They called him Broadway Joe for his love of New York’s nightlife. He came from Beaver Falls Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh where so many great football players hailed from. He played for Bear Bryant at Alabama. He was picked after the Orange Bowl, twelfth in the NFL draft, but first for the AFL. He chose the AFL and the New York Jets.
He was the first professional quarterback to pass for 4000 yards in one season (1967). He was a four-time American Football League All-Star though he was constantly nagged by knee injuries.
The highpoint of his career, and our lives at New York Football fans was his performance in Super Bowl III when the Jets played the storied Baltimore Colts. The Colts were mentioned as the greatest football team in history, and the NFL players regularly ridiculed the AFL Jets.
But three days before the big game, Broadway Joe did what all New Yorker’s love. He showed pure confidence and bravado. Tired of all the talk about how great the NFL was as compared to the AFL and specifically the Colts vs the Jets, he responded to a heckler at a press conference in Miami. That hecklers name is lost to history but we owe him a debt of gratitude, because Broadway Joe rose to the occasion and stated simply, with no trace of irony, “We’re going to win the game. I guarantee it”.
The press in New York went ballistic (as I am sure it did in Baltimore). There he was, handsome, confident, totally sure of his abilities and his teammates, and overnight if you didn’t love him already, you did then. That was the epitome of New York style; when told of all the odds against you, you respond…fuck you…I got this.
And he did.
In the game, he backed up his boast. The Colts couldn’t contain the Jets on any level. They gave up four interceptions to the Jets and Namath completed eight passes to George Sauer alone for 133 yards.
His guarantee became legend.
After the game, when asked if the Colts defense was the toughest he had ever faced, he calmly and honestly replied that no, that would be the Buffalo Bills, they were much tougher. This guy was made for New York City. He was everything the city was about, and everything every young male wanted to be. He wore white Adidas shoes, when everyone else was wearing black. Sales went through the roof for the shoe manufacturer. Don and I had to have a pair.
Now I was a bit young at the time, but I saw the fever that Namath ignited in my older brother. This was pay back time for all the insults and comments the league had made about the start-up franchise. And though we would always love the Giants, and still do, this was something really special.
At the time we had a small Admiral black and white television that could hardly accommodate four people watching a football game. So we found ourselves at Aunt Mildred’s apartment on Charles Street as she was one of the few people we knew that already had a color television. We watched that game like our lives depended on it. I thought Don was going to have a coronary a couple of times; he always took spectator sports so seriously; more than I ever could, and when I would ask about a procedural call, he would interrupt his nail-biting to quickly explain things to me.
Namath went on to more fame and fortune as we all know, and his exploits on and off the field are the stuff of magic, at least on the streets of the forgotten New York I knew. There may have been better Quarterbacks statistically, but no one, absolutely no one had that kind of style. There is a famous video of Namath walking off the field after the game, his right hand raised, finger pointed….Number One…the best of the best …the New York Jets, a wake up call for the National Football League. It was unheard of, not just winning the game against the heavily favored Colts, but guaranteeing it beforehand. That was Broadway Joe Cool.
We all believed he won it for us, his fellow New Yorkers, and though he was from Steeler country, and played college down south, we knew he was one of us.
It just didn’t get any better for a kid growing up on the cobblestone streets of the greatest city in the world.