- Namath by Rick Bernstein and Steve Sabol
Joe Namath stormed onto the professional football scene in the mid 1960s and became one of the most important figures in creating the modern National Football League (NFL). After signing with the upstart American Football League (AFL), he then led his New York Jets to the first victory by the AFL over and NFL team in Super Bowl III. His personal style and appeal made him the face of professional football in a turbulent era, and while his injury-plagued knees limited his statistical profile few would doubt his importance to the game. In Namath HBO Sports has produced a signature documentary charting the rocky journey of an iconic figure.
The film opens and closes with scenes from Namath's hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Namath defined glitz, glamour, and was the first real football star of the television age. But writer Ouisie Shapiro locates the legend amidst his humble origins in the wrinkled landscape of blue-collar steel country. The product of a broken home, Namath's father provided one key gift to young Joe before exiting the marriage: he took his son to his workplace. Namath recalls the fiery mill and witnessed the backbreaking toil that would be his fate were he to remain in Beaver Falls. Sports became his ticket from the cauldron, and he excelled at both football and baseball. Surprisingly clear footage of his high school games shows the promise of a future Hall of Fame quarterback. A .667 hitter, he was offered a minor league contract and a princely $50,000 signing bonus, but his mother wanted him to go to college. Marginal test scores cost him offers to Notre Dame and Maryland, but the Maryland coaches referred him to Howard Schnellenberger, assistant to Paul "Bear" Bryant whose Alabama program had more relaxed entrance standards.
The film confirms some common Namath lore from his time in a Crimson Tide jersey. Upon Namath's arrival at Alabama, Bryant fanned his new quarterback's celebrity status by inviting him up to the coach's observation tower, purportedly the only player to ever do so. Besides covering his spectacular on-field career, the film delves into the challenges to Namath's own racial sensibilities. In Beaver Falls, his best friend, Linwood Alford, was African American. Namath arrived in time for the symbolic blocking of the university's integration by Alabama Gov. George Wallace. It was also at Alabama that Namath suffered his first major knee injuries, permanently weakening his joints.
Namath's signing with the American Football League's New York Jets is widely recognized as one of the pivotal events in football history. Nabbing the most charismatic player of the decade legitimized the young league and gave the AFL footing in the largest media market. His passing style fit the wide-open AFL, but his personal style and sex appeal were perhaps more important commodities. The film's most detailed section follows the familiar "guarantee" made by Namath for Super Bowl III in 1969. While there may be few new discoveries for students of the game, Namath reveals the butterflies he felt during the [End Page 478] pregame handshake with his idol, John Unitas. He then called most plays at the line of scrimmage, constantly adjusting to the Colts' defensive sets. The Jets victory led to the merger of the two leagues and the creation of a sports behemoth. As the film makes clear, Namath was the face of professional football during this crucial time. With handsome, somewhat roguish looks made for television, he plugged everything from shaving cream to pantyhose. He also ran afoul of image-conscious NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and was forced to sell his share of Bachelors Three—the tony Upper East Side nightclub that Rozelle insisted was frequented by gamblers and gangsters.
Like many athletes, Namath found his post-football days difficult to navigate. Injuries piled up in the early seventies, but the film selects to show the respect opposing players had for the fading star before he retired with the Los Angeles Rams following...