Joe Namath still The Man in '69 flashback
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Later today, countless pre-teen boys in the small Orange County, Calif., community of Rancho Santa Margarita will pull on their Mark Sanchez No. 6 New York Jets jersey and cheer on their high school hero. They will watch as Sanchez leads the Jets against the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game with a trip to Super Bowl XLIV on the line. Then, regardless of the outcome, they will head to the backyard or the playground and fight to be Sanchez in their pick-up games.
At least that's how we pre-teen boys did it in Beaver Falls the most recent time the Jets and Colts played in such an important game.
Has it really been more than four decades? That's frightening, almost beyond belief. It was Jan. 12, 1969, but it seems like yesterday in so many ways. We pulled on our No. 12 Jets jersey and cheered for our hometown hero -- Joe Willie Namath -- in the most significant Super Bowl of all.
Those boys in Rancho Santa Margarita should be so lucky.
The world has changed significantly in the past 40-plus years. Kids today have so many more entertainment options. But in '69, in our little corner of the world and so many others, sports were everything. We had The Great One, Roberto Clemente, who played in an era when 17 consecutive losing seasons were unimaginable and fans-- hard as this might be to believe -- weren't ashamed to call the Pirates their team.
And we had Namath, who was one of us even if they did call him Broadway Joe. He grew up strictly blue-collar, just as we were. His father, John, worked in the Babcock & Wilcox steel mill, just as my dad and so many other dads did. He had shot pool at the Blue Room in the heart of town on Seventh Avenue, just as we did. He had eaten the best pasta in the valley at Corner Tavern, just as we did. He had led Beaver Falls High to a WPIAL championship, just as so many of us dreamed of doing. He had taken a scholarship to Alabama and won a national title there, had signed to become a $427,000 bonus baby with the Jets and practically owned the most important city in the world ...
You get the idea just how big Namath was in little Beaver Falls.
I was 12 when he played in Super Bowl III, a little too young to fully realize the impact that game would have not just on American sports, but on American culture. The Super Bowl then was super in name only. It wasn't until Namath led the Jets against the outrageously favored Colts -- then in Baltimore -- that it became a national treasure. Namath talked the talk before the game by brashly predicting a Jets' victory, then walked the walk by producing their almost surreal 16-7 win.
The NFL would never be the same.
"As Broadway Joe, Namath aroused a kind of interest the game had never before seen," Mark Kriegel wrote in his superb 2004 biography of Namath. "He had endowed the National Football League with some of his cool magic."
Suddenly, Namath wasn't just ours anymore.
He was the world's.
We weren't the only kids wearing Dingo Boots because he did. We weren't the only guys with Brut aftershave in our bathroom because he said the ladies loved it. We weren't the only ones who read his book -- "I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow 'Cause I Get Better-Looking Every Day" -- and savored every page. We weren't even the only ones who thought of wearing our mothers' pantyhose, although none of us dared try that because we just didn't have Namath's cool.
The man was bigger in many ways than the astronauts returning home from the moon. He was bigger than Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Elvis once introduced him at a Las Vegas show by saying, "The greatest football player, the greatest quarterback, my hero, Joe Namath." And Namath once asked Muhammad Ali on national television, "So, Muhammad, how does it feel to be with a real star?"
You have a problem with that?
I dare suggest Namath was bigger than just about anyone at the time but John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Then, one late-spring day in '69, he was back in Beaver Falls for a parade down Seventh Avenue. It seemed as if the whole town turned out. That really does seem like yesterday. I can't remember if I nabbed his autograph, but I know I got close enough to his convertible to shake his hand. I probably didn't wash it for a week.
Now, at 66, Namath is back in the national news. The New York papers were filled with stories about him last week because the Jets-Colts game today has so many similarities to Super Bowl III. Namath's Jets were 18-point underdogs; Sanchez's Jets are eight-point underdogs. Namath made his famous prediction; Jets coach Rex Ryan publicly laid out his team's itinerary through the ticker-tape parade through Manhattan two days after Super Bowl XLIX. Ryan's dad, Buddy, was the Jets' linebackers coach in '69; his son runs these Jets. The '69 Jets were led by a good-looking (and getting better-looking every day!) quarterback; the current Jets are led by a good-looking, though less-accomplished, rookie quarterback who signed a contract for a guaranteed $28 million ...
The world really has changed.
I'm guessing Namath wouldn't trade places with Sanchez, though.
I know we wouldn't trade places with those Southern California kids in their No. 6 Jets jerseys.
First Published January 24, 2010 12:00 am