Joe Namath, Frank Namath, Dave Anderson, Linwood Alford, Sal Marchiano, Fred Dryer, Liev Schreiber (narrator)
(HBO Documentary Films)
HBO: 28 Jan 2012
“I looked over to the sideline, and there stood this fellow in a little sport coat and a tie, and a small hat with a feather in it, and he had a toothpick in his mouth,” remembers former Crimson Tide center Gaylon McCollough. “And I said, ‘Who is that character?’” Told that Joe Namath was his new quarterback, McCollough laughed and said, “He’ll last here about two weeks at the most.”
McCollough’s memory comes early in Namath, and it helps to set up the documentary’s fundamental argument, namely, the generally unassailable claim that Joe Namath changed the game. Specifically, he helped to changed the professional game, which happened to be restructuring as he came into it: he was crucial to the brief and tumultuous life of the AFL (1960-1969). But more broadly, Namath helped to change the place of professional football players in popular culture. As his former Rams teammate and fellow actor Fred Dryer puts it, “That guy was very, very important to the game of football, as a cultural icon, how he brought professional football into the television era, and a whole degree of excitement.”
This excitement is a function of Namath’s stardom, on and off the field. Photogenic, charismatic, and ever voluble, he always put on a good show. The film submits that his self-confidence stems from the tremendous support of his tiny hometown, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Repeatedly, the film returns to Beaver Falls, where neighbors extol his significance. “What he did was actually put Beaver Falls on the map,” says his friend Linwood Alford.
Never mind if you’re not sure where Beaver Falls is on the map. Namath early on determined he was meant to leave town. His dad worked in a steel mill, Namath remembers, and after he saw the place when he was just 11 years old (here the film includes footage of belching flames and loud noise), he knew, “I’m never gonna come here.” Instead, he excelled at baseball and football, emulating his favorite player, Johnny Unitas. “He had the prettiest legs I’d ever seen on a human guy,” says his friend Wibby Glover, adding, “He liked to look cool.” Here the film provides a photo of teenaged Joe with styling sunglasses.
He looked cool on the field too. Though it was during his time at Alabama that Namath first injured a knee, as starting quarterback for Bear Bryant, from 1962-1964, he led Alabama to a 29-4 record over three seasons. He also careened from greatness to catastrophe to greatness, brilliant on the field, suspended for the 1963 season’s final two games when he was caught drinking at a party, and the winning the National Championship in 1964. He was also on campus when the National Guard forced Governor George Wallace to step aside to allow the entrance of Vivian Malone and James Hood, the University’s first black students. “Those of us that understood had goosebumps,” says Namath now, “And there was a big change.”
The moment barely sinks in before the film cuts back to Namath’s brilliant career (“He was like trying to tackle the wind,” says McCollough). By the time he and his agent Jimmy Walsh negotiated an unprecedented contact for his rookie year with the Jets—a package that totaled $427,000 and included a green Lincoln Continental Convertible—Namath was ready to be Broadway Joe. In case you’ve forgotten how pretty Namath was during the ‘60s, Namath offers an impressive array of images and testimonies, including Namath’s own.
Namath entered camp as the darling of owner Sonny Werblin (“I was his pet project,” says Namath), that is, he had a “target on his back.” But he delivered on the field: he was the AFL’s 1965 Rookie of the Year and in 1967, he was the first quarterback in either league to pass for over 4,000 yards. Vince Lombardi called him a “perfect passer,” and assistant coach Ken Meyer remembers, “You could hear the whoosh when the ball left his hand. And that is not kidding.” In an archival interview, Namath explains, “I think mentally, throwing the football, well, I feel confident I can play better than anybody that’s ever played the position.”
That confidence led, of course, to the team’s upset of the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Superbowl. The film spends a little time on that game (though this makes you wish the rest of it included more attention to football footage per se). But most of the narrative is premised on the media hype and the Namath promise, as these are remembered by his teammates as well as by the Colts’ middle linebacker Mike Curtis: “We heard all that and we knew there was a lot of show business going on. We didn’t have anything we had to prove, we just sort of laughed at it.” With this win, he was deemed MVP and, observes narrator Liev Schreiber, “A star worthy of center stage.”
That position came with trouble, of course. Following the Superbowl triumph, Namath’s career took a number of turns, most having to do with his famously fragile knees and equally famous party lifestyle. While Namath notes his tussle with Commissioner Pete Rozelle (over Namath’s part-ownership of the nightclub Bachelors III) as well as his struggles to keep upright (the many treatments of his knees were prodigious, and the scars, you see here in close-ups, impressive). Most of this leads to superficial explanations of his drinking, framed by his 13 years of sobriety during his marriage and the notorious interview with Suzy Kolber (which she regrets, as “A really good guy having a bad moment that happened to be captured on national television”).
The movie provides further framing in the form of Namath’s background, the effects of his father leaving the family when he was a boy (“It stayed with me, it influenced my life”) and his daughter Jessica’s assessment of the difficulty of his divorce. As this interview—and his much publicized alcoholism—are central to Namath’s story, the celebrity he cultivated and that was also thrust upon him, they’re also central to Namath. But as the film ends with images of the young quarterback in action, you’re reminded of how Broadway Joe came to change the game.