Originally created 05/12/02

Namath has learned to live with pain



CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Forget those notorious knees. Joe Namath wants to talk about his thighs.

He rises slowly from his chair and gestures toward the back of his left leg.

"It's a grapefruit!" he says.

Or possibly a cantaloupe. Namath's hamstrings rolled up like window shades when he snapped them 30 years ago, and the repairs left a large knot in each leg.

He also has new knees, bum thumbs, a bad back and a foot that tingles at night. He has coped with arthritis since he was 23, and three years ago a divorce that separated the NFL Hall of Famer from his two daughters sent him into depression. There was more pain on Sept. 11, when he happened to be in Manhattan, a few miles from the World Trade Center as it collapsed.

New York City proved resilient, just like Broadway Joe.

"I plan on being around until I'm about 100," he says. "If that's the case, I'm just in the early third quarter."

The quarterback remembered for guaranteeing the New York Jets' Super Bowl victory knows there is none. But he turns 59 on May 31 and still embraces life with the charismatic zeal that has long made fans cheer.

His summer football camp will soon begin its 31st year, and he works for ESPN, CBS SportsLine, an investment group and a drug company. He speaks at arthritis seminars, recommending a good diet, attitude and exercise regimen to reduce the pain he knows so well.

He offers advice on other topics, too.

"If any of you ladies are unhappy with the pantyhose you wear, I'll let you know what kind I like," he tells an audience of several hundred in Coral Gables.

The mostly female crowd loves Namath and his big nose, stooped shoulders and Pennsylvania brogue.

He enters the banquet hall with the jaunty grace unique to athletes, and when he flashes an infectious grin at the roomful of arthritis sufferers, they react like a Shea Stadium crowd after one of his touchdown passes.

Following a series of questions for other panelists about symptoms and medication, a woman addresses Namath.

"I just wanted to tell you I think you're one of the greatest men who ever lived," she says.

"Thank you," he responds with a smile. "Is that a wedding band on your hand?"

Namath does not tell the audience that after 14 years of marriage, he divorced in 1999, and that caused his greatest pain.

He remained in Florida, where he has had a home since 1966, while his ex-wife and their daughters - now 11 and 16 - moved to California. He misses the kids terribly.

"It's better today than it was a couple of years ago, but that was the most devastating thing I had ever gone through," he says.

"At one point I had to take medication for depression. I started hurting and felt awful and had these chest pains. Depression can make your body do some strange things and feel some strange ways, man. You get up in middle of the night and you can't breathe. You're consumed."

The situation improved when Namath, who lives north of Palm Beach, bought a second home in Los Angeles. That allowed him to visit his daughters more often.

"Some pain never goes completely away, but you learn to deal with it and make the best of it," he says.

"There was a time, maybe a year and a half ago, when I was with my girls in California, and we were driving somewhere and they were laughing and seemed so happy. And that's what's important - not necessarily how I feel or what we've been through, but that they're happy and healthy. It just dawned on me. So that was a help."

As for the other aches, knee replacement surgery 10 years ago allowed Namath to walk without hurting for the first time since 1965. Throbbing thumbs give him the most trouble now, sometimes keeping him awake at night, but he says they're better since he started taking arthritis medication.

He tries to follow his own advice by staying active. A golf buddy says Namath swings as if he's standing in cement and still shoots in the 70s.

He learned long ago how to play hurt.

Like Namath, former Jets teammate Jim Hudson underwent knee replacement surgery and says every player on their team needed at least one knee operation. Even so, Namath stood out.

"He went through more pain than anybody," Hudson says. "He's one of those lucky people - well, I don't know whether you call it lucky, but he's one of those people who has a very high pain threshold. He played with pain when other guys wouldn't have thought about doing it."

Namath still holds most Jets passing records and still wears the Super Bowl ring he earned for the 1969 upset victory he guaranteed. He recounts his long list of injuries cheerfully, regarding them as souvenirs of a well-spent youth.

"Three torn ligaments in my right shoulder, one in my left, a broken wrist, a broken cheekbone, a broken ankle, two severed hamstring muscles. Do dislocated fingers count? I only had one of those, actually."

Concussions?

"Back then we didn't know what a concussion was," he says. "We knew what smelling salt was."

The most painful injury was to a nerve in his left leg, requiring his fifth knee operation.

"My foot stayed numb for 4 1/2 years," he says. "At night at times, it still gets hot and tingly."

When asked to recall the hardest hit he ever took, he lists three and describes them in detail with surprising relish. Clearly this is someone who loved contact, even when he bore the brunt of it.

"We were playing the 49ers at Shea, and I had just thrown the ball and I got hit in the head, and everything went gold," he says. "I got up and walked over to their huddle, and they looked at me and I said, 'Hey, I don't know which one of you so-and-sos hit me, but that was a hell of a hit."'

Not all of Namath's injuries resulted from football. He earned those knots behind his thighs water-skiing near Great Exuma Island, Bahamas, in 1972.

When a new rope snapped, so did Namath's hamstrings.

"No doctors were around, either," he says. "They helped me in the boat, and my body started vibrating because I went into shock."

Thirty years have transformed an awful injury into a funny story, and now he's shaking again, this time with laughter.