From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, November 23, 1964
JOE NAMATH CAN RUN, ALL RIGHT, but only straight on. His injured knee has not regained the mobility needed "to turn and twist and carry on like he usually does," as coach Paul Bryant says. But that did not dampen Namath's brio or enthusiasm as the Nov. 14 game against Georgia Tech approached. Bryant says this Alabama team is closer to his heart than any other he has had because it is young and unafraid and wins games—with heroic rallies. There is, too, a certain whimsy in the team's makeup, and Namath is partly responsible. When a defender in the Vanderbilt game jeered at him, "Hey, number 12, what's your name?" Namath replied, "You'll see it in the headlines tomorrow." On the next play Namath threw a touchdown pass. This week in practice Namath twice hopped into the same backfield with Steve Sloan, the junior who has been starting ahead of him during his convalescence. Someone detected it and charged Bryant with deploying two quarterbacks to surprise Tech. "Shoot, no. Not us," said Bryant. "Old Joe was just horsing around."
A pep rally two days before the game drew the largest crowd of the year to the gymnasium in Tuscaloosa. They came with garbage-can covers (for banging); they were shouting and cautioning visitors to be sure to stand when they played the national anthem, Dixie. Dude Hennessey, Alabama's assistant coach, called Bryant "the greatest man I know." Then some of the players spoke, and Namath got a turn. "Two years ago," he said, after a long wait for the applause to ebb, "we went to Atlanta. We had won eight straight and were Number 1 in the country. We lost. This year we're 8 and 0, and we're Number 2. Saturday we're going to win in Atlanta, and we're going to come back to the Number 1 university in the country." A player who was there said that Joe's speech positively sent shivers up his spine.
For much of the game against Tech, Sloan was at quarterback; Namath stood waiting on the sideline, to be used only when Bryant thought his presence on the field was absolutely necessary. That time came less than two minutes before halftime, the game scoreless and Alabama nesting on the Tech 49. Bryant called for Namath, of whom he has said, "I believe Joe can do just about anything." At first Joe did nothing. On a straight drop-back pattern he hesitated too long and his pass was tipped away by a Tech lineman. On second down he pumped twice trying a comeback pass to flanker Ray Ogden on the right sideline. It was short, and a good thing, too, because Tech's Gerry Bussell, tight on Ogden's shoulder, almost got to the ball. If he had, the chances are he would have gone unmolested to the Alabama goal. But, in almost being a hero, Bussell had tipped himself off.
The next play was sent in from the bench, but Namath had already called it. Back to Bussell's side, this time to David Ray, inserted at flanker in Ogden's place. Ray cut in front of Bussell toward the sideline, faked up, then curled back as if for the same comeback pass to the outside. Bussell careened in, too close. Ray pivoted upfield, quickly leaving Bussell three steps behind. Namath spiraled the ball into Ray's hands on the dead run, and Bussell didn't catch him until Ray was on the Tech one-yard line. On the next play fullback Steve Bowman scored.
Tech had barely seen the smoke from the first shot when it was suddenly hit with two more. First, end Creed Gilmer recovered Ray's twisting onside kick at the Tech 49. Then Namath hustled back in and passed on first down to Ogden on the right side. This time Ogden had curled in after making his fake, then slanted down the middle and was to the Tech three before he was caught. Two plays later, Namath rolled left and passed to Ray coming left to right in the end zone. The Tide had its second touchdown a minute and a half after Namath's presence had been deemed absolutely necessary. The effect was devastating and finishing. Alabama went on to win 24-7.
About seven weeks after beating Georgia Tech, Namath led unbeaten Alabama against Texas in the Orange Bowl. John Underwood covered the game.
ON A NIGHT WHEN THE ALABAMA FOOTBALL TEAM was partaking of one of the specially planned distractions—a Miami Beach hotel floor show—that make the Orange Bowl game so appetizing a beguiler of flesh and spirit, Mel Torme, pop singer of reputation but no known mystic powers, suggested a song of dedication for the team. "It's the wrong time and the wrong place," he crooned and got a big laugh. It was the season to twit Alabama, because the Tide was the Orange Bowl's star attraction, the No. 1 team in the nation, taking on fifth-ranked Texas. "Alabama players don't know the meaning of the word fear," said a luncheon speaker at the Columbus Hotel. "Can't spell it either." Another big laugh. By the end of the week the Crimson Tide still did not have the least knowledge of the meaning of the word, but it could define frustration in five languages. In a game of marvelous excitement and great lasting suspense, Texas knocked off Alabama 21-17.
What happened? What had happened originally was that Alabama's exceptional quarterback, Joe Namath, the player one Texas lineman called "the only difference between the two teams," reinjured his right knee in practice and changed the complexion of the match. He had just come off two excellent workouts when the accident happened. Turning back to the huddle after running a play, Namath suddenly cried out and fell writhing to the ground. "Clutching grass" is the expression. There was cartilage damage in Namath's right knee—not permanent but something that will take surgery to remove. "I'll play," he said Monday afternoon, but no one agreed with him for the next three days. Alabama trainer Jim Goosetree applied ice packs and made certain Namath hardly flexed the knee at all. After 24 hours, the critical period, there was no swelling, and by Friday there was hope he might play some as a spot man behind Steve Sloan.
Sloan is a good quarterback, but Namath is a great one. At word of Namath's injury, Alabama dropped from a six- to a three-point favorite. In Texas the price dropped to even money.