It has been 32 years since Joe Namath last played quarterback for the New York Jets, and the city has yet to fully recover. Namath, more than Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, or Derek Jeter, set the psychic parameters we dream of in our New York athletes. Sure, everyone remembers the Super Bowl guarantee, but Joe Namath truly shone because he appealed to New Yorkers, with whom he resonated as a counterculture figure out promoting the virtues of random, anonymous sex, facial hair, and a stiff Scotch. It’s how Namath could say things like “I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde” and still end up on Nixon’s enemies list. He was a superstar, but, more important, he was a New York superstar. No one since has come close.
Which might help explain the orgasmic reaction when the Jets traded for Brett Favre. On the surface, the two men couldn’t be more different. Namath invested in an Upper East Side bar named Bachelors III; Favre has sold himself as a tractor-ridin’, huntin’, fishin’ good ol’ boy for so long that you wouldn’t know the guy made more than $11 million last year. Namath did ads for pantyhose; Favre’s main two sponsors are Wrangler jeans and Snapper lawnmowers. But you know what? We’ll take it. Have you seen the other quarterback who plays in East Rutherford? Eli Manning is our Super Bowl MVP who, in his likable but slack-jawed way, claims one of his favorite off-season hobbies is collecting antiques with his mother and his wife. You see what we have to work with here. Brett Favre as Jethro Namath will have to do.
Favre, for his part, initially seemed puzzled that the Packers didn’t drop everything and run screaming back into his arms once he announced he was returning; he appeared almost bewildered that the drama of the last month ended with him in New York City, of all places. At his first press conference, he admitted, “I really don’t know what I’m getting into,” and after his first practice, exhausted, he wandered far off-message by sputtering, “I was wondering if I made the right move.” Fortunately, by day two, the cheesy “Favre jogs a lap as ‘punishment,’ now part of the team!” meme had taken over, and fans were oohing and ahhing to watch a quarterback who could throw farther than twenty yards downfield.
The Jets are understandably ecstatic; Favre’s arrival immediately wiped from memory the disaster that was last season. Coach Eric Mangini went from Mangenius and Vesuvio’s patron to a bitter, in-over-his-head ex-employee ratting out former boss Bill Belichick. (Spygate didn’t help Belichick’s reputation any, but Mangini came across looking almost as bad.) Most damaging, though, was the Jets’ fade from public consciousness. A 1-8 start meant there was no need to even glance at the Jets after October, and the Giants’ insane Super Bowl run further cemented their citywide NFL dominance established in the eighties. The Jets weren’t just bad; they were irrelevant.
All that is forgotten now. Knowing a stubbled gold mine has dropped in their laps, the Jets are doing all they can to ease any fears Favre might have about the tri-state area. As reported by the Daily News, owner Woody Johnson invited Favre to hunt on his private estate in New Jersey—finally, a way to deal with the bear problem!—and one team executive told Favre, “I don’t eat gumbo and I don’t deer hunt, but I am going to learn all these things.” If the Jets change their uniforms to bright-orange hunting vests, try not to act surprised.
Our local media are playing their part, too, gleefully parroting the Jets’ claim that, on Favre’s first day of practice, 10,500 fans were in attendance, more than are usually left in the second half of a Knicks game, while Sports Illustrated claimed that number was closer to 3,000. The Daily News ran a fawning Just a Regular Fella profile that detailed how, on his farm in Mississippi (“[where he] spends time riding his tractors and clearing his land and his head”), he invites local high-school football players over to fish. Mike Lupica uncorked this hummer after the trade: “Somehow, and against the odds, because these are the Jets, it worked out this way [Wednesday] night: He’s 4 New York.” (You see, that’s his number.) Favre should be used to this by now. For all his yokel, cutoff-jeans demeanor, Favre is a savvy operator when it comes to the media, fostering more ink-stained-wretch love than any athlete since Michael Jordan. It helps that the NFL is less glamorous and more eggheady than media members have space or airtime to convey. It’s difficult to explain blitz packages in a sidebar, but Favre is an easy story line, a throwback to men-being-men, flingin’ the ball downfield and seeing what happens, you know, like kids in the backyard. It’s catnip for the Lupicas and Peter Kings of the world.