Namath on Namath, Mark & Eli - and regrets

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
12:44
AM ET
Joe Namath was surrounded by a group of reporters Wednesday night, a few minutes after his life was splashed across the big screen, when a young woman interrupted and handed him a cup of coffee. Namath joked that he thought it was Johnnie Walker.

"See how things have changed?" asked Namath, whose drinking and legendary womanizing were included in the HBO documentary, "Namath," which premiered in New York at the HBO Theater.

Namath has mellowed from his party-boy days, but there's one thing he's not planning to change: His sharp opinions about the Jets. While he expressed some regret about criticizing his former team, which he has done often over the last few months, Namath insisted he's telling it like it is.

"I feel awful about it, I feel awful about my relationship with the Jets right now," he said, referring to owner Woody Johnson, GM Mike Tannenbaum and coach Rex Ryan. "I don't want them upset with Joe, but damn it, I have to say what I see, what I think, what I feel. I think they can do some things better, no doubt."

Clearly, Namath believes the problems stem from the leadership, not embattled QB Mark Sanchez, who has been criticized in recent weeks by teammates.

"Mark made some mistakes this year, no doubt, but he can play," Namath said. "It's only his third year, man. You see guys out there who have played longer than that, making those same mistakes. He's going to learn from his mistakes and he needs the help around him.

"He presses at times, he wants to do things because he's expected to, and I think he got a little tired of being, 'The kid this, the kid that.' Hey, he's made it through three seasons now, and he's not a kid. He's a man out there. He's a man and, if they get the people around him, he's going to be fine."

Namath mentioned Eli Manning and how he turned around his career. (By the way, the most famous Jet of them all is rooting for the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI because he doesn't "know anybody up in Massachusetts I care about.")

"How about our man, Eli?" Namath said. "Hey, excuse me, he wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms and ... standing ovations those first few years. He endured. He's tough, he's wonderful and he's improved ... Eli is better than he was three years ago, two years ago. Right now, Mark Sanchez is going to better than he was this past season."

In "Namath," a wonderful documentary about the legendary quarterback's incredible life from Beaver Falls, Pa., to Broadway, there's a part about Namath maturing in his fourth season and becoming a team leader. "Enough Playboy," former teammate John Schmitt recalls saying to Namath.

Maybe there's a lesson in there for Sanchez.

As for the documentary, which debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday, Namath admitted he was reluctant to be interviewed.

"No, I didn't want to do it, are you kidding me?" he said, adding that it's "hard when you have parts of your life you don't care to talk about or share."

In the end, Namath liked the finished product. It's a revealing look at his life because it tackles some of the taboo topics -- his womanizing, his drinking and his divorce. Some of the best parts:

• Never-before-seen footage of his high-school days in Beaver Falls, Pa., plus some great highlights from Alabama, the 1968 AFL Championship Game and Super Bowl III. Before his first knee surgery, Namath was like RG III -- what an athlete.

• His sister describing Joe as a "PIA" as a young boy -- pain in the ---.

• Namath's blow-by-blow account on how he negotiated a three-year, $427,000 contract from the Jets.

• Namath recalling the awkwardness of trying to explain to his mother why he had mirrors on his bedroom ceiling in his Manhattan apartment.

• Namath recalling a steamy love scene with actress Ann Margret and, of course, an explanation on the famous pantyhose commercial.

• Schmitt describing the jealousy opponents felt toward Namath: "Every guy on defense wanted to be the guy who broke Joe's leg."

• Teammate Matt Snell recalling that Namath sometimes showed up so hungover that the players smelled "the fumes" in the huddle.

• Namath reliving his drinking days, how alcohol "nearly killed me," and how he sought help after the infamous "I-want-to-kiss-you" interview with ESPN reporter Suzy Kolber in 2003.

After the screening, Namath was asked about his friendship with Mickey Mantle, another icon who battled injuries and alcohol.

"Mickey, when he left us, he said something that folks laughed about, but it was true: If he thought he was going to live that long, he would've taken different care of himself," Namath said. "He lived longer than any other male in his family, he just didn't know. When I fell into a trap with drinking, it didn't cross my mind at the time to keep going, but I'm joyful that I've been able to stop and live a different life. Hell, I wouldn't be here today if I kept up that pace."

You may not like Namath's opinions, but you have to agree that he's one of the most fascinating athletes of our time.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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