Long before Michael Jordan routinely made the NBA finals his backyard invitational, long before Tiger Woods unleashed a boom in recreational golf, there was Joe Namath. The flamboyant quarterback of the New York Jets is credited with saving the beleaguered American Football League (which was in its death throes in its competition with the NFL), lifting a moribund franchise to prominence, and ushering in the era of the athlete as a television personality. And he did all this on a bum knee. And made a lot of money doing it.
Mark Kriegel tells the riveting story of a small town Pennsylvania boy who parlayed his preternatural talent for throwing a football into fame and fortune, only to see his personal life unravel in a long drawn out denouement. The book is both a biography of a great athlete and a social commentary of the times that put Namath atop a pedestal, albeit a pedestal made shaky by the quarterback’s penchant for self-destruction. Kriegel uses a multitude of sources to draw in fine detail Namath’s rise to prominence that culminated in his “guarantee” at Super Bowl III and his life after that seminal moment.
Namath’s story defies credibility. The son of a mill worker in a hardscrabble Pennsylvania town, Namath was a singularly talented athlete who had a $50,000 offer from the Chicago Cubs out of high school. Tutored by his brothers in the subtle art of throwing a football, Namath complemented his athletic ability with a cunning drawn from the streets. He parlayed his talent into a scholarship to the University of Alabama, where he played for the legendary coach Bear Bryant. He was a perfect fit for the New York Jets of the American Football League, a league that competed with the better-established National Football League and was a distant second in terms of revenues and public appeal.
Namath changed all that with his quarterbacking skills and his flamboyance. “Broadway Joe” took both the football world and the country in the palm of his hands and did what he pleased with them. He dated a dizzying succession of starlets, partied late every night, drank alcohol as if Prohibition was imminent, and brought tears to grown men by his exploits on the field. His signature moment was his guaranteeing victory for the underdog Jets against the mighty Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and following through on it.
This is by no means your ubiquitous one-dimensional, “the athlete as a paragon of all virtues” biography. Kriegel tells Namath’s tale holding nothing back. The hero is portrayed warts and all. Namath’s drinking and womanizing are described in vivid detail, and so is his constant manipulation of his teammates, managers, and owners. And yet, what emerges from this gripping narrative is a Namath whose athletic talent obscured a lonely boy who couldn’t ever come to terms with his parents’ divorce, and whose chronically painfully knees seemingly gave him a license to enjoy life before it was sure to be taken away.
Kriegel deftly juxtaposes the poignancy of Namath’s attachment to his mother with his exploits on and off the field to draw a sharply etched portrait of an athlete who is an icon to his generation and yet a sorry figure at the dawn of the new millennium. Kriegel’s biography of Joe Namath goes far beyond a typical sports icon’s life story. It is a sociological treatise of a singular moment in America’s modern cultural history. And a darned interesting read, too.