No guarantees in life? Try asking Namath
By Jim Litke
Joe Namath is singing.
It's midmorning, midweek in sun-splashed South Florida, a few days ahead of the New York Jets' biggest game in more than a decade, arguably the most important in the 41 years since Namath put the franchise on the map by guaranteeing a win against the heavily favored Colts in the Super Bowl — and then delivering.
In the intervening years, Namath has seen a lot less of Broadway and become much more of a regular Joe. He doesn't go out as much anymore because, among other things, at 66, he's no longer a drinker and hates to fly. But asked whether he plans to be in Indianapolis for Sunday's AFC Championship, Namath launches that unmistakable baritone into the opening line of a tune from the musical "West Side Story."
"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day," he crooned and then paused, chuckling softly.
"There's no place I'd rather be," Namath added a moment later. "I hope so, God willing. I'd love to be on hand when they win."
Mind you, that's not a guarantee. Not exactly, anyway.
"I'm not in that business anymore," Namath said. "That's another reason why I love Rex (Ryan, the Jets coach). He got me off the hook. I'm just saying I know we can win. Some days you fall flat and some days you kick the other team's butt. Our guys are good enough. They're definitely good enough."
Improbable as a Jets win seems this time around, it was considered next-to-impossible when Namath and the Jets faced the then-Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969. New York was an 18-point underdog; Jets fans had little trouble getting odds of 7-1 on a wager.
The merger between the established NFL and upstart AFL was announced almost three years earlier, but the only time their teams faced each other in games that counted before the 1970 season was in the Super Bowl. Nothing less than the credibility of the entire enterprise was on the line. Not only did the NFL's dynastic Green Bay Packers humble AFL rivals Kansas City and Oakland in the two previous meetings, the Colts team awaiting the Jets in Miami was being touted as one of the best ever.
Namath's guarantee has become the stuff of legend, a wellspring for thousands of similar proclamations both loud and timid. But at the moment he made it — late in the evening, inside a packed, smoky banquet hall — there were no TV cameras on hand and the few reporters in attendance saw no reason to rewrite their stories.
"I was just saying what I knew. I wasn't looking to make a fuss," Namath recalled. "I didn't plan it. I was just responding to a guy in the back of the room. (Colts quarterback) Earl Morall and I were being honored at a dinner, a big to-do the Miami Touchdown Club held at the end of the season.
"I'm at the podium and some guy yells, 'Hey Namath, the Colts are going to kick your ass!' " he said. "We'd been hearing a lot of that. So I said, 'I've got news for you. We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it.' "
The Jets' 16-7 win made Namath an icon, one of the few sports figures since Babe Ruth to catapult into the public imagination — albeit one you could bump into in a New York club most any night of the week.
All these years later, though, he stresses the coaching staff and his teammates hardly needed any added motivation from a guarantee. Many were Colts' castoffs, starting with coach Weeb Ewbank, who'd won back-to-back NFL championships in 1958-59 with Baltimore. They had plenty to prove without it.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Yet one person Namath's guarantee apparently made an impression on was Rex Ryan, then a 6-year-old tagging along behind his father, Buddy, at Jets practices and in the locker room. Buddy was New York's defensive line coach at the time, already perfecting the attacking schemes that would become the calling card for father and son.
"I still love Buddy. He didn't smile as much as Rex, but we didn't have any trouble figuring out what he meant," Namath said.
"In practice, he'd line up guys in places that weren't normal. He'd get mad that Weeb spent so much effort protecting the quarterback, and he figured if it was so damn important to Weeb, then it was more important to get to him."
Just like Buddy, Rex's bravado and his willingness to throw everything at his disposal against opposing quarterbacks has inspired plenty of loyalty.
"You hear the players talk about him, you can see they care about him. They don't want to disappoint old Rex. If you're an offensive player, that devious rascal has a way of upsetting your plans," Namath said. "He does things you don't often see. I'm looking forward to see what he's planning this week."
Few people can appreciate better than Namath what it's like to stand and deliver in the face of that rush. But all that pressure, accompanied by near-crippling injuries and a voracious appetite for everything New York offered, eventually extracted a toll. Namath gets around now on two artificial knees, and after an embarrassing sideline interview before a Jets game in December 2003, without the booze that had been a constant companion since he started playing football for keeps.
"I'm out ducking and dodging — and I mean that humorously — just trying to make progress. Life throws a lot of things at us when we're not looking. ... All that action off the field," he said a moment later, "some of it was good and some not so good. But thank God, we're still here."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.