Legends and Legacies: Joe Namath

by Jake Kring-Schreifels
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HBO Sports and NFL Films latest documentary is on the iconic New York Jet Quarterback

New York Jet fans have grown accustomed to big guarantees over the last few years. Namely, Rex Ryan’s press conference promises about his team heading to the Super Bowl all of the last three years. None of them have come true however. It seems now that a guarantee is only a PR move, and usually a negative one, brazened confidence that lacks character and depth. But back in the Jets’ heyday, when a kid named “Broadway Joe” helmed the most important position in football, guarantees weren’t for show; they were for real.

In HBO Sports’ latest Legends and Legacies production Namath, which premieres tonight at 9, we look into the life of an icon, both on and off the gridiron. It provides a wrenching depiction of Joe Namath as he reflects back on his maverick career, his passionate and dynamic play at quarterback and his distinct personal life, both the highs and lows.

The feature begins in Namath’s hometown, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a small blue-collar town that just so happened to produce one of the toughest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Namath’s sensational career in high school was formed at an early age of discipline and competitiveness. Joe recalls his name in the paper as a kid for the first time, mentioned for his little league 2-4 batting performance. His brother Bob read it and said, “What happened those other two times?” These humbling words spirited Joe’s hungry work ethic. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, even amounting a .667 average for his varsity baseball team, while wearing out his brothers and sisters in the lawn, throwing football passes to them each day. His best attribute was at the quarterback position however, leading his squad to a State Championship his senior year.

College wasn’t even on his mind until the recruiters got a hold of him. He ended up at Alabama, a member of the Crimson Tide and student to the legendary Bear Bryant. There he became molded into a premiere college athlete, winning the National Championship at the next level, again in his senior year. That got him ready to become the richest athlete in the sports world, signing a contract worth over $400,000 with the AFL Jets. He had made it to the big time.

The film chronologically progresses through his life, juxtaposed against a planned 50th anniversary homecoming celebration for the 1961 State Championship football team. Besides former friends, agents, coaches, and family, the plot is interjected with his old town’s residents, recalling memories, and also looking forward to welcoming back their superstar. Conversations in barbershops and restaurants succinctly contrast footage and analysis of Namath’s past life of exuberance and often excess.

Mixed into his football accolades and incremental climb within the New York Jets’ organization, we find the origin of the name “Broadway Joe” and his “Captain Cool” persona. With his white shoes, fur coats, and long hair, “Joe was Mick Jagger in uniform,” laughs one of his teammates. His championship win over the Baltimore Colts, the one in which he “guaranteed” a victory, had catapulted him into celebrity status.

Namath doesn’t delve into as much of the racial tension and political warfare present in mid-sixties culture, but instead narrows in on Joe’s personal turbulent superstardom. His schedule became bound by his Hollywood status, popping up in movies and slipping on pantyhose for his numerous product endorsement deals (One even including a Conan O’Brien-esque beard shave). His fame and fortune had transformed the kid from Beaver Falls into the people Joe had vicariously lived through on-screen as a kid.

The story however doesn’t gloss over Joe’s disappointing junctures or personal trouble; rather, it delves into his strife just as much as it glorifies his triumph. His consistent bodily injuries and persistent pain opened up his alcoholic Achilles heel; a subject matter handled with particular gravitas and grace by the filmmakers. His frequent visits to bars and nightclubs and penchant to douse his hurt with liquid became a thorn in his side both privately and publicly.

We recall scenes like his Monday Night Football sideline interview with Suzy Kolber, a humiliating and “bad moment for a good guy,” says Kolber. Joe recounts his becoming a father and dutiful struggle to become sober for his kids. These memories seem etched into the cracks and crevasses of Joe’s now tired and worn face, commentating on every moment. He is the center of attention, metaphorically and quite literally, interviewed in the middle of his bare living room, staring into the camera with both remorse and fulfillment. Even the smooth, reverent voice of HBO narrator Liev Schreiber, anchored with expository prose from writer Ouisie Robsinon, must pause to let Joe catch up with his emotion.

It becomes more than a simple life story. It sheds light on the required character and depth needed for his bold promises. “We’re going to win Sunday.” Like his brother’s embedded humility, he transitions from “I” to “We,” from professional quarterback, to professional dad.

HBO concludes by rounding up its present pieces. An older, wiser Joe Namath comes back to his hometown, a flawed man, but revered in every way. A teammate remarked how he used to always say “it’s not how you fall down, it’s how you get up.” He is still considered Broadway Joe, the Quarterback that changed football for the New York Jets. But to his hometown, he is forever Beaver Falls Joe.

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