Graduating by degree

Four decades after Joe Namath left the University of Alabama for what was then the richest contract in pro football, he’s still competitive. He has nothing to prove, except a point, which is the reason he’s almost finished with his senior project. Barring a last-minute setback, he plans to graduate in May.

Blame it on his elder daughter, a sophomore in Tuscaloosa.

“My daughter Jessica made a statement that she would be the first to graduate from college in her family,” Namath, 63, said in a telephone interview. “And that rubbed me wrong. I mean, it fired me up. That was the catalyst.”

Taking correspondence courses and attending weekend classroom sessions with fellow external degree students allowed Namath to close a gap that’s existed since the conclusion of the 1965 Orange Bowl, when he signed with the New York Jets for a then-record $400,000.

“Jessica got him back in school, but the real motivation is his mother,” said Birmingham attorney Mike Bite, one of Namath’s oldest friends. “Before he signed with Alabama, he promised his mother he would finish his degree.

“I think what he’s doing is great,” Bite added. “He’s motivated other players who’ve called me and asked how they can do the same thing.”

Namath’s pursuit of his oft-delayed degree has been a hot rumor, but he’s rarely discussed it publicly. He actually lacked just a few credit hours when he left Alabama.

“I was studying to be a schoolteacher and football coach, but some things change,” he said. “I’m not going to teach at this point.”

He’s switched to humanities. Thanks to his daughter’s proclamation that she’ll be the first Namath to get a degree, he plans on beating her to the punch.

“The only thing that would stop me from taking a regular job is regular hours,” he joked, recalling the overnight shift at a Tuscaloosa paper mill during college.

“That job taught me that I always yearned for freedom.”

The Hall of Fame quarterback’s glossy new autobiography, “Namath,” opens with a two-page, black-and-white photo of him leading the Beaver Falls (Pa.) High School team to the line of scrimmage against a backdrop of coal-stained homes and factories. It closes with another dramatic shot of him, in midair, firing a pass for the Jets at a packed Shea Stadium.

In between are anecdotes tossed at the speed of a Namath spiral, spanning his youth to the end of his NFL career, including one giving the real reason he wound up playing for Bear Bryant at Alabama.

Namath signed with Maryland, but needed to raise his entrance exams score to qualify for admission. In the book, he explains: “All I needed to do was improve those about 10 points to get the ‘official’ acceptance to the university. But as it were, I honed my verbal skills engaging young ladies in conversation while I perfected my math skills adding up the Seven and Sevens that I drank at a refined New Castle tavern.”

Namath was 17 at the time. But the theme of booze and women followed him the rest of his life.

He ended up at Alabama thanks to the persistence of Crimson Tide assistant coach Howard Schnellenberger. Namath came close to accepting a $50,000 contract to sign with baseball’s Chicago Cubs as an infielder before Schnellenberger whisked him to Tuscaloosa – with the promise to Namath’s mother, Rose, that he would get his degree.

The newest book is the fourth family-themed account from Namath, who also shared an author credit with Dick Schaap during his playing days.

But the 2004 release of the critically acclaimed Mark Kriegel biography, also titled “Namath,” told a more complete story, painting a detailed picture of Namath’s battles with his demons from his parents’ divorce, accusations of gambling and womanizing and his battles with alcohol. Yet the quarterback emerged as a sympathetic, if not heroic, figure.

Namath said he has not read the book, which was written without his involvement.

In December 2003, Namath wound up in the headlines with his sideline appearance during a Sunday telecast of the Jets and New England Patriots on ESPN. He appeared intoxicated and openly flirted with reporter Suzy Kolber, asking if he could kiss her.

Soon after, Namath entered an outpatient alcohol treatment program.

“I made a mistake, a bad mistake that sunk in,” Namath said in the interview. “Suzy was a terrific young lady when I called her right afterward and apologized. That incident helped me come to grips. I knew I had to change because I disappointed many, many people.

“I look at it as a blessing in disguise. It changed my life.”

Namath has served as spokesman for various entities, including ESPN Classic Sports and for arthritis treatment – the latter a natural, considering the 26 significant injuries he suffered during his college and pro careers.

Namath gave the AFL credibility by leading the Jets to the Super Bowl III victory over Don Shula’s heavily favored Baltimore Colts, cementing his status as a football icon.

Now, he’s content with being remembered as a father to Jessica and 15-year-old Olivia, who lives with him in Palm Beach County, Fla. But even for Broadway Joe, parenting is tougher than beating the NFL champ.

“I wish I could tell you what she is going to do with her life,” Namath said. “She’s 15, a lot going on in her world.”


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