath's stamina while preserving his fragile limbs.
In truth, Namath is in tip-top shape for a 34-year-old on his legs. He reported to camp at a svelte 187 pounds and has gained only half a pound since. His arm seems as quick and strong as ever as he zings his passes with authority. For all of his specialness, he seems also to have won the confidence, even the affection, of his fellow players. " Joe Namath," says Defensive End Fred Dryer, "is a terrific guy."