Commentary

A pattern for life

Joe Namath embraced his celebrity and thrived in the NFL. Could Johnny Manziel?

Updated: February 28, 2014, 12:14 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Johnny Manziel and Joe NamathGetty ImagesA zest for life has led to Johnny Manziel (left) being compared to former Jets QB Joe Namath.

Joe Namath has heard the comparisons between himself and Johnny Manziel, perhaps the most controversial player in the upcoming NFL draft. Among the obvious things they share are hip nicknames, a lust for off-field fun and an iconic victory that catapulted their celebrity into the stratosphere. For Broadway Joe, of course, it was making good on his guarantee the Jets would beat Baltimore in Super Bowl III. For Johnny Football, it was the dramatic way he and Texas A&M beat defending national champ Alabama, Namath's alma mater, when Manziel was a redshirt freshman in 2012. No one saw that upset coming, either.

Everything that has happened since for Manziel flows from that thunderclap moment. When Namath, who has been paying close attention, is asked what advice he'd give Manziel one bon vivant to another, he says, "I've not met Johnny. But if we're in the same neighborhood or proximity, I am going to make a point of getting in touch!"

Could he imagine how a big night on the town in New York City might unfurl for him and Manziel?

"Well, we'd probably have a good meal and talk a lot of football," Namath said with a laugh. "And the rest of it, I'm not sure. I don't think I could keep up with that young guy anymore. That cat would just be getting going. And I'd probably have to get back and go to sleep by 10."

Namath, who started laughing raucously again, didn't specify whether he meant 10 p.m. or a.m.

Namath laughs loud and often all the time, by the way. He still has a vibrant view of life and football and the characters who play it -- something that should've been clear to anyone who saw Namath walk out for the coin flip at Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey a few weeks back still rocking the sort of Super Fly fur parka he wore as a player in the '70s. (This coat had its own Twitter account, @joenamathscoat, which had nearly 1,000 followers by the game's third quarter.)

He's 70 years old now, but still talks in punched-up syllables and exclamation points -- "Oh yeah! Ab-SO-LUTE-ly!" -- all the time. He still has that distinctive western Pennsylvania accent and rascal's laugh and glint in his eye. He still has that gift for parsing the details out of his stories so he leaves just enough to the imagination. Even now, decades since he threw his last pro pass, his celebrity remains so lodged in the imagination he recently signed a deal to endorse the Joe Namath Rapid Grill, "the official tailgating grill" of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A more authentic endorsement was never struck. He also keeps his NFL knowledge current by appearing as a regular guest during the season on ESPN 98.7 FM in New York. And his straight-shooting takes on the league -- and especially the Jets -- often make news.

So if there are any punches to be pulled about Manziel, Namath is not your man.

But he is qualified to speak about the A&M quarterback because, in a lot of ways, Namath already traveled the path that seems to lie ahead of Manziel, starting with being the No. 1 pick in the draft for a lousy team. The expectations for instant success. The hope that his gunslinger's charisma can lift the team beyond its limitations. Fears that injury, as in Namath's case, will cut short a career before Manziel can wring all of the magic out of his 5-foot-11¾, 207-pound frame.

[+] EnlargeJoe Namath
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesJoe Namath has not lost his flair for the dramatic as his appearance at the Super Bowl in a fur coat (and his championship ring) showed.

"Yes, his size makes it more difficult," said Namath, who was 6-2. "But have you seen that cat run?"

Manziel's outsized personality is the other thing that shadows him.

NFL teams still aren't sure if he's the second coming of scrambler extraordinaire Fran Tarkenton -- or a buyer-beware tease like Ryan Leaf, a draft bust whose incorrigible personal demons nullified whatever physical gifts he had.

But when Namath looks at Manziel, he independently echoes much of what master NFL talent evaluator Bill Polian said this week. Namath sees Manziel as a kid whose sophomoric fun has too much overshadowed what else he is. Namely? A quarterback teammates and coaches respect and respond to, a playmaker who has the off-the-charts competitiveness and self-belief to keep bringing his team roaring back, back, back, back like he did in that Alabama win. Or in A&M's bowl victory over Duke this season.

Polian, who became acquainted with Manziel firsthand when his son worked as an A&M assistant coach, actually called Manziel a "gym rat" the other day and lauded his professionalism when it comes to studying the playbook and the game.

If that's true, Namath says, than the doubts about whether Manziel can be a pocket passer could evaporate, too.

"Can he be a pocket passer? I know he can!" Namath boomed. "Pocket passers, of course, develop if they've got the men-TAL-i-ty. One of the important things about being a pocket passer is how you analyze the defense, how your mind is working, how you're anticipating things and reading defenses and knowing mentally where your receivers are and how they may adjust. So, the mind plays a major role for any quarterback."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel went from anonymous freshman to hanging out with NBA superstars like Chris Paul.

Namath thinks the more valid concern is Manziel's average height.

"It's a fact that the taller you are, the better vision you have downfield, and even the taller guys occasionally have to look through the cracks, in between players," Namath said. "So a lot of people would say, 'Well, if the linemen and linebackers get their hands up, they can bat the ball down.' And that's true. That could be a problem.

"But man, they've been bigger than him in college, too. And he's done just beautifully, hasn't he? He's exciting. He's electric. And I think he's going to be a major star."

Manziel's stats in two college seasons are unimpeachable, all right.

But there is still the sense that Manziel won't be able to restrain himself off the field. Or that he truly is the entitled, "arrogant little p---k" that he was accused of being this week on CBS Sports radio by Barry Switzer (of all people, the man who once ran a so-called bandit program at Oklahoma that produced three national titles but also a certain Mohawk-wearing loudmouth named Brian Bosworth).

Manziel comes from a privileged background. Already, he counts celebrities such as Drake and LeBron James as friends. Photos of Manziel living it up in Vegas as an undergrad or clenching a fat, lit sparkler between his teeth went viral. Alarms were set off by an ESPN the Magazine story in which his parents feared his drinking could send his game off the rails after he won the Heisman Trophy. Last summer, the NCAA also scrutinized whether he did paid autograph sessions but ultimately suspended him for only one-half of one game.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Margaret Norton/NBC/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel has already shared screen time with Megan Fox on "The Tonight Show."

But whereas Manziel has spent a lot of time and effort the past year (and especially at the scouting combine last week) trying to re-cast his image to NFL teams as a man who brings on-field intangibles but has put his youthful off-field indiscretions behind him, Namath says he didn't encounter any attempts to stifle his personality when he graduated to pro football.

"Quite the contrary!" Namath said with a laugh.

"But mine was a unique situation," Namath explained, "because it [the American Football League] was a young league, and one of our owners, you may recall, believed in the star system because he had come from Music Corporation of America, and stars and entertainment and all that. He was the president of the Jets, one of the five owners that bought the Titans, a guy named David A. 'Sonny' Werblin. And he knew that stars sold tickets. It was he who took me around under his wing, he and Mrs. Werblin. And I loved the both of them.

"So you see, it was he that introduced me to New York! He told me this is the greatest city in the world with the greatest people in the world, and he wanted me to get out there and get to know it! And -- ha ha ha -- I appreciated his guidance. I still do to this day. He was right! I don't know that Mr. Werblin ever gave me any bad advice."

But before that, Namath, unlike Manziel, did not come from a life of privilege. He was one of four sons born to a Hungarian steel mill worker in Beaver Falls, Pa., and he says his zest for going toward excitement -- the creation moment when he, like Manziel, became aware his athletic ability was going to unlock an existence for him that was different and more exciting than the life he knew -- was first whetted his junior year of college. Namath says Alabama was about to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day, and Bear Bryant gave the team a four-day holiday break that Namath used to travel home for Christmas.

"I'll never forget it because my three brothers drove me up to the Pittsburgh Airport and it was snowing snowflakes the size of silver dollars, man," Namath said, laughing. "Then I got on that plane and it landed in Miami and that door opened and I started to come out on the top of the steps and I stopped! I just STOPPED! I stopped and just looked around, you know, because it was WARM! And there were green trees -- palm trees! And red flowers, you know? In January!

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaJoe Namath says Johnny Manziel should follow Derek Jeter's example of keeping his personal life from affecting his pro career.

"I had discovered the tropics."

And a lot more pleasures since.

Namath allows that Manziel has made mistakes. But he quickly adds if he were to give any pointers to Johnny Football about how to navigate athletic stardom, especially in today's social media-saturated world, it would be to mimic a more modern-day New York hero, Derek Jeter. The Yankees' 39-year-old shortstop has somehow managed to discreetly juggle his playboy off-field life with a wholesome image as a gentleman and a winner. Even more than Michael Jordan before him, Jeter is an absolute virtuoso at saying a lot and being seen out on the town while revealing nothing.

"Johnny is a young guy, you see, and yes, he's had a difficult time early on," Namath said. "But experience is a great teacher."

When asked how he would've fared in this era of cell phone cameras and Twitter, Namath says, "I think you learn where you can best maneuver for the kind of social liberties or privacy that you'd like. And I would have learned. But first, you know -- heh heh heh -- I think I would've stumbled around --"

Pause.

"-- and gotten in a lot of trouble."

Namath is laughing again and now you can't help it -- soon you are, too.

So, if he had to sum up what Broadway Joe can teach Johnny Football?

"Let the man be himself!" Namath roared. "If I were one of these owners or coaches looking at this cat, you know what I'd say? Don't change a thing!"

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