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A New League And A New Team, Part 8

Joe’s celebrity grows

Margaux Hemingway & Joe Namath

The Jets were heading in the right direction with a head coach who understood how to build a team and a leader in Joe Namath. Everything seemed set to start a playoff run except there was a problem, and that problem was twofold. Namath’s knee needed serious surgery.

Today you have microcameras along with arthroscopic technology to fix even the the most severe problems. If you could equate it to a automobile it would be like putting in a zip drive loaded with music for you to enjoy, easy.

The type of surgery that Joe was to have would be like opening up the hood and pulling out your alternator then installing a model from a ‘57 Chevy. It might work. It might not, but either way it will never be the same or work as well as the original parts.

The second problem was Sonny, or his second life as Sonny the entertainer. Sonny made numerous contacts and major business deals at A-list parties among the movers and shakers of the US all with a highball glass in his hand. Remember that Sonny was the talent agent of the stars. He had made the careers of hundreds of celebrities. No one would have ever heard of Ed Sullivan without Sonny. Sullivan was a newspaper reporter writing about Broadway then later sports. He began a small radio show until he was put on TV (with the help of Sonny) on a show called the “Toast of the Town” which later became the Ed Sullivan Show. The show ran from 1948 until 1971 an iconic variety/talent show. It was the longest running show of it’s kind in TV history.

Sonny went to parties and hosted parties all over town. He felt that he needed to get Joe into the limelight so Joe was at every event. Sometimes Weeb Ewbank would be there as well. Weeb would then leave early to check on his players, everyone except Joe. He knew that Joe would be with Sonny most of the night and early morning.

Weeb never mentioned how he felt about all this. He was a stand up guy, and even if he didn’t like the arrangement he was not going to say anything disparaging about the guy who was signing his paycheck.

Joe, on the other hand, not only liked this situation. He relished it. Joe was from humble Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He played football in the 1960s in Alabama. There were no Hollywood types in those places. Meeting famous people he had only read about and rubbing elbows with the mega stars was a dream come true. Joe always was a free spirit with his long shaggy hair. He never really fit in personality wise with the old NFL football establishment.

If you think about it Sonny and Joe were the AFL/NFL version of the musical My Fair Lady with Sonny as professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) and Joe (Audrey Hepburn) as Eliza Doolittle. Of course it didn’t take long for Joe to get over his star struck faze. He then started to branch out on his own.

Soon Joe was out partying with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin at Jilly’s on 256 W 52nd St until the early morning hours. This was fine for Frank and the gang. Frank Sinatra didn’t even get up until 1:30 in the afternoon. Joe had practice in the morning so he would take a taxi back to his apartment, grab a couple hours of sleep, and head off to practice.

That apartment was in Manhattan as Sonny had gotten Joe to move in with Joe Hirsch who Sonny knew from his Monmouth Park days. The “Morning Telegraph” is the horseracing bible, and Hirsch was the lead writer for the Telegraph.

Of course his teammates knew what Joe was up to. They could read the paper and they saw Joe’s eyes in the morning (when he took off his sunglasses to put on his helmet) plus they could smell his breath.

In reality many players back then would party wildly at times (of course not with Frank Sinatra), but this was different. Players would hang with each other or party with blue collar types. These were beer and pretzel type affairs. Joe was hobnobbing with A-list celebrities or carousing with the owner at lavish banquets for the upper crust, no offensive linemen allowed. These types of differences create a chasm between players. A team leader cannot be viewed as a cause of a schism on a team.

The only saving grace for Joe was he was a football player, a real football player. He was a social light, but he was a tough, hard nosed grinder who wanted to win. Joe might hang with Sinatra, but he also felt at home with anyone on the team. Joe often ate lunch with the offensive line, the defense, players from all different backgrounds. Joe truly didn’t care as long as you wanted to win.

On the other hand Joe was a young man with his own views on life. Think of it. Joe was a rich handsome bachelor living in New York City. Joe was also Joe, a free spirit who wore a huge white mink coat.

Human nature the way it is you have to know some teammates loved how Joe lived life while others (for whatever reason) didn’t appreciate all the theatrics. Some hard nosed guys would probably like Joe to spend more time reading his playbook rather than the menu at Jilly’s. Others could see that Namath had major knee surgery 23 days after signing his rookie contract, but 6 months later he was in Boston playing a preseason game against the Patriots. Many would have rehabbed for the entire year while being paid big money.

Namath was a rookie. He had to learn the pro game along with a whole new group of teammates. Every player in the pro game is usually better than almost every college player. While at Alabama Bear Bryant had a steel fisted control of his team. Everyone (even Joe) marched to the same tune. That situation was not always the same at other schools. So everyone was different, came from different backgrounds and had their own sometimes eccentric personalities.

Don Maynard was one such individual.A Texan through and through, he was almost a caricature drawing of a West Texas cowboy. Maynard would dress in blue jeans and wear a western style shirt with cowboy boots. He had long bushy sideburns and talked like he always had a chaw of tobacco in his mouth. He liked money and never spent a dime he didn’t have to. When the team was on the road Maynard would take the towels, soap, shampoo and whatever else he could find in the room. He was the type to put sugar packets in his pockets before leaving a breakfast table in the morning.

Joe recalls standing next to Weeb Ewbank on the sideline during a preseason game, “and Maynard drops a pass and Weeb says to Don ‘that’s a bunch of stuff’ and Maynard replies ‘Hell Weeb what do you expect for $50 a game?’”

What was really different was the way Namath played and the way the crowd reacted. Namath had an arm. Everyone said you could hear the ball as it passed by “it had a slight whistle to it.”

People in the stadium would stand when Joe went back to pass and marvel at the ball so majestically floating down the field to a waiting receiver. He brought a tinge of excitement when he jogged out on the field and into the huddle.

Also everyone had read about his knees and the surgery he went through. Fans subconsciously viewed him as a gladiator who could bring glory to his team with his talents or lose his future with a single blow to those tender knees. This also was a time when barbarism ruled the AFL/NFL. Heck, there was no facemask rule back then. It took until 1976 before grabbing the facemask was a penalty.

Deacon Jones of the Rams used to use a head slap on the offensive lineman to get to the QB. The head slap was basically a punch to the side of the head of the lineman with a hand that was wrapped like a boxer’s fist and balled up like a club. By the end of the game the offensive lineman didn’t know his own name he was so beaten up.

Ben Davidson of the Oakland Raiders (who I hated as a kid) was one of the most egregious cheap shot artists in all of football. To this day I still despise the Raiders. During the November 1, 1970, contest the Chiefs clung to a 17-14 lead with about two minutes remaining. They had third and three or four and needed only to pick up a first down to run out the clock. Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson held on to the ball on a sweep, picked up about eight yards, and then knelt to the ground. Davidson realized he had not actually been touched down, speared him in the lower back. A melee ensued, and the referees called to repeat the down.The Raiders stopped them and went on to tie the game then won the division. They beat the Chiefs by one victory to earn the AFC West title.

Later Davidson said he hated Joe Namath and that he was going to break his jaw when they played. Here he is doing just that, a hit so severe it took Joe’s helmet off.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 12, 1967: Oakland Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson delivers a blow to New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath during this game in 1967 won by the Raiders. (Russ Reed/Oakland Tribune/Staff Archives) Photo by MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images

Can you imagine today if a player said they were going to break the jaw of an opponent? The league would suspend them for the game. Imagine he played in that game and ended up breaking the player’s jaw. He would be suspended for life and possibly brought up on charges. Against Namath and the Jets it wasn’t even a penalty.

Namath never cried about the hit. It was just the way football was played back then, and Joe knew it.

Joe didn’t start his first game as a Jet. Weeb held him out as Mike Taliaferro started the first 5 games of the year with Namath subbing in occasionally until he took over the starting job in game #6. This was partly because Joe was a rookie and partly because of Joe’s surgery. Joe threw for 2,220 yards that year with 18 TDs and 15 INTs. He won the Rookie of the Year award in the AFL. That year and the year after the Super Bowl are the only years that Namath threw more TDs than INTs in a year during his career.

The Jets went 5-8-1 in Joe’s rookie campaign and then 6-6-2 in his sophomore season. Joe threw the football (a record for the time) 471 passes in the 1966 season and was invited to the AFL All-Star game. He was the only 2nd year player invited. Naturally Joe played well and was voted the MVP of the game.

The plan to get Joe Namath to become a celebrity by Sonny was working well, almost too well as Joe was nearing cult status around the nation. Travel was a problem. It is for any football team when you have so many huge athletes who by union regulations must have to have a seat between them and the next person on a plane. This is why it would be impossible to fly commercial as you have the team, coaches, equipment, trainers, people to handle all that freight, team executives, and personnel staff.

The Jets traveling secretary at the time was John Free. He had the unenviable job to do all the planning for this plus taking care of Joe Namath. By taking care of Joe I mean getting him from point A to point B safely. By this time Joe had become so famous there were at times hundreds of people waiting outside a locker room for the team...I mean Joe.

This was not a problem at home because the Jets had security barriers and precautions in place to handle such a problem. On the road it was a different story since no other team had the same problem as the Jets with a full blown celebrity.

Everywhere the Jets traveled they had a police escort, usually a couple of motorcycle cops who Free paid $25 to clear the way and guard the rear. When the cops were hanging around waiting for the Jets they said it was like working for a Hollywood producer with all the excitement.

Sometimes Free had to improvise like this one time as he tells it. “We were playing at San Diego and the locker room opened onto a tunnel and I looked down to the end of it and I can see hundreds of people waiting by the buses. I knew there was no way I could get Namath out there. I saw a van loading towels and I said to the driver I’ll give you $10 if you drive this gentleman (Namath) out of the stadium.” The driver looked at Free and said, “That’s Joe Namath; Okay.”

So the driver took Joe and put him in the back of the van. but then he realized his girlfriend was sitting in the back of the van. Now it is doubtful that she was allowed to ride in the back of a company van but she was there anyway. The driver stopped Joe from getting in, then told his girlfriend, “Come up front with me, Namath can sit in the back with the towels by himself. I don’t want you sitting back there with him.”

So Namath was whisked away by the van out of the stadium onto the road a few hundred yards away. When the buses drove by one stopped, Joe got out of the van and into the bus.

The NFL and the Merger

By the end of the 1965 season it was painfully apparent that the NFL had to do something to stem the tide of the growing AFL fan base. Like I said earlier, Sonny’s plan to make Joe a mega star not only helped the Jets but the league attendance as a whole. Attendance had increased league wide in the AFL every year. The Jets averaged 54,878 fans per home game in 1965 and 59,395 fans in 1966, more per game than in an entire season only a few years ago. In 1962 (the year before Sonny and the gang bought the Jets) they had a yearly attendance of 36,161.

The NFL came with its hand out to the AFL to make an agreement on merging the two leagues. A merger made good business sense for both side who were weary of contract battles for players. Especially teams in smaller markets like Boston, Houston, San Diego and Denver who were averaging more fans a game but were still under 30,000 tickets sold a game, it was more difficult to compete.

The Namath factor in this scenario cannot be understated. No player in either league brought out the fans in either league like Joe Namath. Joe had his own Yankee effect.

(The American League attendance in baseball is usually tied to the Yankees’ success. No American League baseball fan is ambivalent about the Yankees. You either love them or hate them. Both emotions sell tickets. You want to see your team beat the team you hate. The opposing fans might not have hated Joe Namath, but they knew his talent. Everyone wants to see their team beat the best.)

The NFL set out their terms for merger of the AFL into the NFL, but it was not without its problems. As part of the merger agreement, all 10 AFL teams would be included into the NFL. However, there was a problem with Oakland and the Jets. In negotiations the NFL owners brought up that in the league bylaws the fact that those two AFL teams, now part of the same league, would be in violation of their territorial exclusivity. Not to mention two teams in relatively the same geographic market which would take away fans, TV rights, sponsors and other considerations. The league mandated that the Jets and Raiders would have to relocate to other cities.

The AFL refused at first to these conditions, but the NFL stayed firm. The smaller clubs who had little to lose and everything to gain started talking about abiding by the NFL’s terms.

Amazingly the person who came to the rescue of the Jets and the Raiders was Wellington Mara, the owner of the Giants. Mara told the NFL brass that at this point the Jets were so established with a large following that he feared if the league required them to move that he himself would be persecuted. Therefore, because it was his team that created the sudden problem that he would be agreeable to the Jets staying in New York.

Of course there was some self serving attachments to this deal which was one of the reasons Mara acquiesced. The AFL was to pay to the NFL an indemnity fee of $18 million; $10 million to the Giants and the rest to the 49ers. Mara wanted more because now Namath would be playing in the same league as his Giants. The merger agreement was set on June 8, 1966, but the merger would not officially take place until 1970. In the meantime the two leagues would not combine schedules, but the two league champions would play in a world championship game to determine the overall champion starting in January 1967 (1966 season).

Next up...

Goodbye Sonny

Who came up with the title “Super Bowl?”

Joe the odds maker

And so much more