When NFL football experts, analysts and even opinionated fans begin making lists of the most beloved players to don a professional team’s uniform, no accounting would be complete without football legend Joe Namath.
Joseph William Namath stole the football world’s heart at the tender age of 19 when he made his debut as Quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide. With his bigger than life coach, and football legend in his own right, Paul “Bear” Bryant demanding perfection from his program at every turn, Joe Willie did not disappoint. Together, in 1964, they hoisted the National Championship trophy over their heads and parted ways the upcoming summer when Joe was drafted to the AFL football team, the New York Jets.
The small town kid from Beaver Creek, Pennsylvania was immediately launched into stardom, making good on his magnetic charm, handsome face, and football prowess. What is now commonplace, and entertaining to fans in every media outlet, was once a novelty idea that turned the television world on its head: Athletes in advertising. Promoting products and endorsing brands with a flash of a smile, and a demeanor that even grandmother would love, “Broadway Joe” was born.
Before the NFL football merger in 1970, Broadway Joe had cemented himself as a household name, proving that football wasn’t his only calling. With a cockiness that commanded attention, Mr. Namath took his New York Jets to Superbowl III in 1969 against the Baltimore Colts. The Don Shula led Colts were touted as the best NFL football team of all-time leading up to the showdown, but Joe wasn’t swayed by their splendor, aptitude, or incredible history-making lineup. Baltimore was heading into the AFL-NFL clash led by their very own football legend, Johnny Unitas and a defense that could stop a freight train, going downhill at maximum speed. Unmoved by the facts and statistics, in his decisive, steadfast and alluring style of interaction with fans, Joe Namath guaranteed a victory over the highly favored Baltimore Colts just three days before they were to face off at the Orange Bowl Stadium in Miami, Florida.
As the first official championship game to bear the name “Superbowl” the Jets/Colts match-up would go down in history, leaving an impressionable mark on all those who have since gathered around their televisions to root their team to the biggest NFL football game of the year. The Jets hardly murdered the Colts, winning 16-7, but they did intercept the legendary, all-American Johnny Unitas four times, which was unheard of during his time at the helm. Broadway Joe ran off the field in victory, with one hand over his head, waving with his index finger in the air, proclaiming silently to all who watched him swagger off in an excited trot that he and his team were officially number one.
The decisive difference between Namath and Unitas was evident in their appearance, without a single word being uttered by either party. Joe was a long-haired kid who flaunted his flair by wearing a full-length mink coat on the sidelines for warmth. Johnny had a crew cut, and played by all of the rules. You were a fan of one or the other at the time, but typically not both. Especially since their teams were mortal enemies going forward. Just beginning his stark projection into stardom, Joe was an NFL legend every second after the clock ticked to zero in that championship game, even though he had only been in the league for four seasons. He was named Superbowl MVP, and became the first football player ever to win a championship in both the NFL and college.
Before he could even begin training camp exercises in the spring to prepare and defend his promised and delivered title, Joe was wooed into the bright lights, sounds and splendor of Hollywood. Outside of his iconic commercials in the late 1960s, and his acclaimed football career to match, his celebrity status emanated on screen while appearing in movies, popular television programs and while taking the guest chair in the late night hilarity that was The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Even if you had not watched a single football game in your life, you knew who Broadway Joe was, and you loved him. Well, unless you were a Colts fan.
Joe Namath would spend the next seven seasons charming New Yorkers with his low-cut white cleats, fancy footwork and strong arm. He racked up numerous AFL all-star selections, as well as a Pro-bowl and All-pro appearance. He was named to the AFL All-time team, was AFL MVP twice, adding an AFL championship, and a Superbowl championship to his resume. The latter is still the only championship title his beloved New York Jets can claim to date. He left New York to play one last year with the Los Angeles Rams, and had his faithful #12 jersey retired by Gang Green as soon as he did. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, and still spends his days wondering through the Jets’ training camp in the spring. He is engraved in the hearts of so many, thanks to his playing days, and his whimsical smile that could make a blind man blush. Joe Namath’s love of the game, dashing personality and exceptional good looks helped turn a divided, part-time entertainment source into a single NFL football league. A league that now represents a full time engagement for men, women and children around the world, and for that we should all be thankful.