January 21, 2012 - 8:44 AM
The HBO documentary "Namath," which premieres Saturday night at 9, is definitely an authorized biography. The 68-year-old quarterback spent a lot of time with HBO producers, talking to the camera about his shooting-star career as a Super Bowl champion with the New York Jets.
Namath, sitting in his South Florida home, his famously rebuilt knees making it look like a chore for him to cross his legs, reminisces about many phases of his life, on the field and off. The camera also follows him back to his hometown of Beaver Falls, Pa., where he is honored as a returning hero.
The documentary doesn't shy away from asking Namath about some low points in his life: His bouts of heavy drinking, for example; his divorce, and the squeeze put on him by the NFL in 1970 to sell his interest in his Bachelors III night spot because gamblers and organized crime figures were known to gather there.
For all the access, however, it's hard to feel that you come away knowing the man behind Broadway Joe.
Namath, of course, was football's first major media star and millionaire product pitchman. Because he played in New York, he became more famous for being famous than he was for throwing a football. In the HBO program, one of his agents recalls asking him back in the day, "What do you think about Joe Namath?"
"What do you mean? I'm Joe Namath," he said.
"No," the agent said. "I'm talking about the character, the guy whose name is on the clothing labels and who appears in all the commercials."
Some 40 years after that conversation, it's not clear that Namath has given much more thought to his answer. No matter what the topic Ñ whether it's the Jets' shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, how he was resented by teammates when he first arrived as a member of the Jets or Bear Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide, or how humiliating it was when a drunk Namath in 2007 told ESPN's Suzy Kolber on national television that he wanted to kiss her Ñ Namath's thoughts just barely skim the surface.
Perhaps this is not Namath's fault. The late writer David Foster Wallace, in an essay titled "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," described his disappointment at Austin's inability to write anything interesting about her career as a tennis phenom. Wallace concluded that perhaps the seemingly effortless physical superiority of many athletes makes them particularly unsuited to introspection. Perhaps, Wallace said, what is going through their minds during those moments of physical transcendence is "nothing at all."
It would be nice if he had more to say about what it was like being the king of New York nightlife; what it meant to end up living his boyhood dream as a Super Bowl quarterback, a star in feature films, and the most famous man to come out of Beaver Falls. He doesn't duck any questions, but his answers don't add much to the record. When his father walked out on the family when Joe was a boy, "that was tough." When Namath filmed the movie "C.C. & Company" with the sex symbol Ann-Marget, "she was really hot." And when they did a love scene together it was awkward because there were a lot of people on the set. "Still, it wasn't THAT awkward," Namath says, grinning.
One of the great debates for NFL fans and pundits is whether Namath's career was truly worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This documentary might not settle the argument, but it goes a long way toward explaining how Namath got his bust in Canton. Namath's career statistics do not by themselves place him in the pantheon of the all-time elite. But his impact on the game back in 1969, when the Jets represented all the AFL teams vying for respect from their NFL brethren, is almost impossible to measure in 2012.
Namath's fame in those days was something akin to that of Muhammad Ali. Former Rams defensive star Fred Dryer explains in the program that defensive players used to pull up when tackling Namath, whose knees made him so vulnerable to getting injured on any given hit. Dryer said only an idiot would want to knock Namath out of a game because he was so good for football, for selling the product to the public.
Ann-Margret said Namath had a special twinkle in his eye that helped define his charisma. Maybe it was his unique accent, the way he rolled his L's. ("I'd been strugg-a-ling that year.") It's hard to think of another quarterback since who has single-handedly commanded so much attention.
Whether you remember seeing Broadway Joe on TV or on the football field, or you just want to see what his legend is all about, HBO's documentary is a good place to start. If you want to go a little deeper, I'd highly recommend the book "Namath: A Biography," by the former New York sports columnist Mark Kriegel. It's a great companion piece to HBO's colorful sampling of the football legend.