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He Could Go 'All The Way': Joe Namath Enters His 4th Quarter

May 22, 2019
Originally published on May 22, 2019 10:26 am

Super Bowl III, 1969: The New York Jets were playing the mighty Baltimore Colts. Nobody predicted the Jets would win. Well, except for Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who did more than predict a victory. "I guarantee it," he said before the game.

Fifty years later, his legacy is still tied up in those three words.

"I think that particular game, even though we're talking 50 years ago, man, anyone that was around then or checks out the history says, 'Hey wait, we can do it. You know, we can overcome these odds. I can do this,' " Namath says. "I'm respectful of that because I know, like life, it's not a one-man show. Life is a team effort. Having failure or having success — if you didn't have someone to share either one with, or those different emotions we have, where would we be? I like private time, but I don't want to feel alone."

Namath, who turns 76 at the end of the month, writes about the ups and downs of his life in a new book called All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters. In an interview, he talks about the Suzy Kolber incident, football's health risks and entering his fourth quarter in life.


Interview Highlights

On the 2003 sideline interview where, when inebriated, he told ESPN's Suzy Kolber: "I want to kiss you"

I went through the process many times of reflecting on not just that moment, but how I got there. We drank, I drank, and at that time I was addicted to it. I have to admit that it's an addiction. I wouldn't be alive today had that incident not occurred, possibly. But Suzy was a beautiful girl in my eyes, and sometimes when you're under the influence of alcohol — maybe some other things I'm not sure about — then your inhibitions kind of wan and you say what's on your mind. ...

I can remember driving under the influence of alcohol, and by the grace of God, man, damn good luck, I didn't hurt somebody. I can remember times I was behind the wheel and I was trying to get between Commercial and Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale — and I was in Miami. They call it a blackout. And here I was driving a car. ...

Whenever I found out about [the sideline incident], which wasn't until the next day, Suzy was the first person that I called and talked with. Boy. And then I went and got help.

On if he would play football knowing what he knows now about concussions and traumatic brain injury

I don't know. It's a question that I can't answer, but I've been asked ... if I had children, and I do have grandchildren, but: "If I had a child that wants to play football, would you let him?" Yeah, I'd let him to some extent. But football definitely is a sport that the body's not designed for, whether it be your knees, your ankles, your shoulders, your neck, your spine. Not everybody can play football. ...

I don't believe putting limitations on anybody is the right route to take. You could be a ballerina and your feet could be hurting you so many days of the year for the rest of your 30, 40, 50 years, man. You do that much dancing on those feet, and your back, you're going to come up with something down the road. Do you tell her not to be a ballerina? Do you tell her not to dance because her back is going to be bothering her 20 years from now? If they have a passion, and they're willing to pay the price to excel and make their dreams come true, it's — I'd have to be there, man, before I could say, "No, you can't do that." I wouldn't dare say that, and I couldn't see myself doing that.

On structuring his memoirs in four quarters, like a football game

I remember when I was getting ready to turn 50, a buddy had came up, or was busting my chops. He said, "Man, you going to be 50! You're old!" And I started thinking, "Damn, old?" I didn't feel old. And I started to think about my people, and how long my mother was living, and how long my dad lasted, and I decided to make a plan at 50. I plan to live to 100. Now, it might not work. ...

Fifty was halftime, man. And you've seen — I've seen a lot of games won and lost in the third and fourth quarter. I don't want to go out on a bad note. I want to keep growing, being productive, keep learning and keep loving, man. I want to be a positive dude the rest of the way.

Danny Hajek and Jessica Smith produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You can't really ever say, this moment was the greatest moment in sports. But Super Bowl III, in 1969, has got to be up there. The New York Jets were playing the mighty Baltimore Colts. Nobody predicted the Jets would win. Well, except for Jets quarterback Joe Namath.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CURT GOWDY: Namath has not been bashful this week, and he has said that the Jets are going to win. He doesn't even predict it. He says, I guarantee a Jet victory.

GREENE: Do you like that so much of your life is associated with those three words? - I guarantee it.

JOE NAMATH: I respect it. I think that particular game, even though we're talking 50 years ago, man - anyone that was around then or checks out the history says, hey. Wait. We can do it. You know, we can overcome these odds. I can do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOWDY: ...has the ball. The game is over. The New York Jets are the world champion. They have upset the Baltimore Colts...

GREENE: I mean, it's incredible how it's just lived on - that legacy - for 50 years.

NAMATH: Well - and I'm respectful of that because I know, like life, it's not a one-man show (laughter).

GREENE: Right.

NAMATH: Life is a team effort. Having failure, having success - if you didn't have someone to share either one with - those different emotions we have - where would we be? I like private time, but I don't want to feel alone.

GREENE: Namath writes about the ups and downs of his life in a new book called "All The Way: My Life In Four Quarters." And there were some downs. One low point was 2003. The retired quarterback was doing a sideline interview with ESPN's Suzy Kolber, and he had clearly been drinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAMATH: I want to kiss you.

SUZY KOLBER: Thanks, Joe.

NAMATH: Yeah. You know what?

KOLBER: I'll take that as a huge compliment. Joe Namath, part of the...

GREENE: When I spoke to Joe Namath, I asked if he would talk about that moment and how he has reflected on it.

NAMATH: I went through the process many times of reflecting on not just that moment but how I got there.

We drank. I drank. And at that time, I was addicted to it. I have to admit that it's an addiction. I wouldn't be alive today had that incident not occurred possibly. But Suzy was a beautiful girl in my eyes. And sometimes, when you're under the influence of alcohol - maybe some other things I'm not sure about - then your inhibitions kind of won, and you say what's on your mind.

GREENE: Why do you say that you might not be alive today if you hadn't said that?

NAMATH: I can remember driving under the influence of alcohol and except by the grace of God, man - damn good luck - I didn't hurt somebody. I can remember times I was behind the wheel. And I was trying to get between Commercial and Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, and I was in Miami. They call it a blackout. And here I was driving a car.

GREENE: So you're saying when you hurt her in that interview, that that was the moment you needed to change. And you might not have learned that lesson otherwise.

NAMATH: Oh, yeah. Whenever I found out about it, which wasn't until the next day, Suzy was the first person that I called and talked with. Boy, and then I went and got help.

GREENE: Well, speaking of kind of other changes over time, let me ask you about football. I mean, I - you had your share of concussions. And I just wonder, I mean, now that you wrote about seeing the effect of traumatic brain injury and some football players who have died by suicide, I mean, would you have played if you knew everything you know now?

NAMATH: I don't know. It's a question that I can't answer. But I've been asked, David, if I had children - and I do have grandchildren. But if I had a child that wants to play football, would you let him? Yeah, I'd let him to some extent. But football definitely is a sport that the body's not designed for, whether it be your knees, your ankles, your shoulders, your neck, your spine - not everybody can play football.

GREENE: Well, what's your message then? I mean, if there's a young kid in America dreaming of being you - I mean a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Like, what is your advice to that kid's parents in terms of how they should handle that dream?

NAMATH: I don't believe putting limitations on anybody is the right route to take. You could be a ballerina, and your feet could be hurting you so many days of the year for the rest of the year - 30, 40, 50 years, man. You do that much dancing on those feet and your back, you're going to come up with something down the road. Do you tell her not to be a ballerina? Do you tell her not to dance because her back is going to be bothering her 20 years from now? If they have a passion, and they're willing to pay the price to excel and make their dreams come true, it's - I'd have to be there, man, before I could say, no, you can't do that. I wouldn't dare say that, and I couldn't see myself doing that.

GREENE: Well, let me finish with this. I mean, you wrote the book as four quarters, you know, sort of following through the big Super Bowl and your life at the same time. It was a really cool structure.

NAMATH: You know, this four-quarter business came up - well, you know, it's been a part of my life when it comes to sports - certainly football. And I remember when I was getting ready to turn 50, a buddy came up and was busting my chops. He said, man, you're going to be 50. You're old. And then I started thinking, damn - old (laughter). I didn't feel old. And I started to think about my people and how long my mother was living and how long my dad lasted. And I decided to make a plan at 50. I plan to live to 100.

GREENE: Oh, I like that.

NAMATH: Now, it might not work (laughter).

GREENE: So 50 was halftime is what you're saying.

NAMATH: That's what I say, yes, 50 was halftime, man. And you've seen - I've seen a lot of games won and lost in the third and fourth quarter. I don't want to go out on a bad note. I want to keep growing, being productive, keep learning and keep loving, man. I want to be a positive dude the rest of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Joe Namath, it's been a real honor and pleasure talking to you.

Thank you so, so much.

NAMATH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.