With TV sports rights going through the retractable roof, the timing is particularly apt for HBO biopic “Namath,” which focuses on the iconic New York Jets quarterback who helped establish the NFL as the premiere league on television. The pay cabler is making a habit of serving up football-themed documentaries just before the Super Bowl, and this one’s a worthy successor to last year’s “Lombardi,” even if the two men couldn’t be more different.
The filmmakers have a heightened degree of difficulty this time around. While Namath’s most notable pro success was the sport’s most improbable — leading the Jets of the upstart American Football league to a dominating victory over the NFL’s heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, and thereby establishing the new title game’s validity — his more recent fall from grace (a pass of an entirely different sort aimed at ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber in 2003) is painfully fresher in the minds of many.
The docu traces the well-known aspects of Namath’s life, and brightens them with clips and quotes: A three-sport athlete in high school at Beaver Falls, Pa., he turned down a $50,000 contract with baseball’s Chicago Cubs because his family wanted him to go to college. He wound up with Bear Bryant at Alabama U. — where he was a moving witness to the entry of the first black students to the school — because his hard-partying ways had depressed his college board scores.
Clips reveal a swivel-hipped, blazing-fast Namath as he tears through Oklahoma in the 1963 Orange Bowl (“he was like trying to tackle the wind,” a teammate recalls), a year and a half before he rips knee ligaments in his senior year in a game against North Carolina.
Some of the pro highlights, culled from the archives of co-producer NFL Films, show that Don Maynard’s game-changing catch in the 1968 AFL championship game might not have stood up to further review from today’s replay cameras. And while the highlights from Super Bowl III aren’t as provocative, they’re likely to be manna to Jets fans, who haven’t had a Super Bowl entry since.
Still, Namath’s biggest pro contributions were off the field. He played the NFL and AFL off each other to sign a contract valued in excess of $400,000 with the Jets, owned by former MCA agent Sonny Werblin, who knew how to market a star under the glare of media lights.
And Broadway Joe was a more than willing star. He quickly earned a reputation as a ladies’ man, cashing in with endorsement deals (the most famous being his ad for Beauty Mist pantyhose) and his own TV show (with guests including Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, who, a clip shows, he asks for dating advice). To present-day cameras, he relates with relish the locker room story of how he got the famous nickname.
The docu doesn’t gloss over the 2003 sideline incident (“I want to kiss you,” an inebriated Namath blubbers on camera), but rather contextualizes it, with Namath expressing regret, Kolber understanding and forgiveness. But the reclamation project is complete only when Namath’s daughter, Jessica, paints her father as a “professional dad” who made breakfast and drove her to school every morning. When his marriage broke up and Namath again turned to the bottle shortly before the Kolber incident, Jessica says, “I was 13, and I’d never seen him drunk.”
Ultimately, the docu serves up a portrait of a small-town boy made good — a lovable rascal who lived fast in a blazing spotlight, and who, while all too human, is basically a big-hearted schlub — and now sober. That’s quite a trick for a man who still admits with a wry grin that during his playing days, he liked his “women blonde and his Johnny Walker Red.”