Woody Johnson surveyed the hats he likes to wear to watch his team practice this week, and it's no coincidence that he reached for the new baseball cap, all Jets green except for the simple white number 12 on the front.
"It's in honor of Joe's birthday and in honor of what he did for the Jets," said Johnson, the club's owner since 2001. "In many respects, he's the most important player in the history of the Jets."
Joe Namath also has been important outside the game of football, of course, and now he's celebrating one of life's important milestones. Today, the quarterback of the long hair, the mink coats, the pantyhose, and "The Guarantee" turns 60.
Think about it. How did Broadway Joe get to be 60 years old on us? John Schmitt doesn't know. Schmitt, Namath's center from 1965-73, said some former Jets were reminiscing at a memorabilia show in New Rochelle, N.Y., recently.
"It's like we won this game about four years ago," Schmitt said. "It's unbelievable how many years have gone by. It still feels so genuine, so great when we think of the things we accomplished. Joe's guarantee? We all said at the time, 'We'd better win, because Joe said so.' " "This game" was Super Bowl III against Baltimore in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 12, 1969. Three days before, at the Miami Touchdown Club's annual banquet, during remarks in accepting a charity award, he said, "We're going to win Sunday, I'll guarantee you."
Any other game, even any other Super Bowl, and Namath's words might not have had the same legs. But it was the final Super Bowl between the AFL and NFL, the one in which the 17½-point-underdog Jets rocked the football world with their 16-7 victory over the Colts. The win didn't start the merger process between the leagues, but it brought the rivalry to a cinematic conclusion.
With that, Namath cemented his place in the all-time sports hall of fame, but even that wouldn't have been enough to vault him onto the larger stage as a proto-American idol. However, Joe Willie always had a flair for the dramatic and a sense of timing that augmented and transcended sports.
The white shoes, his hair, and his Fu Manchu mustache were all lightning rods. So was one of his slogans: "I like my women blonde and my Johnnie Walker Red." And he knew his decision to make a television commercial in 1973 wearing a pair of Hanes Beautymist pantyhose (not L'Eggs, as some recall) would be controversial, but ultimately he said, "Let's do it. I can take the heat."
Months after winning the Super Bowl, he retired from football because commissioner Pete Rozelle wanted him to sell his interest in Bachelors III, his Manhattan bar, then unretired and got out of the bar business the next month. He made three movies in ensuing Jets off-seasons, the most famous a bad biker flick, "C.C. and Company," in which he co-starred with Ann-Margret.
He even made President Richard Nixon's notorious "enemies list" in 1974.
To many, Namath was a cultural icon, a rebel, an antihero. But the men who worked with him on the football field say today that they benefited from his professionalism and never noticed the turmoil.
"I've always said the offense was what made our defense so good," former cornerback Randy Beverly said. "Going up against the best quarterback in both leagues, and George Sauer and Don Maynard, the best receivers in the league, we had no choice but to be good."
"There was no question about Joe and his arm and his ability," said Walt Michaels, the defensive coordinator when Namath arrived. "But [then owner] Sonny Werblin said, 'You've got to do certain things,' and he did them. There was the lambskin rug and the long hair, but when it was game time, he put it on the line."
Maynard said that's why the Jets voted Namath their captain.
"That shows you the attitude and feelings his teammates had for him," Maynard said. "That's the way he was, just a plain everyday guy."
Once his football career ended after one season on the Los Angeles Rams' bench in 1977, Namath became more of a celebrity whose job is being a celebrity. He turned to television and a few more motion pictures, and his concerns became less controversial, more in keeping with a socially conscious, soon-to-be sexagenarian.
His calendar is crammed with national appearances for the Arthritis Huddle and with chairing the annual March of Dimes Walkathon in New York. He also has talked publicly about the depression he felt after his 1999 divorce when his ex-wife and his two daughters moved to California.
"He's at peace with what happened in his family life," Schmitt said. "He's got a condo in Pacific Palisades [Calif.] and the girls stay with him two weeks a month. He shares a lot of good times with them. He's got his schedule down to a science."
And in his travels, he still drops in and lends the Jets a hand. A few years ago it was at an autograph show.
"I was signing my name, and you really couldn't read the 'Chad,' " said Chad Pennington, the latest in the succession of post-Namath QBs. "He told me, 'Look, you need to let them see your name. That's the most important thing in an autograph. Take time to spell your name out.' So I do that now ... although I still have to fudge the 'Pennington' because it's a little too long."
And Johnson's Jets, who have downplayed the team's mostly uninspiring past for an emphasis on the current Jets, also have turned to Namath again in putting together a promotional video for the team.
"You judge a quarterback on wins, and he won the big one," Johnson said. "From that standpoint, No. 12 is a sacred number."
Namath's handsome face has a few more and deeper crags, his replacement knees don't get him around as quick as the original joints. But he still has the charisma of the young kid who journeyed from the steel town of Beaver Falls, Pa., to the Big Apple and put his mark on an era.
"I plan on being around until I'm about 100," he said last year. "If that's the case, I'm just in the early third quarter."
And Jets' coach Herman Edwards, who credits Namath with being supportive of him as a new NFL head coach, sees little difference with the first half of Namath's life.
"No matter what age he turns," Edwards said, "he's still Broadway Joe."
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JOE NAMATH BY THE NUMBERS
Number of seasons Namath was in the booth for ABC's "Monday Night Football." He teamed with Frank Gifford and O.J. Simpson in 1985.
Number of guest appearances on "The Simpsons," in 1997 and 2002, the most recent of many gigs in a television entertainment career that got rolling with several appearances on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1971-72.
Number of syllables Namath invariably used to pronounce the word "play" (puh-lay) during his days as a TV football analyst on ABC and NBC and for Jets preseason games into the Nineties.
Roman numeral of the Super Bowl for which Namath guaranteed a Jets' victory over 17½ -point-favorite Baltimore at the Miami Touchdown Club banquet three days before the 16-7 upset of the Colts in 1969. Also the number of bachelors in the name of the Manhattan bar that caused Broadway Joe so much agita later that year - he "retired" from football in June rather than sell the bar that the NFL said was being frequented by undesirables, then unretired and unloaded the property in July.
Number of theatrical-release motion pictures Joe has appeared in. The first was "Norwood" with Glenn Campbell in 1970, when he played a character named Joe William Reese. The others: "C.C. and Company" with Ann-Margret, 1971 (C.C. Ryder); "The Last Rebel," 1971 (Burnside Hollis); "Avalanche Express," 1979 (Leroy); "Chattanooga Choo Choo," 1986 (Newt Newton); and "Going Under," 1991 (Capt. Joe Namath).
Number of knee operations Namath has had. The first five repaired the ligaments and cartilage he was born with; the last two gave him replacement knees 12 years ago.
Number of episodes taped in Joe's sitcom, "The Waverly Wonders," only four of which aired in September-October 1978. He played Joe Casey, a washed-up pro basketball player turned history teacher and hoops coach at Waverly High in Wisconsin.
Namath's uniform number, one of only two retired by the Jets. The other is the No. 13 of his favorite wide receiver, Don Maynard.
Namath's career passer rating, a figure pulled down by a career 50.1 percent passing accuracy and 220 interceptions that belies his impact on the game.
Number of individuals on President Richard Nixon's "enemies list" of 1971. Namath was one of 10 celebrities, and the only athlete to make the list.
The number of "sexual conquests" Joe estimated he'd had over the years in a 1969 Playboy interview.
Yards Namath threw for in the classic air battle with Baltimore's Johnny Unitas on Sept. 24, 1972. Joe passed for 496 yards and six TDs to Unitas' 376 yards in the Jets' 44-34 win. Namath's 17.71 yards per attempt in that game remains the third highest in league history.
Yards Namath threw for in 14 games in 1967, setting the NFL record. In the league's first 59 seasons, until Dan Fouts did it in 16 games in 1979, Joe Willie was the only QB to crack the 4,000-yard barrier.
Dollars Namath received from Schick for shaving off his Fu Manchu mustache in a 1974 TV commercial.
Yards Namath passed for in his 12 Jets seasons, a team record. He added 606 yards for the Los Angeles Rams in 1977, bringing his NFL career total to 27,663.
Amount of dollars of Namath's first Jets' contract in 1965, negotiated with then-owner Sonny Werblin. It was a three-year deal that was the richest ever given to a football player at the time. Also included in the contract: a Lincoln Continental.