The 13th season had been the unlucky one, the one when the knees of the most celebrated quarterback in pro football, Joe Namath, finally disintegrated. Never again, he knew, would a team pay him $500,000 a season to play—or even a fraction of that. But he delayed and delayed the melancholy moment when he would announce he was through.
Finally, on the eve of a celebrity golf tournament in Phoenix, he blurted out the news. When asked about his future, Namath was snippy. “I’m going to Mars,” he said. “I was going to the moon, but I decided Mars was better.” The farther from reality, obviously, the better. The next morning he began drowning his sorrows in Coors, as he set out with his partner, Dodger pitcher Don Sutton, for the first round of the three-day event.
His mood seemed to darken further as the tournament progressed, despite the arrival from Los Angeles of longtime girlfriend Randi Oakes, an actress and model. Playing poorly, Namath hit again and again into water hazards. (“Have we got enough balls?” he asked the caddie.) Several times he simply gave up, refusing to finish holes because neither he nor the ball was taking a straight course. He guzzled continuously, stashing the empties in his golf cart. On the final day of the tournament, which was sponsored by American Airlines, Namath threw an embarrassing snit because his beer was not properly chilled when it was delivered to him on the first tee. He settled down only when his partner contacted a beer truck by CB radio and arranged for fresh supplies to be brought in.
“It’s pretty tough for Joe right now,” says his friend and business manager, Jimmy Walsh. “He has just made a major departure in his life.”
Since his 1965 debut as a brash, $400,000 rookie for the New York Jets, Namath had been his sport’s glamor boy. From the beginning he lived high and handsome. A bevy of beautiful girls lounged on the llama rug in his Manhattan penthouse, and he soon was known as “Broadway Joe.” But it was not all glitter. Namath developed into the finest passer in the game (throwing for a record 4,007 yards in one season, 1967). In 1969 he astounded the sports world by leading the Jets to a 16-7 upset of the Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl.
But shadowing Namath’s glory years was the threat of crippling injury. The knees never stopped hurting. When Joe signed with the Jets out of the University of Alabama, an orthopedic specialist predicted he would play for only five years. Even then there were signs of arthritis. By 1971 he had undergone four knee operations, and his legs were crisscrossed with scars. Possibly more surgery lies ahead. “Joe’s knees must be bandaged each morning,” Walsh says, “and eventually they may have to be replaced by artificial joints.”
As Joe lost mobility on the football field, he began seeking lucrative deals elsewhere to ensure his future. He is reportedly worth millions in real estate and securities. He sold himself to Madison Avenue as an irresistible Brut, just the sort of man housewives would like to find in their La-Z-Boy chairs or making their popcorn or hamburger patties. Namath will continue to be seen in TV commercials for a long time. Three years ago he signed a 20-year contract with Fabergé, which guarantees him $250,000 annually. “I understand that people enjoy watching me work,” he says, “so I’ll be doing it for them.” He also has taken some acting lessons since he appeared in a spaghetti Western called The Last Rebel in 1971 and was panned by the critics (“Either Namath seems embarrassed or else he simply grins”). “I want to do more films,” Joe says.
In part, it was Hollywood’s attraction that made Namath ask to be traded to the Los Angeles Rams last year. He lasted four dismal games as the starting quarterback and then was benched for a new golden boy, Rhodes scholar Pat Haden. Soon Namath fell to the third string and the loneliness of being a has-been enveloped him.
“He’s been a hero through high school, college and the pros,” says a friend, “and now it’s over.”
“I’m not looking back,” Namath, 34, says. But obviously it is not easy to look ahead, to Sundays alone in the fall.