When Joe Namath was turning 50 years old, one of his friends said to him, “Damn you’re getting old, huh?”
The Hall of Fame quarterback thought about it a little. Both of his parents had lived into their 80s. For Namath, 50 did not feel old.
“I made a plan,” Namath said in a interview with The Post a few weeks ago. “Being a quarterback, we’re dealing with sports we hear about making a plan and trying to move on with the plan.
“My plan was simple. I plan to live to be a hundred and hopefully further. When this dude said I’m getting old at 50, I said no, no, no, this is halftime at 50. I’m planning on living to be 100.”
On Thursday, Namath will have made it halfway through his plan. Broadway Joe turns 75. It is a thought that is hard to wrap your brain around if you watched him star for the Jets on the field in the 1960s and become a massive celebrity off it.
For many people, Namath will always be 25 years old with his right index pointed to the sky, jogging off the Orange Bowl field as the Super Bowl III MVP, his famous guarantee realized. Others will remember Namath in Hanes’ Beautymist pantyhose or in a fur coat on the sideline. For some, it will be throwing a football to Bobby Brady on “The Brady Bunch.” Still others it will not be an image, but that voice — that syrupy mix of Beaver Falls, Tuscaloossa and New York that is one of a kind.
“You mention 75,” Namath said. “that’s the third quarter ending and the fourth quarter starting.”
Life in the fast lane
Namath says he feels great both physically and mentally. He now lives in South Florida, though he returns to New York often. The knees that cut short his football brilliance were replaced in 1992 and he has not had problems since. When he speaks, he is sharp. He recalls names and stories from 50 years ago with ease. Sometimes he forgets where he placed his keys or feels aches and pains, but Namath sees no reason to complain.
“I don’t know what’s perfect,” Namath said. “It’s clumsy talking about breakdowns when they’re minor. I’m not justified to talk about minor things when people go through life-threatening deals. I have typical aging things, joints and all, but I feel great.”
Walk through a room with Namath and you get a small taste of what it must be like to be Joe Willie. Eyes all move on him. Adult men turn into 12-year-old boys again. He brings joy to people just with a glance and a smile.
It is has been quite a life for Namath from his days as a star at Beaver Falls High School to the University of Alabama to professional football. The $427,000 he received from the Jets in 1965 changed football and started the path to the merger between the NFL and AFL.
Namath came along at a perfect time. With his long hair and sideburns, he was football’s Mick Jagger. He became part of New York’s cultural scene and became the city’s top bachelor, entertaining ladies first at his own nightclub Bachelors III then his East 76th street penthouse with the white llama-skin rug and mirrored ceiling. He famously said, “I like my women blonde and my Johnny Walker red.”
“The guy has had remarkable experiences,” said Joe Blaney, who has worked with Namath for the past nine years and is the president of his foundation. “To me, he was the first to put entertainment and sports together.”
The playboy image was tolerable for fans because Namath did not let it detract from his play. He may have partied before the 1968 AFL title game against the Raiders, but then he went out and led a fourth-quarter comeback. Two weeks later, he led the Jets to their only Super Bowl win.
This year marks 50 years since that Super Bowl III victory and Namath’s famous guarantee.
“Having lived it, it’s hard to believe,” Namath said. “I’ve stood out alone out on the dock, looking at the river and the stars and thought, ‘Man, where is this life going. It’s flying by.’ I almost ask, ‘My God, please slow it down.’ ”
A head in the game
Much of Namath’s time these days is spent working on The Joe Namath Foundation [joenamath.org]. The foundation’s purpose is to benefit numerous charities. Its primary focus is on helping children and addressing neurological issues.
“There’s so many worthy causes,” Namath said. “What we’re doing is trying to spread it around and help humble causes that are worthy.”
Brain injuries became an important cause for Namath when he saw what was happening with some of his contemporaries.
“You have buddies that are suffering in that area, even guys who have taken their own lives,” Namath said. “That’s been tough.”
For Namath, it really hit home when Dave Herman, the offensive lineman who kept Bubba Smith away from him in that win over the Colts, began to suffer the effects of repeated blows to the head.
Namath recalled his playing days, when you were not told you had a concussion.
“The word wasn’t even used — concussion,” Namath said. “The bell was rung many times. I remember incidents in specific games where I was hit and ended up over the bench getting oxygen and water and there had been a time lapse in between. I used to make light of it because I remembered the gold flash. There was a gold flash and then the next thing you know they’re helping you on the sideline.”
In 2012, Namath decided to get his brain checked out at a hospital near his home in Jupiter, Fla.
“I wanted to know where I was going,” he said.
A brain scan revealed dead cells on the left side and back of his brain. There was no blood flow. He began hyperbaric oxygen therapy. It worked, and his follow-up scans showed improved blood flow in his brain.
In 2014, he helped open the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center in Jupiter with the doctors who helped him. Now, he is trying to get the FDA to approve HBOT as a treatment for neurological issues.
“Some of these [problems] may not need to go in that direction with surgery or drugs,” Namath said. “This is an alternative. It’s an additional process to help him. I’m convinced. I know it works. My heart and soul are behind it. But I know from the last five years this is a tedious process, trying to convince and get the approval [from the FDA]. We need to help people more with traumatic brain injuries.”
Those 1968 Jets will gather this year to celebrate the golden anniversary of their improbable 16-7 win over the Colts on Jan. 12, 1969.
“It’s scary,” Namath says when asked about it being 50 years since the seminal moment of his career.
Namath believes time only slows down during the tough times in life. For him, those tough times have been rare.
“Thinking about 50 years from the Super Bowl and how it’s flown,” Namath said. “I’ve had some down times, but for the most part it’s been joyful, it’s been healthy.”
A reminder of his age for Namath is seeing friends and former teammates dying off. When the ’68 Jets gather this year, there will be fewer of them than at the last reunion. He said he’ll be thinking of Winston Hill, George Sauer and the others who are no longer with them.
“These were all guys you can’t imagine not being around now,” he said.
His relationship with the Jets and owner Woody Johnson was strained a bit a few years ago when he was doing weekly radio appearances and criticizing the team. He said they are on better terms now.
“It was clumsy when I was doing the radio work,” he said. “It was honestly critiquing. I didn’t like what people had to say about me at times. No one likes to hear negative critiquing. That’s one of the reasons I stopped reading about myself early on.”
The Namath Effect
Earlier this month, Namath was walking to a waiting car in midtown Manhattan when a teenaged boy approached.
“Joe Namath!” the boy yelled. “I am from Brazil, but I know who you are. Can I get a picture?”
“Sure,” Namath said with a smile. “Brazil? I knew Pele back in the ’70s.”
Namath took the photo, shook hands with the boy’s uncle then walked away after giving another person a memory. Call it the Namath Effect. Many athletes resent fame and what comes with it. Namath embraces it.
“I’m thankful,” Namath said. “How tough is it to not appreciate a smile? This started at home, respect people. That started with my dad and my mother. I just picked it up.”
Namath’s longtime agent Jimmy Walsh recalls an autograph signing in Virginia in a ballroom full of athletes. One athlete noticed Namath’s line was longer than his. He asked someone what Namath was doing. He was told Namath stood up and shook everyone’s hand.
“He’s ruined it for the rest of us,” the athlete said.
“I think he’s a very unpretentious guy,” Walsh said. “He’s real. That’s the way he is normally. He’s a decent guy. He looks you in the eye. He cares about the person he’s meeting. That’s not just a passing fancy for him. If he takes the time to stop and meet you, he really meets you.”
Namath stayed out of the public eye for a while in the mid 2000s. After the embarrassing episode on ESPN with Suzy Kolber in 2003, he got treatment for alcohol and has not had a drink since.
Now, though, he is back in the spotlight and trying to shine it on the causes close to his heart.
Namath sees his 75th as another step in his journey. The man who navigated 16 fourth-quarter comebacks for the Jets believes he is still in the game. The old quarterback is planning on seeing 100.
“There’s been a lot of games won and lost and fourth quarter,” Namath said. “Life is that way. You don’t quit at 50 — at halftime — you don’t quit at 75 — the end of the third quarter — you’ve got another one.
“It is what it is, man. It’s whatever way you look at it. I look at it as part of the journey to reach the plan and then go beyond the plan, let’s make a new plan. I hope I get there, but if I don’t, it’s been good.”
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