HBO looks at Jets Hall of Fame QB Namath -- then and now

About midway through HBO's new documentary on Joe Namath, we're told the story of a retired NYPD officer who spotted the groggy star quarterback on the streets of Manhattan hours before the Jets were to play the Raiders in the AFL Championship Game.

Namath didn't look good -- he'd obviously been, ahem, active the prior evening -- and the cop took this as a sign that he and his buddies should wager against the Jets that day.

This strategy did not work out well for New York's finest. Namath fired three touchdown passes in a 27-23 Jets win.

Namath built his legend on proving doubters wrong. As a rookie, his right knee was in such grisly condition a Jets team doctor warned him his career had a four-year shelf life. He lasted 13. When Namath guaranteed a victory over the vaunted Colts in Super Bowl III, Baltimore linebacker Mike Curtis remembered dismissing him as "show business." Namath dissected the Colts the following Sunday, leading the Jets to one of the great upsets in sports history.

Namath wasn't always this successful. He threw 47 more interceptions than touchdowns in his career, and the Jets had exactly one winning season in his final eight injury-plagued years with the team. He wasn't much of an actor, broadcaster, or husband, either, and his struggles with alcohol are notorious enough that a popular NFL blog is named in memory of one of his greatest missteps.

But Namath was always loved, and outrageously respected. His high profile and fat contract once made him a marked man by opposing defenses, but Namath became an elder statesman by his late 20s -- protected by teammates and opponents alike. Running back John Riggins recalled the sight of Namath hobbling off the bench to rescue the Jets in a game against the 49ers in 1971. Riggins closed his eyes as Namath labored toward the huddle, trying to imagine the raucous reception at Shea Stadium was for him. "It was an ungodly feeling," he remembered.

"That guy was very, very important to the game of football," former Rams defensive end (and "Hunter" star) Fred Dryer said. "As a cultural icon and how he brought professional football into the television era and with it a whole degree of excitement. There are great shooting stars, and the likes of him will never ever pass this way again."

Namath, 68, is now sober and seemingly in a very healthy place in his life. The pride of Beaver Falls, Pa., doesn't rule the Upper East Side nightlife any longer -- his idea of an exciting weekend now is sitting on his couch in southern Florida, live tweeting Jets games with his daughter. He's been outspoken in his criticism of his former team this season, but with Joe Willie, it always comes from a good place.

After all, Namath isn't just an ex-franchise star. He is the franchise.

"I only quit smoking, dipping and drinking," he tweeted in November. "I'll never quit on the Jets."

"Namath: Beaver Falls to Broadway" premieres on HBO on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

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