Green: Fifty years later, legend of Joe Namath lives on

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News
It's been 50 years since Joe Namath held that famous poolside chat with reporters ahead of the Super Bowl.

Atlanta — The character in the plaid bathing shorts ambled toward the swimming pool, stripped off his shirt, and plopped down on a chaise longue, ignoring his admirers.  

“There he is,” I muttered to myself as I spied him through the overlooking windows.

Joe Namath, for the second day, was defying the commands of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, and skipping a mandatory press session.

We were at Super Bowl III a half-century ago, and Namath was the most controversial — and most compelling — athlete in America. He was a swinger, a carouser, a charmer, a braggart.

And he had clammed up.

Weeb Ewbank, coach of the American Football League’s New York Jets, was at the podium extolling the attributes of Namath and his underdog team, for the Super Bowl journalists.

And there was Namath sunning himself.                               

I kept looking out the window. A sports journalist from a rival newspaper went up to Namath and tried to ask a question. Namath shooed the guy away.

Moments later Si Burick, the Dayton sports columnist, approached me with a whisper.

“Joe’s agreed the speak to a few of us. Are you interested?"

“Are you kidding me (not exactly my words)?” I responded.

A half dozen of us slipped out of the NFL’s orchestrated press conference at the Galt Ocean Hotel in Fort Lauderdale and went to the pool. We formed a semi-circle around Namath — Broadway Joe — and flipped the questions we had been aching to ask.

He grinned and was just another guy named Joe. Well-wishing fans hung over his shoulders and gawked. A young woman in a bathing suit received an autograph.

“Somebody wrote I was fined for drinking J&B Scotch,” Namath said with the sunlight glaring off his bare chest. “Hell, I don’t even drink J&B ... unless they run out of Johnnie Walker Red.

"I was fined for missing the picture session.”

Fifty bucks, by Rozelle.

“They’ve got 10,000 pictures of us, why do they need more than that?” Namath said poolside that January morning 50 years ago.

He grinned ... grinned a lot.

His Jets were 18-point underdogs to the mighty Baltimore Colts, champions of the haughty NFL, the established league. Rozelle and the NFL owners had agreed to a merger with the supposedly upstart AFL to end a bidding war for athletes.

Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers had clobbered the AFL’s champions in Super Bowls I and II. We the press regarded the NFL as superior, dominant — and Don Shula’s Colts, we figured, were invincible.

But Joe Namath, in New York, had downgraded the NFL and the Colts’ Earl Morrall. His boasts had been blasted across North America.

Joe Namath led the Jets to a stunning victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III.

“We have four or five passers better,” Namath had been quoted as bragging.

Then, after arriving in Fort Lauderdale for Super Bowl III, Namath hit a bar and had gotten into a loud argument with the Colts’ Lou Michaels and a few NFL teammates. Namath maintained the Jets were the better team. It nearly evolved into a brawl.

Peace was established when Namath picked up the tab.

“When we won the AFL championship, a lot of people thanked the wives,” Namath had said before Super Bowl III. “I’d like to thank all the single girls in New York. They deserve just as much credit.”

To those of based outside of New York, accepting the NFL’s superiority, Namath was known more for his nocturnal frolics than his abilities as a quarterback.

And now, 50 years ago he was bragging poolside to group of writers from NFL bastions — Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Cleveland — about how the Jets would beat the Colts.

I was too engrossed to hear the click of the camera — or to see the photographer. But from this very public spectacle emerged the most famous photograph of now 53 Super Bowl weeks.

It was shot by Sports Illustrated’s Walter Iooss, himself now one of the very few  journalists to cover all previous 52 Super Bowls.

The photograph has been republished and republished again in journals and newspapers around the world. The multi-talented Detroit writer Bill Dow told me Sunday that he saw Iooss’ memorable photo in a sports photography display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In that photo, the guy in the horn-rimmed glasses and the crewcut looks familiar from 1969 views into the mirror.

Today, as the prelude to Super Bowl LIII starts with a clank of symbols and cannon blasts of publicity, Joe Namath is the guy who singularly made all this happen. He did not, as had been mistakenly reported through the years, issue his indelible guarantee of a Jets victory to the NFL types at poolside 50 years ago. He did that two days later at a dinner of the Miami Touchdown Club.

“We’re going to win Sunday,” he said he told his audience. “I guarantee you."

And that Sunday — Jets 16, Colts 7 — after interviewing Joe in his BVDs in his victorious locker room — I sat writing in the Orange Bowl press box when I glanced down to the field.

There Joe Namath was again disappearing into the night with a police escort and ladies on each of his arms.

He revamped pro football that Sunday when he delivered on his guarantee. The AFL was grumpily accepted into the NFL as equals.

Under Rozelle’s guidance — with Namath as the catalyst — pro football developed into America’s most popular sport, followed around the globe.

Next Sunday, at Super Bowl LIII, the Rams and Patriots will compete in our nation’s premier sporting event. Millions will watch on TV. Hotel rooms here in Atlanta will be occupied by the most affluent of fans for $1,000 a night.

And now, with a mere half-century gone bye, Joe Namath is interviewed in the current issue of the AARP Bulletin — the American Association of Retired People’s publication.

“I was angry when I said that,” Namath revealed about his guarantee in the AARP piece.

Just one of us old folks, hanging on.

Jerry Green, a retired sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.