Joe Namath had been knocked down plenty of times in his career as a New York Jets quarterback when playing in Kansas City.
But his most embarrassing spill wasn’t at old Municipal Stadium or in gleaming new Arrowhead. It wasn’t trying to elude the Chiefs’ Buck Buchanan or Bobby Bell.
Namath, three years after his retirement as the NFL’s transcendent quarterback, was appearing in the title role of “Li’l Abner” in August 1980 at Starlight Theatre when he fell flat on his … well, let’s let him tell it.
“Kansas City is where I literally fell on my butt on stage,” Namath laughed into the phone from his home in Tequesta, Fla.
“It’s the scene where Pappy goes after Earthquake … he dives in front of me, and I catch him … but my weight was too far back on my heels, and in slow motion, I started tipping, tipping, and fell right back on my rear with Pappy in my arms.
“The audience got a big kick out of it, and I did, too. The whole company broke up. It was one of my best memories to this date of anything I’ve done.”
Only someone with Namath’s charisma and charm could handle a pratfall with such grace. He was the first of his kind, a football player feeling as comfortable on stage and in movies as he was in a stadium or on a sound stage making commercials for everything from popcorn poppers to panty hose.
Namath changed the role of quarterback from the game’s most important position to its most glamorous.
Before Namath burst onto the scene in 1965, most quarterbacks of the era — except for Detroit’s fun-loving Bobby Layne — were of the same mold. Johnny Unitas sported a crew cut, Y.A. Tittle wore black high-topped shoes and Bart Starr was clean-cut and straight-laced.
Namath was a non-conformist who donned white shoes, grew shaggy hair and smiled behind a Fu Manchu mustache. He wore mink coats with a babe on each arm while prowling the New York City night life, showing a side of pro athletes the public had seldom seen.
The man who would soon be known as Broadway Joe became an anti-hero to the establishment and the savior of the rebellious American Football League to others, especially after backing up his guarantee the Jets would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts and their old-school quarterbacks, Unitas and flat-topped Earl Morrall, in Super Bowl III.
“It was the timing of my arrival in New York,” said Namath, now 70. “My career started out at a time … there was a lot going on with Vietnam … displeasure with the government …”
Namath’s star power was recognized by Sonny Werblin, a Hollywood television producer who bought the old New York Titans in 1963, renamed them the Jets, and sought a face for the franchise. The Jets traded with Houston for the rights to the first overal pick of the 1965 AFL Draft and selected Namath, a gimpy-kneed passer with a laser arm from Alabama.
Namath was also taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the penny-pinching St. Louis Cardinals, who balked at Namath’s request for a Lincoln Continental to be part of his rookie contract and could not come close to the unprecedented $427,000 contract Werblin gave Namath.
Werblin also orchestrated the AFL’s five-year, $36 million television contract with NBC in 1964, putting the fledgling league on competitive footing with the NFL and leading to the 1966 merger between the leagues that would take effect in 1970. The television contract enabled the Jets to sign Namath, the league’s brightest star.
“It gave us an identity,” said Len Dawson, the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame quarterback. “All of a sudden, we weren’t the stepchild of professional football. We have the top star coming out of college football into the American Football League. That was a terrific boost. Look at all the publicity he received.”
“He really saved the whole AFL,” said Chiefs Hall of Fame cornerback Emmitt Thomas. “If Namath had gone to the NFL, I don’t think it would have blossomed or grown the way it did.”
To Namath, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
“I was lucky to be at a time when there was a battle between the leagues,” Namath said. “I crossed paths with a guy who believed in the star system. Sonny Werblin came from show business, and he believed fans wanted to see stars. He created stuff around me, and introduced me to the media, and took me out to different spots to be the eye of New York City both on and off the field.
“He was savvy and believed in the star system. Back then, you never dreamt of a star system in football. You had Bronko Nagurski and players like that. … Here was an owner who was trying to create stars. Coming from the music and motion-picture industry, he encouraged communication with the media and the fans. He knew stars sold tickets.
“The bottom line was I could play. Had I not been a good player, none of it would have worked.”
Those white shoes that Namath wore? Actually, they were black shoes that Namath would wrap white tape around as the cleats began to wear out.
Some of his teammates feared irascible Alabama coach Bear Bryant would make Namath peel off the tape, but he never said a word to him. Not as long as Namath led the Crimson Tide to victories.
But in the fourth game of the season, Namath didn’t tape his shoes, and in the first quarter, running around right end, planted, cut left and tore ligaments in his right knee, an injury that dogged him for the rest of his career.
“Well, I’m not superstitious,” Namath said, “but after that I taped my shoes every day. After being with the Jets about three weeks, I walked into the training camp locker room, and there was a brand-new pair of white, leather shoes.
“For my first four years, at least, they were the only white shoes running around football fields.”
But then, Namath always dared to be an individualist. Gazing at the team picture of his Beaver Falls (Pa.) High School team that won the state championship, seven of the eight players have black shoe laces. Namath has white laces.
“Maybe subconsciously, I might have been reaching for something in recognition,” he said. “Was I reaching, or did I want to be different? I don’t know. It’s a part of my Gemini side … whenever anybody mentions white shoes to me, my first response to them is, ‘Aren’t they lighter than black ones?’ They just feel lighter.
“And, I’ve got to admit,” he added, “I liked the white look.”
Joe Willie Namath’s style was made for the wide-open AFL. He threw the ball often, and he threw it deep to Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard and George Sauer Jr.
In his third season, Namath threw for 4,007 yards and became the first quarterback in pro-football history to break the 4,000-yard barrier, a record that stood until the NFL season expanded from 14 to 16 games in 1979.
The 1967 Jets went 8-5-1, the first winning season in the eight-year history of the franchise.
“His skills were exquisite … the best I had seen,” said Chiefs Hall of Fame middle linebacker Willie Lanier. “You could hit him hard, get him down, and his offensive linemen would pick him up like a little rag doll, and five seconds later, he was standing there trying to beat your rear.”
Namath led the Jets to an 11-3 record and AFL Eastern Division title in 1968, and a 27-23 win over Oakland for the AFL title, setting the stage for Super Bowl III against Baltimore. The Colts went 13-1 in the established NFL, and after pummeling Cleveland 34-0 in the NFL championship game, were 18-point favorites over the Jets.
But a few nights before the game, at a dinner honoring Namath as the AFL’s Most Valuable Player, he was asked if the Jets could win, and his response is now part of football lore: “We’re going to win the game,” he said. “I guarantee it.”
Namath wasn’t boasting. He simply believed the Jets were better.
“After looking at the films of the Colts for maybe 10 days or so, I felt our team as an offense was capable of dealing with the great defense of the Colts,” Namath said. “A lot of people didn’t understand how smart our offensive line was and how few mistakes our offensive team made, and how few penalties we got that last half of the season.
“Our defense was the best-kept secret going into that game. Sure enough, they played a hell of a game against the Colts. I had been on three Jets teams prior to that, and I wasn’t guaranteeing anything on those three teams. I wasn’t as good as I was performing in the first three years as I did in my fourth year, and my team didn’t either. But we were performing, and we had confidence.”
Namath completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards in New York’s 16-7 win, and the Jets, behind Matt Snell’s 121 yards rushing, were so dominant in taking a 16-0 lead that Namath did not attempt a pass in the fourth quarter. He remains the only quarterback voted MVP of a Super Bowl who did not throw a TD pass in the game.
“You do what you needed to do to win,” Namath said. “You would never throw the ball if the other team couldn’t stop the run. I trusted our defense and our running game to run the clock as much as possible.”
After the game, when the Jets got off the team bus at their hotel, they recognized three figures waiting for them: the Chiefs’ Lanier, Thomas and Buchanan. After losing in Super Bowl I, the three made a pact they would attend every Super Bowl until the AFL won.
“As fate has it,” Namath said, “they won the next Super Bowl, and the AFL won the last two Super Bowls between the leagues.”
Though he underwent knee surgery seven months before his rookie season and had several offseason knee surgeries early in his career, Namath took pride in the fact he missed just one game as a rookie and started all 56 games during 1966-69.
The Jets had just one more winning season — 10-4 in 1969, when they lost a home playoff game to the Super Bowl-bound Chiefs — in Namath’s career, and some have wondered what Namath may have accomplished had he not come into the league with a bum knee.
Namath has reconciled with that question.
“Yes, yes, yes, I thought about it and I arrived at a peaceful understanding,” he said. “I would have been in Vietnam like so many of the other guys. I had taken three physicals with the military and failed all three of them because of my knee. If I did not injure my knee in college, I would have been in Vietnam, and that could have been the end of the story right there. That could have been the end of my life, like so many other young guys.”
At one point, there was such an outcry among those asking how a professional athlete could be unfit for the military the U.S. Army circulated a statement to Congress substantiating that his injury would make him unable to serve.
“I was all right for sports, because there were doctors and trainers around and no one’s life was depending on my performance,” Namath said.
Namath suffered a more devastating knee injury in a 1971 preseason game against Detroit. He played six more years for the Jets before finishing his career in 1977 with the Los Angeles Rams. By then, his legacy was cemented, and Namath was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
“It was and still is exciting to relive those times,” Namath said. “I was part of a time. I measured up, but if I never tore my right knee, there wouldn’t have been a Joe Namath the football player. It was timing, Lady Luck, the good Lord.
“Was it meant to be? Probably, if we want to believe that.”