Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Beaver Falls, Beaver County
?Broadway Joe? Namath, famed for his guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III, began life in Beaver Falls.
Awards: Football Hall of Fame
Joe Namath was born on May 31, 1943, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His success in football led to a scholarship to the University of Alabama under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. His success with Bryant led Namath to become the first overall pick in the 1965 draft by the AFL New York Jets. He is best known for his guarantee to win Super Bowl III against the favored Baltimore Colts. Namath led the Jets to the AFL’s first Super Bowl victory which earned him the nickname “Broadway Joe.” After a successful twelve year career, Namath was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1985.
Joe Namath was born on May 31, 1943, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a steel-mill town located 28 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Andras Nemet, Joe Namath’s grandfather, arrived at Ellis Island from Austria and began working at steel and coal mills in the Pittsburgh Metro Area. While working in the mills, Andras Nemet changed his name to Andy Namath to fit in better in America. Andy’s son Jonas, now John, quickly learned the American way and prospered as a steel mill worker in Beaver Falls. The steel mill was where John Namath met his wife Rose Juhanasz; they were married a year later. John and Rose had three boys John, Frank, and Robert, but Rose Namath wanted a girl. Rose went to see her doctor late in her fourth pregnancy and he gave her the news she had been waiting to hear. Dr. Smith, an experienced physician, was absolutely positive that the baby would be a girl. “I guarantee you” he said. To her surprise, Rose gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Joseph William Namath.
Joe Willie, as his friends called him, grew up in an area of Beaver Falls known as the Lower End, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Early in his life, Joe excelled in baseball and basketball, which were the two dominate sports in the country at that time. It was not until the ninth grade that Joe started playing football. At 5’0” and 115 pounds, his small size earned him the nickname “Pint-sized quarterback.&rdquo “You couldn’t hardly see him over center” said Jake Lotz, one of Namath’s first football teammates.
During Joe Namath’s freshman year of high school, John Namath began to act strangely. Rose suspected that he was cheating on her. One day Rose confronted John and he confessed to committing adultery. Shortly after, they were divorced and John moved out. Namath was crushed over losing his father. His attitude changed the day his father moved out, an event that marked the start of Namath’s bad behavior. His mischief started with breaking into gymnasiums to play basketball. He was once arrested for breaking and entering but his first football coach, Larry Bruno, took care of him because he knew that Namath was going to be someone great.
In high school, Namath was a three sport star athlete. He always had his hair slicked back, wore dark sunglasses and his varsity jacket on around school. It is believed that Namath even took his team picture with his dark glasses on. Every girl wanted him and every guy wanted to be him. Joe Willie was known to hang out in a bar called “The Blue Room” where he would hustle people in pool and drink. This is where he learned his winning instincts and developed his no fear attitude. Playing pool taught Namath that luck was a kind of skill. He made people believe in his luck which was, perhaps, the greatest skill he could learn. Butch Ryan, a high school teammate, once stated that, “It didn’t matter if Joe had twenty dollars in his pocket or five cents, he’d play you for a hundred and win. He had more guts than you could imagine.” Namath believed he was better anyone out there and he made everyone else believe it too. Joe Namath further developed his bad reputation by speeding, drinking, and smoking.
Namath finished his senior year by winning the “AA” high school football title against a highly-favored opponent. The college offers were pouring in towards the end of his high school career. However, six baseball teams also sought to sign him, with the Chicago Cubs reportedly offering him a $50,000 bonus. But Namath declined, and opted for college at his mother’s request.
Namath’s bad reputation scared off a few colleges. Joe Paterno, who was the young backfield coach from Penn State at the time, said “Namath is not Penn State material. He isn’t a good student.” The University of Michigan was interested in Namath until the assistant coach found him on the hood of a car in front of the Blue Room bar when he came to visit. But for all the colleges that passed on Namath, there were dozens who would pay for the chance to sign Namath for their school. “It was strange coming out of high school and having colleges offer me as much money as my father made in a year,” Namath once said.
Namath decided he wanted to go to the University of Maryland. However, his SAT score was 730 and Maryland required a 750 to be admitted. After being rejected by Maryland, he enrolled at Alabama to play for coach Bear Bryant. The legendary Bryant would one day call his rebellious quarterback “The greatest athlete I ever coached.” To this day Joe Namath is the only player to ever ascend the winding staircase into Coach Bryant’s tower office. Years later, recalling that first day when he invited Namath up to his tower, Bryant would say: “I would have carried him up if I’d known then how good he was.” Although Namath considered Bryant a father figure, Joe Namath would later state, “He put the fear of God in me. I was terrified of him.”
Namath’s first varsity game came during his sophomore year; Namath’s threw a perfect 52-yard touchdown pass on the first play of his college career. Namath finished with three touchdowns in his college debut, on September 22, 1962, before 54,000 fans at Legion Field in Birmingham. Namath led the Crimson Tide to a 10-1 record and completed 76-of-146 passes for 1,192 yards and 12 touchdowns. At the end of the season, the hall of fame coach Al Davis stated that “Namath is so good he plays like he is going downhill.”
After an 8-0 start to his junior season Namath was suspended for drinking and was forced to miss the Sugar Bowl. He had no other choice then to sit out quietly and wait for next season. The truth was that Namath only took a sip of beer that night but media reports claimed that Namath was belligerent and trying to direct traffic while drunk. Not knowing who to believe, Bryant was forced to suspend Namath for the season.
During his senior year, Namath experienced his first knee injury in a game against North Carolina State. Namath believed the injury was a price he paid for violating his own superstition. Joe had always wrapped his cleats with white tape. This taping was his ritual before every game of his college career, except North Carolina State. Alabama was undefeated during that season. The injury caused fluid to form in the knee that needed to be drained regularly, causing Namath to undergo knee replacement surgery after his career.
Joe Namath was taken first overall in the American Football League (AFL) draft by the New York Jets and 12th in the National Football League (NFL) draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. The two leagues competed for Namath but the Jets won when Namath signed a pro-football record three year, $400,000 a year. In 1965, Joe Willie won the AFL Rookie of the Year. In 1967, in his third season, Namath lit up AFL defenses for a record breaking 4,007 yards and 26 touchdown passes. Joe Willie was a four time all-star despite having chronic knee pain that caused him to have his knee drained during halftime.
In the 1969 AFL title game, Namath threw three touchdown passes to lead New York to a 27-23 win over the defending American Football League Champion Oakland Raiders. His performance in the 1969 season earned him the Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year. After defeating the Raiders, the Jets prepared to play the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The Colts were considered to be three touchdown favorites despite the fact that Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas would have to miss the game due to injury.
At a Miami Touchdown Club dinner three days before the game, Namath answered a heckler who was criticizing the Jets, “We’re going to win Sunday. I guarantee you.” responded Namath. This created a huge story in the media. Namath calmly directed the Jets on four scoring drives, completing 17-of-28 passes for 206 yards and was voted the MVP in the victory over the stunned Colts. The Jets were the first AFL team to win the Super Bowl. The win earned him the nickname “Broadway Joe.”
In 1969, Commissioner Pete Rozelle told Namath to sell his share in an East Side bar, Bachelors III, because gamblers frequented it. If Namath did not, he would be suspended. In June, he announced his retirement from football because of the dispute. However, Namath’s love of the game prevailed, and a month later, he sold his share of Bachelors III and returned to the Jets.
Namath finished 12 seasons with the now AFC New York Jets. He was traded to the St. Louis Rams in 1977 but retired before the end of the season due to knee pain. Namath was inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in 1985, despite being a 50 percent career passer and throwing 50 more interceptions then touchdowns. Many say his poor statistics were due to his on-going knee problems, but Namath regarded both statistics and his knees the same way: “You didn’t need either if you had balls.” Namath was inducted to Hall of Fame because it is believed that he was responsible for the NFL-AFL merger after his guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III. His extraordinary play before his knee injuries, heart, and personality also contributed to his Hall of Fame induction.
His endorsements after football kept him comfortable. Namath's most famous commercial depicted him sporting panty hose. He also earned extra money by shaving off his mustache for $10,000 for a television commercial. He acted in movies and on television as well as in the theater. He guest-starred on everything from The Brady Bunch to The Dean Martin Show and The Simpsons. He hosted his own show, the 1969 cult classic The Joe Namath Show (co-hosted by Dick Schaap), with its eclectic guest pairings and an anything goes attitude.
Namath has a book out, called Namath, which is published by Rugged Land Books. His book was on the New York Times extended Bestseller List (#23) and he was interviewed for the November 19, 2006, edition of 60 Minutes on CBS network. He is back at his old alma mater, Alabama, studying for the degree that he did not complete.
I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow. New York: Random House, Inc, 1969.
Namath. New York: Rugged Land Books, 2006.
Anderson, Dave. “Joe Namath: Man of Defiance Faces Biggest Challenge.” New York Times 5 Jan. 1969: S1.