Review Fix chats with Joe Namath, Game by Game: The Complete Professional Football Career author Bryan L. Yeatter, who discusses the origin and research and creative process of the book and why it’ll be an enjoyable read for any hardcore New York Jets fan.
About the Book:
This is a comprehensive reference work covering Joe Namath’s entire professional football career, following it season by season and game by game. After a lengthy opening chapter discussing Namath’s college career and his enormous impact on professional football after turning pro in 1965, the book proceeds to chronicle every game of his pro career. Chapter 6 documents Super Bowl III while the concluding chapter sizes up Namath’s career and addresses the debate over his Hall of Fame status.
Review Fix: What inspired this book?
Bryan L. Yeatter: For some reason I had looked Namath up online — maybe I had seen him on TV and gotten curious. I was interested to find so much debate online about him; it seemed like he was more controversial now than when he was playing. I saw a lot of people arguing that Namath was overrated, and while many countered that point of view they didn’t really offer up any cogent rebuttal. It made me more curious to get to the truth. I ultimately decided that a complete and thorough look at the record was the only way to find out for sure what the truth really is.
Review Fix: What was your research process like? Did you get a chance to speak to Mr. Namath or anyone who knew him well for this?
Yeatter: Namath may turn up from time to time doing TV interviews, but he doesn’t seem to grant interviews for books. I was contacted by an author who was working on a book about the Jets’ Super Bowl team, and of the surviving members of that team Namath was the only one he couldn’t get for an interview. For me, it wasn’t really a priority. Would it have been interesting to talk to Namath? Sure. Would it have been helpful to the project? Possibly, but not necessarily. Memory can be a tricky thing, and keep in mind we’re talking about events from half a century ago. I’ve seen and read interviews with retired athletes who gave wonderfully colorful and descriptive recollections of games and events that often didn’t match up with films and videos of what they were recounting. If you’re trying to document something from that long ago, contemporary sources can be more reliable than someone’s memory many years after the fact. If I had been writing about Namath’s personal life then talking to him or someone close to him would have definitely been useful, but that’s not what the book was about. The book was about the games, and that being the case, it was better to rely on accounts from that time.
Review Fix: What’s your favorite part of the book?
Yeatter: If I had to choose one part, it would probably be the chapter on the Super Bowl. It was the greatest triumph for both Namath and the team, and it was great relating all the snarky comments from sportswriters who had to eat crow after the game. I don’t know if I could think of a better example of the triumph of the underdog. And also, Namath was such a publicity magnet that he turned the Super Bowl into a gigantic event. Keep in mind the fact that the first two Super Bowls had about as much enthusiasm and attention as the Pro Bowl, so Namath really did transform the Super Bowl into the colossal national happening that it is today.
Review Fix: Any challenges?
Yeatter: Plenty. A lot of people assume that the NFL has all of the games stored in a vault somewhere, but the truth is that the majority of games from that era are forever lost. Neither the NFL not the networks kept the games. Video tape was very cumbersome and expensive in those days, and aside from saving highlights for news and sports broadcasts, the networks weren’t inclined to keep entire games. The video reels were usually wiped clean to be reused during the week for soap operas or game shows. The exception was ABC, which does seem to have kept their Monday Night Football broadcasts from the start in 1970, but that amounted to 15 or 16 games a year when you include preseason broadcasts they did. NFL Films did record every play of each game, but they would separate the highlights for use in their programs and the remainder was never seen again and was likely either discarded or deteriorated in a warehouse. Consequently, giving an account of each game meant gathering as many accounts as possible from old write-ups. While they all generally gave the same major details, I found that each would also mention details that were unique to that particular write-up. Finding quotes from players and coaches was always a bonus, and different sources would give different interviews. There were also rare instances of games that do still exist. There are games from the mid-’70s onward that are still around, but games from the ’60s and early-’70s are fairly rare. Super Bowl III was an exception, of course. What does exist are annual team highlight programs, old NFL Game of the Week shows and programs like This Week in Pro Football, and those are helpful in seeing the big plays and more significant moments.
In the end one had to be something of an archaeologist, piecing together each game bit-by-bit using as many differently press accounts and whatever highlights that could be found. A lot of the best press accounts were from regional papers which tended to give more details than the syndicates.
Review Fix: Namath threw for 4,007 yards in 1967. How would that translate to today’s numbers and how do you think he would have fared in today’s NFL?
Yeatter: I think Namath would probably do even better in today’s game than he did in his own era. I say that because the rules of the game have since been altered expressly to favor the offense, particularly the passing game. In the last chapter of the book I pointed out that 1977 was the lowest scoring season in the NFL since 1942, and the league was concerned that the public would lose interest if the games didn’t provide more excitement. Quarterbacks run up some very impressive stats today, unlike any from the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. Are they all really that much better than quarterbacks from prior eras? A more reasonable assessment would be that the rule changes did exactly what they were intended to do — help teams run up higher scores.
Review Fix: Is he overrated or underrated?
Yeatter: Probably both. I think people on either side tend to overstate their case. As it often does, the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle. When Namath was in his prime, say 1965-69, he could be very proficient but was also capable of being extremely reckless in his passing game. Once the injuries started coming in 1970 I think it was difficult for Namath and the team to get back to where they were. When Namath came back from his 1971 knee surgery and played in 1972 he wasn’t returning to the same team. He had only played six games in 1970 and only four games in 1971. He played 13 games in 1972, and actually had one of his better seasons, leading the NFL in passing yards, touchdown passes, average yards per attempt, average yards per completion and average yards per game. But while the Jets offense was number one in the NFL that season in passing, the defense ranked dead last in pass defense, so in spite of the league-leading numbers Namath put up the team as a whole couldn’t perform at the same level. Then he missed half of 1973 with a shoulder injury, and when he returned in 1974 it was really a team trying to rebuild.
Review Fix: What did you learn that you weren’t expecting?
Yeatter: I pretty much knew the trajectory of Namath’s professional career, so there wasn’t a lot there that I wasn’t expecting. I did have a couple surprises in the opening chapter when I summarized his collegiate career. I hadn’t known that in his junior year at Alabama Namath was suspended by Bear Bryant when he was seen drinking beer the night before a game, and that it forced him to miss the team’s bowl game that year. Also, I hadn’t known that he was voted MVP of the Orange Bowl in 1965 despite the fact that Alabama lost the game. It’s fairly rare for a player on the losing team to be awarded MVP honors.
Review Fix: How do you want the book to be remembered?
Yeatter: I’d like it to be considered the complete, thorough and definitive record of Namath’s professional football career. Since it gives pretty detailed accounts of every game he played, I think that speaks for itself.
Review Fix: Why should a Jets fan read this?
Yeatter: Any New York Jets fan should find it interesting because it isn’t just about Joe Namath, it’s a record of an entire era in the team’s history. It’s an account of the building of the only championship team the franchise has produced so far and how they got there, not to mention how they failed to stay on top. The book does go through the personnel changes from season to season, so it’s a good record of the team’s history from 1965 through 1976.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Yeatter: I do have various projects in different stages of completion, but I don’t tend to talk about them until they’re in the pipeline, so to speak. What I will say is that some are sports-related, some are film-related and some are history-related.