There have been numerous instances in NFL history where an athlete has made a bold prediction only to have it backfire.
Coaches typically call these proclamations “bulletin board material” and ask their players to refrain from delivering such statements.
Such a warning wouldn’t have mattered to Joe Namath.
— Brian Costello (@BrianCoz) May 31, 2021
The former New York Jets quarterback stirred the pot when he predicted that New York would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Most sports fans chuckled at such nonsense as the Colts were from the far superior NFL while the Jets played in the American Football League.
However, Namath made good on his promise and New York came away with one of the biggest upsets in league history.
This was nothing new for Namath.
He had long established a self assurance in himself and his ability to play quarterback that rubbed off on his teammates.
Namath’s calm, cool demeanor not only brought him sports accolades but opportunities in television and in movies.
This is the story of Joe Namath.
Early Life in Beaver Falls
Joseph William Namath was born on May 31, 1943 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
Joe Willie: Joe Namath was born May 31, 1943 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. All best wishes to him today. pic.twitter.com/bO7ys2TVeX
— Patrick Kerin (@PatrickKerin1) May 31, 2017
The town, located only a few dozen miles from Pittsburgh, has long been known to produce good athletes.
Namath was no different.
While at Beaver Falls High School, he played basketball, baseball, and football.
He was flashy on the basketball court and would occasionally dunk during a time when such a thing was rare.
Namath did well on the diamond and was eventually offered a $50,000 bonus by the Chicago Cubs to join their organization.
The Cubs were one of six teams that wanted Namath’s services. Instead, he turned them all down.
It was on the gridiron that Namath excelled.
As a senior, he led Beaver Falls to a 9-0 record and a state championship.
When it came time to graduate, Namath briefly thought about playing for the nearby Pittsburgh Pirates.
He loved watching Pirates star Roberto Clemente and thought it would be fun to play on the same team as his idol.
However, Namath’s mother wanted her son to get a college education.
There was no shortage of suitors. At first, Namath thought he would like to play at Notre Dame.
When he found out there were no female students at the school, (a policy that changed in 1972), Namath kept looking.
He liked the University of Maryland, but his scores on the college board exams weren’t good enough for the school.
Thankfully, Maryland’s coach, Tom Nugent, knew Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama and put in a good word for Namath.
In turn, Bryant sent his top assistant, Howard Schnellenberger, to visit the Namath’s.
Former Miami Hurricanes national championship coach, Howard Schnellenberger has passed away.
Schnellenberger was an offensive coordinator for Alabama under Paul "Bear" Bryant and is famous for recruiting Joe Namath from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania to Tuscaloosa. pic.twitter.com/nWYw0xTv7e
— Touchdown Alabama (@TDAlabamaMag) March 27, 2021
By the end of Schnellenberger’s visit, Namath’s mother was convinced Alabama was the place to play.
“…my mother liked the way that Howard Schnellenberger presented himself and she wanted me to go to college,” Namath recalled in 2017. “And by gosh, she went upstairs, packed a bag that you could put under the seat in front of you on an airplane and said, ‘Here you are, coach. Go ahead and take him.’ Gave me a five-dollar bill and said, ‘Take him.'”
Culture Shock in the Deep South
Namath arrived in Alabama in 1961 not quite sure what to expect. Bryant made an impression on the new recruits immediately.
“When we first met coach Bryant, he was hard, he was tough to understand, except he did tell us, my freshman class, he told us, ‘Look, I’m going to teach ya’ll how to keep from beating yourselves. We’re going to win here, and you’re going to learn how to keep from beating yourselves,” Namath said in 2017.
While he was learning the ropes as a freshman in ‘61, Namath was also challenged by the severe racial tensions that were evident all around him.
Growing up in Beaver Falls, the Namath’s lived in an area where there were numerous black families.
He had many black friends in school and sharing facilities and accommodations with his black classmates and teammates was not an issue.
That wasn’t the case in the South.
“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,” Namath told Playboy Magazine in 1969.
Namath would be chided by teammates when he defended black teammates or others of color.
Eventually, he earned respect from his peers and became a leader of the Crimson Tide team.
As a sophomore, Namath became the starting quarterback for ‘Bama and led the team to a 10-1 record and a shutout over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Joe Namath as a sophomore at Alabama. Fame was heading his way pic.twitter.com/1BhCe0PET1
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) July 18, 2019
The 1962 season would actually be Namath’s best statistically. He passed for 1,192 yards, 13 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
Namath also rushed the ball 70 times for 229 yards and four scores.
Namath and the Tide Win the National Championship
In 1963, Namath helped lead Alabama to a 9-2 record.
That season, he passed for 765 yards, seven touchdowns, and seven picks.
He also had 201 rushing yards and five more scores.
Even under the strict Bryant, Namath was known to go his own way while in Tuscaloosa.
— Sidelines – Bama (@SSN_Alabama) August 23, 2021
Late in the ‘63 season, he was caught breaking curfew.
That led Bryant to suspend Namath for the regular season finale against Miami as well as the Sugar Bowl against Ole Miss.
Namath returned to action for his senior year in 1964. He would throw for 756 yards, four touchdowns, and five picks.
Namath also added 133 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
In a game against North Carolina State, Namath was rolling out for a pass when his right knee collapsed after he came to a quick stop.
Two weeks later against Florida, the same knee buckled again.
Later in the season, while preparing for the Orange Bowl against Texas, Namath hurt the knee for a third time.
At that point, Bryant thought it best to keep his signal caller sidelined for the bowl game.
However, by the second quarter, the Tide was down 14-0 and Bryant put Namath in the game.
Not long after, Namath found Wayne Trimble for a touchdown to cut the Longhorns’ lead.
Despite Namath’s best efforts (he would be named the game’s MVP), Alabama would lose the contest 21-17.
At the time, the National Championship was awarded at the end of the college regular season.
The Tide finished their regular season 10-0 and were given the title before playing Texas.
Namath finished his ‘Bama career with 2,713 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, 563 rushing yards, and 15 rushing touchdowns.
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) May 12, 2018
He also posted a 29-4 record during his three years as a starter.
Many years later, Bryant would call Namath, “the greatest athlete I ever coached.”
“Broadway Joe” is Signed by the Jets
Although Namath had a balky right knee, teams from the NFL and the AFL were interested in signing him.
He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL and the New York Jets of the AFL.
Namath was easily swayed by the bright light of New York City as well as the three-year, $427,000 contract the Jets offered him.
“Namath has the presence of a star,” then Jets owner Sonny Werblin said. “You know how a real star lights up the room when he comes in. Joe has that quality.”
The contract amount was the highest ever in the league and was scoffed at by many of the NFL’s old guard such as Vince Lombardi.
Namath’s arrival in New York was huge news and brought Sports Illustrated to town.
In a July, 1965 issue, Namath appeared on the cover with Broadway behind him and the heading “Football Goes Show Biz.”
— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) July 19, 2018
The same day the SI issue hit newsstands, Namath was at practice and was teased by his new teammates, which gave birth to a nickname.
“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,” Namath said in 1969.
In his rookie year, Jets coach Weeb Ewbank took his time developing Namath, who would only start nine games for the 5-8-1 team.
He would play well, delivering the five wins after an 0-6 start and passing for 2,220 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.
Namath was voted to the first of four AFL All-Star teams after the year and was also named the AFL’s Rookie of the Year.
Namath Lights Up the League
In 1966, Namath was named the Jets starter and established himself as one of the most prolific passers in the AFL.
That season, he threw for 3,379 yards (which led the AFL) and 19 touchdowns.
On the flip side, Namath tried to force the ball too often and also led the league in interceptions with 27 as New York went 6-6-2 for the year.
The Jets improved to 8-5-1 in 1967 while Namath torched opponents for a career best 4,007 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and 28 picks.
“I’m convinced I’m better than anybody else. I’ve been convinced of that for quite a while. I haven’t seen anything out there that I couldn’t do and do well…I get annoyed with myself for doing something wrong…I tell myself, ‘you’re the best, damn it, do it right,’” Namath declared.
Both his passing yards and interceptions again led the league.
Furthermore, Namath became the first professional quarterback to pass for over 4,000 yards in a season.
His record would not be broken until 1979 when San Diego’s Dan Fouts passed for 4,082 yards in a 16 game season.
As his fame grew from football, “Broadway Joe” was living up to his reputation off the field as well.
My 14 year old son wants wants a fur coat like Joe Namath for his birthday. Apparently he forgot he lives in Texas. @CoachKovachTX you're doing a great job teaching climate in W. Geography. pic.twitter.com/lq5JEaaJuT
— James Cammack (@JCammack51) March 10, 2022
He loved a good, stiff drink and enjoyed the company of women.
“I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde,” said Namath.
Super Bowl III
The Jets steady progression in the win column from 1965-’67 led to an exciting 1968 for the New York faithful.
Namath once again passed for over 3,000 yards along with 15 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
He was named First-team All-AFL as well as AFL MVP after the season.
Along with Namath, the Jets roster boasted the likes of running backs Emerson Boozer, Matt Snell, and receiver Don Maynard.
Through the first five games of the ‘68 season, New York was barely above .500 with a 3-2 record.
However, the team would catch fire and only lose one more game the rest of the year.
In the AFL Championship, the Jets outlasted the Oakland Raiders 27-23.
With the victory, it was on to Super Bowl III in Miami to face the best NFL team that season, the Baltimore Colts.
During the days leading up to the title game, the media primarily picked the Colts to win the game.
After all, the NFL’s Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls easily, outscoring their AFL opponents by a total of 68-24.
Additionally, the AFL was viewed as a gimmicky league full of an abundance of passing and high scores.
Therefore, the Jets’ 11-3 record was lightly regarded against the Colts’ 13-1 record.
Then Atlanta Falcons head coach Norm Van Brocklin summed up what most felt about Namath and the Jets’ chances.
“I’ll tell you what I think about Joe Namath on Sunday night—after he has played his first pro game,” teased Van Brocklin.
A few days before the Super Bowl, Namath was lounging by a pool at the Miami Touchdown Club surrounded by reporters.
Today in 1969, the AFL’s NY Jets pulled off one of the greatest upsets in football history, winning Super Bowl III over the NFL champion Baltimore Colts.
Joe Namath brashly ‘guaranteed’ the victory, which he happily discussed poolside before the game in Miami… pic.twitter.com/3PQoXmv1N8
— Steve Cortes (@CortesSteve) January 12, 2020
One of the media members ribbed Namath about the Jets’ chances against Baltimore.
Having answered countless questions on the same topic in the days prior, Namath had enough.
“We’re going to win Sunday. I guarantee you,” Namath declared to his questioner.
After the reporters recovered from their shock at Namath’s bold statement, the quote was relayed to Ewbank.
Ewbank would later joke that he “could have shot” Namath after hearing the news.
However, both the coach and his quarterback knew something particular about the Colts.
They realized during film study that Baltimore stayed with their base defense no matter what during the ‘68 season.
Namath also noted that he didn’t think Baltimore’s secondary could keep up with the Jets’ receivers.
He was right.
By halftime of Super Bowl III, the score was 7-0 in favor of New York.
It was 13-0, New York, after three quarters. Then, it was 16-0 shortly into the final quarter.
After throwing three interceptions in the contest, Baltimore starting quarterback Earl Morrall was replaced by longtime Colt Johnny Unitas.
Unitas promptly marched his team downfield and scored a touchdown. However, it was much too little, much too late.
The Jets won the game 16-7 and Namath was swarmed by teammates and the media.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) January 12, 2022
His prediction had come true as he passed for 206 yards and had an 83.3 quarterback rating.
Namath was named the game’s MVP and he also had the distinction of being the first quarterback to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl.
Injuries Plague Namath
Before the 1969 season began, Namath was ordered by the NFL to sell his stake in a New York nightclub called Bachelor’s III because it was frequented by gamblers.
— East Village Tours (@VillageTours) March 7, 2022
Namath would retire from football in protest.
However, he reconsidered weeks later, sold his share of the club, and returned to the Jets.
In 1969, Namath passed for over 2,700 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 17 picks as New York returned to the postseason but fell to Kansas City in the Divisional playoffs.
He would be named the league’s MVP for the second year in a row.
1970 would begin a difficult stretch for Namath.
He had avoided serious injuries during the first five years of his career.
However, Namath sustained a number of significant injuries between 1970 and 1973.
In 1970 and ‘71, he would start only eight combined games as New York went 4-10 and 6-8 respectively.
Namath returned to full strength in 1972 when he started 13 games and passed for 2,816 yards (which led the NFL), 19 touchdowns (which also led the league), and 21 interceptions as the Jets improved to 7-7.
“When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.”
– Joe Namath
— KY HIGH FOOTBALL 🏈 (@KYHighFootball) October 2, 2019
He would be voted to his only Pro Bowl after the season.
However, the injury bug reappeared in 1973 when he was limited to only five starts and New York fell to 4-10.
After the season, Ewbank stepped down as head coach and was replaced by Charlie Winner.
Unable to Re-capture the Magic
Namath kept the injuries at bay in 1974 and started every game while throwing for 2,616 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 22 picks.
New York finished 7-7 and Namath was voted the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
The following season, Namath only missed one game while passing for over 2,200 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions.
His interception marks in 1974 and ‘75 led the league.
The Jets couldn’t overcome his mistakes and cratered to 3-11.
1976 wasn’t any better as the Jets once again went 3-11 while Namath appeared in eight games and tossed a ghastly 16 picks to only four touchdowns.
Namath Heads West
By the end of the 1976 season, it was clear Namath’s best days were behind him.
The Jets knew it too and had selected Alabama’s Richard Todd in the 1976 draft to develop for the future.
Before the 1975 season, the Chicago Winds of the upstart World Football League tried to pry Namath away from New York.
However, when Namath’s contract demands proved too much, Chicago passed. The WFL folded months later.
Two years later, New York was ready for their former hero to leave.
He was waived by the club before the 1977 season.
Namath was then signed by the LA Rams and named the starter.
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) March 5, 2022
He began the year well, helping the team to a 2-1 start.
However, during a Week 4 game against Chicago, Namath was pounded repeatedly by the Bears defense and also threw four interceptions.
He was benched in favor of Pat Haden and would not play again the rest of the year.
Once the ‘77 season concluded, Namath retired.
In 13 seasons, Namath passed for 27,663 yards, 173 touchdowns, and 220 interceptions.
He was a Super Bowl champion and MVP, two-time AFL MVP, NFL Comeback Player of the Year, a four-time AFL-All-Star, a one-time First-team AFL All-Star, one-time Pro Bowler, a two-time AFL Passing Yards Leader, and a one-time NFL Passing Yards and Passing Touchdowns leader.
Namath would later be named to the AFL All-Time Team and be placed in the Jets’ Ring of Honor.
His jersey number (12) has also been retired by the team.
During his playing career, Namath appeared in several television commercials, shows, and movies.
His most memorable appearances were a Haynes pantyhose commercial and an ad where he shaved off his famous Fu Manchu mustache.
Namath would continue to do television work for the next several decades.
In 1985, Namath was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Today is Joe Namath's 77th birthday.
"Broadway Joe" is the New York Jets all-time leader in passing yards & passing TD.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. pic.twitter.com/alPBj5Uflo
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 31, 2020
In 2000, after 16 years of marriage, Namath would divorce his wife, Deborah Mays.
The marriage struggled initially while Namath battled alcoholism.
He was able to kick the habit for years while raising his two children, Jessica and Olivia.
However, after the divorce, Namath began drinking again.
His addiction caught up to him at the worst possible moment in 2003.
While attending a Jets game where the organization was announcing their all-time team, ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber asked Namath’s thoughts about the team’s struggles that year.
“I want to kiss you. I couldn’t care less about the team struggling,” said a visibly inebriated Namath to Kolber.
Though he would later apologize, the public backlash against Namath was fierce.
He would use the incident as a wake-up call and entered an alcohol treatment program weeks later.
“I learned that I had used my divorce as an excuse to go back to drinking. That knowledge made me a stronger individual. . . To this day, I’m thankful, and I continue one day at a time. It’s not as big a challenge as it used to be, because it’s not a part of my life. I don’t even think about it,” said Namath in 2019.
In the past decade, Namath has maintained his aversion to alcohol.
He has spent time as an unofficial ambassador for the Jets and became a pitchman for insurance agency Medicare Coverage Helpline in 2018.
Although he has seen his share of highs and lows, Namath continues to be viewed as a lovable malcontent who did things his way and succeeded.
“He was a guy that came along and broke a lot of the conventions. He was like a rebel with a cause,” said former teammate John Dockery.