Has it reallybeen 22 years? Jan. 12, 1969: New York Jets 16, Baltimore Colts 7, at theOrange Bowl in Miami. The Super Bowl that made the American Football Leaguerespectable, Joe Namath's Super Bowl, Namath and his "I guarantee it"quote, Broadway Joe and Lou Michaels nearly getting into a fight in a FortLauderdale restaurant, Namath trotting off the field in that curious shufflingrun of his, raising one finger high in the We're No. 1 sign. Broadway JoeNamath, Joe Willie, the game's greatest star...maybe the greatest ever...biggerthan life. Bigger than the event itself? No, Super Bowl III was bigger, thebiggest ever. It gave underdogs all over the country a chance to hold up theirheads. But Joe Willie was big that day in Miami. Real big. Twenty-twoyears.
"The firsttime I was back in the Orange Bowl, doing a game for NBC in 1987, well, yeah,it brought back memories, sure did," Namath says. "I went out early. Iwalked the field. I went down to the end zone and stood on the spot whereGeorge Sauer and I hooked up on a quick out, and Lenny Lyles knocked the ballout of his hands and they recovered...and then later they missed a field goal.I felt the same feeling I felt that day, 'Whew, we got out of that one.' Lookat my arm. Goose bumps. I get goose bumps just talking about it, thinking aboutit.
"I stood onthe sidelines, same spot as where I was standing then, looking at the clockthat showed 6:11 to play, and I remember thinking, Please, God, make the clockrun. It's amazing. Usually I'd get pregame jitters, but that day I didn't startfeeling them until I looked at the clock and saw 6:11 left. 'So close, we're soclose to winning.' I get chills talking about it."
It is lateNovember. We are standing on the dock behind Namath's house on the LoxahatcheeRiver, in the sleepy little residential town of Tequesta, Fla., about 80 milesnorth of the Orange Bowl. On the back porch, Namath's wife, Debbie, is talkingto the builders who are putting the finishing touches on what will be a12-room, single-story house.
"New Englandcottage-style," she says. "Wood shingle. With an English garden for me,a rose garden. Hopefully, it'll be ready before this is." She pats herstomach. She is eight months pregnant. There is already one child, JessicaGrace, who is five. There is an 11-year-old border collie named Brittany. Thereare snook and flounder, which Namath fishes for off the dock, and manatees thatswim up close—almost close enough to pat—and orange and mango trees, and, bestof all, there is the Florida sunshine.
"Joe lovesFlorida. He loves the sunshine because it makes his knees feel better,"Debbie says.
The knees. Youcan't help it. It's the first thing you look at when you see Namath in shorts.A bit swollen-looking, with a bump on the inside of each one, his knees appearodd, perhaps, to a stranger, but no different from the way they looked in thelocker room when he would remove those big Lenox Hill braces. At 47, Namathstill has the striking good looks that made him the symbol of youth andrebellion and anything else you want to attach to the turbulent '60s, but hisexpression is different. It's softer now, settled. The fierce, jagged edgeshave been smoothed out. All the old resentments, the vendettas, the refusal totalk to some writers...that's all part of the past.
"I wasdifferent then, aggressive, resentful," he says. "Most of thosegrudges, well, I don't even remember what they were about. You get older, youchange. I look at life kind of like the periods of a football game. My dad's84. I expect to live into my 90's, maybe even to 100. So I'm at halftime rightnow. How many games have you seen won in the third or fourth quarter? Butthat's the way I see it at 47. When I was 25, when we played in the Super Bowl,it was hard to look ahead, even 10 years down the road."
But looking backon a career, 12 years with the Jets and one with the Rams, where does the SuperBowl rate in the store of memories? Is it still the single focal experience ina Hall of Fame career, or has it become almost a cliche by now, worn thin byconstant reminder?
"Youknow," Namath says, "one time in the locker room, a writer asked meabout my knees. Then he said, 'Do you get tired of answering that question?' Itold him I couldn't think of too many things people don't get tired of. Yourgirlfriend, too many great meals, you can get tired of almost anything. I couldthink of only two I never got tired of—staying healthy and coming outahead.
"And now Ican say, no, I never got tired of the memories of that Super Bowl. It doesn'tget old, talking about it, but I can see it in perspective now. I don't know ifthere will ever be another underdog like we were. [The Colts opened as 17-pointfavorites, but by kickoff, after reports of turmoil in the Jets' camp, thespread was up to 19½ ].
"There are alot of underdogs out there in the world, in our country," Namath says."They'd seen the AFL lose in the first two Super Bowls. Now it was our turnto be the heavy underdog. But we played 60 minutes and won, and maybe thatmeant something to all those people out there who felt they were underdogs. Iknow it must have affected a lot of high school and college teams. I can't tellyou how many coaches told me afterward that they used our game as a motivator.But maybe it meant something to the underdogs in life, too.
"Sure thegame stands out in my mind, the whole era, the way we approached football. I'vedone four Colt games for NBC this year. The one thing I see missing on thatteam is one guy to take control. I talked to the quarterback [Jeff George]. Isaid, 'You've got to get 'em going.' He said, 'Well, I'm a quiet guy.'
"But it'stough for a quarterback now. All the guys are in the huddle here, thequarterback's over there the whole time looking toward the sidelines for theplay to come in. I see it with Marino, with Schroeder, all of them. They don'teven have time to talk to their guys.
"I don'tthink I could handle that. In the Super Bowl, a lot of what I called was,'check with me,' which meant I made the call at the line. I'd come back to thehuddle and talk to Schmitty, our center [John Schmitt], or Haystack Herman, whowas the tackle in front of Bubba Smith that day, and say, 'What do you like,Stack?' He'd say, 'Run a draw, Joe,' or, 'We can trap him,' and I'd say, 'O.K.,you got it.' That's all lost now. It's gone."
A young womanidentifying herself as a substitute teacher at a nearby elementary school wantsto know if he will visit the school and speak to the children.
"Howold?" he says.
"Kind offirst grade," the woman says, "They're adorable."
"Let'ssee," he says. "I've got two games coming up for NBC. After December'sgood. I'll do it after December. Maybe it would be better if I brought somemagic tricks or something to do for them. Most of those kids wouldn't know mefrom Adam."
You might catchNamath working an NBC game every now and then, or you might see his face on TVpushing Flex-all 454, an arthritis pain reliever, or a few of the otherproducts he endorses, and he's still got his summer camp in Connecticut, butbasically he's out of the spotlight, which is the way he wants it. "I lovebeing home with my family," he says. "I love my leisure time here. I'mnot a workaholic and I'm not greedy. Do I miss the limelight? No, but I don'tforget it, either."
As we talk,Namath fishes off his dock. He has had a line in the water for an hour and hashad his bait stolen three times, and finally there's a bite. The fish he reelsin is perhaps two inches long. "So you're the one that's been eating mybait," says Namath, who removes the hook and throws the fish back."Well, at least I didn't get shut out."
The community,according to Debbie, is "a real throwback. Everyone has four children, theyplay kickball in the streets, there are bicycles everywhere. It's safe, small.It's what we like."
Every so oftenduring the week a car will pull up and people will stare. "You can't doanything about it," Namath says. "But it's no problem, none at all.
"You know, Idevoted a lot of time to acting when I quit football. It was what I wanted as acareer. But I haven't gone on the boards since Jessica was born. What I wantnow is to be home with my family. Is it over? I wouldn't say that. There mightcome a time when I'll crave it again—exciting, challenging, excruciating attimes.
"Going froman area where you're considered best to one in which you know yourself thatyou're not good, well, it's tough. Dealing with all the great artists I dealtwith, dealing with the harsh criticism—sometimes that criticism just made youcringe. I've never known anyone who didn't cringe under it. All I can say isthat I worked as hard at the profession as I could. Not many people know that Iwas taking acting lessons while I was still playing. I secretly enrolled in anacting course at Hofstra."
That was aboutthe time that Namath went from the Jets to the Rams, when his football careerwas all but over.
"As far as mylife in football is concerned, yes, I would take it again, even though everyyear was emotionally and physically tough. I never played a down of profootball with a good knee. My game was left in college. Dr. Nicholas of theJets didn't see my knee until I'd hurt it for the fifth time. I'd had it go outand ripped five times before he operated on it the first time. I kept tearingit up at Alabama.
"But I stillhad some mobility, until I tore two hamstring muscles waterskiing. That wasawful. My last six or seven years in the NFL, I could take one stride settingup, then maybe a second one, then I'd be breaking down by the fourth."
There are foursteps leading down from the back of Namath's house. He says he'll have abanister installed "and blame it on my mother."
"The rightknee bothers me now more than ever," he says. "In 1977 I was told I'dneed a new joint. I held off, but I might have to put it in now. I get scaredin airports, going down steps. Sometimes my left or right knee will catch. Ihaven't fallen down, but I've had to drop my bags and catch on tosomething."
It's on thosetrips that Namath feels like a celebrity again.
"To most ofthe young players, Super Bowl III and me are ancient history, but sometimessomebody will bring it up," he says. "Sometimes they're still a littlein awe. Merril Hoge of the Steelers wanted me to sign something, but he was soembarrassed that he had Tony Parisi, the equipment man, introduce us. Then Hogeexplained that he always used to follow the Jets.
"Sometimes ona trip, somebody will come up and just want to talk about the Super Bowl, the'I guarantee it' quote. I try to explain that it wasn't an arrogant line, itwas an angry one. I was at the Miami Touchdown Club dinner at the Miami SpringsVilla, and I was up at the mike, and someone yelled something nasty from theback and I said, 'Wait a minute, let's hold on. You Baltimore guys have beentalking all week, but I've got news for you, buddy. We're gonna win the game. Iguarantee it.'
"SometimesI'll talk to old Colt fans, and all they want to talk about is when EarlMorrall didn't see Jimmy Orr for a touchdown on the flea-flicker, or the twofield goals they missed. Well, so what? We missed two field goals, too, and ifOrr would have scored the touchdown, you think we couldn't have opened itup?"
The years aremelting away, and some of the old Namath is coming back, feisty, bristly, theold Broadway Joe. Namath set what was then the pro football record by throwingfor 4,007 yards in 1967, but the Jets didn't become a championship-caliber teamuntil the defense and the running game emerged a year later. That was theseason Namath went conservative, and all of us geniuses in the press box werewriting What's-wrong-with-Broadway Joe? stories because he went six gameswithout throwing a touchdown pass. In the AFL championship victory overOakland, Namath and Daryle Lamonica threw 96 times, but in the Super Bowl, asthe Jets' lead grew from 7-0 to 10, then 13, then 16-0, Namath pulled in hishorns and threw only when he had to. An early Colt score? Well, in that caseyou might have seen a 30-14 Jet win.
"I hadsharper games," Namath says. "I missed George Sauer early; I got awaywith one that Lyles almost intercepted. But from the standpoint of not makingmistakes, I had a good game. I didn't throw into coverage, I didn't callanything to the wrong side of the defense. But most of all, it was a total teamvictory. I can't think of a player on our team who played a mediocre game. Hey,Matt Snell running over those guys. Al Atkinson, our middle linebacker, playingwith a separated shoulder and reaching up to tip away a pass at the goal line.Dave Herman switching over to tackle and then having a great game againstBubba...."
He stares out atthe water, at a small school of snook making splashes, at two pelicans sittingon a pole. "God, those names, those memories," he says. "Goosebumps again. Look."
He holds out hisright arm. I look, see an arm, tanned and healthy, pretend to see bumps, nod.What I really see is a man at peace.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
In beating the Colts, Namath, who threw for 206 yards, and the Jets won one for underdogs everywhere.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Namath wasn't real sharp, just Super.