Thirty-five days separated Alabama’s victory against Auburn at Birmingham’s Legion Field and its New Year’s Day game against the University of Texas in Miami’s Orange Bowl. During that brief period the economic, social, and cultural foundations of college and professional football shifted. It was as if someone turned on the lights to reveal a new game.
It began with two decisions in the Empire City. New York had always been Janus-faced. There is the Wall Street New York, buttoned-down, gray-flannel-suit conservative with an eye on the bottom line and a nose for the next big deal. At the other extreme is the Times Square New York, Barnumesque, glitzy, full of unabashed hustlers and borderline con men on the make. The city’s two football teams represented the two poles, which the 1964 NFL draft illustrated perfectly.
Two days after Joe Namath and Tucker Frederickson showcased their talents on national television, the National Football League and the upstart American Football League held their drafts. For weeks sportswriters had debated who the New York Giants would select with their number one choice: the handsome, durable Frederickson or the fragile, brilliant Namath.
Predictably, the Giants chose Frederickson, a player in the mold of Frank Gifford. It was a safe pick. He may not have been a great player, but he was more than dependable and his all-purpose versatility seemed to fit the team’s profile. Just as predictably, the fullback immediately signed a low-six-figure contract, virtually ignoring the Denver Broncos, who had selected him in the AFL draft.
Eleven names were called before the St. Louis Cardinals chose Namath twelfth in the first round. Some of the players picked before him would enjoy exceptional NFL or AFL careers—Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, and Craig Morton among them. Others would have brief, uneventful stays in the pros. The AFL rated Namath higher. With the second pick in the AFL draft, the New York Jets chose the quarterback.
Unlike Tucker, Joe’s season was not over, and until it was he could not ink a contract. But he could talk with representatives from both teams. And during the next month the constant talk—by Joe, by the Jets and Cardinals, and by sportswriters—drove his price ever upward.
With professional football increasingly embracing the passing game, Namath knew there would be a high demand for his services, even though he had not been the first player selected in either draft. He read the columnists who wrote that he could sign a three-year deal, plus a bonus, for as much as $100,000, even $150,000. Not long after the draft, Coach Paul Bryant asked Joe, “Do you have any idea what you’re going to ask for?” Namath replied that he didn’t, but that he liked the sound of $100,000. In that case, Bear advised, “You go ahead and ask them for two hundred thousand.” Namath was shocked by the amount. “Well, hell,” Bear reasoned, “you may not get it, but it’s a good place to start. You may only get a hundred and fifty.”
Namath daydreamed about $150,000. To him it was a figure as impossibly high as $1 million. It was like Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon, the kind of thing one dreams about but never imagines will actually happen. So when the representatives of the St. Louis Cardinals came to his dorm room in Tuscaloosa to talk money, Joe mentioned $200,000—and a new car, which he thought should be part of any contract. The representatives seemed shocked, and they left shortly after the discussion. But, Namath said, a few days later they got back to him, suggesting that the two hundred thousand and the car were his if he would sign immediately, before he talked with the Jets.
“They went for it, huh?” Bryant said when Joe reported the Cardinals’ offer. “Well, you got something pretty good going. You’ve got to talk to the Jets now.”
Two hundred thousand was Namath’s moon. He never thought that there was something out there higher than the moon. And he instinctively knew that the negotiations had gone beyond his limited financial talents. He had just advanced to the stage of carrying a wallet. But using the newest technology available once again—Joe had, after all, been the first player on his junior high team to use a facemask—he armed himself with an agent to aid in the negotiations. His new faceguard was named Mike Bite.
And like Joe’s pal, Hoot Owl Hicks, Bite had attended the University of Alabama, and like Hoot Owl worked as a football manager. After graduation, he went to law school, graduating in 1956. Short, with small, dark eyes, a dark complexion, and a hook nose, Michael W. Bite looked like a B-film Hollywood lawyer who represented clients out to make a quick buck off some scam. The truth, however, was less dramatic. He was primarily a property lawyer who dealt with the humdrum world of real estate and mortgages.
One day, while golfing at Joe’s Ranch House, a private club in Birmingham, Bite received a call from the young Namath, whom he had met through his ongoing association with the Alabama football team. “Hey, there’s this guy named Werblin wants to know who my lawyer is. What’ll I do?” With that, Bite began to work on the first and only personal service contract of his life.
Bite’s greatest gift to Namath was his sheer naiveté regarding negotiations. He knew nothing of the established parameters surrounding an athlete’s value and therefore had no mind to follow these traditional standards. He prided himself, rather, on interpersonal instincts: “I got good street sense. I know how to evaluate a situation. And money don’t scare me. In this business, everyone’s cold hard core is money. My job is to estimate how far down I have to go into that soft friendly exterior to get to that core. All of the fatherly advice and good buddy small talk—that’s all a bunch of horseshit! Everybody operates by the bottom line—by how it’s going to affect him and his personal wealth. Sometimes the core is a lot deeper than expected; and sometimes certain people can lull you into feeling that they are genuinely concerned with your interest more than their own. But the core of selfish concern is always there, baby. Always.”
So Bite approached the negotiation process with his and Joe’s interests firmly in mind. To his way of thinking, someone was going to win and someone was going to lose during the process. His first target was the St. Louis Cardinals. To the people across the table from him, he appeared rigid, and sometimes downright silly in his demands. The Cardinals’ representatives certainly felt so. They had entered the market for Joe Namath with a business-as-usual attitude and were surprised when Bite proved ignorant of the old-boy rules of the NFL. The Cardinals, in short, asked Bite to dance, and he quite simply had no idea what the music was and no intention of pretending to understand a single note.
The first meeting with Bill Bidwill, owner of the Cardinals, was at Tuscaloosa’s Moon Winx Lodge, an establishment that undoubtedly had seen its share of negotiations, but not high-level football deals. “We are prepared to offer Mr. Namath…” Bidwill began. Every time Bite and Namath, who was also present, made counteroffers, Bidwill’s response was invariably along the lines of, “Ohhh my God, woaaaahh, geeeeeeeeez!” And that’s how it went. Bite felt the Cardinals’ offer was too low in absolute terms—money, that is—but he also saw the Cardinals’ approach to obtaining Namath’s services as less than enthusiastic. “Sure, Namath has never played a down in professional football and, yes, he has had some knee problems in college,” Bite conceded. “But you’ve got to see the larger picture. You’ve got to recognize what this boy is and what he’s capable of being for your”—Bite made sure he did not use the word “team” at this point—“franchise.”
“We recognize his potential, Mr. Bite, but there are many incoming rookies with great potential—”
“You’re talking about football and I’m talking about a star!”
“I don’t think I understand…”
But Bite understood all too well. St. Louis could only think in terms of football and not of stardom. It was a town of local television and local radio stations where local athletes advertised for used car dealerships and dry cleaners. This idea of “stardom” as Mike Bite presented it simply did not exist in eastern Missouri. Football was what St. Louis had and football was what St. Louis offered.
“The Cardinals’ football club is expecting to be competitive in the near future. We hope that Mr. Namath becomes an integral part of our program” is what they said, but “Small-time, small-time, small-time” is what Bite heard—loudly.
Jets owner Sonny Werblin met Bite and Namath in Los Angeles for the initial negotiations. Werblin’s lawyer was Robert Schumann, a tax lawyer who also represented such Hollywood clients as Howard Hughes. (Schumann’s offices were in Washington, D.C., but he flew out to the West Coast midway through the negotiations.) The experience was operatic. On December 6, 1964, the Jets’ owner took Joe and Bite to see the Jets play the San Diego Chargers at Balboa Stadium. They went in a limousine driven by the actor who played the Lone Ranger on television. A better actor than driver, he immediately got lost and the three men ended up at the San Diego Zoo. The situation got worse when they finally made it to the game. Balboa Stadium was a rickety, sorry excuse for a professional arena, and there were only 16,225 people in attendance. On the field things did not look much better. The Chargers’ quarterback, Malcolm “Dick” Wood, came from Auburn and had a rifle for an arm. The problem was that if he hit his receiver, which was a rare occurrence, he would knock him down. To make matters worse, this mediocre player led the Chargers to a 38–3 rout of the Jets. “We played baseball in high school in better stadiums that this,” Bite thought to himself. “We played junior high football games in front of this many people. What the hell am I doing here?! Good God this is rinky-dink! Joe is a diamond compared to these guys. Where the hell are the Giants?” (There had been a rumor that if the Cardinals signed Namath, he would be traded to the Giants.)
For the time being, though, Bite was in negotiations with the New York Jets. Fittingly, Werblin was neither apologetic nor concerned with what occurred at Balboa Stadium. He had other ways of winning over a prospective client and intended on using them. What he lacked in football skills he more than made up for in personality and influence. It seemed to Bite that Werblin knew everyone in California. What kind of guy can get the Lone Ranger to drive them to a football game? The kind of guy who could also stop by and pick up Jane Wyman for dinner at Chase’s. The actress, who appeared in such classic films as The Lost Weekend, Magnificent Obsession, and The Yearling, joined Werblin, Bite, and Namath for fondue. Throughout the dinner, other motion picture stars and executives came to the table to pay homage to Sonny. Suddenly for Bite it did not seem so rinky-dink anymore; he began to realize that this guy was important. Werblin made Namath feel just as special as all of the top actors in the restaurant. Made him feel that there was no real difference between a football player and a movie star in his world—it was all a matter of celebrity, publicity, and salesmanship. There was a definite excitement to it, but Namath remained cool. He sat unobtrusively while the visitors to the table came and went. Like a gambler, he took it all in. But Bite knew that the exterior cool hid a Beaver Falls–Alabama kid ready to move into Sonny’s orbit.
First they had to negotiate. Bite equated negotiations to blowing up a balloon: You wanted as much as you could possibly get, so you blew hard; but you were always just a little bit away from busting the thing, so you needed to know when to stop blowing and tie it off. “Mr. Werblin”—and it was always “Mr.” with Werblin, no “David” or “Sonny,” and it remained that way for Namath and Bite (although they were “Joe” and “Mike” to Mr. Werblin) throughout their association with Mr. Werblin—“what we’re looking for is something in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, with a few added incentives.” Bite had pitched the big number and Werblin did not flinch—no “ohhhs” and “geeeeezes,” just a stony cold complacency that might have been outrage or relief at the amount given, but nothing apparent. Maybe Mr. Werblin did not do business like the Bidwills, Bite thought. Maybe he just did not put on the whole production of feigning disbelief at large amounts of money but still felt the same trepidation beneath his mask.
Maybe, but Bite was about to bet it all that this time he was in the ballpark right from the start of the negotiations. It was just a feeling, but a good feeling was better than a bad one. “Joe, come here,” Bite said as the meeting proceeded. They went into an adjoining room, out of hearing of Mr. Werblin. “Joe, get on your knees and say your prayers,” Bite began, his poker face giving way to childish giddiness. “I’m gonna give a great big puff and we gonna bust this balloon or we gonna get out!” Bite genuflected dramatically and grabbed Namath and brought them both to their knees. “Oh Lord! I’m gonna blow real hard!” They returned. Mr. Werblin still looked calm. “This goddamned son of a bitch never gets tired!” Bite thought. “All right Mr. Werblin, here’s where we stand…” And that was it.
* * *
During the weeks after the Alabama-Auburn game, while Bite and Werblin went back and forth negotiating the contract, Namath and his teammates prepared to play the Texas Longhorns. The game, like Namath’s contract, signaled a new age for football. Arguably they were the two best teams in the country. Earlier in the season the Longhorns had spent a month as the top-ranked team, but then Texas lost to Arkansas 13–14 when Coach Darrell K. Royal went for the win rather than the tie after a late-game touchdown. Texas won the rest of their regular-season games and carried a 9–1 record to Miami. Alabama, of course, was 10–0, and the Associated Press had already named them the 1964 national champions.
But the 1965 Orange Bowl game was greater than the records of Texas and Alabama. It was the first bowl game to be televised in prime time and, in the phrase of the day, “in living color.” For thirty years, since the first Orange Bowl in 1934, the contest had been played in the afternoon, mostly in sunshine, though occasionally in driving rain and wind. Now, to meet NBC’s football-filled schedule—the network had the rights to televise the Sugar, Rose, and Orange Bowls on January 1—the Orange Bowl would be played under the lights.
It was a dramatic and meaningful move. On January 1, 1964, the Sugar, Cotton, and Orange Bowls had all begun at the same hour, followed by the West Coast broadcast of the Rose Bowl. But NBC’s 1965 EST lineup was: Sugar Bowl (2 p.m.), Rose Bowl (5 p.m.), and Orange Bowl (8 p.m.). “Armchair quarterbacks may require spring training to condition themselves for a rigorous football schedule,” noted a New York Times reporter.
The arrangement virtually guaranteed that the Orange Bowl would garner a prime-time ratings bonanza. In 1964 only 5.5 million homes watched the Orange Bowl, compared to 16.3 million for the Rose Bowl, which overlapped with the East Coast prime time. In 1965 the premier slot went to the Orange Bowl, and experts confidently predicted that it would be the most watched college football game in history. They were right. More than 25 million American homes had their TV dialed to the game.
The combination of format, time slot, and audience made it more than a game—it was a stage, a showcase for any player who could impose his will on the contest. One of the finest defensive players was Texas’s junior linebacker Tommy Nobis, a good-natured, redheaded, freckled kid from Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. He was one of the early proponents of weight training, and his combination of strength, mobility, and intensity was redefining the position of middle linebacker. Alabama’s star, of course, was Namath. Recovering from his knee injury, it was his chance to show Sonny Werblin and millions of Americans that he was the best college quarterback in America.
On Monday, just four days before the Friday game, Namath was quarterbacking a shadow drill. He took a snap, turned to hand off to a halfback, and dropped to the ground, clutching his knee in pain. “Oh, no, not this,” Bryant groaned when he saw Joe go down. Later in the locker room, as Joe had ice packed to his knee, Bear talked to reporters. Running his hands through his hair, he explained the cold facts about knees. “It won’t even start swelling badly until tomorrow. That’s when it will hurt him…then it will take a couple of days for the swelling to go down.” Thinking over his options, he continued, “Sloan will start if he is able.” But of course, Sloan was still hobbling around on a bum knee as well. “This is disheartening. It means we’ll have to change our entire pattern of plays. We had planned our offense for this game around Namath. Sloan’s at his best on option plays, but we threw the option out for this game because we didn’t want to risk further injury to him.”
Stretched out on a training table, wincing in pain as trainer Jim Goostree probed his knee, Namath said, “I’ll play against Texas.” When Bryant looked at him, he repeated, “I’m okay, Coach. I’ll be ready to play.” It was a guarantee. Bear just shook his head, telling reporters, “He’s just being…well, himself. I would have been surprised if he hadn’t said he will play. He’s just that kind of player.”
But Bear was unconvinced. “As of now, Sloan is my starting quarterback,” he said as he left the room.
* * *
The wind-whipped, driving rain had stopped and the Orange Bowl was filled for the nighttime finale of the bowl season. In the locker room under the stands, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and black tie, Texas coach Darrell Royal stood in front of a green blackboard. Sitting on benches facing their coach, Longhorn players waited for him to say something. Instead of talking, he turned to the blackboard and in a steady, elegant hand copied a recent headline from a Miami paper: “Nobody lives as tough as we do—P. Bryant.”
Pausing, giving his players time to think about the quote, Royal walked over to a water cooler and got a drink. Every eye in the locker room followed him. The players waited, tense, ready for action. Assistant coach Pat Culpepper recalled that Tommy Nobis was sweating, the cords of muscle on the back of his neck bulging. Then, still without a word, Royal returned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote, “B.S.—DKR.” Finally he turned to his team and said, “Let’s go!”
Both teams emerged from their locker rooms at about the same time. They were greeted by a blast of fireworks, the clang of cowbells, and an explosion of Rebel yells. Before them was the Orange Bowl, done up like a football version of Disneyland. There were elaborate floats, fake orange trees with real oranges Scotch-taped to their branches, and, just past the end zones, brightly colored coral reefs with an array of beautiful girls in bathing suits lounging on them. In the stands were 72,647 spectators, some drenched and still dripping water from the shower that had hit Miami less than an hour before kickoff. Although The Jack Benny Show and The Jack Parr Show had been bumped from their Friday time slots by the game, there were enough celebrities in the audience to make up for it. Jackie Gleason, the popular television personality and “adopted pet” of Miami, strolled onto the field with a blonde on each arm to watch the coin toss. From the stands former vice president Richard M. Nixon (accompanied by Bebe Rebozo), Governor George Wallace, and Princess Takako Suganomiya of Japan watched “the Great One” go through his act. So did more millions of television viewers. The Miami Herald reported that it was the largest audience to ever witness a sporting event.
The rain had stopped by game time, but the wind was still swirling with gusts of 15 to 20 miles per hour. Alabama won the coin toss and elected to take the wind and play a field position game. Without Namath in the game, Bryant assumed that his defense would contain the Longhorns and the game would be a tight defensive struggle. For most of the first quarter Bryant’s assumption was dead on. Texas was able to make a handful of first downs but not mount a significant drive, and the Sloan-led Tide was hardly able to move the ball at all.
Then in an electric moment the game changed. On second and nine from Texas’s 21-yard line, Alabama called a stunt, sending their defensive end inside the tackle. Texas called the perfect play. Ernie Koy took a pitchout, broke through the space vacated by the end, and raced 79 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest touchdown run by a Texas back in four years. Texas led 7–0.
Alabama had been behind several times during the season and always came back. On the next series, Sloan led his team on an impressive drive, mixing runs with short and long passes, including a 42-yard strike to Ray Ogden. But inside the 20, Sloan missed his receiver on third down, and the reliable David Ray attempted a short field goal. This time he missed.
The Longhorns took the ball on the 20, but only gained six yards in three plays. Koy’s punt was high and long, driving Alabama back almost 50 yards, inside their own territory. But a red flag lay on the ground near the line of scrimmage. Offsides, Alabama. Texas kept the ball. On the next play substitute quarterback Jim Hudson threw a bomb to a streaking George Sauer, who caught the ball in stride and carried it into the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown play. Texas led 14–0, and if Alabama players were not panicking, they were beginning to ask themselves some hard questions.
During the regular season only Florida and Auburn had scored 14 points against Alabama, and no team had scored more. Alabama prided itself on smart play and defense. But a boneheaded mistake—the tackle had lined up over the scrimmage line on the punt—had allowed Texas to keep the ball, and the vaunted Tide defense had been shredded on two long plays. In Building a Championship Football Team, Bryant’s popular book on coaching, Bear listed five “must nots” in his ten “Defensive Axioms.” Number one was, “The defense must not allow the opponent to complete a long pass for an ‘easy’ touchdown.” Number two was, “The defense must not allow the opponent to make a long run for an ‘easy’ touchdown.” With plenty of time remaining in the second quarter and an entire second half, it looked like Alabama was bent on surrendering all the “must nots.”
After the score, Americans cross the country watched a commercial and waited for the Texas kickoff. But on the Tide sideline, with a warm, humid breeze increasing his discomfort, Bryant had shed his rain slicker and sport jacket and replaced his checkered fedora with a beat-up Alabama baseball cap. “Sartorial splendor had been sacrificed to the urgency of the hour, and comfort,” wrote Benny Marshall. Bryant was thinking, plotting a way to get back in the game. He needed something dramatic—and he needed it now.
Moving alongside Jim Goostree, he asked, “Can Joe play?”
“Yessir,” Goostree answered. “Joe can play.”
During the kickoff, Bear called for his team captain, the player he said was the finest athlete he had ever coached. With Joe at his side, Bear placed one of his big hands on his shoulder and said something into his quarterback’s ear. Then he signaled time out.
On the Texas sideline Pat Culpepper had his back to the field while he gave instructions to the Horns’ defensive team. But hearing a huge roar from the Alabama side of the field, he turned to see what all the commotion was about. He would never forget the sight. “There was Bear, hat on his head and arm around Namath, walking his quarterback onto the field. He walked him all the way to the hash mark, then turned around and walked back to the sideline.” He had literally physically delivered Namath into the game.
Namath’s right knee was heavily bandaged, and he wore white soccer shoes with short cleats to prevent them from grabbing too much turf. After Bryant left his side Joe sprinted toward the Alabama huddle. With the Alabama stands exploding in excitement, the Tide band playing their fight song, and Namath flashing across the field in his new passing shoes, it was the dramatic moment the team needed. “I wish I could paint you a picture,” Culpepper said. “I had no idea of what was going to happen, but there was a feeling that something was going to happen.” Certainly the Alabama offense Texas had prepared for—the Steve Sloan option and short pass game—was off the table.
A mishandled kickoff had resulted in poor field position. The ball was on Alabama’s 13-yard line when Namath took the field. He handed off to Wayne Trimble for a two-yard gain on first down. On second down he dropped back and threw a perfect pass to surehanded sophomore Ray Perkins for a 25-yard gain. He hit Perkins for eight yards on the next play, then missed him on second down. After a one-yard run to midfield, Alabama faced fourth and one. All thoughts of playing for field position had vanished when Namath went into the game. He called a running play that picked up the yard.
With the ball on Texas’ 49-yard line, Namath completed an 11-yard pass to Trimble, and two plays later a 15-yard pass to Tommy Tolleson. The ball was now on the 23. Another completion to Wayne Cook advanced the ball to the nine, and a short run moved it to the seven. Joe finished the drive with a pass to Trimble in the end zone. The score was 14–7, and Alabama was back in the game.
The drive had seemed inexorable. “Namath dropped back seven yards to pass faster than anyone alive,” Culpepper said. “We just couldn’t get to him. We played an eight man front, blitzed linebackers—nothing. We couldn’t get a hand on him. He’d just drop back, look, raise up on his toes, and fire the ball. And I mean fire it. We had great linebackers, but Namath would throw the ball right between them. Tremendous velocity. And he’d put it right between the numbers.” Almost fifty years after the game, Culpepper wrote, “To this day I have never seen a quarterback as accurate or with as quick a release as Namath on that New Year’s Night.” To make matters worse, water from the pregame storm had gotten in the telewriter, making it impossible for the defensive coordinator to send diagrams from the press box to the sidelines. They came out smeared and indecipherable, as blurred as the flight of a Namath pass.
Pregame predictions of a defensive struggle now seemed foolish. With Namath in the game Royal knew his offense would have to score more than 14 points. Following Alabama’s score, Texas mounted their own drive. The Longhorns opened up their throwing game, converted a fourth and one, and reached the Alabama 29-yard line. On fourth and five they went for a field goal, which was blocked by Creed Gilmer. David Ray scooped up the ball and cut for the open field but was hit from his blind side and fumbled the ball. Texas recovered on the Alabama 38.
Alabama rushers sacked Hudson on the next play, only to have it nullified by a holding penalty. Three plays later Koy bulled two yards into the end zone, giving Texas a 21–7 lead. Bryant’s “Defensive Axiom number 3” emphasized, “The defense must not allow the opponent to score by running from within your 5-yard line.” Alabama had now failed to uphold their coach’s three primary goals. And there was almost no time remaining in the first half.
The second half belonged to Namath and Alabama. Although Texas altered their defensive strategy, effectively rushing only two men and keeping the rest back to stop the passing game, it had no effect on Namath. In Alabama’s first possession, he marched the Tide down the field with surgical passes, including one to convert a fourth and eight. The final pass of the series was a 20-yard strike to Perkins. Both Nobis and linebacker Timmy Doerr dove toward the ball, but Namath had thrown it hard and low. As the linebackers fell to the ground Perkins caught the pass and lunged into the end zone. Alabama had narrowed the lead to 21–14.
In the press box New York Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank watched Namath pass Alabama back into the game. He bubbled like champagne. “Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous,” he kept repeating, thinking about the contract he had in his pocket that was complete save for Namath’s signature. It was an enormous amount of money, but… “Reminds me of Unitas,” he said. “He doesn’t have to be tutored. He could take a pro team right now.”
On the Texas sideline Royal realized that the best way to stop the Tide’s fabulous quarterback was to keep him on the other sideline. That meant the offense had to grind out first downs. Led by Koy, they ate up some time, and their defense was able to get a stop, but by the end of the third quarter Namath was engineering another drive. On the second play of the fourth quarter Ray kicked a 27-yard field goal to cut Texas’s lead to 21–17. Almost a quarter of play remained—and the last quarter virtually always belonged to Bear’s team.
Throughout the game it seemed as if Texas had gotten every break. Batted balls, fumbles, and officials’ calls all seemed to go their way. But midway through the final period Alabama got a break when starting quarterback Marv Kristynik’s pass was batted into the air and landed in the hands of Alabama guard Jim Fuller. With the ball on the Longhorn 34, Namath hobbled back onto the field. After a run lost two yards, he completed two passes that moved the ball to the six-yard line. On first down, power back Steve Bowman advanced the ball to the two. On second down he was stopped for no gain, and on third moved the ball to the one.
Darrell Royal apparently had read Building a Championship Football Team and noted axiom 3, the same one Alabama had not upheld—don’t allow your opponent to score by running from within your five-yard line. From the press box Texas’s defensive coach had called “74 Goalline,” which called for the seven down linemen to submarine under the Alabama blockers and allow Nobis and the other linebackers to make the tackle.
Namath saw what Texas was up to. “I thought I saw an opening. The time before…I could see the linebacker moving. I thought I could make it.” Limping, hurting, and a signature away from making more than the president of the United States, he called his own play. It called for center Gaylon McCollough to work with right guard Wayne Freeman to push back the Texas left tackle, opening a sliver of space for Joe to wedge through. But just before the snap, Nobis moved into the gap between the tackles, nose to nose with McCollough. Making an instant decision, McCollough snapped the ball and drove straight into Nobis.
McCollough centered the ball, and, he wrote, “the two lines crashed into each other like 14 bulls, straining and twisting for all we were worth.” He hit Nobis and fell into the end zone. “I looked for Namath. It was easy to find him. He was lying on top of me in the end zone. We jumped up and began to celebrate.” One official indicated, “TOUCHDOWN!!”
Culpepper saw it differently. “On the snap of the ball, the Texas linemen beat the Alabama linemen to the punch and Nobis buried Namath as the Alabama quarterback tried to sneak to his left side.” Later after watching the film of the stand, defensive coach Mike Campbell told Culpepper, “Pat, not only didn’t Namath score, not one damn Alabama jersey crossed the goalline.”
But the referees had no film to review. The line judge ran toward the play and asked, “Did he score?” “Yes,” one official said. But the head official took the ball, placed it one foot away from the goal line, and signaled Texas ball.
Alabama did not get that close to the end zone again. The game ended 21–17.
Bear Bryant never complained. When McCollough said Namath had scored, Bryant replied simply, “If [Joe] had walked in there would be no question about it.” Nor did Namath grouse. After the game a fan told him, “Good game, Joe. Good game, boy.” Namath shook his head and said, “It wasn’t good enough. It didn’t get us over.”
* * *
About 5,000 miles away from Miami, Joe’s brother Sonny Namath sat at his kitchen table in the married quarters of Sullivan Barracks in Mannheim, Germany. Sipping a cup of coffee, he looked over the headlines in the Army Times. When he saw his own last name he read more closely. Something about the Alabama quarterback signing a big professional contract. That would be his little brother Joey, he thought. As he read, he made a face. “Oh, Christ, they made a mistake there.”
“What’s the matter, Sonny?” his wife, also a lifer in the Army, asked when she saw the look on his face.
He answered that “the stupid paper” never got anything right. She knew all about the Army Times’s problems. It seldom got even the most mundane facts completely correct. Even items such as the ranks of Army officers inevitably got screwed up by the paper. “What’d they do this time? Make [General] Mark Clark a private?” she asked.
“No, they got a story about Joey signing a contract with the Jets. Got one too many zeros, though. Says here he got four hundred thousand!”
“Think they’d have caught something like that.”
“Four hundred thousand. Ain’t nobody in this world worth four hundred thousand dollars! Christ almighty, this stupid paper. You ever heard anything so silly?”
Reflecting on the amount, Sonny added, “They must have meant forty thousand. Jesus, he’s really doing great. Joey got forty thousand dollars to play football! Did you ever hear anything so crazy? Forty thousand dollars to play football?!”
“Your little brother made the right decision, I guess.”
“Good for Joe.” Sonny drank his coffee and let the number sink in—the forty, not four hundred, thousand. “That’s an awful lot of money just to play a game. Unbelievable. He’s really doing great. Good for Joe. Good for Joey.”