Before the emergence of Broadway Joe, before a 16-7 Super Bowl III victory would headline the legacy of a Pennsylvania boy, the Beaver Falls Tigers faced fourth down.
Offense off, punt team on.
Then-senior Joe Willie Namath remained on the field as the punt team left the sidelines and entered the game. He dropped yards behind the line of scrimmage and took a long snap. Before his right arm would deliver the New York Jets their only Super Bowl, punter Joe Namath put his team’s state championship hopes on his waiting right leg. Games later, the 1960 state championship trophy would bear the Tigers’ name.
Before he would trade Beaver Falls orange for Alabama crimson and New York green, the part quarterback, part punter, part cornerback was already all heart.
Namath would turn down six independent offers to join professional baseball teams across the nation. His time with the Crimson Tide began with a knock on the door. Alabama assistant coach Howard Schnellenberger, on the recommendation of University of Maryland head coach Tom Nugent, was waiting to present Namath with an opportunity: travel twelve hours south where head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant could hone Namath’s talents.
Namath’s mother made the decision before the future All-Pro had a chance. She had her son’s bag packed before coach Schnellenberger could complete his pitch. More than fifty athletic scholarships later, Namath found himself in Tuscaloosa. The decision paid dividends almost immediately, in the form of a 10-1 sophomore season, Namath’s first as the starting varsity quarterback. The gunslinger’s 25-yard dart to wide receiver Richard Williamson – who also caught Namath’s first touchdown pass at Alabama – opened a 7-point lead against Orange Bowl opponent Oklahoma that would become 17-0 by the game’s end. For his part, coach Bryant would later call the Namath recruitment “the best coaching decision I ever made.”
Namath helped the 1963 Tide squad to a 9-2 record. Against Tennessee, the junior threw three touchdowns, and ran a fourth into the end zone himself, from a yard out. Alabama would outscore opponents 227-95, capping another successful campaign.
Named captain his senior season, Namath would account for 3 touchdowns in each of his first 3 games, while his Tide would hold opponents to only 9 total points. A second-half knee injury saw Namath miss the ensuing 4 games, before he returned against Georgia Tech to register two more touchdowns in just over a minute of play.
After an Orange Bowl loss against Texas, Namath turned his sights to the pros. The first overall selection in the AFL draft chose the Jets over the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals as his destination of choice. A $427,000 agreement gave Namath the most lucrative rookie contract in football history, and an excuse to find a home in the entertainment capital of America.
Broadway Joe, of the New York Football Jets
Entering the league in 1965, Namath had his offensive line to thank for more than post-snap protection. Lineman Sherman Plunkett first addressed the rookie as “Broadway Joe,” regarding the quarterback’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The moniker quickly stuck, an apt description of Namath’s splashy reputation.
The Jets won five of their remaining eight games after Namath assumed starting quarterback duties in 1965, and merited AFL Rookie of the Year honors after posting 18 touchdowns through 13 games. Namath became the first quarterback in the history of the league to register 4,000 yards passing in a single season, a mark not equaled until league expansion to a 16-game schedule.
Three consecutive All-Star nominations still saw Namath go without a single postseason bid. Despite appearances on the Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Namath had yet to appear in a playoff game.
The Road to Super Bowl III
Looking to provide Namath with additional team responsibility, the Jets organization named Namath offensive captain to begin what would become a historic 1968 season. Namath powered the eventual 11-3 AFL East champions to a quick 2-0 start, founded largely upon the unstoppable tandem of young quarterback to wide receiver Don Maynard.
A 5-interception game against the Bills in Week 3 would see the Jets drop to 2-1, before more quarterback inconsistency would have the team looking for answers in Week 6, another 5-interception performance in a loss to the Denver Broncos.
Broadway Joe’s next move would deliver the Jets a world championship.
The same gunslinger whose right arm delivered championships at the high school and collegiate levels now placed his faith in the Jets’ acclaimed defense. He would throw no touchdown passes over the next four games, and the Jets would win all four in convincing fashion.
The division champion by 4 games in only a 12-game season, the Jets awaited the winner of a playoff between the Raiders and Chiefs, to determine their first-round opponent. After quarterback Daryle Lamonica led his Raiders to a 41-6 beatdown of their Kansas City counterparts, more than 62,000 spectators turned out to watch Namath and the Jets vie for a first-ever Super Bowl berth.
They arrived just in time to watch Oakland’s defense dislocate Namath’s finger. A rough first half of stone-cold outdoor football had Namath on the sidelines long enough to tape the ring finger on his non-throwing hand. He was back on the field without missing the next snap.
Head coach Weeb Ewbank elected to open up the Jets high-octane offense after a 10-10 first half. An ill-timed Namath interception gave the Raiders their only lead of the contest, before a sidelines conversation between Namath and Maynard would draft the game’s final chapter.
Maynard approached Namath before the ensuing kickoff, with only 8:20 remaining in regulation. “I’ve got a long one when you need it” he said. He would deliver on the game’s next snap.
Cornerback George Atkinson decided to press Maynard on the first play of the Jets’ drive. It was all the indication Namath needed, checking into an audible and watching Maynard torch the Raiders’ rookie defensive back down the right sideline. If the protection held, the pass would place the Jets inside the 10-yard line.
Namath got the throw off before the pocket could collapse, and Maynard found the ball over his shoulder without breaking stride. The same quarterback found the same receiver a play later on First & Goal, to re-take a 27-23 lead. The Jets defense would recover a Raiders backward pass, to set up an appointment with the NFL-champion Baltimore Colts.
Onstage at the Miami Touchdown Club, Namath would deliver a line set to give voice to underdogs everywhere, though he never meant for the words to escape his mouth. On a Thursday evening only three nights before a showdown with the Baltimore Colts, Namath knew not a single event attendee gave the Jets a chance Sunday, facing a squad some were already calling the greatest football team ever assembled.
As the young quarterback accepted a prestigious “Player of the Year” award, it was a derogatory comment from the back of the room which provided the evening an entirely new agenda. Namath halted his acceptance speech in time to address the heckler, in true New York fashion:
“I’ve got news for you. We’re going to win this game.”
“I guarantee it.”
17-point underdogs against the powerhouse Baltimore Colts, the 25-year-old Namath needed only 14 words to define a franchise.
January 12, 1969
It was real for Namath the moment he spotted childhood idol Johnny Unitas on the opposing sideline. Injured for the majority of the 1968 season, Unitas would watch his backup Earl Morrall take the field against Namath and the Jets.
A team which had Namath’s arm to thank for its Super Bowl run elected to win on the strength of their defense. Morrall would throw for 71 total yards and 3 crippling interceptions in Jets’ territory, while Namath registered 206 yards on 17 attempts. The most important contribution Namath would lend to the game was in handing the ball to running back Matt Snell. 30 carries and 121 yards later, Snell accounted for a second-quarter touchdown, and kept the Baltimore offense off the field.
Unitas would replace an ineffective Morrall in the third quarter, but failed to spark the offense. To his credit, Namath would not register a pass in the fourth quarter, instead allowing his running back to run with the ball and the clock. To this day, Namath is the only quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP without throwing a touchdown pass. He also registered 28 attempts without an interception, also an NFL record.
Namath left the field after a dominant 16-7 victory the way he entered it: with confidence. A young Joe Namath jogged toward the locker room, index finger raised to express his elation to a world that doubted he could back his claims. Told in the locker room by a reporter that he was now “king of the hill,” the outspoken quarterback had an answer waiting.
“No, we’re king of the hill.” Then, with a smile, “We’ve got the team, brother!”
The rest of the story
Joe Namath would record 8 more seasons in a Jets uniform, though injuries would hinder his productivity. After the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, he would lead the league in passing yards and touchdowns in 1972. The two-time ALF most valuable player would earn three second-team All-AFL nominations, four AFL All-Star designations, and NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1974.
A trade to the St. Louis Rams saw him cap a world-class, thirteen-year career. Today, Namath headlines the AFL All-Time team, alongside favorite target Don Maynard and head coach Ewbank. In 1985, Namath elected to officially conclude his playing career the way he began it: taking in the wise words of Larry Bruno, his high school coach who acted as presenter in Canton.
Some 75,000 individuals were on-hand to watch Namath lead the Jets to victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Seventeen years later, Namath took the field again beside coach Ewbank, to again make program history: Broadway Joe would become the first New York Jet to retire his number, at a special Monday Night Football halftime ceremony. He would wait entire minutes before standing ovations would subside enough for the Jets career passing leader to thank his family, the organization and his teammates.
“I’ll always be with the Jets” promised Namath. This time, no one doubted the guarantee.
Under the Lights
Even before his Hall of Fame career reached its conclusion in 1977, Namath found a second home on the screen. Removed from his on-field performances, Namath found a way to captivate home audiences with the same regularity. Frequent television and talk show appearances, together with headlining movie roles, kept Namath in a well-deserved spotlight.
A place in the spotlight
A season removed from his first Super Bowl appearance, Broadway Joe hosted The Joe Namath Show – a conversational segment that saw Namath delve into the lives of athletes and entertainers – alongside American sportswriter Dick Schaap. Though the 13-installment broadcast lasted only a single season, it provided the foundation for Namath’ subsequent television appearances. A casual smile and observational demeanor made the Beaver Falls native a natural on the screen, and the world took notice.
When the NFL mandated that athletes appear shaven, Namath negotiated a groundbreaking deal with razor provider Schick, to shave his token Fu Manchu in one of television’s first massive endorsement deals.
In 1974, you could discover for only $1.69 what a 31-year-old Namath already knew: Beautymist pantyhose can make any leg look amazing. “If Beautymist can make my legs look good, imagine what they’ll do for yours” he delivered, though for once, no one was focusing on his smile. Noxema shaving cream, Brut Cologne and Ovaltine flavoring also benefitted from his endorsements.
A cinematic presence
Namath wore two jerseys over the course of his NFL career – Jets’ green and Rams’ blue. Even before his time as a football player reached its conclusion, Namath found his spare time filled with primetime slots, guest appearances on programs like The Dean Martin Show. Namath played himself on the award-winning Brady Bunch, visiting Bobby and the entire Brady family. He teamed with George Carlin on The Flip Wilson Show, Lucille Ball on Here’s Lucy, and Dan Rowan and Dick Martin on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In. Namath would also star in The Waverly Wonders as a basketball player past his prime seeking to re-establish himself in the game.
Namath would establish a name for himself in Hollywood, courtesy of big-ticket productions like C.C. and Company, Chattanooga Choo Choo and The Last Rebel. His easygoing, smooth disposition translated well in cinemas. Most recently, Namath starred alongside football legends John Riggins and Ed “Too Tall” Jones in The Wedding Ringer, when old-time football players provide an upstart bachelor party with a lesson in true gamesmanship.
The man who led 16 fourth quarter comebacks soon witnessed to his own nickname, debuting on Broadway with the theatrical classic “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.” The 40 year-old would play a convincing Lt. Stephen Maryk in his only appearance on Broadway, courtesy of the critically acclaimed revival of Herman Wouk’s 1954 classic.
Namath’s transition from New York turf to Hollywood sets was an easy one. Still, the quarterback’s legacy will be forever tied to the portrayal of one character in particular: his own. The life and times of the Jets’ most famous gunslinger are recounted comprehensively in the 2012 documentary Namath, which provides unrivaled access to Namath’s childhood details, athletic accomplishments, and connection to his hometown of Beaver Falls. An autobiography of the same name chronicles the entirety of the Namath legacy, from the white, llama-skin rug of his bachelor pad to the benevolence of his post-playing days.
The same brand responsible for a guaranteed Super Bowl III victory, responsible for successful Hollywood flicks, numerous charitable campaigns and the first 4,000-yard season, is now available in the Joe Namath Fan Shop. Assume the modern underdog mentality and associate yourself with the Namath name.
Find any of the photos capturing the 1960 state champion Beaver Falls football team, and you’ll notice that most Tigers are identifiable by wide smiles. Only one is equally recognizable by the shine of his shoes.
Enter Joe Willie Namath, the son of a steel mill worker, whose bright white laces could never prefigure the full extent of an already-forming legacy. His playing days were characterized by a youthful confidence, no matter the size of the stage on which he performed. The man gave a new definition to the concept of a polarizing figure, earning his reputation as an All-Star both on and off the field. Namath fashioned a reputation equal parts cavalier and carefree, backed by frequent appearances in both the media and the end zone.
Namath has made an established habit of embracing the spotlight. He has over the course of his playing, acting and commentating career added another title to his celebrity status: philanthropist. Once the first selection in the AFL draft, the now-retired quarterback regularly lends his reputation and support to a number of charitable causes, among them The Joe Namath Charitable Foundation. The organization has to date contributed over $100 million to various neurological research institutes, together with children’s charity funds.
The Joe Namath Neurological Research Center is a national leader in head trauma treatment and research, employing scientifically-proven methodology to effectively reverse the effects of sustained brain damage. In 2012, Namath became a patient of the neurological center, where Chief of Radiology Dr. Lee Fox identified areas in Namath’s brain characterized by reduced blood flow. After personalized treatments, Namath’s tests revealed no additional brain
regression. Today, the Neurological Research Center provides life-lengthening brain treatments to a variety of athletes, military personnel, accident victims and more. The continued drive for a permanent head trauma cure in Jupiter, Florida now bears Namath’s name.
Broadway Joe has been associated with various other charitable causes, including Autism Speaks, the Max Cure Foundation and Project Sunshine. Namath aims to ensure that individuals who wear or support his brand understand that they support more than his on-field contributions.