Joe Namath is now 70. So is Gale Sayers.
It’s a bit odd to think of these football legends as being the same age. Sayers seems like a generation older than Namath, not a day older.
The memories of Gale Sayers are black and white. NFL highlights of the “Kansas Comet” are of him dancing through the mud at Wrigley Field, twisting, turning and sprinting his way toward another touchdown in a game that his Chicago Bears likely lost and certainly in a season in which they were left home at playoff time.
In Sayers’ seven seasons the Bears notched just two winning campaigns and no postseason appearances.
Namath, however, played in a splash of color, joy and success.
Clad in green with a carefree smile, our image of “Broadway Joe” is him lounging by the pool in Miami before leading the New York Jets to a shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami more than forty-four years ago.
It was his greatest and, some might fairly say, only glory. But it’s not fleeting. Like your girlfriend’s ass, it only grows larger as time goes by.
Namath also lives endlessly in his commercials, broadcasting and, um, acting. Remember him as “C.C. Ryder?” If he and Ann-Margaret had made a baby the kid would either be Queen of England or Prince of Google.
When the Chicago Bears won their first and, to date, only Super Bowl during the 1985 season they honored past Bears players who had never known such success, including Gale Sayers.
But on the day the Bears won that Super Bowl the biggest cheers in the New Orleans Superdome might have been for Joe Namath.
Before Super Bowl XX kicked off the MVP of each previous Super Bowl was honored on the field as a hit song from that year was blasted throughout the dome. The first honoree was Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr who won the first two MVPs and the song was about as incongruous as a Speedo on a penguin – “The Age of Aquarius.”
Namath was next. The crowd went crazy and the song was as fitting as Namath’s smile was genuine – “Mrs. Robinson.”
Maybe if Sayers had played quarterback he would be remembered for a sunny day in Miami and not muddy days in Chicago.
Both Namath and Sayers began their pro careers in 1965. Namath was drafted by the AFL’s Jets and the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and, we know, chose the Jets.
Sayers was taken by the Bears whom he chose over the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs who went on to play in the first Super Bowl, win the fourth, and remained a top team through 1971, Sayers’ last season in Chicago.
Namath, always living in the glow of that Super Bowl win, soldiered on with the Jets well into the 70s, enjoying some good seasons but mostly not so good as he battled injuries and played on bad teams.
In 1977, he went to the Los Angeles Rams and, fittingly, made his final appearance on a Monday night, after having played in the very first “Monday Night Football” game seven years earlier. On October 10, 1977 Namath’s Rams lost in Chicago to the Bears. He threw four interceptions including one to Doug Plank on what would be the last pass of Namath’s career.
By ’77 Sayers was already in the Hall of Fame.
Namath was inducted in 1985.
Joe Namath and Gale Sayers never met on the football field. Imagine if they had played on the same team. No. 12 drops back to pass, avoids a sack and zips a screen pass to No. 40 who dodges a tackle and sprints toward the goal line.
Sayers scores and is hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders. Namath kisses a cheerleader.
Such a moment would have played well in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Kansas. Joe and Gale live without it, though, likely thankful for the success they did have and the cheers they still hear.
They played football, went to college and made a living. They didn’t have to drive a truck, sling shit or fight in Vietnam.
They were two of the lucky ones. Lucky old men.