Last January's Super Bowl victory by the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts was by far professional sports' most dramatic event since Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run won a pennant for the New York Giants 18 years ago. The Jet win was doubly meaningful: It not only proved that the American Football League had achieved parity with the older NFL; it also vindicated Jet quarterback Joe Namath, who boasted before the game that his 17-point underdog team would vanquish the supposedly invincible Colts. In an era when athletes are no longer averse to publicly assessing their chances of victory, it seems ludicrous that Namath's cockiness could have so outraged the sporting world and the public at large, but it did—and does. Namath scoffs at the selfless stoicism America demands from its athletes; his hedonistic, almost anarchic approach to life turns his fans on as sharply as it turns his detractors off. But at least one fact of Namath's life is beyond contention: He is easily the most flamboyant—and probably the premier—quarterback in football today.
He is also sports' most publicized figure; seldom has America been as interested in an athlete as it is in Joe Namath. Transmogrified from grid superstar into cult hero, he now finds himself cast as a kind of Belmondo with a jockstrap. And Namath's off-the-field activities—centering mostly on sexual conquests—have assumed the dimensions of modern myth; he is already rumored to have befriended and bedded more women than Casanova in his prime. Even his most irrelevant idiosyncrasies—growing a goatee, owning a black mink coat (which was stolen from him) or having a few drinks—have become causes célèbres in the popular press. That any young man should be the focal point of such approbation and abuse is remarkable; that it has happened to Joseph William Namath is truly extraordinary.
Certainly, nothing in Namath's background seems to have qualified him for the image he's acquired—and cheerfully accepted. Born on May 31, 1943, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a small steel town 30 miles west of Pittsburgh, Joe was the youngest of four sons in a Hungarian household that included an adopted daughter. His father was a steel-mill worker who, like many men in the area, wanted his boys to make it in the world through athletics. Joe's brothers, all of whom were athletes, studiously schooled their kid brother, until, by the time he was 18, Namath had become an outstanding basketball, baseball and football player. And an unforgettable local character, as well: Namath's flashy skintight attire was topped off by a black beret, sunglasses and a toothpick carried jauntily in the right side of his mouth. In his senior year—the only full season Joe played quarterback for Beaver Falls High School—he completed 85 of 146 passes for 1564 yards, led his team to a Conference championship and had virtually every major college scout in the country hanging around the family home.
After a long selection process, Namath finally enrolled at the University of Alabama, where he was coached by Paul W. (Bear) Bryant, who—by reputation, at least—makes the Washington Redskins' disciplinarian Vince Lombardi seem a veritable brownie scoutmaster. In his sophomore season, Namath soon established himself as a quarterback par excellence by completing 76 of 146 passes and displaying the kind of deceptive ball-handling finesse that can be gained only through arduous practice. "On the field," recalls Namath, "the motto was kill or be killed. I worked for that man. I even played defense; would you believe it?" Anyone who knows Bryant, of course, would; on his office wall, there hangs a sign reading "Winning Is Not Everything, But It Sure Beats Anything That Comes in Second." Bryant remembers Namath as a socially unsure youngster who matured enormously at Alabama: "When Joe first came to our school, he was timid and shy. But he never lacked any confidence on the football field—and by the time he left here, he was a well-poised young man. I think Joe is the most talented player I've ever been around."
In his junior year, a maturing Namath showed he could think like a fox, run like a deer—and drink like a fish: With several teammates, he broke the squad temperance rule one night and was promptly suspended for the last two games of the season. "He made a mistake," Bryant said at the time, "but if he's the kind of person I think he is, Joe will prove worthy of another opportunity." Namath accepted the suspension without involving the others with whom he had been drinking. Even though Bryant didn't really appreciate Namath's first goatee (Joe sensed his displeasure and shaved it off) nor the fact that Namath once began a frug on the side lines while a marching band performed on the field, the coach and his superstar grew steadily closer; and in his senior year, Namath went on to become an All-American—completing 64 percent of his passes on the gridiron and probably even more than that with Alabama's comely contingent of Southern belles. But Namath's continuing, whispered adventures as a Lothario only added to the heroic stature he had achieved throughout the state.
Though injured in the fourth game of the season, Namath grittily kept playing, despite a torn cartilage in his right knee; he wasn't about to let an injury squeeze him out of a fat professional contract. In practice several days before Alabama's 1965 Orange Bowl date with the University of Texas, Namath's damaged knee suddenly collapsed, and he was slated to sit out the game; but he was called on to play when the team's substitute quarterback couldn't get the offense moving. Joe responded by connecting on 18 of 37 passes—and was named the Orange Bowl's Most Valuable Player.
With the last game of his college career behind him, Namath began weighing offers from the two teams that had drafted him—the AFL Jets and the NFL St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, the leagues were involved in a talent-buying contest and the younger league, with little prestige to recommend it, had to put its money where its ambitions were. Sonny Werblin, then head of the Jets, was searching for a quarterback with a personality fans could latch onto. Said show-business-oriented Werblin (formerly president of the Music Corporation of America): "I needed to build a franchise with somebody who could do more than just play. So we went down to Birmingham and the minute Joe walked into the room and lit it up, I knew he was our man." After much deliberation, Namath signed with New York for a reported $427,000.
He was rechristened Broadway Joe almost immediately, and comments about his unprecedented contract ranged from the caustic to the coy. (Said Bob Hope, "Joe Namath's the only quarterback in history who'll play in a business suit.") Before entering the Sunday wars, however, Namath first had to enter Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital for knee surgery. All the cartilage in Namath's right knee was removed, but the operation was a success. Soon afterward, he was found physically unfit for military service, and a huge public outcry erupted, with the result that Namath was reexamined—only to flunk the physical again. "How can I win, man?" he said later. "If I say I'm glad, I'm a traitor, and if I say I'm sorry, I'm a fool."
Since then, precious little about Namath's life has gone unreported: In 1965, Joe moved to Manhattan, where he installed himself in a luxurious East Side apartment. Decorated at a cost of $25,000, Namath's penthouse pad features such sybaritic touches as Siberian snow-leopard throw pillows, brown-suede sofas, an oval bed, a black-leather bar and the pièce de résistance, a wall-to-wall white llama rug. Namath instantly became the darling of New York's media—and of a significant segment of its most striking young women as well. And when autumn arrived, Joe showed he was worth every penny of his pay check: In his first pro season, he threw 18 touchdown passes, was voted Rookie of the Year and the AFL All-Star game's Most Valuable Player. Jet receiver Don Maynard, an All-Pro in his own right, remarked during Namath's first year, "The big thing about him is his coolness under stress. I don't think you can do anything to make this guy lose his poise. He also knows his football."
Since 1965, Namath has steadily honed his gridiron skills to a fine edge and last year, in leading his team to the Eastern Division title, AFL championship and Super Bowl victory, proved beyond any doubt how accomplished a quarterback he is. Off the field, meanwhile, his activities have added spice to the mystique that already surrounds the 26-year-old superpro. In 1967, several months after another knee operation, Namath ducked out of training camp one night and allegedly (Namath says it didn't happen) got into a bar brawl with Time magazine sports editor Charles Parmiter; then he grew the only Fu Manchu mustache ever to become a national controversy, and finally shaved it off—for a fee of $10,000 from the Schick Electric Razor Company. And the girl talk escalated: He was supposedly cavorting with hordes of socialites and celebrities, from Kay Stevens (which he denies) to Mamie Van Doren (which he doesn't).
Then, in the midst of last season, Namath and former Alabama teammate Ray Abruzzese put up the cash for an East Side Manhattan cocktail lounge they called Bachelors III (partner number three was Joe Dellapina, who managed the bar). In the afterglow of the Jet Super Bowl championship, Namath held court almost nightly at his club, which quickly became Manhattan's toughest nightery to get into. All was copacetic for Namath, it seemed, until June sixth, when he shocked the sporting world by announcing at a hastily organized press conference that football commissioner Pete Rozelle had ordered him to sell his interest in Bachelors III because mobsters were reportedly frequenting the bar; after weighing the facts, said Namath, he concluded that the allegations were untrue and he had, therefore, chosen to retire from football rather than sell out. Seven weeks later, after a series of meetings with Rozelle—and amid a rash of purple prose in the press, most of which agreed with Rozelle's charges—Namath came out of his short retirement, agreed to sell his half ownership in Bachelors III, again maintained that the bar was free of Mafia clientele and finally got down to the tough business of training for the current football season—his last, according to Joe, because of his worsening knees.
Playboy Associate Editor Lawrence Linderman, who conducted this exclusive interview with Namath, reports: "I met Joe a week after his retirement announcement—at midnight in Bachelors III. The bar was filled with couples; it's a pleasant, quiet spot to drink, and unremarkable in every way. A few minutes before 12, the pace of the place suddenly quickened. I turned in time to see Namath entering with a gorgeous blonde on his arm and a drink being placed in his free hand. He cuts one hell of a striking figure: today's fashions are tailored for men of modest physique; Namath, at six feet, two and 185 pounds, has a boxer's build—slim at the waist, broad through the torso—and this night, in a white-lace body shirt and broadly striped bell-bottom slacks, he was Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way into the hearts of every girl in the club. They really come on with him, and vice versa.
"After a quick introduction, I was able to tear Joe away from friends and celebrity touchers, and we went downstairs to discuss the interview in his cramped office; on the way, he passed the men's room and Namath shouted in, 'I don't mind if you guys use the pay phones, but do me a favor, will ya? Call your bookie from somewhere else.' Much chortling from the urinals. We arranged to meet that Friday morning in Boston at the Sheraton.
"Namath arrived half an hour after I did; and that evening, the same blonde who'd been with Namath when I met him in New York flew up to spend the weekend with him. I had hoped to monopolize Namath's attention for the interview, but I was clearly overmatched. We spent the night dining and drinking at Gino Cappelletti's The Point After restaurant; and the next morning, retired Boston Patriot receiver Jim Colclough and his wife, Namath and his girl, along with me and my tape recorder—still unused—flew in a Lear jet to oceanside Provincetown.
"After arriving at our hotel, we went into town and the first thing we did was buy a football; the second thing we did was buy two bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch; the third thing we did was hit the beach, where we threw the football and drank the Scotch. In the evening, Namath disinterestedly taped some background information for me while watching a televised college All-Star football game. We finally talked informally for an hour when we got back to the hotel, and then caught the jet back to Boston. But I still had no interview; so, several weeks later, after Namath had returned to football, I dropped in unannounced at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, where the Jets were holding their pre-season training camp. It had been raining steadily for the better part of a week and he and I—at long last—were able to talk productively for many hours over the course of two days. Namath's return to the Jets was less than a week old at the time, and the Bachelors III controversy was still being played up in the press. Since the entire affair so obviously rankled him, it provided the logical opening for our interview."
Playboy: Although you sold your half ownership in Bachelors III, your last word on the subject was that the Manhattan night spot was not a hangout for mobsters. Are you absolutely sure about that?
Namath: Damned right I am. There wasn't a single shred of fact in any of the charges made about Bachelors III. The reasons I sold had nothing to do with the bar itself—and everything to do with not disappointing a hell of a lot of people I know and the fact that I happen to love playing football. If you'd like to hear what really happened, I'll tell it to you.
Playboy: We're listening.
Namath: I and Ray Abruzzese, my roommate in New York and a former teammate at Alabama, decided we wanted to buy a bar in Manhattan and use it as a place to hang out in—a place where we could meet our friends and feel comfortable. So we got a list of available bars from realtors and we walked around Manhattan for about six months, checking places out. We finally decided on the right place, called it Bachelors III and opened for business last November. We weren't looking to make money or lose money on it; once it opened, though, Bachelors III showed a profit—not a big profit, but we were more than satisfied with it. It was just extra gravy.
Playboy: When did you first learn that Bachelors III was being investigated?
Namath: The first word of any kind I received about the place came in February, when someone in the New York Jets office handed me a list of nine names and told me that the men on it were "unsavory characters" who were hanging out at Bachelors III and who could be a source of trouble for me. Well, the first name on that list was one of our managers and the second was one of our attorneys. Both of these men are straight-ace guys; and although I sure didn't think much of that list, I had it sent down to the district attorney's office. Detectives there promised to tell us if anything was happening—if mob guys were coming in. Well, they investigated and told us we had nothing to worry about, so we didn't. That was in February. Then, in June, at the Football Writers Association banquet in New York, a couple of guys from NFL-AFL security—after taking us to a private room—told coach Weeb Ewbank and me that Bachelors III was going to be raided and closed up the following day and that the league wanted me to sell out that night. I couldn't even answer them, man. I didn't know what to say—or think. I immediately called up my lawyers, Mike Bite and Jimmy Walsh, and they drove right over to talk about it with me. To tell you the truth, we didn't know what the hell to do. Then, right after the banquet, Pete Rozelle called me to say there was no need to sell that night, because the raid had been postponed, and to meet with him the following morning, a Wednesday. Jimmy Walsh and I met with Rozelle and two guys from league security, who told us that Bachelors III had been under surveillance almost since we bought it. The word from dependable sources was that Bachelors III was going to be closed down on Friday—and that I definitely had to sell by then.
Playboy: What was your reaction to all this?
Namath: The news really caught me by surprise. I mean, we'd checked the thing out in February and didn't think anything more about it. Anyway, here it was, Wednesday, and I had to sell before the raid took place on Friday. Well, my lawyers and I got straight to the heart of the thing in a hurry. It wasn't right that I had to sell, we all agreed on that, but it was certainly the logical thing to do—logical in that if Bachelors III was to be closed down by the police, they must have reasons for it; and even if I felt that there were no reasons, they obviously had the inside track. But I couldn't come up with any indications from any of the local law-enforcement branches that Bachelors III was in trouble. So I asked a few guys for advice. One of the people I talked to was Tom Marshall, president of the Broadway Joe restaurant chain. Tom was really straight with me: "Listen," he said, "you have to do what you feel is right. I know it'll hurt the company some, it might hurt the stock; but, damn it, you have to live with yourself, not us, so don't get hung up about the company." That helped me out a lot. Anyway, by Friday, the day of the great raid, instead of selling, I retired.
Playboy: And was Bachelors III raided?
Namath: Hell, no. Like I told you, there was never any reason for the place to be closed down, and it never was. Meanwhile, we kept checking with the law and nobody knew anything about a raid being planned for Bachelors III. If you'll excuse the expression, I run a clean joint.
Playboy: What happened next?
Namath: What happened next is that I met with Rozelle and this time caught him by surprise. I found out—as I told Rozelle—that his information came from an AFL-NFL security guy, who told this story to several people: About four years ago, this guy supposedly came over to my table at a restaurant, pulled out his identification and told me the people I was with were mob guys, that I shouldn't be seen talking to them and that he didn't want me to talk to them. I supposedly told him, "Listen, when I'm not on a football field, I hang with whoever I want to hang with, and as long as it doesn't affect what I do on the field, you can just go fuck yourself." Since he supposedly was with a couple of people at the time, he took that badly and got very, very upset.
Playboy: You say this confrontation "supposedly" took place. Did it or didn't it?
Namath: Maybe it did, maybe it didn't; I can't remember all the people I've talked to over the past four years and what I've said to 'em. Anyway, ever since then, this guy has carried a vendetta against me and was dumb enough to admit it to several of the Jets. He told them how I'd told him to go fuck himself, that I was bad for the game and that as long as I stayed in pro football, I'd be a thorn in his side. This man started everything. I'm not going to give you the names of the Jets he talked to; but when Rozelle came out to our training camp in June, he was told about this conversation. Johnny Sample, who isn't with the Jets anymore, asked Rozelle a very direct question: How can he allow a man to work in the security office when he admits to having a tremendous grudge against a ballplayer? Aren't the security guys supposed to help us, protect us, rather than going all out to screw us up?
After first springing all this on Rozelle, I asked him for about the 9000th time to document one single charge against Bachelors III. I told him if I was in the wrong—if Bachelors III was being frequented by mobsters—then I'd sell immediately, because I wouldn't want any part of it. I mean, I know where my number-one thing is at: That's football, and I don't want to put it in jeopardy. But damn, they couldn't show me one thing wrong. Just lots of talk about, "Well, I'm acting on reliable information." I asked Rozelle, "What reliable information? We have reliable information that your reliable information is unreliable." But Rozelle said he had different people in all the law branches telling him different things than they told me. It seemed like everybody was getting into the act, but there was no action taken against Bachelors III. Even so, Rozelle wasn't about to be budged.
Playboy: Did you feel he was out to get you, too?
Namath: Definitely not, man. Our talks were very friendly and we got along well. But he felt he had to act on the information he received from his security people; it just happened to be the wrong information. Meanwhile, I was getting slaughtered by the press: Life magazine and Sports Illustrated, the bastards, wanted some juice to sell their magazines, so they started writing all kinds of shit about me. Well, Rozelle said the matter had now become so exposed to the public that it was all out of proportion. He felt that between the magazines and various screwy people, there had been about 25 charges brought up—things like somebody using our Bachelors III telephones to call in bets, "undesirable" guys coming up to hold crap games in my apartment, etc. "With all those accusations, if only one or two turn out to be right," he said, "then you've got to be in the wrong." "I agree with you," I said, "but none of them are true."
Playboy: Could you elaborate on that Sports Illustrated story about crap games with mobsters in your apartment?
Namath: I think Sports Illustrated might check out their stories a little more closely before publishing them. If they had, they would have discovered that my next-door neighbors are three FBI agents sharing a pad. Somehow, I don't think it would be very wise for mobsters to hold big crap games in a location like that. Actually, when I first read the story, I thought, shit, this is kinda funny; but then I got properly pissed off. I mean, they're implying that old Joe is tied up with Mafia people. In an issue some weeks later, they implied it again—only this time they had it in parentheses that Namath himself was never in the apartment when the crap games were going on. I think they were simply trying to back off. Beats the hell out of me how they got the story, but the son of a bitch who wrote it ought to be working for Looney Tunes. We're deciding whether or not to go ahead with a lawsuit.
Playboy: What finally made you decide to sell your interest in Bachelors III and go back to football?
Namath: Well, up until the day I did it, I really didn't think I would ever play again. Rozelle and I were meeting and he said that even though I might agree to sell the bar, from now on, I also had to stay out of Bachelors III. Well, I wouldn't give him my word on that, because some night I might just want to drop in, with a girl or solo. My friends were there and I just wasn't going to stay away permanently. And then he said, "You know, Joe, if you really want to, you can do it. You gave up smoking like that. When you put your mind to something, you do it." And I said, "What the hell is this all about? I don't want to sell—so I'm not selling." We'd been meeting for two and a half hours and, man, I knew what was right and I put my mind to it: Do what the hell you want to do and, if you haven't hurt anybody, then you're OK. Well, at that point, Mike Bite and Jimmy Walsh and Rozelle sat down to talk for an hour and when they came back, we talked for another hour, concessions were made and finally I said—ah, the hell with it. So I sold. But I wouldn't have sold if it were just me involved.
Playboy: Wasn't it just you involved?
Namath: No. First of all, I had a whole lot of teammates to think of. One man doesn't even come close to being responsible for a football club's success, but quarterback's an important position and, if I stepped out on them, the Jets would be hurt—and there are a lot of guys on the team, myself included, who think we can win another Super Bowl. Secondly, there were other business partners who were getting hurt financially while this thing was going on: Stock in Broadway Joe's fell more than four points. My lawyers were nervous wrecks, all because of me. But mostly, it was my mother. She'd read all those damned lies in the press and got really upset, and as many times as I told her not to believe that stuff, I knew she was still thinking that if it wasn't true, how come it was there in black and white? When I retired, I did it because I felt one way about the whole thing: Fuck the money and everything else. I was right, man; there was nothing wrong with Bachelors III. But finally, with the concessions and all, the point just didn't seem all that important.
Playboy: What kind of concessions?
Namath: First, let me tell you why there had to be concessions: I think Rozelle was right in the way he acted, in that it's his job to keep football above suspicion. That's why he's commissioner. When all the magazine stories were out, the public was wondering just what the hell was going to happen. Well, I realized then, as I do now, that to answer the public and keep any question about football's integrity from even being raised, getting me the hell out of Bachelors III was the only answer. So he was right in doing what he had to do—and I was right in doing what I had to do, which was to retire. But Rozelle didn't want me to quit football almost as much as I didn't want to quit, which is why we had meetings and why there were compromises on each side—with my main concession being to sell Bachelors III in New York. By selling and having pro football take me back, I think it indicates that I wasn't involved with any person or establishment or with any crap games and things like that. If his information had been factual, I think there's no doubt they would have told me to stay out of football or at least given me a year's suspension. Furthermore, Rozelle and I agreed that even though I'm selling the New York Bachelors III, I'm free to open up other Bachelors IIIs with the same management—which we've already done in Boston, and plan to do in L.A. and Miami. If Bachelors III was bad, they certainly wouldn't allow me to stay in business with the same people. Finally, I'm glad Rozelle helped me "unretire." Sports has done everything for me; it's been my life since high school and probably even before that.
Playboy: Were you what sportswriters call a "high school phenom"?
Namath: I was—but not in football, at least not right away. Until my senior year, baseball and basketball were my best sports; and even when I was a senior, I still wanted to play baseball professionally. But the family wanted me to go to college and I guess I agreed with them or else I would have accepted some of the offers I got.
Playboy: How many were there?
Namath: Four teams were interested in me. The St. Louis Cardinals wanted to sign me for $15,000 when I was a junior in high school. When my dad asked me what I planned to do with the money, I told him I'd seen this great-looking convertible; he didn't exactly think it would be such a great idea if that's all I wanted. Anyway, the Orioles and Kansas City A's wanted me, too; but the big offer I got was in my senior year, when the Chicago Cubs offered me $50,000.
Playboy: What had you done to attract all this attention?
Namath: Nothing in particular; I was just a really outstanding, power-hitting outfielder. I could throw and I could hit. I have no idea what my batting average was in high school, but I know it wasn't below .450, and that's pretty good hitting where I come from.
Playboy: Do you think you could have gotten as far in baseball as you have in football?
Namath: No. I think I could have become an outstanding professional baseball player, but I don't think I could have reached the heights that I have in football—being one of the very top players in the game, being a world champion. I might have been part of a team that won the World Series, I guess, but I don't think I would have gotten the acclaim that I've gotten so far in football.
Playboy: Is that why you finally passed up the baseball offers?
Namath: No. Shoot, when I got those offers, I sure as hell wanted to take the money and run. But, like I said, my mom and dad wanted me to go to college; so did my three older brothers.
Playboy: Were they athletes, too?
Namath: Yeah, and starting about the time I was six, they'd get out every day and work with me. My brother Bobby was a pretty good quarterback, but he never finished high school. He was three years behind my brother John in school and when John went into the Service, Bob had to quit in order to work and help Mom and Dad out. Bobby was never able to put the time in athletics that he needed to. My brother Frank did well in high school and got a football scholarship to Kentucky. When he went to Kentucky, though, Frank didn't know he'd had a baseball offer: My father had been contacted by a major-league team that wanted to sign Frank, but because he wanted Frank in college, he just didn't tell him about it. Frank later found out when he was in college, got very upset and ended up quitting school and working.
Playboy: Did this cause a serious break between them?
Namath: Yes, but they've made up. Frank moved from Detroit to Beaver Falls a few months ago, has a nice family and is doing very well in the insurance business. Anyway, my father didn't want to go through something like that again, so he told me about my offers and left it up to me. Football only happened in my senior year; in my sophomore year, I was the smallest guy on the team and played two minutes during the season, on defense. In my junior season, I started the first two or three games at quarterback and must have caused around 93 fumbles. It was really ridiculous, man; I couldn't play worth a flip. But before my senior year, we practiced all summer; and in the fall, we beat everybody and won the western-Pennsylvania championship.
Playboy: How good did you think you were by that time?
Namath: I rated myself best in the country, and that's the truth. I made all-state and I felt I could play better than anybody else in that position. And then, of course, I got all those college scholarship offers, which were proof to me that I knew what I was doing on a football field.
Playboy: How many offers were there?
Namath: I usually say 52, but it was more than that. Athletes today get a hell of a lot more offers than that, because more colleges are offering more scholarships than they did in 1961, when I graduated from high school. But it was strange coming out of high school and having colleges offer me as much money as my father made in a year—and they did just that. This softened my disappointment on the baseball thing, because the schools were going to pay me.
Playboy: Which schools made the biggest offers?
Namath: I'm not copping out, but I don't think it would be right for me to name them, because this stuff took place eight and a half years ago; and if I told you the schools, a lot of them could be under different systems now. Things could have changed and telling you would only be detrimental to them. I'm not saying things have changed, only that they may have changed. But I will tell you that the two schools I finally got serious about—Maryland and Alabama—were the only colleges that offered me a straight scholarship and the standard $15 a month for laundry. I got around the country a lot before I boiled it down, though: I visited Arizona State, Minnesota, Iowa, Miami, Indiana, Maryland and Notre Dame.
Playboy: Why did you decide not to play for Notre Dame?
Namath: Two reasons: I talked with their coach, who at the time was Joe Kuharich, and I wasn't very impressed by him. More important was the fact that there were no girls at Notre Dame. Man, they told me they had a women's college right across the lake. What was I supposed to do—swim over to make a date? Anyway, when I finally decided where I wanted to go to school—the University of Maryland—I couldn't get in. My college-boards score was five points below their admission requirements.
Playboy: And Alabama was your second choice?
Namath: No; at that point, I hadn't been in any contact with them at all. What happened was that Tom Nugent, Maryland's coach, got on the phone to Paul Bryant at Alabama to tell him that I was still loose and to come after me. I found out later that he called Alabama because Maryland never plays Alabama and Nugent didn't want me to wind up on a team he'd be facing someday. I guess the reason I finally chose Alabama was because my brother Frank had played under two of Alabama's coaches when they were at Kentucky and another of Alabama's coaches had been a senior at Kentucky when Frank had been a freshman there. He liked the guys and thought it was a good idea for me to go down there. By that time, I was so disgusted with the whole recruitment business that I just said screw it and agreed to go to Alabama. I hadn't even visited the campus.
Playboy: How did you like it when you arrived?
Namath: It was hell, man. I was a Northerner and 99 percent of the guys were Southerners. It was really lonely for guys from up North. We had a kid from Cleveland, one from Silver Creek, New York, one from Dayton and one from Rhode Island; but in our freshman year, they all quit.
Namath: Partly because they couldn't cut it on the football field, partly because of scholastics, but mostly because they were just plain homesick. When I got to my sophomore year, only one other "Northerner" was on the team—and he was from Virginia. At that time, coming from the North and going to school in the South was rougher than it is today.
Playboy: In what way?
Namath: The race thing. It was really out of sight, man. My family lived in a part of Beaver Falls that was called the Lower End, a low-income part of town. It was a predominately black neighborhood and the guys I hung out with were black. Like, in high school, I was the only white boy on the starting basketball team and the four other guys were black; they were all friends of mine from the neighborhood. The only time I'd ever run into any kind of race thing had been when I was little, when me and a black kid went into a pizza place and got thrown out. The lady who ran it just told us to get the hell out, so we both left. But when I got to the University of Alabama—wow! Coming from where I came from, I couldn't believe it. Water fountains for whites were painted white; there were different bathrooms for whites and blacks; blacks had to sit in the backs of buses and whites had to sit up front. I just couldn't understand it.
Playboy: Were there any black students there at the time?
Namath: When I first got there, no. They integrated in my sophomore year, right after George Wallace, who was governor then, stood in the doorway and tried to keep them out.
Playboy: Did you ever get into any arguments about race?
Namath: Nope. Not a rough argument, anyway. But I did get the nickname Nigger, and that, of course, had to do with race. In my freshman year, I was sitting in my room doing something and one of the fellas picked up a picture of the Beaver Falls High School football queen and her court. My girl at the time was the football queen and the crown bearer was a black girl. The guy asked, "Hey Joe, is this your girl?" and I answered yes, thinking he was pointing at the queen. But he was pointing at the black girl. He said, "Oh, yeah?" and ran out and told everybody he could find that I was dating a black girl; so they started calling me Nigger. I had a lot of bad times in the beginning, but it all changed. They got to respect the way I felt and I think I might even have turned some of them around on a few things. In my senior year, they voted me captain of the team; and when I think about it—about me mixed in with a bunch of guys from Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida—I consider it a very high honor.
Playboy: By the time you left the University of Alabama in 1965, did you see any evidence that race attitudes had changed?
Namath: Oh, I think they're getting more liberal in the South, I guess because they're getting more educated. But I don't think the South will ever be completely integrated; in fact, we probably won't live to see complete integration anywhere in America. The problem is stronger in the South, because that's where it all originated, but I see plenty of segregation everywhere. Even in New York, there's a lot of restaurants that don't like to admit black people. It's going to take a long time before the race problem gets straightened out, but it's changed plenty since I first got to Alabama.
Playboy: Why were you the only Northerner who didn't quit during that first year?
Namath: I wanted to quit about 15 times during my freshman year. I wanted to quit and play professional baseball. But I talked to a guy named Bubba Church, who used to pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was living in Mobile at the time and coach Bryant knew what I was thinking and, since he didn't want me to quit, he asked Bubba to come up and talk to me. Bubba explained that I could still play baseball after college and that getting an education was something I'd never regret; whereas I might look back afterward and be sorry I hadn't stuck in school. But I told him I didn't care, I just wanted to go home. Well, right then and there, Bubba just pulled some money out of his wallet and said, "You fly home. You can stay there if you like, but I think it would be better for you to come back." Well, after I got home, I decided maybe Bubba was right, and I decided to stick it out.
Playboy: How much did Bryant contribute to your development as a quarterback?
Namath: A hell of a lot. I guess most coaches know a good deal about the technical side of the game, but only a very few of them are able to demand and receive 110 percent effort from each of their players. This is true about coach Bryant. In the years I played for him, he taught me that on the football field, you play to win and to hate even the thought of losing. He's a man I totally respect. Coach Bryant also gave me good advice when I was drafted by both the American and National football leagues in my senior year.
Playboy: What kind of advice?
Namath: Well, after the last game of my senior year, he came into our dressing room and said, "Joe, you know these pro-football people are going to be coming around to see you. Do you have any idea how much money you're going to ask for?" Shoot, I didn't know. He told me to ask for $200,000. "You might not get $200,000," he said, "but it's a good place to start from, and maybe you'll wind up with $150,000 or so." The first team I talked with was the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals; when they asked me what I wanted, I was embarrassed, but I told them—$200,000. They agreed to it.
Playboy: Did that surprise you?
Namath: I almost had a coronary right there. But I hadn't yet talked to the Jets, so I decided to see their people, too. Actually, the final sums offered by both teams were about equal and the quarterback situations were about the same: The Jets needed a quarterback bad and so did the Cardinals, because their guy, Charley Johnson, had a two-year Service obligation to fulfill, although he didn't finally go into the Army until two years later. I signed with the Jets because of two people: Sonny Werblin, who was then head of the Jets, because he seemed genuinely interested in me and convinced me that the AFL was going to be better than the NFL in a short time; and the Jets' coach, Weeb Ewbank. Mr. Bryant told me that over the years, Weeb had impressed the hell out of him, that his coaching records had been outstanding and that he was in every possible way a good football man. So I signed a Jet contract.
Playboy: For how much?
Namath: It was $427,000, to be paid out over a three-year period, and it was broken down in various ways so that I could get the best tax breaks possible. Man, I didn't know what the hell to do with all that bread. In fact, that's about all I knew: that I wasn't capable of handling any big financial matters. So I had to get people who specialized in those things, whose advice could be trusted. I'm learning about business now, but it'll be a long time before I go into any heavy investments without checking on the opinions of associates. But at the time I signed, I really wasn't thinking about all those things. I was just happy.
Playboy: Did you know that your contract was the biggest ever given to a football player up to then? Most veteran pros, in fact, reacted in much the same way as former Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan, who said, "If Namath's worth $400,000, I'm worth a million."
Namath: Then all I can say is that I hope he got his million. Sure, there was hostility, but I hoped a lot of it wouldn't be directed at me. I sort of thought that other players could point to my salary to justify asking for raises of their own; after all, I wasn't taking any bread out of their mouths.
Playboy: What was the reaction of your Jet teammates?
Namath: Well, some of the guys resented it; but I can understand that, too. That year, though, we had a couple of other high-paid draft choices: John Huarte of Notre Dame got $200,000 and Bob Schweickert of Virginia Tech got $150,000. Anyway, I felt that if I could do the job on the field, then nobody had any right to gripe about my salary, even if they paid me $2,000,000. But the publicity the contract caused didn't help me get settled in with my teammates.
Playboy: Were they also upset about the fact that nearly every word being written about the Jets seemed to be about you?
Namath: Sure they were; and I can't really blame them for that, either. Shit, before I came to camp, it was football as usual; and then, all of a sudden, it became like a show-business thing, with all kinds of photographers and writers around. It wasn't all bad, though. One of the things rookies have to do is sing their team fight song in front of the rest of the guys; but when I got up, everybody started singing There's No Business Like Show Business and it was a good gag. But I could see where it could be upsetting to them, like that Broadway Joe thing.
Playboy: How did the nickname come about?
Namath: In 1965, Sports Illustrated ran a story about the Jets' highly paid rookies; as I said, I was only one of 'em, but Sports Illustrated ran a cover photo of me standing in the middle of Broadway—in uniform—at about 8:30 in the evening. We were in the locker room the day the magazine came out and offensive tackle Sherman Plunkett looked at it, kind of shook his head a little and said, "There goes Broadway Joe." And it stuck.
Playboy: And grew to legendary proportions. What do you think of all the publicity that surrounds you?
Namath: Not much, believe me. I don't pick up a newspaper every day, because there have been so many dumb things written about me—by so many people who haven't even talked to me—that it's just ridiculous, man. As far as football writers go, I don't think one of them really knows what's happening on the field—why the team has to do one thing more than another at a particular point in the game. They simply don't spend enough time around the ball club to be well educated about the technical side of the game, and football is very complicated. It's not going to happen, but teams should give football writers in their cities weekly clinics on what the hell the game is about, so that the press could be more than fairly well-informed spectators. Another thing that happens to almost every ballplayer is that quotes get jumbled up something fierce. Usually, even if reporters get the words right in a quote, they screw up the emphasis, and the next morning, you discover you've said something you just never said. In general, I think most sportswriters want to do a good job, and if they talk straight to me, I give them straight answers. But about the only writers I speak to regularly are all in New York—guys like Dave Anderson of The New York Times, Larry Merchant of the Post and Murray Janoff of Newsday. Mostly, I don't dig the press.
Playboy: Because they're not football experts?
Namath: No, because the press doesn't care how much it hurts people like me, so long as there's a good headline. Look, I realize I wouldn't be where I am without the press, but after a while, you can't help getting annoyed over the bullshit papers print about you. I'm not going to go into what they were writing about me during the Bachelors III thing again; but another good example happened last year in Miami, when I was stopped for speeding. The front page of The Miami Herald ran something like "Namath Arrested in Car Chase," but the only chase that took place was in that headline and in a lot of headlines in papers all over the country. The whole thing was so stupid. I was tagged for going 15 miles above the speed limit; it was either 50 in a 35-mile zone or 55 in a 40-mile zone. The officer also tried to give me a reckless-driving charge, but all I did was swerve out of one lane—which had construction blocking it—into another. The officer said I was drunk and I called him a damn liar, and then he got pissed off and I got pissed off and I wound up taking a drunkometer test three times and passed it all three times. Well, they dropped that charge and the reckless-driving charge. But because the prick had to give me something, he gave me a speeding ticket—although he had no proof of that and I don't see how he could have, since he was about a half mile away when the speeding supposedly took place. So I wound up with a $50 fine; and after all the headlines about drunken and reckless driving, there was a little paragraph hidden in the Miami papers that said something like "Namath drunken-driving charge dropped." Period. No apology for all their crappy so-called reporting. I always think of it like the Pueblo thing—how innocent we were and what bad cats they were to capture our ship; but five months later, on the third page of The New York Times, about the sixth column over and four lines from the bottom, we find out that the Pueblo was spying on the North Koreans, just as they claimed. Well, shit, that's what papers are like, so why should you believe what they print? When I read about myself and know flat-out that they're writing nonsense, why should I take their word on anything else, particularly when they keep screwing up? Talk about credibility gaps, man; the American press has any politician beat by a long shot.
Playboy: Is the Broadway Joe life style simply a myth manufactured by the press?
Namath: Parts of it are, parts of it aren't. For instance, there are a lot of stories about me trying to be flamboyant by wearing white football shoes. When I was playing at Alabama, our football shoes felt too light on my feet, flimsy; and when I ran, they would turn out on me. So before every game, I taped them up for support, which made them heavier, until they felt like they were kind of part of me. Well, the one game I didn't tape them up was in my senior year against North Carolina State, when my knee collapsed. I wasn't hit on the play; my knee just went. So I've been taping them up ever since, including when I got to the Jets. But one day, when I got to Shea Stadium, a pair of white shoes was in my locker; I never asked for 'em, but there they were, so I started wearing them.
Playboy: The Broadway Joe legend also pictures you as one of the great womanizers of our time. Do you think your reputation for amorous exploits is merited?
Namath: I think it's merited, in the sense that I'm young, single, I have some money, I'm in the press a lot, and so I do all right with the ladies.
Playboy: What about the thousands of sexual conquests that have been attributed to you?
Namath: Oh, I wouldn't put the number that high.
Playboy: How high would you put it?
Namath: A conservative estimate?
Playboy: That would be fine.
Namath: I'd say at least 300—but that's a conservative estimate. Probably too conservative, because when I was in boring classes at Alabama, I used to start making out lists to see how well I was doing and I guess I was pretty close to 300 by the time I graduated.
Playboy: You say that with a great big smile. Are those fond memories?
Namath: They sure are. And the older I get, the more I enjoy sex—and the more I learn about it. For instance, when I was younger, the aim of making love was simply to reach a climax, achieve your own satisfaction and not even worry about your partner's. Well, as you grow up, you start understanding that sex is a two-way street and that it's much better for both of you to be sexually satisfied. Once you realize this, you should really go all out and make a sincere effort to make 'em happy, because then sex becomes a very beautiful thing.
Playboy: That sounds like the kind of pep talk Vince Lombardi would give if he were coaching a team in the Sexual Freedom League. There are thousands of guys—some of them fairly glamorous celebrities—who feel the same way about giving as well as getting sexual satisfaction. But they don't make out like you do. What's your secret?
Namath: I really like women. But I'm not a very forward guy. There are so many times when I see a girl I'd love to get to know, but I won't approach her. I usually don't feel like going over and introducing myself, because right after I say something like, "Hello, my name is Joe Namath, what's yours?," there are too many times when I get a quick stare that says, "So what?" I mean, a lot of girls get antagonistic, man. If expressions could talk, I'd be hearing things like, "You think you're such a big deal. You expect me to go to bed with you just because you're Joe Namath; but I won't, because I'm different!" Hell, I don't expect to go to bed with every good-looking girl I meet. I'd like it, but I don't expect it. All I want to do is get to know them and hope to get sexually involved with them.
Playboy: What do you do when you meet a girl who's intent on putting you down?
Namath: I immediately drop back 15 yards and punt. Why waste my time and hers?
Playboy: How do you like to spend your time with those who like you—aside from the traditional way?
Namath: Well, I don't like going out on a date unless I know the broad a little bit beforehand. By the way, broad to me is not a detrimental term for women; it's simply another word for female. Anyway, I don't really go out a whole lot, because there aren't many girls I like to take out and spend a whole evening with—at least not an evening in public. I enjoy staying in with a girl much more than going out. Mostly, I prefer just meeting a girl at a nice, quiet bar, where we can get to know each other. That's one of the reasons I guess I got into Bachelors III. It was a good way to meet girls, and it still is.
Playboy: Are there any particular types of girls that especially attract you?
Namath: I dig fairly tall, blonde-haired girls—I mean, they just flat turn me on. That's not saying I don't like brunettes; it's just that when I see a blonde, she doesn't have to be beautiful for me to look two or three times when she walks by. Also, I'm a leg man more than a chest man. I like a quiet girl, as opposed to a talkative, laughing, boisterous extrovert. I mean, I don't hold it against a girl if she talks a lot or if she laughs a lot, but I enjoy myself better, I feel more comfortable with a soft-spoken girl.
Playboy: According to reputation, you've sampled girls from every region in America. Is there any area you prefer?
Namath: I like Southern girls. For some reason, they seem sweeter, gentler. They're not as hard as New York girls, simply because they're not confronted with the things that girls in Manhattan are confronted with every day: vulgar language in the streets and a toughness caused by fear of all the sex crimes that take place in New York. New York girls are more hardened than Southern girls, but as I said just after the Jets won the AFL championship, I want to thank the broads in New York for all they did for me last season. They really helped build my morale.
Playboy: Do you get many propositions from female admirers?
Namath: Sure; I've received letters that were just out-and-out sexual invitations on several occasions. But I don't remember ever following any of them up.
Playboy: Why not?
Namath: Well, I don't find it strange for a girl to write a letter like that, but it would certainly be strange if she expected me to answer her. I mean, if it's on her mind and it'll make her feel good to let me know, I appreciate it. I guess if I really dug a broad or felt like I did, I might send a letter to her to find out if we could get together; possibly, we could get together. But I don't like answering those requests, because you never know what's in back of them. It could be a practical joke or it could be a plan to get me into some kind of trouble. You don't know what it's goin' to be, man; it could end up in a bad deal, and I have enough trouble without having to go look for it. If I happen to run into a girl who feels that way about me, though, it can be a different story.
Playboy: Does that kind of thing happen to you often?
Namath: I don't know how often it happens, but it happens. And most of the time, I don't even mind if they're interested in me just because I'm Joe Namath. If that's the way they come on and they can swing with it, I guess I can, too.
Playboy: Do you think you're as good in bed as you are on a football field?
Namath: I can't honestly answer that question, because in football, there are comparisons you can make, but I don't think you can do the same with sex. First of all, you're only at your best with a girl who really turns you on. It's a total thing that has to do with how much feeling she has for you and how you feel about her, and that's more important than if she's beautiful or well built. You certainly can't measure your performance by the number of climaxes you reach, because after the first few times, you just can't expect to keep having orgasms. I think the important thing is how long you're able to make love. With the right girl, a guy can go just about all night long. And there have been lots of times when I've done just that. I'm a great believer in sex.
Playboy: We've noticed that. One of sports' great traditions decrees that the night before the big game, the athlete goes to bed early—and by himself. Do you?
Namath: No. I spent the nights before the Jets' two biggest games last year—for the AFL championship and the Super Bowl—with girls. But I don't consider that bad or foolish of me. Look, I'm a football player, and that's my number-one thing. I'm not about to take a chance on how I perform by breaking my own schedule. But I've been playing football for a long time, and by now, I know what I should do and shouldn't do to stay ready at all times. The night before a game, I prepare myself both mentally and physically for the next day. I think a ballplayer has to be relaxed to play well; and if that involves being with a girl that night, he should do it. If some ballplayers don't feel that way, they shouldn't do it. But I feel that way.
Playboy: Do you make a point of going to bed with a girl on the eve of a game?
Namath: I try to; it depends on how I feel that night. Before one game last year, I just sat home by myself and watched television, drank a little tequila to relax and went to sleep fairly early. But most of the nights before games, I'll be with a girl. One of the Jets' team doctors, in fact, told me that it's a good idea to have sexual relations before a game, because it gets rid of the kind of nervous tension an athlete doesn't need.
Playboy: Did the doctor relay this bit of medical advice to Weeb Ewbank?
Namath: No, he didn't; and if he ever does, I don't think Weeb will go out and hire 40 prostitutes to make sure the Jets are pro football's most relaxed team. Since a lot of the guys on the team are married, I want their wives to know that when we're on the road, the married fellas really mope around the hotel all day and all night. But I don't.
Playboy: In line with your much-reported fondness for Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch: Has drinking ever taken anything away from your performance on the field?
Namath: Excessive drinking could. But I don't drink too much. I know my drinking limits and I rarely take a third drink the night before a game.
Playboy: Have you ever played high?
Namath: No, but I do remember the only game I wasn't prepared for. In 1966, we were playing Boston in the last game of the season, and it didn't matter at all whether we won or lost, as far as our place in the standings was concerned, but Boston needed to win to tie for the Eastern Division title. Well, the night before the game, I was up late, after clowning around and drinking a little more than I usually do. I had a hell of a headache in the first half, but I was feeling no pain after halftime: We won, 38 to 28. Last year, though, I decided to give up drinking entirely before the Buffalo game. It turned out to be our worst afternoon of the season: we lost, 37 to 35. A little later in the season, before we played Oakland, I told a couple of teammates that I was thinking of knocking off drinking again. Dave Herman, a guy I wouldn't want to mess with, came up and said, "If you don't want to drink, I'll grab you and pour it down your throat myself." So I haven't given up booze and I don't plan to.
Playboy: Doesn't the league frown on ballplayers who drink in public?
Namath: Yes, but I think it's childish, in the sense that we're all at least three times seven, and if we didn't know by now how to handle our bodies, then we wouldn't be capable of playing—and if a guy can't do his job, he should be fired. The owners may worry about the public's reaction on seeing a player out drinking, but I sure as hell don't. Rules like that are really hypocritical and outdated. In a standard player contract, there are at least a half-dozen fool rules that the team doesn't even enforce. One rule, for instance: Players must at all times wear coats and ties while in a hotel lobby. Hell, that's not important at all. And then there's this whole insane reaction to a guy if he doesn't keep his hair cut short.
Playboy: Whose reaction are you talking about?
Namath: People in professional sports and the majority of the public. Look, I've dedicated myself to football; I've played the game for a long time now and I am absolutely positive about one thing: My hair does not slow me down. But I've read so many times that you can't play football or baseball with hair that's the least bit long. Well, if coaches feel that way, their minds are getting away from the game. I think if they just concentrate on the sport and forget a guy's hair style or clothes, everybody will be better off, man. Too many times, we judge a person by the way he dresses or cuts his hair.
Playboy: Has a lot of that kind of criticism been directed your way?
Namath: Last year, when I had a mustache, I got hundreds of letters, saying it's bad for the image or it's bad for children to see a ballplayer with sideburns and a mustache. Who tells the children it's bad? Parents—they're the ones at fault, because they tell their child that mustaches and long hair are only worn by freaks. Where else does a kid get the idea that mustaches shouldn't be worn and that a man can't have more than a crewcut? As soon as that child looks at our history books and sees all that hair on our forefathers, he's gonna wonder what the hell kind of history we've had.
Playboy: Do you think of yourself as a rebel?
Namath: I've been reading things and hearing people say I'm a rebel, that I have a noninstitutional personality and such, but that's not true. If I don't believe in something, though, I'm not gonna go along with it: it has nothing to do with being anti-establishment or whatever; it's just that if it's not right for me, then I can't go along with it. I'm not trying to fight society—I'm just trying to be myself and do what I think is best. I don't bother anybody and I don't want anybody to bother me. And I don't think I do anything wrong—at least I try hard not to. Oh, sometimes, I might hurt someone's feelings by refusing an autograph; but even that doesn't happen often, if I'm in a place where there aren't going to be too many to sign. I just don't dig people who think I have to go along with things I don't want to do.
Playboy: Is there anything you'd like to do that you don't or can't?
Namath: Yes. I'd like to be able to run the way I used to; but for that, I'd need new knees. When I was in college, I fitted right in with coach Paul Bryant's offense: Quarterbacks did a lot of running at Alabama, because our most effective play was usually the run-pass option. Before I was hurt in my senior year, I was able to cover 40 yards in 4.7 seconds, which is pretty fast for a quarterback in uniform. It's lucky for me that running isn't necessary for a pro quarterback today; the only time you run with the ball is to try to make a first down on a broken-pass play or, if it's the only thing you can do, move the ball out of bounds.
Playboy: How seriously are your knees injured?
Namath: Pretty seriously. I've had two operations on the right knee, one on the left, and I have more coming up. But I'm not looking for any sympathy. I think that for a quarterback, I still have good mobility. I can drop back to throw a pass faster and deeper than most quarterbacks. But during a season, my knees hurt my effectiveness, because after a game, they swell up and get sore for a few days and I can't practice very much during the week. Practicing just puts too much pressure and strain on the knees. During a game, it's all pain; but except for running laterally, my movements aren't affected all that much, and that's the important thing. Of course, I have a definite weakness: If I were to get hit with a direct shot to the knee, then I would be out of the game for good. But anyone, even with good knees, can be in trouble if he gets hit that way.
Playboy: Do your knees give you trouble off the field as well?
Namath: They sure do. Going up and down stairs is a problem for me, once the season is under way, and even walking bothers me. But it's something you just accept; shit, that's the way it is. You're lucky if you have legs at all, and if they hurt, they hurt. I know that by the time I'm 50, I'm really going to have problems walking; but there isn't anything I can do about it, so there's no sense in tying up my mind with shit like that.
Playboy: How do you relieve the pain?
Namath: Fluid is always collecting on my knees, so when they hurt too much or the flexion is decreased, I get the fluid drained. Before a game, I usually get shots of cortisone and butazolidin, and afterward, I'll have a few stiff drinks; alcohol helps as a painkiller.
Playboy: Do a lot of pros go through the same physical pain you do?
Namath: You just don't play football today without being injured. I know very few players who are really healthy, especially during the season. Many, many guys play even though they're hurt; and after the game, they hurt all the more. Lots of us couldn't play at all without various medications; I know I couldn't play at times without the shots.
Playboy: Did you undergo the same kind of physical punishment in college?
Namath: No, because in college, you play about half as many games, if you count pro exhibition games, and you're younger and better able to recuperate from getting hit. And the guys who are hitting you aren't 275-pound linemen. Learning to put up with pain is part of becoming a pro; and if you don't have terribly serious injuries, it's a very easy part, compared with what you have to learn—and learn quickly—in order to stick with a pro team.
Playboy: Is professional football really that difficult for a collegiate All-American to master?
Namath: It's difficult because in college, you can be the best ballplayer in the country; but when you come out, you're playing against professional guys with a hell of a lot more experience. And they're not going to make the errors you're going to make; they've been there that many times more. Also, pro defenses are so much more sophisticated, just as offenses are, than in the college game. For instance, a pro lineman today doesn't merely hit his man; he has to hit and move his opponent almost to the exact spot the coach points to. The precision involved in pro ball—where you have to be of All-American caliber just to sit on the bench—makes it much tougher than the college game.
Playboy: What was the toughest part of breaking into the pros for you?
Namath: Learning how to read the other team's defenses and calling the proper audible—changing the play at the line of scrimmage. In college, we never ran any real audibles; me and two other guys on the team would exchange signals if the play was being changed, because coach Bryant felt that real audibles would provide too much chance for error on a college team—that one of the 11 guys on the field would miss the play or goof up.
Playboy: Did you have any doubts when you joined the Jets that you'd become a good pro quarterback?
Namath: I guess so. At first, it didn't seem too hard, especially at the beginning of my rookie season: I wasn't starting and I wasn't playing. But when I finally did start playing—damn, it was really a tough job to figure out.
Playboy: In what way?
Namath: In every way. I remember playing against Kansas City and having one strong impression—of bodies movin' all over the place. But the only way a quarterback learns is by playing. He can look at all the films he wants to off the field, and he can practice all day long out there on the field, but the only time he's going to be tested is when he gets into that live battle. When those guys are coming at you, they're going to do a job on you—if they get to you. And the other guys are playing a defense you're not familiar with. You can watch them all you want on film, but you still have to be out there to get the experience that counts.
Playboy: What was the first time you proved to yourself that you could really make it in the pro ranks?
Namath: In my rookie year, we were playing against the Boston Patriots in a close game. Boston was using a stunt defense; a lot of the time, their linebackers and some of their linemen would shift around, making it necessary to change most of the plays at the line of scrimmage. They were only three points behind the Jets, with eight minutes and 40 seconds left; but we started an offensive drive and wound up holding the ball for that long—and scoring a touchdown to clinch the game. Well, when we controlled the ball against the Patriots that long, I was very pleased; the play calling, which had to do with figuring out their defenses and reacting to them on the spot, was good. After that game, I felt I was a real pro quarterback.
Playboy: How long does it usually take a college star to become a good pro quarterback?
Namath: Well, I thought I was good in my first year, but I wasn't what you could call topflight, because I was only a damn rookie; I just didn't have the experience. Daryle Lamonica of the Oakland Raiders said a while back that it takes a good college quarterback five years to become good in the pros, but that's a bunch of shit. I was a good quarterback in my third year.
Playboy: Who do you think is the best quarterback currently playing?
Namath: Naturally, I think I am. I could say someone else, to be polite, but no one else is better than me. You have to take into consideration, though, that I also feel every player should think he's the best man at his position.
Playboy: Why do you think you're pro football's number-one quarterback?
Namath: A lot of things go into being a quarterback. The most important: You have to be able to throw. I think I can throw better than anybody else. After a couple of other abilities—like calling the right plays and reading defenses—the next most important asset of a quarterback is his attitude, and I think I have the right attitude and the right temperament.
Playboy: What do you mean?
Namath: Knowing that you're going to win and getting it across to the rest of the players. When I say something about winning, I think the team is going to believe me—they do now, anyway. And that attitude spreads. When a guy like Winston Hill tells me he can block his man, I know he can block him; he won't tell me he can do something he can't. When a guy like Don Maynard tells me he can get open on a pass play, he can. And does. Pretty soon, nobody says they can do something just because of anxiety. That's a big part of a winning attitude.
Playboy: Are there any outstanding football players who don't have this attitude?
Namath: If there are, I don't know them. Hell, I think how much you want to win has practically as much to do with playing as ability does. As long as you're in good physical condition, attitude is just about the biggest part of your game. Sometimes, people wonder why an underdog occasionally beats a heavily favored team, the way Denver and Buffalo beat us last year. Well, they had more desire to win than we did. The Jets went into those games half-assed and lackadaisical, and Denver and Buffalo didn't. They jumped on us with both feet; and in pro football, when you give any club a head start on you, they're hard to catch up to. So when your team is a 20-point favorite, you've got to watch out for a letdown.
Playboy: Do you ever find yourself having to manufacture that all-out will to win in such a situation?
Namath: Yes, because sometimes, when you play a really weak team, you can't help playing a sloppy game. But in that situation, you tend to wake up as soon as you look at the scoreboard and see it's not the way it should be. The Buffalo and Denver games I mentioned were about the only two games I remember not being mentally ready for, and by that I mean not having the top anxiety and top enthusiasm about playing the game.
Playboy: Is there an aspect to quarterbacking that you find you have to work on especially hard?
Namath: No, not anymore. I work on everything fairly hard, but there's not one phase of the game I think I have to stress over other things. I practice throwing every day, reading defenses, ball handling and footwork. I have no problem dropping back various ways, backpedaling, turning and going back.
Playboy: Even though you've already quarterbacked a championship team, do you think you've yet to hit your peak as a pro?
Namath: I really don't know, because I'm a guy who believes young people are better. I'm 26 now; by the time I'm 27, I don't think I'll have the quickness that I have now. I don't know if, by the end of this season, I'll be as good as I was last year, because I don't know how my legs are going to hold up. The one phase of quarterbacking that I know I've improved on, though, is play calling. In fact, last year I began approaching the game differently.
Playboy: In what way?
Namath: I suppose I began to get more conservative. In our loss to Buffalo last year, I did a very dumb thing: There was no reason for the Jets to be going out there and trying to score like crazy. Instead of passing as much as I did, we could have gone out there and run three plays and punted to Buffalo and let them make the mistakes, because they didn't have a quarterback; the starter and the back-up passer had both been injured. They had no offense at all, so we should have let them commit the errors. But I kept getting us in trouble by having passes intercepted, and we kept getting out, and we finally ended up blowing the game, 37 to 35. After that, I got conservative to a certain extent: I knew our defense could hold the other team and that we could wait for their mistakes. You've got to do whatever it takes to win and after those two bad games, we did.
Playboy: You went from 28 intercepted passes in 1967 to 17 in 1968. How did you manage that?
Namath: There are always reasons for interceptions. Out of the 17 last year, 10 came in two games. Some of them were just downright good defensive plays, some of them were downright stupid plays on my part and some of them were breaks of the game—a ball bounces up off a guy's hands and into an opponent's. Again, I think knowing that our defense was so tough stopped me from worrying about scoring early and often in a game. So if my first receiver was covered and if my second also hadn't gotten free, instead of going to the third or fourth and taking a big chance on having the pass intercepted, I'd just throw it away or keep it. A couple of years ago, I read that Johnny Unitas once said, "When you know what you're doing, you don't get intercepted." That year, he just about led the league in interceptions. I remember thinking that was a pretty stupid thing for him to say.
Playboy: There's been a great deal written about your "quick release"—your ability to get rid of a pass quickly. Do you think it's a vital asset?
Namath: No question about it. The quicker you can get rid of the ball, the fewer times you're going to get caught with it—and the faster the ball gets to the receiver. I'd say I save at least two tenths of a second, and probably even more than that, on a pass play. That's worth a lot, when you consider that on a pass play, the quarterback would like to have four seconds from the time the ball is snapped until he throws it. You'd like to have four seconds, but you don't always get it. Pro football is a lot more complicated than most people think: In those few seconds, you have to pick from among four or five receivers, locating them and judging instantly how well they're covered.
Playboy: At the same time, 280-pound defensive linemen are trying to get to you before you pass the ball. When your receivers aren't free for a pass and opponents are about to tackle you, how do you brace yourself?
Namath: I don't. You know you're going to get hit, but you can't do anything differently, because then you'll just screw up. By that I mean that you'll rush a pass, and that's usually when you get intercepted. So you have to ignore the guys coming in and if you get hit, well, you get back up again.
Playboy: When was the hardest you ever got hit on a football field?
Namath: Well, I hate to give the bastards credit for anything, but when I was in college, Georgia Tech really creamed me in a game. I didn't know one of their guys was coming at me and he just about crunched every bone in my body; I mean, he really knocked the hell out of me. I was almost completely out.
Playboy: How hard did Ben Davidson of the Oakland Raiders hit you when he broke your cheekbone?
Namath: Hard enough to break it but not hard enough to put me out of the game. The thing about getting hit—even like that—is that it doesn't bother you while you're still on the field. While you're moving around, the adrenaline is pumping. But it really gets bad after you cool off; that's when you feel the aches and pains and discover all the bruises. I don't think the game is too physically demanding, but it's really something else to see such big guys in such great shape coming at you. A lot of pro linemen are six-six and six-seven, run just as fast as the little guys, are very, very agile, weigh close to 300 pounds—and can really slam you.
Playboy: As a key to the Jet offense, do you ever feel that opposing linemen would like to sideline you with an injury rather than simply tackle you before you get rid of the ball?
Namath: Of course. We want to get their quarterbacks out of action, too. You get the quarterback out and you got a good shot at winning the game.
Playboy: How cleanly is this done?
Namath: Well, I know our guys don't do anything dirty—but they do try to kill the other quarterback. When there's an interception, for instance, our guys are still supposed to find the passer and hit him hard.
Playboy: What do you do when you throw an interception?
Namath: Backtrack; I look around pretty good. But everybody knows the other guy is making a living and that if you play dirty, you get paid back—and so will your quarterback. Because the other team can hit just as hard and play it any way you want to play it. So if a guy starts taking cheap shots at someone, the other team is going to look him up in a hurry. That doesn't happen very often; it's about the ugliest part of the sport.
Playboy: What do you consider—for you —the best part of the game?
Namath: Winning; that's the best thing about it. After that, it's feeling I'm the best of anybody at my job, and that's the most satisfying thought I have about football. And then putting it all together and being on the best team and becoming world champions. That's what you have to strive for: to be the best.
Playboy: To the amazement of most football experts around the nation, the Jets proved they were just that by beating the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. When did you first think your team could win the championship?
Namath: Well, certainly not in training camp; it's a long season, and the thing we were really trying to do was to win our division; and then, if we won the AFL championship, great, we'd be in the Super Bowl. But it was a long road to get there. I think it started happening right after we beat San Diego, in the 11th game of the season. The week before, we had lost to Oakland when they scored two touchdowns in the last nine seconds; but we recovered from that and beat San Diego pretty good. That's when I knew we had a good football team; I guess that's when we started thinking about going to the Super Bowl.
Playboy: In the two Super Bowls prior to this year's, the Green Bay Packers twice soundly defeated AFL championship teams. Most people felt those victories were indicative of NFL supremacy. Did you?
Namath: No, I thought that was a stupid way to think. Hell, the Packers beat just about everybody they played that bad. I know they had a couple of tough games with the Dallas Cowboys, but they always beat them. All I thought about the two Packer Super Bowl victories was that Green Bay was just better than any other team in pro football—something they had shown all year long. But that didn't say anything to me about the strength of the two leagues. The thing everybody kept conveniently forgetting was that the AFL has been drafting its players from the same source as the NFL and getting top talent for a lot of years. In pre-season games last year, AFL teams kicked hell out of NFL teams and nobody wanted to believe it. It was there in front of them all the time. It kind of bothered me that not only were the teams in the AFL downgraded but so were the players.
Playboy: Whom do you have in mind?
Namath: I have AFL quarterbacks in mind. Look, before the Super Bowl, a lot of people thought I was bum-rapping Earl Morrall of the Baltimore Colts when I said there were four guys in the AFL who were better than he is. Well, I wasn't putting him down. But when you talk about quarterbacks, you've got to put John Hadl of San Diego, Bob Griese of Miami, Daryle Lamonica and myself right up there. Sure, you can't take anything away from NFL quarterbacks like Sonny Jurgensen and Roman Gabriel and Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. But the point is that no one wanted to recognize that the AFL has more than its share of topflight quarterbacks. A lot of people still don't want to, but because we won the Super Bowl last season, they have to.
Playboy: In Miami, just a few days before the Super Bowl, you bragged, "The Jets will win Sunday. I guarantee it." Certainly, the Colts had to be among the strongest teams you faced all year; were you really that confident, or was that remark intended to boost your teammates' morale?
Namath: Well, it may have had that effect on some people, but a whole lot of Jets were almost as sure as I was that we were going to beat the Colts. You know, there were a lot of writers coming around and advising me not to say anything, because the Colts were going to read what I'd said and really get up for the game. Well, I knew—and I'm sure they did, too—that if they needed something like that to get them fired up for a ball game, then they were in big trouble. In a championship game, you don't need to build up incentive to want to win: The championship is enough. We had a lot of faith in ourselves, and if I seemed to have more faith than anybody else on the team, it was because of what I saw in the films of Colt games—and what I knew I could do to them if I was on my game.
Playboy: What was it you saw?
Namath: That they used a lot of various safety blitzes. I was absolutely confident that if they tried that stuff against us—and they had to, because it was their game—we could move the ball on them, score on them. First of all, we have excellent blocking in the backfield along with the line: our line is one of the very best in pro football. George Sauer and Don Maynard and Pete Lammons and I, along with the backs, read defenses very well; so I felt that as soon as any of our guys detected a weakness, we would move with it. It was obvious to us early in the game that the Colts had to use double coverage on Don Maynard to protect against the long pass. Don had had a pulled muscle, and if I'd known it was still sore, I don't think I would have overthrown him when he shook free and was all alone for a touchdown. This left single coverage on George Sauer, and he's too good to be guarded by one man; George probably runs the best pass patterns in football today. Anyway, we knew before the game that we would figure out their weaknesses. We knew that guys like Winston Hill and Bob Talamini—I was sorry to see him retire this year—could be depended on to block their men. I was sure Matt Snell was going to have a fine game, and it didn't come as a surprise to me when he had a great game. So we thought we could pass on them, we thought we could run on them, but we didn't know what we'd be able to do best until the game actually started. The one thing we knew, though, was that we could get some points up on the board, enough points to win. Actually, I think we could have gotten more points. I threw only 28 passes against the Colts all day; hell, I've thrown more than that in a quarter. But I wasn't about to take any chances. We played to win—and we did. And by winning, we showed that the AFL doesn't have to take a back seat to the NFL and that we were and are the best team in pro football.
Playboy: Do you think the Jets can do it again?
Namath: If everybody stays healthy, I know we can do it again. When you've won a championship, you have a lot of confidence going for you. You know you did it, did it as a heavy underdog and under pressure that was supposedly only on us, not on the Colts. This year, I think we should make fewer mistakes and so be that much better. The one thing that could stop us is this new damn AFL two-game play-off for the championship. If we finish first or second in our division, which we'll do, we'll still have to play two tough games back to back before we qualify for the Super Bowl. At the end of a season, a lot of guys are worn down physically; I know it's true for the other teams as well, but it still means that we won't be at the top of our game.
Playboy: There are many fans and sportswriters who think that the Jets' Super Bowl victory was a fluke. How do you feel about it?
Namath: People can tell us we had a lucky year, but athletes know better. They can say our victory was a fluke, but the fact is that we did it. They can talk about Baltimore coming back and getting revenge by beating us in 1970. Well, they might come back and they might beat us, but last season's Super Bowl is going to be something they'll remember for the rest of their lives; they know they can't take that away from us. January 12, 1969, belonged to the Jets and Baltimore can't ever get even for it. They lost it; they got beat.
Playboy: How many more seasons do you think you'll be able to play?
Namath: I honestly don't know. Sometimes, I think not more than another year, which is why I'm investing my money in different things and looking out for what's ahead.
Playboy: Speaking of money, how much do you earn a year, all told?
Namath: Again, I honestly don't know. Conservatively, about $200,000 in ordinary income—salary and different phases of contracts. That's just a base; I also have a few percentage things going. The nice thing about having this kind of bread is that when I'm through with football—something I don't usually think about—I can take my time getting into something new.
Playboy: Last summer, you appeared in Norwood, a film starring Glen Campbell. Are you planning to do what former Cleveland fullback Jim Brown has done—pursue an acting career after retirement?
Namath: I don't have any strong ambitions about it at this stage, because I don't know enough about acting yet. I don't know whether or not I really like it and what kind of talent I have. But until I make up my mind either way, I'm going to ride with it. Now, I know damned well that right now I'm no actor: I never even acted in grade school or high school. But a lot of people have been talking to me about more films, and there's a gas of a comedy that I've agreed to play the lead in, called The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker.
Playboy: What do you think of your acting in Norwood?
Namath: I saw rushes last summer, when I was in California for the film. I liked the way I photographed, but I felt like a fool watching myself talk. It didn't seem very natural to me. It's hard to know if I was good or lousy in the movie, because I'm not sure that the movie people I've talked to aren't saying nice things just to make me feel good. About the straightest thing I can go on is that they want me to do some more; if they're willing to bank money on me, it indicates that they're happy.
Playboy: Is there any aspect of acting that you dislike?
Namath: Yes, the schedule: I don't like the idea of getting up at five or six in the morning and going out for a long day's work—which, in movies, means sitting around most of the time.
Playboy: Did that timetable cut into your night-owl rounds during the filming of Norwood?
Namath: Absolutely not. I wouldn't let it. I'd hate to think about a future in which my work would cancel out seeing women.
Playboy: Would you also hate to think about a future that might include marriage?
Namath: Not at all. I've been going out with a girl named Suzie Storm for a few years and I feel that someday I'm going to marry her. But I'm not ready to get married yet; I don't think I could be faithful. It's very idealistic and seldom true, but when you're married, I think you're supposed to be married and that's it—no clowning around. Now, I'm not saying that when I get married I'm going to be that way; but I'm going to try my best not to clown around, because, believe it or not, I really don't want to. If you're going to play those games, then you've got to expect your wife to do the same, and I don't think any man wants to put up with that. I sure don't. I'm not saying that when I get married, I won't ever see another girl for sexual reasons, but I'd try not to do that. And right now, I can't honestly say that I'm ready to be true to one girl. Suzie is very understanding about it. And I think that as far as the two of us are concerned, time is on her side.
Playboy: And what do you see for yourself in time?
Namath: I've got a good thing going. I don't think I'll ever have to worry about being able to support a family. It's really nice having money, but only so that you don't have to think about it. I don't have any extravagant tastes; I don't have any expensive hobbies. I spend my dough on girls, clothes and good times, and I don't need more to enjoy myself. If I get hurt playing football tomorrow and I can't come back, it's good to feel that I won't have to change the way I live. I can look around until I find something to do with my life that turns me on. The bread and all the fame hasn't loused me up, and I don't think it ever will. I've always been my own man, always been free. I live my life according to one rule: As long as you don't hurt anybody and you don't hurt yourself, do what you want to do. That's just what I'm going to do.
The Stacks is Deadspin's living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at email@example.com.