How many times in life does something exceed your expectations? On January 12, 1969, an extremely confident former University of Alabama quarterback demonstrated how an underdog could forever capture the hearts of the American public with an MVP performance in winning Super Bowl III as a member of the New York Jets. The book "Namath" by Joe Namath details the high school, college, and professional football career of a small town western Pennsylvania boy who traveled south to Tuscaloosa and developed a life long bond with the legendary University of Alabama Coach Bryant. Accompanying the book is a DVD entitled "The Legend of Broadway Joe". The front cover jacket is the green and white helmet of the New York Jets and the back is a crimson colored helmet with the familiar number 12.
On a Thursday afternoon in November via the telephone, we talked with Joe who was in Tuscaloosa, about his days at Alabama, boyhood heroes, friendships and some of the lessons learned that continue to be a source of strength as he faces life's issues.
Arnold P. Steadham: Why did you choose to write this book?
Joe Namath: It was the idea of a fellow from western Pennsylvania who works with Rugged Land Books (publisher). He showed me a book they had done on Brett Favre and a book they had done on Walter Payton. I was just taken by the quality of the books. Those are a couple of outstanding individuals. The four books that I have worked on I have intended for them to be read by anyone including children. They're hard core football books about my life and all. It's the kind of book that a parent can read to a child. The child can look at it and view the DVD. It can be in school libraries or with the Jet fans or Bama fans. It's me.
APS: Why do you choose to author the book?
JN: Over the years I've learned that very little gets done on your own; it takes a team effort. It sounds corny but those are the facts of life. If you're lucky enough to work shoulder to shoulder with people that are quality folks and have the right thing in mind then you can feel good about your work and that's why I did the book. I like these people and I wanted to work with them because of what I had seen earlier and their sincerity in doing the book.
APS: Even when you were young, you had that air of confidence. The example I site is the fact that your High School coach, Larry Bruno, was concerned that your left shoulder was separated and questioned you before the Butler game about your ability to punt. You replied "Don't worry about it, Coach. We won't have to punt".
JN: That's right (laughing). We had a good team and I honest to God felt that way. We didn't have to punt. I was confident in our team. I've been on teams as a youngster and even as a professional that weren't as efficient as we needed to be. I knew our team. You're darn right. I was confident in our team.
APS: You had a very unique attitude that you developed early in life about accepting pain. You also mentioned in the book about the USO tour to Viet Nam after Super Bowl III.
JN: Everything starts at home in my opinion. Now things get changed throughout life with experiences. My folks always made me appreciate my god given health. That USO tour had a big influence on me. Here I was at twenty five and they all looked liked kids. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen year old kids. Guys without legs and without arms. Even in the burn wards. If you didn't already know that old saying about the guy complaining because he didn't have shoes until he saw the guy without feet, then you sure had to learn something from a trip like that visiting those guys. I always counted my blessings. Having three older brothers, I didn't have the luxury of complaining much about bumps and bruises.
APS: Coming from Pennsylvania to Alabama, what were your expectations athletically and about being in the state?
JN: Had none. I had no expectations whatsoever. I didn't want to play football. I didn't want to go to college. I wanted to play baseball. I didn't have the best of attitude going down there but again the way the family decided that's what I was supposed to do. I felt good about going to play football somewhere. I wasn't afraid because I had confidence in my talent in being able to play no matter where. My heart wasn't in it early on, I don't believe. Being around Coach Bryant and the rest of the guys, though, that didn't last long. My attitude turned into a darn good attitude quickly. It was because and I have learned this throughout life, because of the people I was around at that time. When your eighteen years old, you may not feel like you need some kind of guidance that's offered to you but boy when you look back at how you were at eighteen, nineteen once you've turned thirty, forty, fifty, you say, whoa (laughing), am I glad I had that discipline. Am I glad I had those guys looking after me. That's what happened. I got down here to Alabama from Pennsylvania and Coach Bryant promised my family he'd look after me. He did that with everyone's children and with every parent. He did. Those are the times you had curfews even in the off season. You had to be in that dorm 11 o'clock at night throughout the week, all the time. He protected his guys. He really did. He knew more about things going on, off the field distractions than any of us. He was able to help us grow and protect us at the same time from our own ignorance.
APS: What was the game that you played and learned the most from Coach Bryant?
JN: I would be hard pressed to pick one thing right now. Each game was a learning experience. Each game, especially at that age you pick up some new things along the way. Coach Bryant had his way of communicating with the team. I can remember the first time, my sophomore year, we were behind at halftime. And I mean we were just scared to death. That locker room was so quiet. Coach Bryant hadn't come in yet. Miami was beating us 3-0. George Mira was the quarterback and they had a pretty good team in 1962. Everything was stone quiet and then a boom, an explosion. Coach Bryant had hit that door from the other side and it just flew open. He came walking in there fast and he stood. We were just as quiet as we could be. He started clapping his hands and he said, "They done had their fun, now we're going out and have ours." You talk about a team exploding at halftime. I mean exploding. We went out and score 36 unanswered points. Thirty six to three we beat them. Coach Bryant's genius was working with his team, communicating with his team. Knowing how to get them right and ready. Bounce back and things like that. There were so many things in games with Coach Bryant that I reflect on even today. We're getting ready to play a game and Coach Bryant told me, Joe I want you to throw that football more than you've ever thrown in your life. Hell son, I don't care if you throw it twenty times. Now twenty times at that time sounded like a big number. The quarterbacks were calling all the plays. He was telling me to go ahead and call more passes. Well, we end up winning that game, 44-6 and I believe I threw six passes. He was terrific. Coach Bryant insisted upon us all attending class, which we did. We were very good at it because if we didn't, we had to go meet Coach Bryant in his office at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning or whatever time he said. He would ask us why we were misbehaving and then we would go with another coach out to the field and get some exercise. The athletic department, especially the football players, probably had the best attendance record on campus. Coach Bryant said, "I can't make y'all learn but by god I can make you go to class and try." And he did (laughing).
APS: What is your relationship with all the former Alabama quarterbacks?
JN: It feels like we're all part of the same team. It sincerely feels that way. When Richard Todd and I crossed paths, yes, we were teammates with the Jets but we were at Alabama. It's the Alabama family. Jay Barker, he didn't play for the Jets but when we cross paths, we talk. One of the best kept secrets is Jeff Rutledge. Jeff played longer Pro ball than any of us. Jeff lasted fifteen years or so in the big league. He was a heck of a quarterback. It is a oneness. You become a part of a tradition. You respect it. Each guy that wears that crimson and goes thru the university wearing that crimson is a special guy.
APS: When you were a member of the AFL and talked with other former Alabama players in the NFL such as Leroy Jordan and Ray Perkins, were you able to convince them that the AFL was a good league?
JN: Never tried. Leroy, Ray, none of us ever talked about it. Alabama came first to us then, in a sense. We knew where we came from and who we played ball with and for. That family was never separated. We were on different teams, Leroy in Dallas and Ray in Baltimore. Raymond and I never have talked about the Super Bowl game that I can recall. There doesn't need to be anything said about it. And then they (Baltimore Colts) turn around and win two years later. Raymond was on a Super Bowl champion. He won the championship and achieved a goal at that level. So that was good.
APS: Have you been pursuing your degree at the university?
JN: I'm so close. It's so frustrating. In fact, I am doing some work today and tomorrow. I'm on my senior project. I am going to try and have it accomplished for this spring. If I don't then I'm going to get it done for the fall but its going to get done.
APS: How hard did you have to recruit your daughter (Jessica) to attend The University of Alabama?
JN: That was one of the surprising things to me. She picked it. I didn't do any recruiting in that case. I wanted her to go to school where she wanted to go to school. She's the one who chose the university. She'd been coming here every since she was a baby. She fell in love with the folks here (UA) and they certainly love her. They're so nice around here that she just felt great. So she's the one that chose it, I didn't.
APS: Who was the first person to start calling you, Joe Willie?
JN: I don't know whether if it was Mrs. Asbury (UA '26, befriend Joe when he was a student). I sincerely don't know. In the south, there are a lot of two names. My middle name is William. It fit me. In fact, I like Willie.
APS: When did you start wearing the white shoes and were they really white shoes?
JN: I started taping my shoes my senior year. They weren't white shoes. Whenever I was a professional when I was with the Jets my rookie year, I showed up at practice and there were a pair of white shoes in my locker. The joke on the Jet team was that Coach (Weeb) Ewbank, was trying to save money on tape because he was the general manager too. I used to tape my shoes because they felt like they were one piece or a piece of me. Sometimes you get old shoes that turn over a little bit and they don't feel just quite as snug. When I did tape them I liked the looks too. I spat them down more or less before my senior season. I remember one of my teammates said, "Joe Willie, Coach Bryant's not going to let that go. He's going to get you." I said, what are you talking about? He replied, "Those shoes, you have white tape on those shoes." I really wasn't concerned and Coach Bryant never said a word. But that North Carolina State game, I some how got mixed up. I had forgotten to tape my shoes. I had my thigh pads in backwards. I can remember that. I was just discombobulated a bit before the game I guess.
APS: What are some of your favorite memories off the field at Alabama?
JN: My friendships. Everyone just opened their arms and welcomed me. It was like being at home even though I was in a different part of the world. I was happily surprised by how kind everyone was to me.
APS: What is your favorite story to tell about Coach Bryant?
JN: I have never been one to tell a lot of stories about Coach Bryant. If you didn't know him, see him, learn to understand him, you might get confused with some of the stories. He was trying his best to help us. He knew life was hard and tough. He wanted his guys to be ready to deal with it. It was the first time Coach Bryant and I had a communication where he knew me and I appreciated him. I was a sophomore and I wasn't playing well and in the first quarter of a game against Vanderbilt, I believe. He took me out and whenever I came off the field, I'd thrown my helmet down on the bench and I sat down. Coach Bryant came over and sat down beside me and he put his arm around me. He put his hand on my neck. Now it might have looked like he was trying to console me but Coach Bryant was telling me as he was squeezing my neck that if I ever conducted myself that way again around him or this football team, I would be back in Pennsylvania so fast I wouldn't know how I got there. At the time, we're in the middle of the game and I looked him in the eye. He's looking at me in the eye. He taught his men to look him in the eye because he wanted to communicate. I said, Coach I'm not angry at you or any of the other coaches, I'm angry at myself for playing so bad. And he just looked at me as he's squeezing my neck. And then that grip started loosening a bit on my neck. And he's still staring at me. Then he just nodded his head, like a yeah and got up and left. He understood me. My heart was in the game and what was going on. I wasn't thinking of being angry about anything. I was angry at myself for not playing well not for being taken out. He knew that and after awhile, he put me back in and things worked out. What impressed me was he was able to understand that's where I was coming from. I was angry at myself and not him. I never threw my helmet again either, by the way.
APS: Did you ever have a chance to sit down and talk to your boyhood hero, Johnny Unitas?
JN: Many times, yes. That was very special for me. When you're in high school or younger than high school age and you have been following a guy for some years, to be able to rub shoulders with him and talk to him, to like him and get along. It was very special. Being from western PA was a part of it. It happened to me also with Babe Parilli, a great quarterback in the NFL and the AFL and for Coach Bryant at Kentucky. Johnny (Unitas) left us too soon. That was a shame. The last time I saw Johnny, we were together with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and James Brown. We were dong a bit of work together. He looked good and was in the greatest of spirits. It was a couple of months later that he passed.
APS: Did you ever meet another boyhood hero, Roberto Clemente?
JN: I never did personally meet him. I used one of his bats one time. There was a tryout at Forbes Field (Pittsburgh). I was one of the guys picked to go there and try out. I grabbed one of his bats. They had some of his bats lying around. It was before my senior year in high school. I liked Roberto Clemente so much I used to try to act like him as a player. His mannerisms. Catching and throwing the ball, I used Roberto's techniques rather efficiently.
APS: Which former Alabama players do you keep in contact with the most?
JN: Richard Todd, I'd already mentioned. I see Marty Lyons quite a bit up in New York. A great guy and he's doing wonderful work up there. Lee Roy Jordan and I communicate pretty often. Billy Neighbors. I get to see Billy quite a bit. When I get down to Alabama, I end up getting to see guys I hadn't seen for a while too. I ran into a kid who played ball here. We were freshmen and he was out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I saw him in Virginia a couple of weeks ago. Jerry Hines. I hadn't seen him for over forty years.
APS: Which former New York Jets do you keep in contact with the most?
JN: We don't often get together but when we do its like we haven't been apart. Don Maynard and I talk often. Billy Mathis, our old halfback, Winston Hill, John Dockery and I get to visit a lot. I see John Schmitt, my old center and Dave Herman, the former guard. Any time I'm in New York, I'm running into some of those guys. We have some get togethers in the off season that we're able to see one another.
APS: Don Maynard, the former Hall of Fame wide receiver, once said that the New York Jets passing game ran a system that was advanced.
JN: He's talking about routes and the way pass routes are run. Communication between quarterback and receiver, receiver and quarterback. Changing some things up in the middle of the play depending on the look of the defense and what's happening. Altering a route. Don, he's a Hall of Famer. He knows what he's talking about.
APS: What is your passion now?
JN: Life, health, love and good feelings. I don't like to feel bad. I like to see people smile. I like to feel good. I want my daughters (Jessica, 21 and Olivia, 15) to feel healthy and happy. That's my passion and desire. Fortunately I'm at a place in life where I can focus on it most of the time.
APS: When you have experienced the adversities in life, especially the past few years, has Coach Bryant's words of wisdom resonated with you in confronting those issues?
JN: I am doing great. Coach Bryant has given us many words of wisdom. But the words that come to mind are from the Prussian philosopher, Nietzsche, "that which does not destroy us, serves to make us stronger." I repeat that to this day many, many times. Things come up in life. I first utilized that a great deal when our family had to change (divorce). There's a lot of things that can happen but I love that quote. You've got to believe that there's going to be some good to come out of things when life gets tough.
APS: What would you tell people about football today?
JN: It's a wonderful sport. They ought to know that. Just look at the fan base. The sport itself needs to be applauded more than the players. Players are tough. It's a tough sport and you've got to want to play that sport. That's the reason so many people don't play it. It's tough, physically, mentally and emotionally. It's kind of like those words from Nietzsche, if you don't get killed playing football, you're going to be alright (laughing).
APS: What makes a good quarterback?
JN: A good team (laughing). A good team will make a pretty good quarterback look real good. Let me give you these two examples. There's a guy I think who could probably be in the Hall of Fame if he'd been on a good team in professional football even one year and that's a guy named Archie Manning. There's another guy that's been on a handful of teams right now that was quarterback on a Super Bowl team and won because he had a good team. That boy's name is Trent Dilfer. You remember the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. A whole lot of quarterbacks could have run that team (Ravens). Now I don't want to be misunderstood and take anything away from Trent Dilfer because he's the kind of guy that you want on your team. He's still playing. But this is an example. You can get a quarterback that's a pretty good quarterback and do very well with a good team. But you can get a real good quarterback and put him with a bad team and that real good quarterback like Archie Manning is not going to fare as well as he would with a team that's pretty good. So the best thing for a quarterback to have is a good team.
APS: What should people think about Joe Namath?
JN: They're going to think what they want to think anyway. I can't tell people what to think about me. After all of these years, I am confident that when they are thinking about me I think at least it's positive. Even when it gets to the tough times, like drinking and things. You deal with things in life. You don't run from them or hide from them. My situation with that is terrific at this point too. I'm just trying to do the best that I can in this wonderful life and sharing it because I know I don't do anything on my own except foul up.
APS: What do you try to teach the kids that attend your football camp?
JN: John Dockery (former New York Jet) and I started that camp years ago in 1971. We just finished our 35th straight summer. We use football to teach the kids about life. Football's a wonderful tool to use. Kids like to play football to learn what it takes in life as well. You have to own up to responsibilities. Your teammates next to you have their job. You have yours. You have to own up. People are counting on you. You're counting on them. You're going to make mistakes. Don't wallow in that pain. Accept it, feel it and then move on. Learn from mistakes. Don't hide from them or run from them. Football is a great teacher.
Sunday November 26th
Houston vs. Jets
10:30 AM – 12:30 PM at The Meadowlands
Monday November 27th
6:00 – 8:00 PM Joseph Beth Books ( Pittsburgh, PA)
Wednesday November 29th
6:00 – 8:00 PM Bookends (Ridgewood, NJ)
Thursday November 30th
1:00 – 3:00 PM Barnes and Noble Fifth Avenue (Manhattan, NY)
Friday December 1st
1:00 – 3:00 PM University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa, AL)
University Supply Store – Ferguson Center
Saturday December 2nd
3:00 – 6:00 PM Books-A-Million (Brookwood Village, Birmingham, AL)