In 1969, a few days before his team took the field as huge underdogs in the Super Bowl, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath — known then and forever as Broadway Joe — arrived at a Miami hotel in a turquoise Cadillac.
Namath, known for sometimes showing up at games still drunk from the previous evening’s activities, was there to accept an award. The quarterback “sat on the dais next to his companion for the evening, Mr. Johnnie Walker,” wrote Mark Kriegel, in his 2005 biography.
When it was his turn to speak, Namath said, "I'd like to personally thank all the single girls in New York for their contribution."
This was pure Broadway Joe: tipsy, freewheeling, amorous. And so was the cockiness that emerged from his whiskey-soft lips a few sentences later.
"The Jets will win Sunday," he said. "I guarantee it."
To many sportswriters, football fans, and even some of the scantily dressed woman who tripped over each other trying to catch the attention of his pretty, light green eyes, Namath’s prediction wasn’t just cocky — it was insane.
His opponent, the Baltimore Colts, were 18-point favorites. Namath’s knees were beat up. The Colts had the second most potent offense in football, and the best defense.
Some were predicting a blowout.
The Jets won, 16-7.
Though Namath was named most valuable player, his performance wasn’t a totally dominating one. He didn’t even throw a touchdown pass. But the moment itself, wrote Kriegel, took Namath’s fame — and pro football’s popularity — to a different planet.
"In fame's pecking order, Namath suddenly outranked Sinatra," Kriegel wrote. "Actually, at that moment, he outranked just about everybody who wasn't a Beatle."
Attendance around the NFL soared. So did TV viewership, particularly with the launch of “Monday Night Football” two years later. The league made sure that Namath and the Jets played in the inaugural game.
Now, 50 years after his big win, Namath was on the CBS set Sunday night for the start of Super Bowl LIII.
Namath became so famous that he earned what is believed to be the only honor ever bestowed upon an athlete: a spot on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. As with many of Nixon’s actions, nobody is sure exactly why this happened.
Kriegel writes that John Dean, Nixon’s former White House counsel, suspects an overzealous staffer probably heard Nixon, a die-hard Redskins fan known to offer offensive play suggestions, make nasty comments about Namath. Other athletes were jealous.
Everyone wanted a piece of Namath, especially reporters. Profiles of Namath were the 1970s equivalent of clickbait. Legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote a famous story about Namath for New York Magazine titled “Namath All Night Long.” In it, he compared Namath hanging out at a bar to Babe Ruth hanging out at a bar.
“I saw Ruth once when he came off the golf course and walked into the bar at the old Bayside course in Queens,” Breslin wrote. “In one shot, he swallowed the mixing glass, ice chunks and everything else. He slapped the mixing glass down and said, give me another one of these f’n things, kid.”
The place went nuts.
“It is the same thing,” Breslin wrote, “when you stand at the bar with Joe Namath.”
Life went on like this for a while. Not surprisingly, Namath endured his fair share of busted relationships, drunken driving charges, bad business deals, fading playing ability and then, of course, fading fame. The alcohol was the biggest problem. Namath was an alcoholic.
The retired quarterback settled down in 1984, marrying Deborah Mays, a woman he met at a voice class. With her insistence and help, Namath quit drinking a few years later. But after they divorced in 2000, Namath began drinking heavily again, leading to one of the ugliest and most embarrassing moments of his life.
During a Jets game in 2003, Namath — wearing his old number and obviously heavily intoxicated — was interviewed on the sideline by ESPN reporter Suzy Kolber. He answered one of her questions by saying, “I want to kiss you.”
Namath apologized and entered rehab.
At age 75, it’s easier for Namath to look back on that improbable win and understand just how much it changed his life and sports forever.
“I think about it now,’’ he recently told the New York Daily News. “But at the time, I didn’t understand what was taking place. That was beyond what I was thinking about. All I was thinking about was playing in the biggest game of our lives.’’
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