Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joe Namath - A Biography

  I got this book last month at the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Marshalltown for 50 cents and this copy will be making its reappearance at the store when I donate it back now that I’m done with it. I could have bought this book for $6.40 + shipping at Amazon. This is not the type of book I’d pay that kind of money for, but happy to get for 50 cents at a thrift store. A great thing about the book sections at the Salvation Army and Goodwill is that you never know what you will find.

  Like Bobby Fisher, Joe Namath was an icon of my youth. I always liked the football New York Giants for the sole reason that they played in Yankee Stadium, home of my favorite team, the New York Yankees. The Jets played in Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, so most Met fans were also Jet fans. Since the Jets won the Super Bowl in 1969 and the Mets won the World Series later the same year, I always thought fans of those 2 teams were just a bunch of front-runners, but as I got older, I understood that they were just as passionate about their teams as I was about mine and as the Mets and Jets went from champs to chumps I noticed very few of their fans dumped their allegiance.

  When I was a kid, I knew of Joe Namath as the highest paid player in the NFL and as the quarterback of the Jets when they won the Super Bowl, but I also thought of him as a bunch of hype. He didn’t throw for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, was hardly ever healthy after the Super Bowl, the Jets never won a playoff game after the Super Bowl, and the Jets were never a very good team while Namath was with them from 1970 till when he left the team in 1977. Despite all that, Namath was always on TV doing commercials. He sold popcorn makers, shaving cream, and even wore a pair of panty hose in a commercial.

  I remember how Namath would be on the Super Bowl pregame shows and being able to predict the winner and the margin of victory within a point or 2 for what seemed like 5 straight years. He was on Monday Night Football for a couple of years and did the Jets games on NBC after that. And I didn’t even notice him in the news until he came on an ESPN NFL game all drunk and tried to kiss sideline reporter Suzy Kolber during an interview.

  The book was very even handed and there were a lot of things I didn’t know about Namath that made me think differently about him. He was the youngest of 5 kids and his parents split up when he was a teenager. He was always a great athlete, but liked to draw attention to himself. There is a picture in the book of his little league team and Namath is wearing sunglasses in the picture. This is in the 1950’s. I knew he went to play college ball at Alabama, but I didn’t know that he was the quarterback in the first primetime bowl game. When he signed his at the time unheard of $400,000+ contract with the Jets, he only took $25K a year in salary and bought his mother a new house, financed his brother’s insurance company, and deferred the rest of the money to be paid after he had retired. He always deferred the lion share of his contracts to be paid after he retired. He was by all accounts an excellent football strategist and knew that in the famous Super Bowl victory that he guaranteed, the Jets would be able to run all over the Colts because they would commit the bulk of their defensive resources to stopping the Jets passing attack. That’s why he didn’t throw very much in the game. He was putting his team ahead of his personal statistics, but he became the face of the championship team all the same.

  Namath was a playboy and his 'Broadway Joe' image was well publicized. Namath made no attempt at secrecy, instead explaining he wanted to get it out of his system before he settled down. And after Namath got married, there are no reports of his cheating on his wife, and he became by all accounts a model husband and father. Sadly, his wife cheated on him and his marriage ended in divorce. This is in stark contrast to the New York sports idol of the 50’s and 60’s, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, who cheated on his wife constantly, but stayed married until his death.

  Namath also drank a lot and also kept no secrets about that, either. He even owned some nightclubs until it was discovered that mobsters and gangsters frequented his establishments and was ordered to divest of his clubs by the NFL in order to continue playing football. In the book, Namath claimed that he drank mostly to kill the pain from his bad knees. I tend to think that Namath didn’t drink nearly as much as the stories told. To compare him again to Mantle (who made a nice living in the 70s and 80s talking about his drinking exploits), Namath didn’t need to have a liver transplant and is still alive in his late 60's, which I doubt would be possible if he drank as much as he was said to (the Kolber incident nonwithstanding).

  Namath appeared in a number of movies and even had his own TV variety show as he transitioned away from football. He was said to be skilled at studying tapes of NFL defenses to find their weaknesses and took that same analytical ability to his acting career. He became a skilled performer on the summer theater circuit and had a passable second career as an entertainer. His wife was an aspiring actress and financed an off-broadway play by Ibsen to showcase her talents. Namath had a part in the play as an older doctor (Namath was 20 years older than his wife), and got the better of the reviews. The book claimed this drove his wife to go to Hollywood for acting lessons, which is where she met the man she started cheating on Namath with.

  The biography does a great job of framing Namath in his times. The main thing I didn’t realize about him is that he was the first football ‘rock star’. He got the first mega contract, he was the first player to wear long hair and white shoes. Before him, the classic image of the football player was Johnny Unitas with his crew cut and high top black shoes. Namath was the first player to be marketed as a celebrity, not an athlete. Since he either deferred most of his football money or used it to support his parents and siblings, he needed the endorsement money and so was on TV more than all the other athletes. Looking at the old ads on YouTube, I am struck by how Namath seems to just be having fun being Joe Namath in the commercials.

  While Namath was also the first football ‘rock star’, he was one of the first football players whose ‘private life’ was public. 10 years before, Mickey Mantle’s womanizing and drinking was never mentioned in the media, but Joe Namath’s many liaisons and the llama skin rug in his apartment was daily fodder for the sports media. And yet, Namath took it all in with a good humor and stayed true to himself.

  I’m glad I read this book because it showed me a side of Joe Namath I never knew. I’m struck between the contrast of Joe Namath and Bobby Fischer. Both were at the top of their profession, but while Fischer was willing to not compete and live on skid row off his mother’s social security checks, Namath provided for his parents, siblings, and future generations by taking advantage of all the endorsement opportunities his fame offered. When involved in a public relations nightmare of his own making, Namath offered his apologies with no excuses and set about to rehab his image, while Fischer continued to run away from his problems until he couldn’t run away any more. Fischer turned his back on everyone who ever was his friend, but Joe Namath’s friendships have lasted a lifetime. As much as I admire Bobby Fischer for his chess accomplishments, Joe Namath would be a lot more fun to hang around with.