For New York fans of a certain vintage, the date always circled in red on the calendar of memory is June 15, 1977. That was the day the Mets gave away Tom Seaver for a song, the day the music died for a couple of generations of sports fans who learned a harsh lesson that midnight massacre, that nothing is truly forever.
Still, for many of those fans, there had already been a dress rehearsal for all of those feelings of loss and dread. Because for so much of the late ’60s and early ’70s, New York sports was defined by a two-man band: Seaver for the Mets, and Joe Namath for the Jets. If the sight of Seaver in his Mets No. 41 was as reliable as the sunrise, so too was Joe Willie and his No. 12 jersey, his white cleats, his birdcage facemask.
But it was Namath who, in early January of ’77, had gone on “The Tonight Show” and told Johnny Carson in no uncertain terms: “I want to play for the Rams. If that can’t be worked out, I’m giving up pro football.” That was news to the Jets, although they were more than happy to pass on the $450,000 option they’d been pondering.
So on May 12, the Rams signed Namath. Namath said he hoped to play “four years at least” in Los Angeles. He wound up getting four games. The last, a rainy October Monday night at Chicago’s Soldier Field, he chucked the ball 40 times, half of which were caught; the problem was, four of those wound up in the hands of the Bears.
He never took another snap.
But the damage was already done. To his ribs, thanks to the Bears’ defense, and to his knees, which were always made of ribbon and Scotch tape. But, more tellingly, to something else.
Because the last image of Joe Namath on a football field — at a time when “Monday Night Football” reached 20 million fans each week — he wasn’t just beaten up and bloody. He was wearing a helmet with a yellow horn on it. He was wearing a completely foreign white-blue-and-gold uniform. That was an outfit befitting Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Roman Gabriel, later Kurt Warner.
But not Joe Willie Namath.
Certainly not for those who thought the epitome of cool was a green No. 12.
Tom Brady doesn’t appear anywhere as close to the end of the line in 2020 as Joe Namath was in 1977, but that won’t make the sight of him in the red, bay orange and pewter No. 12 vestments belonging to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers any less jarring. Maybe we can prepare for these things better now; the back page of Wednesday’s Post, for instance, provided a nice preview of what that will look like thanks to the magic of Photoshop.
Still: after two decades of Brady wearing blue and white, with the ultra-stern looking patriot on either side of his Patriots helmet, it’s going to take some getting used to, even if he’s able to finagle his old number away from Chris Godwin, Tampa’s incumbent No. 12 (and as Godwin is a wide receiver newly dependent on Brady for his livelihood, that might be a sound career choice).
We are intimately familiar with the roster of athletes who made regrettable late-career choices, looking like impersonators in their final acts upon the public stage.
Michael Jordan always looked like someone dressed as Michael Jordan for Halloween during his two-year career coda as a Washington Wizard. Johnny Unitas, forever quarterback, donned the Chargers’ old powder blues, forever uniform, and yet that ending was bloodier than “Uncut Gems.”
Willie Mays as a Met fell down in the outfield once; alas, it was Game 2 of the 1973 World Series, and so “Willie-Mays-falling-down-in-the-outfield” has become a catch-all to describe a superstar sadly robbed of his superpowers. Joe Montana played well as a Kansas City Chief, but his final moments in the league were being carried off, senseless, after taking a playoff beating by the Buffalo Bills. Brett Favre as a Jet looked like he’d been body-snatched; as a Viking he merely suffered the dueling indignities of an ill-timed interception and an ill-advised cellphone selfie.
You know the rest of the roster by heart: Hank Aaron, Milwaukee Brewer? Clyde Frazier, Cleveland Cavalier? Martin Brodeur, St. Louis Blue? Patrick Ewing, Seattle Sonic/Orlando Magic? Surely, Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneer, has too much game left to join this list, or to suffer the same late-game fate as that other famous No. 12 who was also known, in his day, to enjoy the company of a beautiful woman.
Even in the ghastly colors of red (yikes), bay orange (ugh) and pewter (blech).
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