New Namath book explores QB’s college life during the civil rights movement
Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities
August 28, 2013
Ball State sports historian Ed Krzemiensky has written a new book that sheds new light on the 1960s college life of sports icon Joe Namath.
For Ball State University’s Edward Krzemienski, writing a book on fellow Beaver Falls, Pa., native Joe Namath about his college days as a flashy quarterback amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement reveals a great deal about the football icon.
“I wanted to tell the story about when Joe was just a college student-athlete before he became the media-created ‘Broadway Joe,’” says the co-author of “Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie’s Last Quarter.” “He was just Joe Willie back then, who wanted to have a good time, play football and enjoy life. He had no way of knowing he was going to win a Super Bowl and become one of the most beloved New York sports figures of all time.”
Krzemienski, a Ball State history professor and co-author Randy Roberts of Purdue University, have teamed up to explore how legendary football coach Bear Bryant joined forces with Namath to lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship during the 1960s.
“All the stuff that has been written about Joe focuses on New York,” he said. “When they write about his college days at Alabama, they say he was this country mouse ready to blow up Manhattan. That is absolutely not true.”
Krzemienski describes Namath as a fun-loving youngster from a mixed-raced high school when he was recruited to the all-white Alabama, a powerhouse of college football in the Southeast Conference (SEC) in a part of the country where football was and still is king.
“Joe was just this kid out of a small town in Pennsylvania, and he was just was the person Bryant needed to quarterback that team to a national championship,” Krzemienski said. “If there was a fumble, Joe would be the first guy on the ground breaking a leg to get the ball back. That is what Bryant cared about.”
The authors also focus on how Namath was on campus during the civil rights movement. In fact, he was present when Alabama Gov. George Wallace was made his infamous “stand in the school house door,” symbolically blocking the enrollment of African-Americans Vivian Malone (later Vivian Malone Jones) and James Hood.
“Joe practiced what I call indifference during that time,” Krzemienski said. “Since Alabama was segregated, on a Friday night he would go to a local African-American high school football game just to ‘watch good football.’ He was a celebrity, and it made the news and shed light on the issue.
“While in college he became friends with Vivian Malone,” he said. “When he went to the New York Jets, he was embarrassed to put up his college team football photo in his apartment because it had no blacks on the roster.”
Krzemienski has spent the last two decades working on the book, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with Namath as well as his close friends, family members and former teammates.
The project was originally intended to be a full biography on Namath, but a competing author got the contract, shifting Krzemienski’s focus. He joined with Roberts, his mentor while earning his doctorate at Purdue, to examine the role of college football during Alabama’s rise to national prominence in the 1960s.
In addition to work on the book, Krzemienski, a sports and pop culture historian, served as a consultant for HBO’s documentary “Namath,” which won an Emmy. He also appeared on ESPN’s SportsCentury documentary installment on Namath.
“I guess I know Joe as well as anyone out there since we’ve been talking for so long,” Krzemienski said. “My uncle played wide receiver on Joe’s high school back then, and both went on a lot of recruiting trips. That relationship between one Beaver Falls family and another allowed me to pick up the phone and call Namath, who has become a close friend.
“The first time I called him, his mother was still alive, and he told me she was sick because she had diarrhea That was Joe just being Joe. We like to say that no matter how hard you wash, you are still from Beaver Falls.”