JOE NAMATH: AMERICAN IDOL BY PAUL KIMMAGE

As America’s biggest sporting star, Broadway Joe had all the wine, women and song he wanted; but that was not what his heart craved

Paul Kimmage

In the summer of 1970 Joe stopped at the Las Vegas Hilton where the King was making a comeback. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Elvis called from the stage in that bubba baritone of his, “I have a good friend here tonight. The greatest football player, the greatest quarterback, my hero, Joe Namath.”

Soon Elvis’s manager Colonel Parker came to request Namath’s presence backstage. When they got there Elvis told his pretty young wife, Priscilla, to hit the casino. “This gonna be a man’s night of talk,” he said. Then Elvis started apologising. “Joe,” he said, “I wasn’t at my best tonight. I got a cold.”

— Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegel

I AM sitting in a hotel room in Jupiter, Florida, talking to a 63-year-old man I have never met before about a sport I rarely watch and do not understand. What am I doing here, you may ask. Why have I endured 11 hours of cattle class to interview a guy my friends have never heard of? For the lessons. For the wisdom. Joe Namath has lived a truly extraordinary life.

He once attended the Academy Awards with Raquel Welch on his arm. He played golf with Arnold Palmer, was on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” and spent a month in Rome shooting a spaghetti western. The title of his autobiography (published in 1969) was I Can’t Wait until Tomorrow . . . ’Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day. He appeared in The Brady Bunch, dated Janis Joplin and performed in a Chekhov play on stage. He was the cocksure quarterback who “guaranteed” that the underdog New York Jets would win the Super Bowl in 1969. But that’s not even half of it.

“Elvis,” I announce. “Elvis Presley,” he smiles. “You met Elvis?” “Oh yes, yes, a couple of times. The second time was in Las Vegas; my dad was with me and we were allowed to go backstage and I introduced Elvis to my father. He took my dad and sat down on the couch and they sat there for about 30 minutes just BSing and that. Boy, I tell you what, that was something. I’m standing there and my dad is talking to Elvis.”

“And Frank Sinatra?” “Yes.” “You used to drink with Frank Sinatra.” “Yes. I remember the first time we met. I also remember the second and third and fifth. He’s the kind of guy that you remember the places.”

“Okay, first time.” “First time was in Jilly’s — a pub in New York that Jilly Rizzo owned. Mr Werblin [Sonny Werblin, the owner of Namath’s team, the New York Jets] and I and Mrs Werblin went in one night after dinner and Jilly and Frank and another gentleman were sitting there and we were introduced. His first words to me were, ‘Hey! Broken Knee, how ya doin’?’ He called me Broken Knee, and it was true, because this was in ’65 when I had just gotten over a knee operation. And then after that we run in together down at Deano’s.” “Deano’s?” “Dean Martin used to have a place in the 79th Street Causeway [a street in Miami] and I used to live in Miami, so we would frequent that place. First time we frequented it, Frank and Dean were both there. I was with a buddy of mine, Hatchet, and we go in and I guess it’s about 10.30 or 11 at night and when we walked out of there it was like this [as bright as day]. Dean was wonderful; I did his TV show a few times and it was great getting to know him in such a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere.”

“Was it a kick that Sinatra knew you?” “Of course it was a kick, it was a kick just seeing him in person and not on the screen or TV, and making contact was very special . . . There were a couple of guys that I met also. Bob Hope, I did his TV show and a handful of things together and I’d call him Mr Hope. And early on he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Joe, call me Bob’. I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr Hope’. How am I going to call him Bob?

“Gregory Peck, same thing. We were on stage at a studio out in LA — this was the late 60s — and what impressed me was his physical stature: big, strong guy. He says, ‘Hi, Joe’. ‘Hi, Mr Peck, how are you doin’?’ ‘Call me Greg, Joe’. ‘Yes, Mr Peck’. There’s no way I could do that. But special moments, special moments; I don’t know how many of us ever sit down to pencil the special moments in our lives, but we should.”

“So you mixed with all of these iconic people and became one yourself,” I observe. “What’s it like being an icon?”

He is unsure how to respond. “Is it a lonely place?” “No, no,” he insists. “I’ve been lonely, sure, and I like being alone at times, but I don’t like feeling lonely. Iconic does not apply to me and my brain at all. I deal with reality and where I am now.”

Where is he now? What ever happened to Broadway Joe?

Booze and broads were similar opiates, administered differently. They eased the pain. They eased the nerves. Where there had been an arthritic vice or a knot in the gut, they left a spray of endorphins. Booze and broads were to be taken liberally and casually, for medication and recreation. “I drink for the same reason I keep company with girls,” Namath once said. “It makes me feel good. It takes away the tension.”

— Namath: A Biography

“HAVE you ever been to England?” I ask.

“Yeah.” “When?” “First time was work; I was doing a series of commercials for Fabergé for the [1976] Olympics and we went over to Copenhagen and Madrid and Rome and London. I didn’t like the wet weather, but I felt more at home there than anywhere else, and Blenheim Palace was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.”

“What about our football?” I ask. “Ever hear of a player called George Best?”

“Oh, of course.” “You did?” “I may even have met George one time. I say ‘may’ because it was long ago and I wouldn’t bet on it, but I know he came over here.”

“When my boss called me about this interview, he described you as ‘the George Best of American football’.”

“Well, chronologically, I think George may have been alluded to as ‘the Joe Namath of British football’ if you check it out,” he says, smiling. “He was quite a personality and a hell of a player, but I don’t know what happened after he stopped playing.”

“He died just over a year ago,” I explain. “No! I didn’t know that,” he
exclaims. “Whatever happened?”

“Alcoholism.” “Alcoholism killed him? That’s easy to happen.”

“He had a liver transplant and kept drinking.”

“It’s tough, you know,” he says, nodding. “Alcoholism is a disease. It’s not a very sympathetic disease, but it’s medically recognised as a disease. It has a cure, and that’s abstinence, but it’s hard for people. I have a friend who was sober for 17 years. One night, on his way home from work, he pulled into Walgreens [a pharmacy] and bought a pint and drank it in the parking lot. ‘I don’t know why’, he said. ‘Something happened. It just hit me’.

“I’m convinced that I can’t drink; I’ve proven to myself that I can’t drink, but it takes some going through to put it aside, because we’re animals, and creatures of habit too. Some people overdose on stuff; some people eat themselves into the grave; some people go to the racetrack — addicts and addicts and addicts. We’re all addicted to certain things.” “There are a lot of parallels between your careers,” I observe. “You were both prodigiously talented and both phenomenal ladies’ men who enjoyed the high life.”

“Well, you mention the nightlife and stuff,” he says with a smile, “but what do you need, eight hours’ sleep? So what time do you have to go to sleep if you’re playing at noon? Three o’clock to 11 gives you eight hours’ sleep. It comes down to your metabolism and how you are working things.”

“But doesn’t it make you smile that you’re taking much better care of yourself now than you did in your prime?”

“We didn’t know any better. The whole professional league didn’t lift weights! I remember a football game up in Buffalo; we had breakfast, a pregame meal at 8.20 for a one o’clock kick-off, but I didn’t eat. I didn’t have any food in my system — just a cup of coffee and some chewing tobacco. How did I do that? What was I working on at 3.30 in the third quarter of that game?”

But he knows. He has always known. He was running on the same stuff as Bestie against Benfica in 1968 — genius, nectar of the gods.

AS A man, Joe Namath would enjoy a reputation for candour. He would be advertised as a man who told it like it was. In fact, Namath didn’t tell much at all. He was much closer to the strong and silent archetype. Joe Namath did not reveal himself. He didn’t surrender intimacies. Sure, he’d be happy to rehash the Guarantee, especially for a fee. But his emotional life — family life — that was never part of the deal. He’d show the famous scars on his knees. He’d even let you touch that grapefruit-sized ball of mangled tissue on his hamstring. But he’d give not a glimpse of, or even hint at, the internal scar tissue.

— Namath: A Biography

HE IS showing me the scars on his copper-tanned knees. I am looking for something deeper.

“You play golf?” I suggest. “Yes I do,” he replies. “Who do you play with?” “My brother Frank, who is down here visiting now from Pennsylvania, and just some local friends. I’m fortunate that the club I play most at is less than four miles’ round trip without a traffic light, so I can get to the course and back comfortably and not have to spend five hours doing it.”

“What do your friends do?” “I don’t care,” he says with a laugh. “How they behave on the golf course is more important. No, a variety of guys; name a business and they’re probably in it: insurance business . . . real estate business . . . developers . . . they are all basically in business.”

“What do you talk about?” “We talk about current events, basically, and chop-busting.”

“Chop-busting?” “Yeah, busting chops [taking the mickey].” He laughs. “Trying to push each other without being totally rude; etiquette we like, and etiquette does prevail, but it’s a fine line sometimes.”

“If I played golf with you,” I tell him, “I’d be picking your brains all day about your life and the people you’ve met. ‘What was it like to drink with Frank Sinatra?’ Would that bother you?”

“I don’t mind talking about things that I know and enjoy,” he replies. “I’ve never minded that, but not private things: relationships, the feelings that you don’t go around talking about.”

Before he first travelled to England or filmed in Rome; before Raquel at the Oscars or Elvis in Las Vegas or those late-night sessions with Sinatra in New York; before the Super Bowl that made him famous; before the broads and the booze and the pain of his ruptured knees, there was what Kriegel describes in his superb biography as the “original wound” — a four-year-old boy in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, listening to his parents arguing downstairs. “I was crying because it got me scared,” he later admitted. Their marriage was fracturing. It haunted him for years.

Beaver Falls was one of those grim steel towns found in Bruce Springsteen songs where men turn grey at 30 and cough soot from their lungs and boys were raised to do “just like their Daddy done”. John Namath was condemned for 50 years to the searing heat of a mill, but his son was blessed with gifts that would save him: hands that gripped like pliers, an arm that fired like a rifle, a mathematician’s eye for space and angles, and a smile that would make quarterbacking the most glamorous position in American sport.

His first step on the road to stardom was at the University of Alabama, where he was idolised as “Joe Willie” and guided by the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, who described him as “the greatest athlete I have ever coached”. By 1965 Namath had led Alabama to a national championship and become the most sought-after college recruit in the country. Football had overtaken baseball as a television attraction. The two rival leagues — the established National Football League (NFL) and the upstart American Football League (AFL) — were
desperate to secure him. He signed for the New York Jets of the AFL for an incredible $400,000, the biggest offer any ballplayer in any sport had seen.

During his first season with the Jets he was photographed on Broadway for the cover of Sports Illustrated and was soon generating as much publicity off the field as on it. One night at a Manhattan bar, two rock chicks ensconced at a table with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones abandoned the rockers for the quarterback as he was leaving the bar. Broadway Joe was the hottest ticket in town and the toast of the thousands who flocked to watch him play. He had it all. And he delivered.

In January of 1969 the Jets reached the final of the annual AFL-NFL championship game, where they were to meet the Colts, then of Baltimore. It was the third staging of the showdown between the leagues and it had just been given a new name — the Super Bowl — but few experts predicted a super game. The Colts were overwhelming favourites to win, but Namath wasn’t having it. “The Jets will win on Sunday,” he announced. “I guarantee it.”

The Jets won. Namath was America’s hero. The Guarantee became legend.

We’re standing now, examining one of the many images from that week — a brilliant shot of him surrounded by reporters and friends as he relaxes by a pool — that appear in the recently published Opus book on the Super Bowl.

“These ladies here,” he explains, “drove down from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. They kind of adopted me when I was in college and one of them, Bessy, is still alive at 102! And that gentleman there is Dave Anderson of The New York Times.”

“How did you feel at that moment?” I ask. “What was it like in the spotlight?”

“I always felt that way in a sense; even as a boy, when I was throwing a ball against the wall, I felt like I was on stage. By the time this picture was taken I had learnt to deal with it . . . but I got testy at times. I stopped reading about myself on the way to practice one day in New York. I was so angry reading this story — when it’s not right it can tear you apart.” “At what stage did you start reading about yourself again?” I ask.

“I haven’t,” he says. “I get feedback from my secretary and from my friends and daughters, but I don’t read it myself.”

“That’s interesting.” “No, it’s selfish,” he says. “I consider it selfish, but it’s a healthy selfishness. I want to feel good.”

“So it is a way of protecting yourself?” “It’s a way of living this life. Our health is our most important issue. It’s a way of keeping this instrument healthy.”

IN NAMATH’S canon of ethics, cheating — an especially virulent form of lie to John and Rose’s youngest son — was infinitely worse than sportswriting. America’s bachelor was an uncompromising advocate of marital fidelity. “If he told me once, he told me a million times: he wanted to go out as much as he could when he was single because he would never cheat on his wife,” says Tim Secor. “That was a really, really big thing in Joe’s life: not to f*** around when he got married.”

— Namath: A Biography

IN 1983, during the 40th year of his life, Namath was attending a voice trainer in California when he was introduced to a 21-year-old actress called Deborah Mays. He called her the next day and they started dating. A year later she became his wife.

Life as Mrs Broadway Joe was not easy for the new bride; he was still hugely popular and still drinking more than he should, but he loved her, of that there was no doubt.

In 1985 a daughter, Jessica, was born. Joe was ecstatic and described it as “a love [I had] never felt before”. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for that kid or for Deborah, his beautiful wife. On March 24, 1987, she asked him to stop drinking. He remembers the date — all alcoholics do — and for the next 13 years he was dry.

“I was thrilled,” he says. “I used to laugh and giggle to myself and think, ‘Why did I ever drink?’ This is no contest. I feel so much better.”

In December 1990, a second daughter, Olivia, was born. Their home was a four-bedroom house in Tequesta, Florida, where Joe taught the girls to fish and ferried them to tennis lessons and soccer recitals and ballet practice. Broadway Joe had become Mr Mom and had never been happier in his life.

But his wife was just 27 and hadn’t yet won her Super Bowl. She was still trying to be someone, still chasing the dream.

In 1992 she legally changed her name from Deborah to May. A year later she changed it again and became Tatiana Namath. In 1995 she started commuting to New York for acting lessons. In 1997 she hired a theatre and made plans to produce and star in a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. But Joe proved the star in the part of Dorn.

A few months later the marriage was over. Tatiana had run off with a cosmetic surgeon. For the next three years Joe hit the bottle hard.

In December 2003 he embarrassed himself during a television interview after a long day spent drinking. He had hit rock bottom. Two weeks later, January 12, 2004, he entered rehab. “That’s 1,107 days or so [that he has been sober],” he smiles.

“It was a pretty cruel thing to happen to you,” I say.

“Well, life can be awful cruel,” he says, sighing. “It doesn’t have to be fair, but carrying resentment is one of the most unhealthy things you can do to yourself. It’s hard not to beat yourself up, and sometimes when I start thinking about things my mind just goes . . . but look at us [he gestures around the room], look where we are [he points to the beach beyond the bedroom terrace], what’s going on? Did you ever wonder why you were born where you where born and not in Somalia or some place? How lucky we are.”

“How are you now?” “Six-to-five,” he replies with a smile. I look at him blankly. “Do you ever go to the racetrack?” he asks.

“Not much.” “No, I figured. Six-to-five are pretty damn good odds.”

“You seem to have figured it out,” I suggest.

“I’ve figured out that I’m damn lucky and that we need to respect and make the best of what opportunities we have. And I know how fragile we are and how fragile this life can be. But I also feel good about not having to look over my shoulder, whether it’s love affairs or sports or gambling or whatever, and that’s important to me, because I have a conscience, a damn voice in me that doesn’t let me forget, that questions the things I do and the outcome.”

“Does that mean you have drawn a line through relationships and female company for ever?” I inquire.

“No, I haven’t drawn any lines,” he says.

Dot McMahon, a director of Kraken Opus, has joined us in the room. “I bet the girls are still throwing themselves at you,” she says.

“Well, I was pretty aroused when I met this lady this morning,” he says, extending a warm embrace.

“What about you?” he asks me.

“Are you married?”

“Yes,” I reply. “That’s a good thing,” he says.

Read original article by Paul Kimmage on the Sunday Times website here