Namath celebrates his 70th birthday

Old No. 12 turns 70 on Friday. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Coincidentally, Joe Namath's milestone birthday occurs at a time when he's making news, tweaking his beloved Jets -- again. On a publicity tour for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Namath has been taking shots at owner Woody Johnson and his management team (past and present) and Rex Ryan and ... well, you should know his material by now.

On Wednesday, in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com, Namath questioned the signing on troubled RB Mike Goodson and took a broad swipe at the organization, saying "the decision makers have scared me the last couple of years." On Thursday, he made the media rounds, saying the Jets are "deceptive" and acknowledging his relationship with Johnson is all but shot.

"For me personally, I’ve always respected and admired Joe Namath, as I’m sure every Jet fan has," Ryan said Thursday. "Does it upset me that he will make comments or whatever? I mean, I don’t always agree with his comments, that’s it. But he has a right to them and who am I to tell Joe Namath that you shouldn’t say this or you shouldn’t say that about us or any other topic? I’m certainly not that guy."

Namath's outspoken nature has chafed many Jets fans, and that's too bad. Why? Because a lot of his opinions are dead on and because he's the only iconic player in the history of the franchise. The younger generation probably sees Namath as a crabby old dude, but let me give you some advice: Check out HBO's award-winning documentary, "Namath." It tells you everything you need to know about the man.

I'm too young to remember Super Bowl III, but I caught the tail end of Namath's legendary career. In fact, I attended his final game as a Jet, Dec. 12, 1976, a 42-3 loss to the Bengals at Shea Stadium. I have a vivid memory of one of his most famous games, Nov. 28, 1971, against the 49ers. As a young boy, I watched on my uncle's black-and-white TV as Namath, who hadn't played in more than a year because of injuries, came off the bench in the third quarter and nearly rallied the Jets from a 17-0 deficit. The Jets lost, 24-21, but Namath was the Namath of '68, throwing for 258 yards and three touchdowns in less than a half -- the best comeback that never happened. It's poignantly detailed in the documentary.

My best "Namath-is-bigger-than-the-game" memory occurred in the late 1980s in a small town in Wisconsin -- Oconomowoc. The Jets were playing the Packers in a pre-season game, and Namath did color commentary for a New York TV station. The night before the game, a few beat writers went to the best restaurant in town -- it may have been the only restaurant -- and we were greeted by a giddy maitre d.

"You'll never guess who's here tonight," he said, breathlessly.

We had a pretty good hunch.

"Joe Namath!"

He sat at a corner table with the Jets' old PR guy, Frank Ramos, and you could sense the electricity in the crowded dining room. Every time I looked over, Namath was signing an autograph, never once giving the impression that he was bothered. Men and women stopped by his table, and the women were young and old, an example of his broad appeal. It was really something to see. There, in a tiny corner of the world, a small town in the middle of nowhere, Namath was a rock star. Not many football stars, masked men on the field, could generate that type of reaction.

And then it occurred to me: For Namath, every place is Oconomowoc.

Maybe you don't like what he has to say about your team, but the man deserves your respect. For Jets fans, he's the best you've got. There will never be another Namath.

Happy birthday, Joe.