Why Joe Namath Was the Best Player Ever in the American Football League

After two straight blowout losses in Super Bowls I and II, it appeared that the still-nascent American Football League was light years behind its much older and more powerful cousin, the NFL. The possibility of a merger of the two leagues seemed like a dream unless the AFL could somehow stand up to teams like the Green Bay Packers in the big January showdown. And then, the late ‘60s, along came the upstart New York Jets and their brash, young signal-caller, the strong-armed Joe Namath

Like Ali, Joe Namath was the greatest

Let’s start with the fact that Joe Willie Namath (as the late TV pundit Howard Cosell called him) was destined to be the greatest player in the American Football League. Namath, the quarterback for the New York Jets from 1965 through 1976, almost single-handedly put the AFL on the map, forcing the incumbent National Football League to take the upstart rival seriously.

But it was Super Bowl III, when Broadway Joe guaranteed victory for his Jets in 1968 when they faced the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, that put him on the map. The Jets won 16-7, with Namath carting off MVP honors. It also marked the first time a quarterback was at the helm for both an NCAA National Championship team (Alabama, 1964) and a Super Bowl.

From Beaver Falls to Bear Bryant to Broadway

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Joe Namath was born and bred in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, as a multisport star whose talents as a baseball player led to invites from several major league teams. The Beaver Falls area, outside Pittsburgh, was a breeding ground for several great QBs, including Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana. Like his fellow Western Pennsylvanians, Namath was heavily recruited by Division I  schools, and he ended up at the University of Alabama under the tutelage of Bear Bryant. That training ground that set the stage for Namath’s Hall of Fame career.

In 1965, when the NFL and AFL were mortal enemies, Namath was drafted No. 12 by the (then) St. Louis Cardinals and first by the AFL’s New York Jets. Fun bonus fact: The 1965 NFL draft was the one in which the Chicago Bears landed future Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.

Stats and swagger — Broadway Joe Namath

A combination of rugged good lucks and the ability to take over a game with his electric arm led Joe Namath to become New York’s favorite son earning the nickname Broadway Joe. In his 13-year career (all of which was spent with New York), Namath threw for more than 27,000 yards, leading the AFL twice in passing and once for both leagues post-AFL-NFL merger.

Aside from his fabled 1969 Super Bowl prediction, Namath’s awards include twice being named AFL’s Player of the Year, NFL touchdown leader in 1972, and selected to be included on the all-time AFL Team alongside Jim Otto, George Blanda, and Nick Buoniconti.

Beyond his celebrated passing skills, Namath was a star off the field. After turning in a less than stellar acting debut in the film “C.C. and Company,” Joe Namath moved on the small screen, starring in the 1978 dreadful sitcom, “The Waverly Wonders.” At the same time, Namath, the toast of New York, found himself being shaved by none other than Farah Fawcett in a TV commercial for Noxzema. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

A fairy tale legacy

No matter how you look at it, Joe Namath was the greatest AFL player ever.
Jets quarterback Joe Namath and head coach Weeb Ewbank. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Along his Hall of Fame career, Namath touched or was touched by greatness. One person who was instrumental in his success was Alabama coach Bear Bryant. Namath said the famed coach laid the groundwork for Joe’s work ethic and drive. “Coach Bryant had that passion and understanding that we needed or should be our best,” Namath said in his book, All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters. “Coach Bryant is one of the men who confirmed the need for individuals to have respect for one another.”

“He was the most down-to-earth, regular superstar,” Randy Rasmussen, former Jets teammate, said in an NFL.com interview. “You’ve got to admit: He was a superstar.”

At age 76, Namath is still a fixture around the New York Jets training camp and at team events. No matter how many games the Jets win or lose in each season, no player on that team will ever gain the notoriety and fan adoration as Broadway Joe.