Wednesday, January 14, 2015

In January 1965, Crimson Tide’s Namath Began Transformation into “Broadway Joe”

On January 2, 1965, Joe Namath, star quarterback of the Alabama Crimson Tide, signed a contract to play professional football with the AFL’s New York Jets. Certainly, numerous other college players from around the country were signing contracts with AFL and NFL teams as that new year began, but Namath’s was indeed unique. The terms of the deal were astonishing for the time—a three year, no-cut, no-trade agreement that was valued at $427,000, and which included a brand new Lincoln Continental convertible that was custom painted New York Jets green. The 400K figure was not only the largest in the history of professional football; it was, by far, the most money ever paid to an individual in a team sport. By comparison, the average salary that year in the AFL was somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000. Even Major League Baseball legend Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankee’s 3-time MVP award winner, made only $100,000 in 1964.

The reason for Namath’s big contract could only be partially traced back to his prowess on the football field. True, Namath had quarterbacked the Crimson Tide to a record of 29-4 during his three seasons, including a 1964 National Championship, but he was never a Heisman Trophy winner or even an All-American. Plus, he had a badly damaged right knee that had limited his playing time throughout much of his senior year. Whatever Namath was lacking in terms of formal accolades and awards, however, he more than made up for with his personality. Handsome and charismatic, he possessed a smooth self-confidence that belied his age and small town upbringing. Those attributes, along with an amazingly quick release on his passes, a superb ability to throw an accurate deep ball, and an uncanny propensity in finding the open receiver, made Namath a hot commodity in the winter of ’64-’65.

Among the many people he met who admired the aforementioned qualities was David Abraham “Sonny” Werblin, President and part owner of the New York Jets. Although Werblin had headed up a group that bought the Jets in 1963, his background was not in professional football. Instead, Werblin had made his name, as well as a lot of money, as the premier talent agent for the Music Corporation of America (MCA). In that capacity, he was influential in managing the careers of some of the most recognized entertainers of the 20th century, including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Benny, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Gene Kelly, and Ed Sullivan. So, Werblin not only had the rare gift of being able to identify a budding star, he also had the knowledge and skills necessary to make that star into a celebrity. Having maneuvered his way successfully through Hollywood, Werblin wanted to make a similar mark on football. With the New York Jets providing the proper stage, all Werblin needed to complete the production was someone to fill the role of leading man.

As it turned out, Werblin got his man, the Jets got their star, and professional football would soon have its celebrity. In the early summer of 1965, in an attempt to garner further publicity for his prized signee, Werblin arranged for Namath to be photographed for Sports Illustrated. One of the resulting images graced the magazine’s cover on the issue dated July 19. Standing at the intersection of 7th Avenue and Broadway in the middle of Manhattan, Namath is wearing his Jets uniform and flashing an easy going smile. Although nowhere on the cover, nor in the accompanying article, is the phrase “Broadway Joe” used, his Jet’s teammates thought it an appropriate moniker and so the nickname stuck. As the '60s progressed, Namath would gladly grow into the superstar role that was implied by the nickname, becoming first a fixture on New York City’s late night social scene, and later appearing in numerous magazine ads, TV commercials and shows, stage productions, and motion pictures. Oh, and along the way, he quarterbacked the Jets to an historic victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III after boldly predicting the outcome to the news media a week before the contest. Due in large part to these exploits, professional football would, as the decades went by, become not only a multi-billion dollar global industry, but also a cultural phenomenon whose influence stretches well beyond the playing field. All told, then, I guess Werblin and the Jets made a pretty good deal.

Several books available at the Birmingham Public Library are helpful in detailing Joe Namath’s life and his impact on professional sports. Although it was written without its subject’s cooperation, Mark Kriegel’s Namath: A Biography is still the most complete account of the quarterback’s journey from childhood all the way to his post-AFL/NFL career. An autobiography published in 2006, Namath, is especially noteworthy because of the copious photographs and a NFL Network produced documentary DVD. Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie's Last Quarter provides the most comprehensive look at Namath’s years at the University of Alabama.

Jim Murray
Business, Science and Technology DepartmentCentral Library

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