Shades of Namath as Sanchez Treads Into Dangerous Territory
"Let Noxzema cream your face so the razor won't," coos Farrah Fawcett. "You've got a great pair of hands," Namath tells her, before ending the television commercial with a sly grin.
It sure was great to be quarterback of the New York Jets. The city craved a leading man, and Namath gladly embraced the role from the mid-1960s through the '70s. He was Broadway Joe, oozing charisma and delivering on Super Bowl guarantees. But before he went all sexpot for the cameras, before he made his lust for the foxes and the broads so blatantly public, Namath cleared a few key hurdles.
He completed some passes, won a few games. After that, New York devoured Namath like spun candy on a stick.
Mark Sanchez, the newest QB for the J-E-T-S, has only just begun wearing the red jersey in mini-camp. But glossy pictures of him are plastered all over the team's practice field, courtesy of teammates and coaches eager to poke fun at Sanchez's attempt to be the next David Hasselhoff.
Sanchez posed for a racy pictorial for GQ magazine a few months ago – "well before the draft," he said Thursday -- but the June issue only hit the stands this week. There he is on page 158, wearing nothing but tiny red swim trunks as he runs on a Southern California beach, looking like an extra straight out of Baywatch. He's a super-cool lifeguard in the next spread, a stud nuzzling bikini-wearing model Hilary Rhoda in other shots. The clothing Sanchez doesn't quite wear is a throwback to the '70s, the decade Namath owned.
It's all a bit too much for New York, a city that prefers its athletes prove themselves on the playing grounds before they strip down for the cameras. Local radio hosts and callers are aghast at Sanchez's brazen step over the line. He hasn't even completed an NFL down, they scream. Who does he think he is, they wonder? Tom Brady? Maybe USC coach Pete Carroll was onto something when he said Sanchez could use another year of maturation in college instead of leaping early into the professional pool.
The New York Post featured news of the GQ pictorial on the front page, and led their story with this: "Walking sex has a new name, ladies." The gossip pages report Sanchez might be dating Rhoda, an admitted fan of the Washington Redskins. It's all so -- yes, get used to it -- Namathish.
full feature at GQ.com.)
The comparison to Broadway Joe is ludicrously premature, off course. But it's certain to haunt Sanchez, who has already shown flashes of Namath's charm and panache. Sanchez accepted his teammate's rookie hazing, laughing at the steamy pictures littering the training grounds. For a guy who hasn't officially won the starting job and has yet to sign a contract, he isn't shy about slipping into the starring role.
"I sure lobbed one up for them to hit it right out of the park," Sanchez said of the pictorial. "They had some good pictures up in the locker room. It was funny. They called me David Hasselhoff and all that, so it was good."
Why did he agree to participate in the photo shoot? In this American Idol generation, in this look-at-me world, the more apt question is probably, why not? After all, Sanchez was reared in Hollywood's shadow.
"I was getting ready to get drafted, and it is almost like one of the 'bucket list' kind of deals. You are going to do a photo shoot with a super model. Are you kidding me? That's one of those, you've-got-to [situations]," Sanchez said. "It was so long ago and the guys in here even told me, 'Hey, you earned it. You did well in college. You are in the spotlight. Have fun with it.' Now they know and the Jets know, or they wouldn't have drafted me, that I'm all about football. I told them ahead of time what was going to happen so we were all on the same page. It was a fun thing, but that's over. It's all about football."
Jets coach Rex Ryan says he's just happy it was the buff Sanchez posing for the pics "and not some of our linemen." Kellen Clemens, Sanchez's main competition for the starting job, went out of his way to praise the rookie's grasp of the playbook and noted he was also doing a fine job handling the teasing.
And what does Namath think of all the fuss over the guy who might -- and there's still a heavy emphasis on might -- someday be worthy of wearing the white cleats? Namath happened to be in the city this week when the Sanchez photos were released. Namath is working on sobriety, on keeping his surgically repaired body as healthy as possible, and he hasn't much interest in piling on. He dodged the subject as if it was a Baltimore Colt lineman, circa 1969.
"I'm excited for the Jets and to see what this young man can do," said Namath, who is in New York for the United Way's Gridiron Gala. "We saw last season in Atlanta and Baltimore how a young quarterback can led a team, so all things are possible. It depends on the structure of the team, on the people around him, on the coaches and front office, but certainly, this should be an exciting season for Jets fans."
Forty years have passed since Broadway Joe guaranteed the Jets would win Super Bowl III. He signed for $400,000 in 1965, a salary of epic proportions back then. The deal included a green Lincoln convertible, and after Namath added a Super Bowl ring and an MVP plaque to his etchings, he was bigger than anybody who wasn't a Beatle. Forever surrounded by broads and booze, Namath was the first athlete to truly cross over into media superstardom, a sex symbol playing the most glamorous position in American sports.
In his first training camp with a team that was then advertised as the "Go Go Jets," the boy from Beaver Falls, Pa., with a southern drawl acquired from his college days at Alabama, naively offered a reporter a glimpse into his personal life. "I love them all," Namath said. "A filly with brown hair is all right. So is one with black hair. But blondes, they come first."
Eventually the newspapers and magazines would be filled with stories about his carousing and late-night drinking. He never really tried to dodge the limelight, wondering if something could be considered a vice if he didn't try to hide it. Wasn't phoniness a greater sin? America's original bachelor sold shaving cream with Farrah, wore pantyhose in another commercial and hawked everything from La-Z-Boy recliners to sneakers (his model was aptly called "Swinger.") When he wasn't dating the world's most beautiful women and hanging in bars until sunrise, Namath somehow found time to throw 173 touchdowns, complete 1,886 passes for 27,663 yards and bring the Jets their lone championship.
The fantasy lifestyle is still a strong lure for athletes, its pitfalls all the more public. But posing for some harmless photos with a pretty girl in a men's fashion magazine hardly means Sanchez has succumbed to the siren's song. If Namath is a semi-cautionary tale (he won the sport's biggest prize while inflicting extraordinary damage on his body), Sanchez thus far seems determined to not be taken down by the game.
"I don't think [there would be] quite as much of a buzz in Jacksonville. No knock on their city, but this is New York," Sanchez said. As his airplane circled above the bright lights and headed home to Florida, Joe Namath might have been thinking the very same thing.