SAN FRANCISCO — Joe Namath has all the respect in the world for Vince Lombardi. The trophy he won to solidify his place in NFL history is named after the man. Yet Namath can’t help but remember the time Lombardi told his players that when they reach the end zone, they should “act like you’ve been there before.”
Namath’s exasperated reaction to that concept was the same then as it is now. “I mean, come on!” the 72-year-old MVP of Super Bowl III said on Radio Row on Friday.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the guy who became an American icon not just on the field but off it, who brought style and flamboyance to a sport starched with stoicism, whose fur coats and white cleats and Fu Manchu signaled a change in the culture not just of football but of society, is a fan of Cam Newton’s.
Much like Namath in the late 1960s, Newton is a Super Bowl trailblazer. Forty-seven Super Bowls removed from Namath, Newton is rattling the establishment and flaunting conventions, and he seems to be having as much fun as possible while doing it. Those Versace pants he wore at the beginning of the week would have looked right at home in Namath’s closet circa 1972.
“I believe in a player being allowed to express his feelings,” Namath said. “As we know, I came from a couple of different generations ago when that kind of emotion wasn’t displayed. These days, this last generation or two, it is displayed. So what’s wrong with that? People are enjoying it, especially the ones who are Panther fans.”
Namath compared those who criticize Newton to those who root against the most successful sports franchise of all time, the Yankees. He said there are more Yankees-haters around the country than Yankees fans.
“When you win, there are those folks out there who want to see you lose,” he said. “They don’t like Cam’s dancing because he’s winning. They don’t like him expressing himself that way . . . If you don’t like what Cam’s doing, beat him. That’s the only way to shut him up.”
Newton faces an obstacle in public opinion that Namath never had to overcome. “Race has always been an issue. It’s always going to be an issue with people who don’t have the better sense to not let it be an issue,” Namath said. “Hatred, judging people, feeling those kinds of things in your body is not healthy. There are always going to be bad and there is always going to be good, I hope, and hopefully the good keeps outweighing the bad. If people have that problem, it’s their problem.”
Namath also is a fan of the other quarterback in the game. He said he hopes Peyton Manning plays two or three more years, just because he selfishly wants to see more of him. The general expectation is that Manning will retire after Super Bowl 50, but Namath said he believes that if he is healthy enough to play, he will continue to do so.
“If Denver were to win, would that influence him going out on top? He is on top!” Namath said. “He has been for a long time. I want to see him play some more. I hope he plays some more.”
And maybe not just in Denver.
“If he’s physically fit and the Broncos don’t want him, I’d give him a good look right out there in New York Jet territory, how about that?” Namath said.
Style-wise, though, Namath is much more of a kindred spirit with Newton. He changed the game and changed perceptions, just as Newton seems to be on the verge of doing these days.
In some ways, Namath might even be responsible for everything we see this weekend, from the scope of the game to the swagger of the players to the way the country ingests its favorite passion. “The game, football as we knew it years ago, has changed,” he said. “It is entertainment. It is show business. And when you win, you can do it.”
It’s a lesson Broadway Joe taught us almost a half-century ago, one he’s still preaching.