All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters
- By Joe Namath with Sean Mortimer and Don Yaeger
- Little, Brown and Company
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by David Bruce Smith
- May 13, 2019
The former NFL quarterback and showman recounts his journey from a small town to the big time.
Joe Namath’s cosmic quarterbacking career with the New York Jets and the Los Angeles Rams might not have happened without help from his three older brothers:
“Bob and Frank were the ones who taught me how to throw a football from the ear to get a quick release…Bob played quarterback until he quit high school so he played the position best…Frank even developed his throwing style from studying Bob…Growing up with rough, all-American brothers, they were going to teach me things, sure, but in a rough do it now and how I tell you style. They could have showed me once and left it at that, but they wanted me to do it perfectly.”
According to his new memoir, All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters, Namath’s hometown of Seneca Falls, Pennsylvania, was a baseball-loving community. And though all of the siblings were skilled athletes, Joe was the early, luminous standout in basketball, baseball, and football; for that, and more opportunities in the future, they pushed him to excel and win:
“Sports were taken very seriously in my area — they were a way to get into college and a better life. Dads often said, ‘Son, you’re going to get a uniform when you get out of school. It might be an army, navy, or marine one, or a baseball, football, or basketball one — it’s up to you’”
After Namath’s high school football team won the 1960 Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championship, he received a flurry of offers from Major League Baseball — sweetened with bewitching bonuses of $15,000 to $50,000 — that were rebuffed. His parents’ recent divorce had turned a happy household upside down:
“The divorce…had caused a rift with [my brother] Frank so my dad stayed out of the decision about whether I should play pro baseball or college football. So we had a meeting and I talked it over with my mom and brothers and their vote was simple and unanimous: They all wanted me to go to college. Bob...asked Mom what she wanted and when she said college, he slammed his fist down like a judge with a gavel. ‘That’s it. You go to college.’”
Namath’s first choice was the University of Maryland. He was rejected because of low SAT scores, but an assistant coach who’d taken a liking to him called Alabama’s Bear Bryant, who recruited Namath for that school the following year:
“I got a return ticket…to enroll in the University of Alabama…As if to test my decision on that trip, as the bus drove through the town of Holt, I noticed a fire in a field….I looked at this big burning cross with around twenty Klansmen in their white cloaks and hoods. Oh man…this is real, I thought. It had been a steady escalation from the separate drinking fountains, the bus seating, and now the burning cross and Klansmen.”
(Seneca Falls, by contrast, was Norman Rockwell-like and entirely integrated.)
Namath played three seasons with the Crimson Tide, but Alabama was a cultural catastrophe. The state was rigidly controlled by its new governor, George Wallace, who was sweet on segregation and kind to the Klan.
In 1965, Namath was signed by the New York Jets — a rebranded version of the Titans — by Sonny Werblin, a savvy entertainment heavy from Hollywood with a tender spot for the thugs in “West Side Story.” He agreed to pay Namath $427,000 over three years, a record salary.
There wasn’t much fizz in the team’s history, but Namath, as quarterback, invigorated it. He was named AFL Rookie of the Year and AFL All-Star in his first season, and later garnered AFL All-Stars in 1967, 1968, and 1969 despite knee injuries that required draining during halftimes and surgeries. Any agony was bumped off with a robust cocktail of doctor-sanctioned painkillers, Namath’s Johnnie Walker, or both.
By 1969, the Jets’ ramped-up performance had positioned them to play the Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl — but as the longshot. Three days before the game, an exasperated Namath retorted to a doubting heckler at a Miami sports banquet: “We’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.”
The press and the public were incredulous, but Namath’s prediction was correct. Almost overnight, Ordinary Joe morphed into a superstar. He was photographed walking in New York’s theater district and nicknamed “Broadway Joe,” was sought out by the society pages, “seen” drinking in Manhattan clubs almost nightly, and sighted at Bachelors III, a restaurant he co-owned with Bobby Van and Ray Abruzzese.
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered Namath to divest from the business immediately — it was a conflict of interest, he claimed — but Namath refused and quit the Jets. He re-joined the team 30 days later.
Eventually, Namath segued into commercials for Flex All 454, Nike, Olivetti typewriters, and pantyhose. During the 1970s, he was in television movies and a stage production of “Picnic,” guest-starred on “The Love Boat,” “Here’s Lucy,” and “The Brady Bunch,” and appeared on “Sonny and Cher,” “The Flip Wilson Show,” “The Dean Martin Show,” and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in.”
In 1977, Namath left the Jets a second time, signed with the Los Angeles Rams, ached through another injury, and retired at the end of the season.
During the 1980s, Namath performed in summer-stock productions and was a cast replacement during a Broadway revival of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.” He married a 22-year-old he met in voice class, had two daughters, and continued working as an actor, NFL commentator, television host, and occasional fill-in for Johnny Carson.
Namath’s drinking continued until 1987, when he entered rehab. He stayed sober until his 2000 divorce, but then relapsed. Happily, he detoxed a second time and has been dry ever since.
David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books and founder of the Grateful American Foundation, which is celebrating its sixth year of restoring enthusiasm about American history for kids — and adults — through videos, podcasts, and interactive activities, and the Grateful American™ Book Prize for excellence in children’s historical fiction and nonfiction focused on the United States since the country’s founding.