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NFL 100 – Broadway Joe Namath

06 Nov

When he entered pro football as a much ballyhooed rookie from the University of Alabama, he was simply Joe Willie Namath from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. But when he signed what was then an outrageous 3 year/$400,000 contract with the New York Jets of the American Football League, the subject of this NFL 100 post turned the pro football world on it’s ear. The AFL, attempting to compete with the older, established NFL, manipulated the draft to ensure Namath would wind up in the country’s largest television market. He was the perfect person to give the league some star power. Television was becoming the engine that drove pro football into massive popularity during this time, the mid-1960s, and Namath became the toast of the town in the Big Apple. His career got off to a rocky start in his rookie season of 1965, as he split time at QB with Mike Taliaferro and the team lost it’s first 6 games. Namath took over as the full time starter after that and turned the team’s fortunes around, as they won 5 of their last 8. Namath’s play earned him the AFL’s Rookie of The Year Award.

 

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Publicity photo of Jets’ rookie QB Joe Namath

When Namath appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine in ’65, teammate Sherman Plunkett was the first to anoint him “Broadway Joe”, a moniker that has stuck with him to this day. He parlayed his playing success into a massive amount of advertising opportunities, hawking everything from pantyhose to shaving cream to Ovaltine drink mix, and began to appear as a guest on television shows and in starring roles in movies as his career went on. Broadcaster Howard Cosell used to call him “Joe Willie” and also touted him as a new breed of sports superstar, showing a personality rather than being an unknown robot hidden beneath a helmet. He set himself apart from all other players, with his cocky persona, his signature white spikes and an appearance on the sideline wearing a fur coat. Namath’s playing career reached it’s zenith when he led the Jets to a 27-23 win in the AFL Championship game over the defending champion Oakland Raiders in 1968. That win propelled the Jets into Super Bowl III against the mightiest of the mighty NFL clubs, Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts. The Colts were made heavy favorites, while the Jets were ridiculed as an inferior team from the “Mickey Mouse” AFL. Namath, growing tired of the jokes and ridicule, announced at a banquet prior to the contest that “we’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.” When he delivered on that guarantee with a 16-7 Jet upset, his popularity grew even more. He was considered the savior of the AFL, and many of the league’s players, subjected to the same scorn as the Jets, said that the upset was a win for the upstart league. After the big Super Bowl win, Namath purchased a night club, the Bachelor’s III, which got him into trouble with commissioner Pete Rozelle when it was revealed that the club was regularly visited by organized crime figures. Namath threatened to retire rather than give up the club but eventually gave in and sold it.

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Broadway Joe on the sideline in his fur coat

Namath is largely regarded as one of the most influential figures in pro football history, and rightfully so. But there is a group of people who question his credentials to be a Hall of Famer, which he became in 1985. His overall career numbers do bear out that argument. In his 13 year career, his teams posted a losing record of 68-71-4. He threw for 173 touchdowns and 220 interceptions, hardly stellar numbers. His career didn’t end well, as he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1977, looking like a shell of his former self as his injury-ravaged knees couldn’t hold up. He may have ridden a single victory, the Super Bowl upset, to his HOF stature, but the fact remains that that single game changed the course of professional football forever. It validated the AFL as they became equal partners in a newly merged NFL a couple of years later. Incidentally, Namath’s star power is still strong today at age 76, even if the products he endorses have changed. He was recently seen in an ad for the Medicare Coverage Helpline.

 

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