Up Close with Joe Namath
The Beaver Falls native was a standout on the football, basketball and baseball teams for the Tigers, regularly dunking in basketball games and earning several offers to play pro baseball after graduation. He ultimately chose to play football for coach Bear Bryant at Alabama, where he led the Crimson Tide to a national title in 1964. Namath shocked the football world by spurning the NFL to sign with the AFL's New York Jets, earning the nickname "Broadway Joe" before he ever played a game in New York. Just five years later Namath famously led the Jets to an upset victory in Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts – a win he boldly predicted in the days before the game. Namath retired after the 1977 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. Namath, along with George Blanda, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, will be honored at this summer’s Gridiron Gold event in Pittsburgh. PSR's Tony DeFazio caught up with Namath last month.
Tony: What makes this upcoming event so special?
Joe: Well first of all, we're together. None of the folks that you mentioned, myself included, would have gone anywhere or developed without the help of our neighborhoods or the people around us -- our teachers, our parents. I believe that everything starts at home and then we're influenced by our environment outside the house. I think this is a tribute, and I know the rest of the guys basically feel this way, if it wasn't for the folks back home and those that we had direct contact with growing up that our lives would have been different. This is kind of a way to say thank you out of respect to the people that have helped us and formed our attitudes. We didn't think of playing ball the way we played on our own necessarily. We were coached, and that kind of stuff -- your attitude -- develops at home first. This is a wonderful get together and to me its celebrating our general area and the people involved. That's where we came from and this is saying thank you in our humble way.
Tony: What was your relationship like with the other guys?
Joe: They're all special relationships. Going back to George Blanda to begin with. He's a western Pennsylvania quarterback, along with Vito "Babe" Parilli, who played for Coach Paul Bryant at Kentucky. And I didn't know that Coach Bryant knew anything about western Pennsylvania people until I got there. Before we played the Orange Bowl my sophomore year, coach Bryant is giving the starting lineup. He said, "Leroy you go ahead at center, Richard you're at wideout, Babe you go at quarterback..." And then he looked up and said, "Oh shit, Joe, you know who I'm talking about."
Those guys were special. To me, Babe Parilli was the quarterback. I'm from Beaver Falls, he's from Rochester. I was more familiar with what Babe had contributed to the area as a leader on the field and off the field. So when we got Babe Parilli on our side with the New York Jets in 1968, I was beside myself. I was tickled, boy, I had goosebumps. I was sitting beside my man. We dressed next to each other. I could not believe that Babe was the same guy that I used to look at his helmet in the Army & Navy store every day I walked past there going to see my mother at the Five & Ten at lunch time.
But George, yeah man, George took me under his wing, so to speak, when I was a rookie. We were at a charity event and he and Vito were sitting at a table. We were up in Buffalo. A lot of veterans still didn't understand about these 'Bonus Babies' and the difference with the money coming in. And George and Vito sat me down with them up there and explained a few things to me, and one thing that we all shared was our football background -- western Pennsylvania and Coach Bryant. I was able to get through the some rocky times with the vets, you see.
George Blanda, my man. He is in the Hall of Fame, great quarterback, great player, great competitor, on the golf course and in the gin rummy room, playing cards, whatever. So was Vito.
Johnny and I were able to visit over the years at various charity events. Of course Johnny was a hero of mine growing up. I wore No. 19 my senior year, at home games anyway. My senior year we gor new home uniforms and I was able to get No. 19. I always admired him when he was with the Colts, of course. One of the reasons I rooted for him, besides being a quarterback and watching the great player than Johnny was, was that we had a player from Beaver Falls on the Baltimore Colts team. His name was Jimmy Mutchler, a tight end. Jimmy caught the pass in the '59 game against the Giants that set up [Alan] Ameche's touchdown. So all of us in Beaver Falls, we were not only Steelers fans, but we were also pulling for our own.
I got to be a fan of Johnny U. and I wasn't disappointed when we met. Off the field we were able to visit from time to time at these various charity events.
Tony: You had tremendous success, obviously, at Alabama, and then it was on to the Jets. And somewhere along the way you became "Broadway Joe," yet you still remained "Joe from Beaver Falls" to so many people. How were you able to display both personalities, yet remain one in the same?
Joe: (sighs) You know, I am a Gemini. Astrologically, the horiscope stuff, I still question my mind and my thoughts at different times. I look at one side of things, yet behave the other way sometimes. It was a juggling experience in a sense. Sometimes a juggling act. All of us need to know how to get along in the environment we're in during the present. Look to the future, carry with us what's behind and everything we've learned. I was just lucky to be around a lot of people and I got a lot of help. It was near overwhelming going to the big city. And then on the other hand, walking the streets alone and feeling kind of lonely.
I could go into depth with the personality stuff, but the bottom line was I was around great people at home when it came to the sport of football. Certainly my family, but when it came to football, Weeb Ewbank with the Jets. He had been Johnny U's coach so he was a real mentor. He had a great background with the NFL too, before he came to the AFL. I just had a lot of help from the people with the Jets. Ownership tried to teach me some things about the change, where I was playing ball, how society was a little different... it was an education. Still today, it's a continuing education. Very few things are etched in stone and change is a constant.
Tony: After I watched the HBO documentary, "Namath," which I thought was teriffic, I got a phone call from my brother, telling me the film made him, "proud to be from western PA."
Joe: You know what? He hit the right spot there. I think all of us are proud and thankful to be from "W-PA." Dan Marino and I, when we first met. Then Jim Kelly and Joe Montana, all three of us too, and of course Johnny and George. We were from W-PA. Right around the Pittsburgh area, but we called it W-PA as a more general thing, and we took a lot of pride. And we were representing W-PA. Those ahead of us, we had to own up, we wanted to own up, to George Blanda, to Johnny U, to Vito "Babe" Parilli. And those coaches and everyone, yeah, we were from W-PA and we owed it to our background to do the right thing as best we could.
Tony: One issue that's important to you is traumatic brain injury. The Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at Jupiter Medical Center opened in Florida just a few months ago. Can you talk about the goals of the center and why the issue is so important to you?
Joe: The goals start out with trying to learn more about the neurological system, about trauma to the brain and what causes it, how we can help it and cure it. It's not limited to football players. There are far more accidents out there across the country and world every day where there is brain trauma. Not only to adults and sportsmen, but to mothers, daughters and soldiers. This is a part of our life and our society that we're trying to get answers to scientifically.
I'm humbled but happy that I was able to get in touch with some doctors here at the Jupiter Medical Center. In a somewhat selfish, or concerned way, because I plan on being around here a few more years. And I know I've had brain trauma, I've had a handful of concussions, and I've watched my former teammates really deteriorate mentally and physically from what the doctors felt was directly due to brain trauma. Brain trauma -- does it bring on early onset dementia? Does it bring on Parkinson's Disease? Alzheimers? The answers are not clear whether it certainly does bring them on, but it can. It may trigger them earlier.
I was able to go through a study here in Jupiter and see the results first hand of the transitions my brain made, as well as the cognitive tests that I went through for a period of a year and a half. And we know there are ways of helping people. It's a matter of getting these people access to the treatments. After my study we approached the Federal Drug Administration and showed them what we did, and the Federal Drug Administration liked the protocal that we used. They said, "It works, and we want to see another hundred cases." So what were are doing here at the Namath Neurological Center here at the Jupiter Medical Center is reaching out and finding patients that qualify for the tests. It's disppointing to say, but if someone already had dementia or Alzhiemer's, then this is not someone that would qualify for the study. The brain trauma itself needs to be at an earlier stage so we can follow the brain's development, and track the onset of these heinous diseases. We're trying to get it at its early stages.
That's not to say that people that people that are suffering now, from dementia or Parkinson's or Alzheimers', couldn't get some kind of help.
We want to find out and we're making strides every day. What causes Mike Webster to get into a depression and go through what he did? Dave Duerson, Junior Seau and so many guys that were athletes, football players. A couple of my teammates, watching them directly over the past five, six, seven years, well, we're trying to figure out how we can prevent this. And help society in general.
So that's what it's about -- the kids that fall off the bicycles, the moms and dads that are in car wrecks, the soldiers that come back... any traumatic brain injury. How do we prevent it, and how do we cure it, how do we get the blood flow going back into these areas that are affected? In my case, the blood flow ceased in a few areas and we were able to restore it with the protocal that involves chambers of pure oxygen. It's exciting. It's going to be a long haul, but we're headed in the right direction.