Sunday, February 10, 2008

NY Jets #12

Namath by LeRoy Neiman
Only three numbers have been retired in the Jets' history: 12, 13, and 73. Our Jets-By-the-Numbers has now come upon the most legendary man to wear a Jets uniform, #12. Even today, he needs no introduction.

Granted, there are three #12's of whom to speak. One is Al Dorow, the long-suffering first starting quarterback of the franchise when it was the New York Titans. Let's not forget that Harold "Hayseed" Stephens played after Dorow. That's it, then Joe Namath.

The Giants' Super Bowl victory was the single greatest football game I have ever seen, and it is the certainly greatest upset in football history. But before it, one game stood out as such, and that was Super Bowl III in 1969. It is to the Jets what 1940 was for New York Rangers fans - a moment so singular, a moment unmatched for so long, that one comes to believe somebody somewhere must have sold his soul to make it happen in the first place. We put ourselves in the humble place of knowing that it is too much to ask for another such historic moment.

Yet Joe Namath's extraordinary presence in Super Bowl III was transformative toward all of American sport, and Jets fans know that, in raising his finger in "We're No. 1" (no one had ever made such a subjective self-assessment before) Namath became greater than the Jets and their fans. In that way he belongs to us, but just barely. It was a brief, shining moment. He didn't sell his soul, for his brief reign should have earned him more than his soul would fetch. That's the way life works on occasion.

Until Joe Namath entered onto the scene, football players were square-jawed stoics in the manner of John Unitas. Yet what Namath added was not less respect for authority but rather a refined sense of individuality in keeping with a changing culture. I realize that there is nothing wrong with the old way, the NFL way, but sometimes we sentimentalize the past, imagining that the hard-nosed NFL way was the only way to play the game. Namath's childhood idol was Unitas, so much so that he wore #19 as a high school player. Yet when you hear Baltimore Colts former linebacker Mike Curtis talk about the private Unitas in the America's Game series, he says he found Unitas to be a "trying man" whose obstinacy toward coaches would have compelled Curtis, had been the coach, to "duck tape his ass."

How interesting then that Joe Namath is often seen as the shirker of authority. In truth, he was a remarkable game player, someone who did not hot dog on the field, someone who did not speak publicly against coaches, someone who did not criticize teammates or opponents to the press, ever. During his last season with them, the Jets beat the hapless 1976 Buccaneeers 34-0 at Shea. My Dad took me to the game (see the next post). Afterwards, Head Coach Lou Holtz wanted to lead his Jets (who were late into a miserable 3-11 season) in an arcane and sadly inappropriate fight song in the locker room. According to Gerald Eskanazi in his book Gang Green , after a few awkward seconds, it was Namath who lead the troops in the song. Joe Namath is the definition of a good sport.

He did bring a strange femininity and vanity to a game that had thus far been famous for the broken hands of Chuck Bednarik. In this way, he reminds one of George Best. He was a revolutionary athlete who recognized the power of the American popular machine to make sport athletes as large in the public eye as Sinatra, or as John, Paul, George and Ringo. His resonance through time enables him to be a still recognizable figure on the American scene. I was in attendance at a Giants-Jets exhibition game a few years back, and the PA announced the presence of Joe Willie, who walked onto a platform near a press box and waved. The crowd for both clubs went wild for the profoundly well tanned man in an exquisite suit. He acknowledged the crowd like an icon, because that's what he is.

There are plenty of dark sides to any icon, and Namath's was present the night in 2004 when the Jets were losing to Miami at home, the night they named their All-Jets Team, with Namath holding court and enjoying many, many cocktails in the luxury box. When he was interviewed on the sideline by Suzy Kolber on ESPN, he didn't want to talk about the Jets. He wanted to talk about kissing Suzy. He was just following his after-game routine a little early.

In 1969, recovering from a hit from Dave Costa of Denver
In his extraordinary book on Joe Namath, Mark Kriegal discusses Namath's dependence on alcohol as an old school pain medication. Namath missed most of the first half of the 1970's football seasons because of injuries to his knees and shoulders. Had he been playing at in a time when sports science was more advanced, he might not have been urged to treat his severe knee injury at the University of Alabama as if it were a scrape. But the innovations of the doctors who treated Namath as a pro helped engender advances in sports medicine. He gave his body to the game; his sobriety was its casualty. In the long run, everyone benefited but him.

He took the humiliation of his come-on to Suze Kolbert in stride, citing his own need to sober up. In the spirit of that, he remains my hero because he never took himself quite so seriously as athletes do today. Before Bo Jackson's Nike commercials, before Peyton Manning's humorous ads or Charles Barkley's Rite Guard spots, there was Namath's pantyhose ad. He would later say that he regretted wearing the pantyhose, but the ad signified something that helped me to understand the opposite sex. Women love men that are at ease with themselves, even to the point of forthright self-mockery. Before Joe Namath came, the kind of guy who practiced that convincingly was Bob Hope. After Joe Namath, that kind of guy was Richard Pryor. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

But what about as a quarterback? In truth, Namath threw more interceptions than touchdowns in his career, a distinction that is defied by the most important point of all: he predicted that the Jets would win the Super Bowl, and he was right. For the future of football, looking down the tunnel of a seemingly dubious merger, he made a remarkable prediction. Even today, the 1968 Colts that he beat in Super Bowl III are regarded as statistically among the best ever. There are very few moments in American sport that are as singular as his marching off into the locker room, waving "We're No. 1." It is the great "I told you so" felt by every vindicated person after he has been told for too long that he is stupid for dreaming. That's why he means so much to Jets fans.

One night, while shopping for Christmas presents, an ex-boss who had once told me I would never amount to anything saw me and stopped me, asking how I was. Just as I was about to speak about my new, happy career as a teacher, a group of recently graduated students whom I had taught only the year before came literally out of nowhere, bubbling over seeing me again. With my unsolicited proof right there, my ex-boss just looked blankly at me, not recognizing the person he thought was a failure. I felt suddenly like Namath did, trotting off the field of Miami that night in 1969, having been justified. You doubted me. But you were wrong. And I told you so. Maybe you'll know better next time. Or not. Who cares. We're #1.

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