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Friday, September 19, 2008

Jets on the Cover of Sports Illustrated (Part 2)

Joe Namath enjoyed his share of SI covers - eight in all, including one a couple of years ago in advance of Mark Kriegel's biography. We see in these the gradual evolution of the person of Namath, from charming youth, to phenomenon, to counter-cultural dreamer, to Gatorade-sucking champion, to teetering legend, to weeping outcast, to Hollywood hack, to a permanently jittery Joe. We also see the transition of an era from Brillcreme to hairspray, each on either side of things like assassinations and Stonewall. Namath was present at the evolution of a more frank and contemporary New York, acting as its slouching and limping pied piper.

Here is Joe Namath, December 1968, on the brink of the greatest moment a football player of his era will have. As the cover suggests he "eyes the Super Bowl," but apparently he does so with eyes colored a suspiciously garish azure blue. He looks like an Atreides who's ingested a little too much spice before riding the sandworm of Dune, or maybe just a barbarian gazing hungrily the spoils of civilization at its gates. The article doesn't bother with a serious evaluation of the Jets near the end of their best season to date, nor with anything about Namath's extraordinary turnaround that year from promiscuous passer to disciplined captain. No. Instead Edwin Shrake writes a satirical piece entitled "Champagne Party for Joe and Weeb," which imagines, even before the playoffs start, the ludicrous idea of the Jets beating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, 27-21. So improbable and lampoonish does such a notion seem that the Jets are reduced to charming cartoons of their selves; the only illustration for the piece is a drawing of Namath in Visigoth furs and a Fu Manchu mustache suspiciously reminiscent of Genghis Khan, smashing a bottle of champagne over Weeb Ewbank's head. The world wasn't ready.

I was always befuddled by this one. This is Joe in victory. But am I missing something? Is this really the culminating portrait of a man who guaranteed and then executed his greatest victory? Why is this the image we're supposed to conjure? I remember playing Pee Wee football with those bottles. You'd squeeze it and like a nested bird, you'd open your mouth nice and wide and be sated by the watery lemonade-feel of Gatorade entering your system. I have just consumed something that will make me a champion today. What makes him a Super Hero, a Super Joe here? Is it his unquenchable thirst for the drink that restores the minerals lost to the human body in sweat? Super Hero, Super Joe, Super Thirsty.

He came, he bought a bar, he wept, he left, he returned. I've written before about Bachelor's III and its impact on the imagination of a man like myself who travels in the distant wake of his own sauced ravages. As this piece from Modern Drunkard attests, the sentimental attraction to such a person is endless, even after silly old Joe tried kissing Suzy Kolbert. Plainly put, the simple pleasures of having one's cake and eating it too were first honed to perfection by the co-owner of Bachelor's III. Bo Belinsky and Mickey McDermott were mere Robert Burnses to Namath's William Blake. Namath was a professional drunk and star in the one, half Sinatra, half Graceland-era Elvis. In light of Pacman Jones, Rozelle's grievances against Namath seem ridiculous. Namath appeared to enjoy himself in his cups and never needed anyone more than Ray Abruzzese and other such Crimson Tide cronies to help him find the door. When Rozelle told him to cut out the bar business because a bunch of shiny suits were Bachelor III customers, Namath wept. Any man who loved pleasure would have. Love me or leave me, world. I yams what I yams.

When he "returned" that same preseason for a meaningless encounter with the College All-Stars - a promotional show previously enjoyed by the Packers - it appears that Joe and the team were thwarted by the likes of Bill Bergey and Greg Cook, both of whom would go on to play for the fledgling Bengals. The Jets were looking at the future, the one with winning NFL teams staffed by many of the college players on the other side of the ball. This was the future that would crush the Jets in the 70's. In my early childhood reading, I ran across a profile of Greg Cook which relayed the story that the young quarterback went to the preseason matchup looking forward, above all, to meeting his idol on the other team, another #12, the most famous in sport. But Namath blew him off, much to Cook's eternal scorn. To quote Updike on Ted Williams, "Gods don't answer letters."

By the time the Jets were well into the 1972 season, a different AFC Eastern Division team was worth more of the print. Nevertheless, the 1972 Jets - a team a little better than their 7-7 record, made it to the cover for what would the last time for 11 years. And for what? For being quixotic. For being beguiling. For being "jittery." Recall that the Jets nearly beat the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl, falling by a score of 28-24. Jitters, I guess - that and a Cliff McClain fumble in the fourth quarter.

My brother Charlie (a Giants fan) reminded me that in the early part of 1986, the city's two favorite narcissistic head cases on defense appeared on a cover of SI that suggested that one New York team more than the other always got the mother load of Mackintosh apples. At the time of this cover, each team was actually setting the NFL aflame. I remember now that when I first saw this cover at the ripe old fan's age of 17, it never occurred to me that New York was a Giants town more than Jets town. Seriously. I mean, I had heard Dad's stories about being heckled by Giants fans at his office when he told them about his latest Sunday outing at Shea. Dad had also told me he had been the original kind of Jets fan, one who couldn't get Giants tickets at Yankee Stadium. In high school, my Giants fan friend Doug treated me like I was a leper with running sores when we talked about football. But still, I had always assumed that Namath's victory in Super Bowl III and the subsequent 1969 preseason trouncing of the Giants at the Yale Bowl had made us equals in the eyes of the city, if not in God's. This despite the fact that even during the miserable 70's for both teams, the Giants sold out every Sunday while the Jets couldn't show games on local TV. But then what did I know? As a little boy on Long Island, I had also assumed that the Earth was populated with nothing but Catholics and Jews. It stood to reason.

The 1986 SI article attests to the Jets' promise, particularly after an enormous 51-45 win over Miami, but the cover is more prophetic. As so many of our years in the playoff rounds, it all ended gruesomely. By the end of the 1986 season, I understood my place in the universe well enough.

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