A Little Guarantee Makes a League of Difference

In baseball, "Joe" meant DiMaggio. In boxing, it was Louis.

Tennis never had any "Joes." Guys with "Baron" in front of their names or Roman numerals after it or guys named Ivan or Boris.

But when you allude to the Joe in football, whom do you mean?

Joe Montana, of course, you dummy, you immediately reply.

But wait a minute! Before you retire the name and the position as the property of Joseph Montana, ask yourself if you've ever heard of Joe Willie Namath.

Not your average Joe, Mr. Namath.

You know, some guys can boast they made their team what it is. Gave it respectability, credibility, so to speak. Namath made a whole league. The AFL (now the AFC) is his monument.

When Namath came along in 1965, the American Football League was widely held to be a collection of castoffs, rejects who couldn't make the senior circuit NFL--backups, wanna-bes, place-kick holders, second-stringers. They played a kind of no-contact air-ball version of the sport that made the critics sniff "Volleyball!" They played a zone defense to make up for their deficiencies in the more-manly (or more man-to-manly) game preferred by the NFL.

All that was pre-Namath. What Joe did is summed up in a book that followed his emergence, "The League That Came In From The Cold." It credited him with bringing the AFL into the warmth of public acceptance.

In the little world of sports, there are words and incidents that come ringing down the corridors of time. There is Ruth calling his shot, Louis summing up an opponent with "he can run but he can't hide," Bill Terry saying, "Is Brooklyn still in the league?"

And there is Joe Namath on the eve of the 1969 Super Bowl saying "I guarantee it!" right after predicting a victory over the Baltimore Colts, who were only three-touchdown favorites over Namath's New York Jets.

Joe Willie guaranteed it, all right, with a flawless, no-interception, call-his-own-plays performance against the Colts the next Sunday in Super Bowl III.

It was one of the great upsets of sports history. In a real way, it made the Super Bowl the instant equal of the World Series, the Final Four and the Triple Crown, a permanent fixture in the American sports firmament.

Joe brought a lot of firsts with him. He was, in a very real sense, the first athlete to bring an agent to the negotiating table with him. A college quarterback at Alabama, he had such impressive credentials, he had three franchises bidding for his services. Show-biz-wise Sonny Werblin, who had run MCA and had Johnny Carson as a client, knew the value of promotion, publicity and hype generally, and Joe Namath was the first athlete to have big money flying around the table. He got a package totaling $427,000 to sign.

Werblin also paid the agent's fee, $30,000, and hired members of Namath's family to work for the Jets.

Namath revolutionized the business of sports. Every guy with a multimillion-dollar contract should put a candle in front of his picture.

Joe knew what to do with his fame. He became "Broadway Joe," a Great White Way character who kept the headlines big and black and bold and the 11 o'clock news hopping. Werblin didn't hire him to hide in a locker room or say "No comment." It wasn't Joe's style anyway. Joe knew how to be a star and, in case anybody missed the point, the first thing he did was buy a fur coat.

Joe had an ongoing relationship with Johnnie Walker Scotch and most of the chorus girls of his day. I once wrote that Joe didn't know any women named Mary or Alice or Margaret or Jane, they were all named Candy, or Cherry, or Mitzi or, maybe, the Va-Va-Va-Voom Girl!

Joe never had any trouble with zone defenses, but he was intercepted regularly by curfew. But no one ever threw a football or ran an offense with more authority than Joe Willie Namath. Vince Lombardi, no less, once called him the "perfect passer."

So, Joe Montana may not be the greatest Joe who ever took a deep drop. Joe Willie might provide an argument.

They're honoring Joe Willie at the 10th Annual Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular at the Century Plaza on Sunday night, along with other sports spectaculars like George Foreman, Junior Seau and Raul Mondesi. Joe is getting a lifetime achievement award.

I caught up with Joe Willie the other day (something safety blitzes never could seem to do) and asked him if the "guarantee" quote he made all those years ago was sincere or just something made tongue-in-cheek.

"It was made in anger," he said. "I was mad. We were not given our due. We had beat a very good Raider football team to get there, but you'd think we snuck in through a hole in the fence. I went to the Miami Touchdown Club banquet and some guy in the back of the room stood up and began with that 'We're gonna kick your butt!' stuff and I got mad. 'Let me tell you something,' I told him. 'We're gonna win that game. I guarantee it!' Weeb [Jet Coach Weeb Ewbank] was very upset. 'Don't be giving them something to pin up on the locker-room wall!' he yells. 'I like them overconfident!' I thought to myself, 'If they need locker-room-wall quotes to get up for a game, they're worse than I thought!' "

Joe never needed any wall quotes. He played 13 years in the NFL, most of them on knees so sore they had to be drained before every game. He's the only guy who ever limped into the Hall of Fame.

He's not Broadway Joe anymore. He's proud papa Joe with two lovely daughters in Tequesta, Fla. "I get up at 5:30 every morning with them," he laughs. "I can remember when I was just getting in at that time of the morning."

He ranks right there in popularity and numbers with any Joe who ever played any game. He was not only a good Joe, he was a great Joe.

I guarantee it.

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