Joe Namath is at the crossroads. The fragile but sublimely talented quarterback has one more season in his $250,000-a-year contract with the New York Jets. He wants to play; he wants to be good.
As the pro football season gets underway this Sunday, the playing career of the best-known athlete in America depends on a pair of battered knees. While most of Joe Namath's body is only 31—young for a quarterback—parts of it border on senility. He has undergone major surgery on both knees and plays with them sheathed in aluminum braces. He has had ankle problems. Last year he suffered a shoulder separation that now seems mended, but it is yet another pain to be endured. His physical problems have let Namath play in only 28 of the Jets' last 56 regular season games.
What if the gimpy knees collapse? He could go into movies or television, build up his chain of restaurants, continue to lend his name to sell panty hose and popcorn poppers. At the end of this season, if his body is still intact, Namath indeed may throw himself up for grabs among all the teams in the National Football League or even those of the new World Football League. "One more year," he says with satisfaction, "and I'm free."
Namath joined the Jets in 1965 as a high-priced rookie from the University of Alabama. If he had played in, say, Chicago, it is unlikely he would have become famous as "State Street Joe." But he was playing in image-conscious New York, and he was celebrated as "Broadway Joe," a droopy-shouldered, hunk-nosed sex symbol whose passes on the field were no more famous than the ones he threw off it. His reputation turned into folklore when Namath brashly predicted the Jets' upset win over Baltimore in the 1969 Super Bowl.
Since then Namath has capitalized on his playboy image with lucrative endorsements and appearances on TV and in three movies. Now he approaches a turning point. On these pages photographer Harry Benson, who is close to Namath, contributes both photographs and personal observations on a unique sports superstar at a unique time in his life.
Some of Joe's friends wish he would quit football. Even his mother says, "Joe, you should give it up before you're really hurt." Joe just smiles and blushes. He really loves to play, that's all there is to it. He is looking forward to this season. He's lost weight and has been working out ways to protect himself from getting hurt again. One thing he has tried is a kind of bullfighter's turn to move out of the road when he is about to be hit. But you can see in the picture (right) from the exhibition game against St. Louis that it doesn't always work. So Joe uses weights to strengthen his knees. He is in pain all the time when he plays. Still, you can tell how much he loves the game when you see him in the dressing room after a game or a workout. He'll slowly unwrap the tape and braces from his knees and tell stories about his high school days in Beaver Falls, Pa.—how it was to run out on the field with the cheerleaders and the crowd yelling and how he liked standing at attention during The Star-Spangled Banner. In spite of what people say about him, Joe is an all-American boy at heart.
Joe thought a lot about it before he agreed to do the panty hose commercial. But then he decided "why not?" and he even shaved his legs for it, just as he had once shaved off his mustache for a $10,000 commercial. Joe makes over a million dollars with his endorsements but keeps a sense of humor about his commercial value. When somebody asked him why he was doing another commercial, one for a line of sheets and pillow cases, he said, "It's one of the things I always get asked on the banquet circuit. People, mostly women, want to know what color sheets I have, who makes them and are they soft?"
No one is closer to Joe than Jimmy Walsh, his lawyer (below). He and Joe went to Alabama together and, while Jimmy has a number of clients, Joe is the flagship. Jimmy isn't even interested in football, but he handles all of Joe's contracts, bills and investments, and he even screens people who want interviews. Joe hates problems. It's not true that he isn't involved in his other interests, though. He once sued a TV commentator in Boston who said Joe didn't really care about how the kids were treated at a summer football camp he runs. And when somebody wrote a letter to the New York Times this spring that seemed to say Joe didn't pay any attention to the quality of a brand of clothes he endorses, he wrote the man a letter saying, "I personally reviewed each and every item bearing my endorsement and I wear the clothes regularly." He signed the letter "Joseph W. Namath."
This summer Joe went to California to narrate a TV documentary called Dream Girls of Hollywood. He's checking his makeup and getting ready to shoot a scene, above. He was happy about that job because he likes being in front of a camera. He had his own syndicated TV sports show for awhile, and he's been guest host on the Tonight Show a lot of times. He's also made three movies, but the best thing you can say about them is that he didn't aggravate any of his injuries. Even Joe is embarrassed about them, so he's working hard to improve. Right now he's taking acting and elocution lessons. On the documentary, he always arrived on the set on time and he always knew his lines, usually without cue cards. Some of the crew was calling him "one-take Joe" because he usually got things right the first time. But one evening a member of the film crew told him it had been an easy day's work. Joe didn't like that. "It wasn't easy," he said defensively. "It was hard—I was working every minute."
Asking when Joe will marry is like asking when he will retire. Joe himself doesn't know. His steadiest girl now is Randi Oakes (far left). She's a pretty blonde from Iowa who has become a top New York model since she met Joe in 1970. He's old-fashioned; he didn't like Randi to go out with other men at all, even though Joe had other girlfriends. But since April, I haven't seen Joe with anyone except Randi. One of Joe's friends says that when Joe gets injured, Randi is the first one he calls. Joe hates bad language around girls. He owns a restaurant in Birmingham that has entertainment and he took Randi there to see a comedian. Joe sat back to enjoy the show but the comedian turned out to be crude and vulgar. This embarrassed Randi—but it embarrassed Joe even more. He bawled out the club manager.
He has an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale and one in New York, of course, but Joe is probably happiest in Tuscaloosa, where he went to college. "The people down here are the friendliest and there are no hassles," he says. He likes to go out on a little lake and relax with a chew of tobacco and a few cans of beer (above). He enjoys talking to his old coach, Bear Bryant of Alabama (at left). "Bryant taught me the fundamentals of life," Joe says. "You must be honest with yourself." And he likes to see his old friends, like "Hoot Owl" Hicks, behind Joe at right, who was a college classmate and now coaches high school football. Joe's friends are by no means only other football players. They're millionaires, barmen, farmers, bankers, lawyers, all kinds of people. A lot of the other players on the Jets resent Joe because he gets special treatment. He'll wander into meetings late or after a game keep the team, the coach, even the president of the club waiting while he slowly unwraps his sore legs and gets showered, dressed and signs autographs. This does not impress the rest of the team, but most of them don't complain. They know that Joe keeps the stands filled for them.
Joe likes an occasional round of golf and shoots in the low 80s. He will always take time out for an admirer, though (below). Many of the things he likes to do are quiet, not really flashy. He likes fishing. He enjoys shopping in little grocery stores for stuff like orange juice and potato chips. And he spends a lot of time reading, especially newspapers. He buys all the newspapers available in town wherever he goes. Even though he doesn't talk about politics very much in public, he knows what's going on. The last section he reads most of the time is the sports page. Joe is a good, simple country boy who doesn't like anything phony. He told me once, "I couldn't do anything I didn't enjoy. You can't fool yourself."