The Original Playboy Star
ON JAN. 2, 1965, the day Joe Namath signed with the New York Jets, this city had no idea what it was getting. Not only would Namath go on to lead the New York Jets to their only Super Bowl win in 1969, he would also become the epitome of New York cool during much of the 1960s and 70s. Kids would walk around with his gimp and imitate his hipster lingo. From downing drinks at his own nightclub to shaving his moustache off on television, Namath was a man who knew how to work the media-driven city.
And then it was over. By the 80s he'd become a footnote to the New York sports scene, shunning bars and ducking cameras. Sure, you'd see him as a sportscaster or on the occasional commercial, but it wasn't the same. At the age of 41, Namath settled down to raise a family. At 55, his wife and kids split, leaving him alone with a weakened kidney and flickering memories of fame.
Former Daily News sportswriter Mark Kriegel has a new biography out that chronicles the quarterback's rise and fall. Namath (Viking, $27.95) covers Joe Namath's impact on the city and the sport of football. In it, we follow the transformation of a two-bit street hustler from Beaver Falls, PA, into a super-slick urban hustler. By day, he was one of the best quarterbacks this city has ever seen; by night, a world-class playboy bar crawler.
Over a few pints at a Brooklyn bar, I talked with Mark Kriegel about Namath, football and the New York that once was.
What led you to Namath as a subject? When I was a kid I had a Joe Namath poster over my bed. He was the first ball player I remember whom I idolized. Namath was before Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Pete Maravich. I was seven years old and I didn't know what cool was, but I knew Namath was it. I conned my parents into buying me the official Joe Namath uniform when I lived in Manhattan on 28th St. Someone hit me once and it fell apart. The helmet got cracked.
Is Joe Namath relevant in 2004? There is no Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods today without Joe Namath. There is none of that without Namath. He was the original cool ball player.
Too bad he was long off the sports scene when you started doing sports journalism. Do you think he would have been a colorful guy to write about? That's why I wrote the book. My years as a sportswriter coincided with the age of Michael Jordan, and by then it was all about television and merchandising.
In New York every sports figure since has been judged in relation to Joe Namath, or at least his fable. From Reggie Jackson to Mark Messier to-God help us-Patrick Ewing, who didn't even guarantee a victory. We sportswriters sat around parsing his sentences trying to get a guarantee out of what he said. It was because we remembered how great it was that Namath had guaranteed the Jets, as 18-point underdogs, they would win Super Bowl III.
It wasn't Ewing's fault. He had a deficit in charisma. No one could be Joe Namath.
Besides youthful memories, what led to the book? The seed of the book was a story that Sal Marchiano told me. [Marchiano is a sportscaster for Channel 11 who partied with Namath as a young man.]
They were close. Marchiano told me years later, after all those late nights, that he visited Namath after he was divorced and pushing 60 in Florida. Namath was drinking alone in the shadows of his empty home, suffering as a divorced dad. His Broadway Joe image was gone. That image of Namath alone drinking vodka became the image of the book.
Joe Willie Namath, the Playboy of Manhattan, drinking alone as an old man, is sad. From owning the hottest bar in New York and making out with every girl in town-to being alone with a bottle.
In the 70s, Namath wore a pair of women's pantyhose for a tv commercial. He wore his hair long, then wept on tv when he lost his bar because of the supposed savory characters who hung out there. He was out there for a man of his time. If you take away all the cosmetic levels of his persona, you have a good old-fashioned tough guy. Namath was tough enough to get beat down by the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs week after week. He was tough enough. He was the first athlete who was both an old-school tough guy and a new-fangled hustler. He didn't care who saw him in women's stockings.
I still can't get past the fact that the man posed in women's pantyhose on national tv. It took balls to do that. He didn't give a shit what people were saying. He liked getting paid the money more than he disliked the backlash: He got paid $10,000 for shaving off his fu-manchu mustache on tv.
Do you think that the current Jets quarterback, Chad Pennington, could get a commercial to shave off a moustache he might grow? The better question is: Could Chad Pennington even grow a fu-manchu moustache?
At the end of the book, Namath is alone. His wife has left him to hook up with a Beverly Hills surgeon. His kids left to be with their mom. How did this happen to the most swinging dude in New York? It is the most unlikely destination of all. You have the man who was the standard-bearer of booze and broads becoming, in his own way, Mr. Family Values. He was Mr. Mom-without the family. It damn near killed him.
Everyone who saw that Namath interview in 2003 on ESPN where he asked the female sportscaster for a kiss, they saw that as a goof. Like one of those crack-up tv moments. I saw that as a man in pain. I saw a man who had lost his family.
When I saw it, I just thought Namath was a pathetic old drunk. He'd been sober for most of his marriage. His wife realized he shouldn't be drinking, [so] he stopped drinking for his wife. As he matured, his family became the most important thing to him. [He] turned into a guy who would do anything to keep his family together.
As fans, we [consider] the significant event in Namath's life to be when he guaranteed a win in the Super Bowl for the Jets-and then winning that game. But for Namath, the significant event in his life was the break-up of his parents' marriage and his father leaving his family when he was in the 7th grade. [He] spent the rest of his life trying to avoid this thing. And as a Jet, with all of New York before him, he liked booze and broads, and he was scared to death of being married and being in a position where he would be unfaithful.
He's a paradox. This guy who had all these women was scared to be unfaithful.
What does Namath think of the book? I didn't hear he didn't like it. I went to his agent early on and he made it clear Namath's involvement would have to be based on some sort of financial arrangement. I would have had to pay him to talk. But I couldn't do that. That is not good journalism.
You talked with friends he grew up with in Beaver Falls, his teammates and the crew he ran with. They had a lot to say, and it wasn't all so nice. They loved him, and they knocked him. His teammate, fullback Matt Snell, was the most objective of his former teammates because he felt that Namath never got the credit for being such a student of football. He was so good as a quarterback because of his quick release and the way he could see all the angles on a football field. That takes hours of studying film. But he also said sometimes the guy would come into the locker room and you could smell the booze on him.
It all comes back to the drinking. The guy was in constant pain from the time he was a senior in college. The booze took the edge off the pain. His knees were wrecked. Over time he lost the ability to differentiate physical and emotional pain, and his marriage fell apart in the late 1990s when he treated his emotional pain like a football injury. He treated his broken heart the same way he would treat a busted-up knee.
In the book you describe how he'd get all the sex he wanted. There were two movements in popular culture that helped to make Namath even bigger than he would ever have been: the point spread and the sexual revolution.
Would you have liked to hang out at Bachelors III [Namath's bar in New York]? Who the hell wouldn't? His career follows New York nightlife with drinking with a purpose-that purpose being to wind up with beautiful women on your arm. He symbolized the idea that men could go out for a night and wind up with a model. He blazed that. A lot of friends who were good close friends with Namath loved the book because it gave them the chance to remember being young and running around with Namath at night. The joints Namath went to in New York were advertised as places stewardesses were welcome. Everyone drank, everyone got laid, there was the birth control pill and everyone was groovy. Being around Joe Namath made every man with him feel like he mattered. They lived off the light of him.
Namath hit every hot spot in New York and had a beautiful woman on his arm every other night. Do athletes today get that? You couldn't have that today in New York. All these athletes today are so worried about their image they don't even have an image.
Joe Namath came from a time before athletes spoke in that clichéd happy horseshit way. He was a guy who conjures up memories of the good old days. Derek Jeter would never want to be seen holding a scotch at the bar. Maybe he drinks, but Namath didn't care if you saw him drinking.
Does Namath deserve to be in the football Hall of Fame? He had six good years and six pretty bad years. Forget the stats. Yes, he had more interceptions than touchdowns-but it's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats. You want to know Namath's impact on football? Just check out the tv ratings. Forget the numbers; I still thought the guy was the shit.
Namath was once on President Richard Nixon's enemy list. How did that happen? Namath was politically agnostic. He had no political belief. Ali wasn't on Nixon's enemy list. I think it was the fact that Nixon was an old-time Washington Redskins fan.
Joe Namath has been honored and idolized for years, yet does not see himself as clearly as his friends and those who played with him. Did that make for better research? That's for others to judge. I don't think that Namath is the type of guy who would divulge intimacies, especially because when I started this book he was in the midst of sadness over his divorce. I still don't think he is the type of guy who would go on Oprah and have a good cry.
In 2003, I was at the Meadowlands doing a story on the Giants on the day Namath asked that female sportscaster for a kiss. The Giant officials were goofing on the Jets: Their Hall of Fame representative was acting like the drunk, just like the Jets fans who foul the stands of the Giants Stadium. As opposed to the Giants' role model Lawrence Taylor?
In his book, Baltimore Colt Bubba Smith claimed that the Jets' Super Bowl win in 1969 was fixed. Namath was familiar with the betting establishment of the time. [Smith's] allegation was complete bullshit. Who threw the game? The Jets won that game outright. Namath hustled the Colts [and] they lost their whole game because of their fear of Namath. Who fixed the game? They lost. The Jets won.
Do you look back at Namath's hedonism with nostalgia? It isn't nostalgia-it's regret. Look at sports bars now. They dress the waitresses in lame, standard-issue, referee-zebra-stripe shirts and everybody has to drink Coors Light. And you have Keyshawn Johnson's Jersey on the wall like it's the Shroud of Turin.
How will Joe Namath be remembered? He will go down as the first ball player who blew up on tv. o
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