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The Joe Namath Show

How Joe Namath--bad knees and all--won over a nation and changed the industry of football forever.

11:00 PM, Nov 18, 2004 • By STEPHEN BARBARA
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Namath: A Biography

Mark Kriegel

Viking, 480 pages, $27.95

ROUGHLY HALFWAY THROUGH his new biography of Joe Namath, Mark Kriegel writes, with uncharacteristic formality: "It is difficult to imagine an activity more deleterious to the human knee than professional football." In a book written in a vein of street lingo, one that seems to roll along with the buzzing lifestyle Namath led in his heyday, it is a statement that cuts to the heart of the matter of Namath's career. Like that other great New York icon of his era, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath had bad knees. Born with enormous gifts as an athlete--in high school he considered an offer to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals before choosing to join Alabama University's football program--Namath was prematurely aged at 23, forever one bad hit from the end of his career. More than the booze, the women, and the sheer glamorous fun of his life, it seems that the salient point about Namath is what he accomplished on those damaged knees. He won Super Bowl III with a New York Jets team representing what many considered an upstart league, the AFL. He broke numerous quarterbacking records of his time, earning himself a place in football's Hall of Fame. And along the way, he changed the game of football.

In relating Namath's life story, Kriegel has had the tricky task of finding the right note for his audience. For there is, to be sure, a wide difference in attitude between those who grew up with Namath as a boyhood idol, and those who have known Namath only as the tipsy figure notorious for a careless interview with NBC's Suzy Kolber ("I want to kiss you"). Kriegel has chosen, rather than a traditional biography, to create a thrilling rise-and-fall story of Namath's life.

JOE NAMATH was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, the home state of two other NFL legends, Joe Montana and Dan Marino. He came from a large Hungarian Catholic family of seven.

Though wispy and small in his youth, Namath was gifted with speed, grace, cunning, and a mean streak of competitiveness. Kriegel's pages on Namath's childhood are sprinkled with nostalgic tales related by boyhood companions, each testifying to the young quarterback's natural talent.

Kriegel is also keen to show Namath as a childhood rebel. We see him enraging his nun instructors, hustling kids in a downtown pool hall, and generally developing the great braggadocio that would later earn him so much fame. We also see Namath as a young Casanova here, maintaining a professional silence about his early conquests even to his closest male friends.

But Namath's youth was not all mischief and athletic glory. Kriegel argues, indeed, that the central event of Namath's childhood was the dissolution of his parents' marriage, which may have been the root of his famous detachment with women. Better to play it cool than to risk the unpleasantness love can bring.

A star quarterback in high school, Namath's college of choice was Maryland, but poor SAT scores left him ineligible for enrollment. He was finally recruited by Alabama University's football program, run then by the legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, a Southerner with an air of God-like authority. As a Yankee in hustler's duds and Italian shoes, Namath initially made a ridiculous impression on the Alabama campus. But he eventually won the affection of Bryant, his teammates, and, indeed, the whole state, as he became the school's stud quarterback, leading the Crimson Tide to an Orange Bowl victory in 1962 and a narrow Orange Bowl loss in 1964 (in an otherwise undefeated season). Under Bryant's guidance, Namath added substance to his risky quarterbacking style, learning that he could sometimes fool defenses by not using his tremendous arm.

Having achieved national recognition at Alabama, Namath was considered a top professional prospect as graduation drew near. But in his senior year he also suffered his first major injury. In a midseason game against North Carolina he went down, untouched, in the middle of a play, after his legs had simply given on him. He was later diagnosed with torn cartilage and ligaments in the knee. The injury forced him to endure a weekly routine of blood and fluid extraction that would persist throughout his professional career.

Hurt knee aside, Namath signed what was then the most lucrative contract in football history, when the New York Jets offered him $427,000 for three years. The deal had been put together by Sonny Werblin, a legendary MCA agent who brought his expertise of the entertainment world to his ownership of the Jets. Knowing that fans would pay top dollar to see the flashy young quarterback, and relying on a shrewd use of the media, he left stodgier NFL competitors behind. That same year (1965), Namath was honored as the AFL's Rookie of the Year.