The time had come, Joe Namath said, to talk of many things. That's why Joe was at SUNY Cortland on that rainy Aug. 5. He had arrived to talk with head coach Rex Ryan, his coaches and his players, in particular one young quarterback named Mark Sanchez. To talk into the NFL Films microphones and cameras for a best supporting role on this summer's first edition of HBO's "Hard Knocks." To talk about his new Internet venture, BroadwayJoe.tv.
But Namath was also on hand to talk about the latest line to be added to his curriculum vitae, the most recent of the many awards and achievements he earned for his career in football — his induction Monday night into the Jets' new Ring of Honor at their new stadium, to be unveiled during halftime ceremonies at the preseason opener against the Giants.
And in his still well-modulated speaking voice, redolent of his western Pennsylvania roots and his Alabama coming of age, Namath talked about the Ring as only he can.
"For 42 years I've been getting patted on the back and pointed out. It's a joy. Winning the championship has been a major part of my life," Namath told newyorkjets.com of that iconic Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Jets' display case earned after that superlative 1968 season. "The Ring of Honor came up and I was told about it, and it was kind of like, 'Well, yeah, but OK, who else?' And to hear Don, Winston, Klecko, Weeb, Curtis — that's where it's at for me."
If you talk to some of those players now, they will all talk about the same things: what a great student of the game Namath was, what a great teammate and fan favorite he was and remains to this day, and how his star power helped him carry the Jets and the American Football League on his broad shoulders toward Jan. 12, 1969, and beyond.
"Some people have that rare commodity that makes them a star that just glitters and shines," former teammate John Dockery has said. "Joe had that quality. He was like Muhammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio, a cut above."
Steve Sabol, the godfather of NFL Films, has said, "We're not saying Joe Namath's the best player in the history of professional football. We're just saying he's professional football's biggest star."
Frank Ramos, the Jets' longtime public relations director, reminds: "What more can you say? He's the guy who made a league." Ramos remembers Namath working the fans, signing autographs for a half hour after each practice — including two-a-days — at training camp. He remembers his teammates voting Namath their offensive captain before the '68 season, and their MVP after it.
And Larry Grantham, the Jets' all-star linebacker, recalled Joe the teammate, who brings all the old boys back together once a year at his golf tournament and traveled to visit Grantham in the hospital several times last year, and Joe the grind, who was the only Jet besides Grantham allowed to take a film projector out of the Jets' complex, because those two called all their units' plays.
"I've said before Joe would've made one of the most fantastic football coaches that would've ever been, if he wanted to go in that direction," Grantham recalled. "He knew people, he knew football, he knew the game, how to throw the ball, how to run the ball."
Take the Super Bowl. Don Maynard, Namath's partner in pass receiving excellence and a fellow member of this Ring of Honor inaugural class, was limited for the big game with an unpublicized leg pull. But Namath executed a vital part of the plan on the Jets' second series when he fired a pass deep downfield and Maynard did everything to catch up to it and look well doing it.
"It was incomplete, but the Colts were scared to death," Grantham recalled. "They started backing off of Maynard, double-covering him, zoning him, and we could run off the short side with Matt Snell. Joe kept calling the same play, basically, 19 Straight. That's the way Joe was. He was able to adjust on the field once we put the game plan together. Whatever was working, he knew how to stay with it."
It always comes back to Super Bowl III. It always has to come back to Super Bowl III. Namath was the first in NFL/AFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season in 1967. He rang up 496 yards and six touchdowns — on 15 completions! — in his magical duel against Johnny Unitas and the Colts at Baltimore in 1972. His Jets career attempts (3,655), yards (27,057), 300-yard passing games (21), TD passes (170) and starting wins (63, including two in the '68 playoffs) all remain franchise records. (As do his 215 interceptions, but what of it?)
Yet it will always come back to 17-for-28 for 206 yards, no TDs, no INTs, 16-7, and one finger in the air. What more can be said that hasn't been said already about that AFL-NFL Championship Game trophy of 42 years ago that so wants company on a nearby Jets pedestal.
Well, what more do you want Joe to say about it? He's still game.
"I've been getting a lot of credit over the years on a day-to-day basis. wherever I go, Florida, New York," Namath said. "That Super Bowl's not going away. People remind me of it constantly. And they're always smiling when they talk about it.
"I was with Don Larsen on an interview show once and he was asked again about his perfect game for the Yankees in the World Series. And after he was done I asked him, 'Don't you ever get tired of talking about the perfect game?'
"He waited two beats and then he said, 'Why should I?' "
So say what you want tomorrow night, but dust off your old autograph collection and talk once more about Namath and "The Game." And remember that despite all the acclaim for one game and one career, for No. 12 it was and always has been about more than No. 1.
"I expect to be here, in the Ring of Honor — damned right, I expect to be in it," Namath said. "But I want to be in it because of the other guys. I know what it means to them. Yes, I'm happy my name will be up there. But I'm not greedy, I never have been greedy. Thank you very much. I know it's something special. And I know it's very special for them."