In 1999, he was ranked number 96 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the only player on the list to have spent a majority of his career with the Jets. In his 1975 autobiography, Bryant called Namath the most natural athlete he had ever coached.
Namath is known for boldly guaranteeing a Jets' victory over Don Shula's NFL Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III (1969), then making good on his prediction with a 16–7 upset (the win remains the Jets' only Super Bowl appearance). Already a celebrity, he was now established not only as a sports icon but a pop culture icon. He subsequently parlayed his notoriety into success with endorsement deals and as a nightclub owner, talk show host, pioneering advertising spokesman, theater, motion picture, and television actor, and sports broadcaster. He remained a highly recognizable figure in the media and sports worlds half a century after his brashness cemented his identity in the public mind.
Namath was born and raised in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (30 miles (50 km) northwest of Pittsburgh), and grew up in its Lower End neighborhood. He is the son of Catholic parents, Rose (née Juhász) and János "John" Andrew Namath, a steelworker. His parents were of Hungarian descent. His Hungarian-born grandfather, András "Andrew" Németh, known as "A.J." to his family and friends, came to Ellis Island on the steamer Pannonia in 1911, and worked in the coal and steel industries of the greaterPittsburgh area. While growing up, Namath was close to both of his parents, who eventually divorced. Following his parents' divorce, he lived with his mother. He was the youngest of four sons, with an older adopted sister.
Namath excelled in all sports at Beaver Falls High School and was a standout quarterback in football, guard in basketball, and outfielder in baseball. In an age when dunks were uncommon in high school basketball, Namath regularly dunked in games. Coached by Larry Bruno at Beaver Falls, Namath's football team won the WPIAL Class AA championship with a 9–0 record in 1960. Coach Bruno later presented Namath to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
Upon graduation from high school in 1961, he received offers from several Major League Baseball teams, including the Yankees, Indians, Reds, Pirates, and Phillies, but football prevailed. Namath told interviewers that he wanted to sign with the Pirates and play baseball like his idol, Roberto Clemente, but elected to play football because his mother wanted him to get a college education. He enrolled at the University of Alabama, but left before graduating in order to pursue a career in professional football. However, a college degree was finally conferred on Namath at age 64, after he completed an external-program bachelor of arts degree in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Alabama in 2007.
Namath's time at Alabama was a culture shock for him, as he had grown up in a neighborhood in Pennsylvania that was predominantly black. (He was the only white starter on his high school basketball team.) He attended college at the height of the civil rights movement (1955–1968) in the Southern United States. Namath later clarified the story about being the only white player on his high school basketball team on The James Brown Show in 2018, where he was the guest. He stated that he was 1 of several white players on the team, though he was the only white starter.
Despite suffering a nagging knee injury in the fourth game of his senior year at Alabama, Namath limped through the undefeated regular season to the Orange Bowl. He was a first-round draft selection by both the NFL and the upstart AFL. The two competing leagues were at the height of their bidding war, and held their respective drafts on the same day: November 28, 1964. The cartilage damage to Namath's right knee later designated him class 4-F for the military draft, a deferment from service during the Vietnam War.
The St. Louis Cardinals selected Namath 12th overall in the NFL Draft, while the Jets selected him with the first overall pick of the AFL draft. When meeting with executives of the Cardinals, Namath's salary request was $200,000 and a new Lincoln Continental. While initially appalled at Namath's requests, the Cardinals told Namath they would agree to his requests, but only if he would sign before the Orange Bowl, which would've made Namath ineligible to play in the game. The day after the Orange Bowl, Namath elected to sign with the Jets, which were under the direction of owner Sonny Werblin, for a salary of US$427,000 over three years (a pro football record at the time). Offensive tackle Sherman Plunkett came up with the nickname "Broadway Joe" in 1965, following Namath's appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated in July.
In Namath's rookie season the 1965 Jets were winless in their first six games with him splitting time with second-year quarterback Mike Taliaferro. With Namath starting full-time they won five of the last eight of a fourteen-game season and Namath was named the AFL Rookie of the year. He became the first professional quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season when he threw for 4,007 yards in (1967), a record broken by Dan Fouts in a 16-game season in 1979 (4,082). Although Namath was plagued with knee injuries through much of his career and underwent four pioneering knee operations by Dr. James A. Nicholas, he was an AFL All-Star in 1965, 1967, 1968, and 1969. On some occasions, Namath had to have his knee drained at halftime so he could finish a game. Later in life, long after he left football, he underwent knee replacement surgery on both legs.
The high point of Namath's career was his performance in the Jets' 16–7 win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in January 1969, shortly before the AFL–NFL merger. The first two interleague championship games had resulted in blowout victories for the NFL's Green Bay Packers, and sports writers from NFL cities insisted the AFL would take several more years to be truly competitive. The 1968 Colts were touted as "the greatest football team in history", and former NFL star and Atlanta Falcons head coach Norm Van Brocklin ridiculed the AFL before the game, saying "This will be Namath's first professional football game." Three days before the game, Namath was tired of addressing the issue in the press, and he responded to a heckler at a sports banquet in Miami with the line: "We're going to win the game. I guarantee it."
Namath backed up his boast, which became legendary. The Colts' vaunted defense (highlighted by Bubba Smith) was unable to contain either the Jets' running or passing game, while the ineffective offense gave up four interceptions to the Jets. Namath was the Super Bowl MVP, completing eight passes to George Sauer alone for 133 yards. The win made him the first quarterback to start and win a national championship game in college, a major professional league championship, and a Super Bowl.
The Jets' win gave the AFL instant legitimacy even to skeptics. When he was asked by reporters after the game whether the Colts' defense was the "toughest he had ever faced", Namath responded, "That would be the Buffalo Bills' defense." The AFL-worst Bills had intercepted Namath five times, three for touchdowns, in their only win in 1968 in late September.
After the Super Bowl victory, Namath opened a popular Upper East Sidenightclub called Bachelors III, which not only drew big names in sports, entertainment, and politics, but organized crime. To protect the league's reputation, NFL CommissionerPete Rozelle ordered Namath to divest himself of his interest in the venture. Namath refused, apparently retiring from football during a teary news conference, but he eventually recanted and agreed to sell the tavern, and reported to the Jets in time for the 1969–70 season. Namath again threatened to retire before the 1970 and 1971 seasons; New York wrote in 1971 that "his retirement act had become shallow and predictable". The magazine stated that Namath did not want to attend training camp because of the risk of injury, but could not afford to retire permanently because of poor investments.
After not missing a single game because of injury in his first five years in the league, Namath played in just 28 of 58 possible games between 1970 and 1973 because of various injuries. After winning division championships in 1968 and 1969, the Jets struggled to records of 4–10, 6–8, 7–7, and 4–10. His most memorable moment in those four seasons came on September 24, 1972, when he and his boyhood idol Johnny Unitas combined for 872 passing yards in Baltimore. Namath threw for 496 yards and six touchdowns and Unitas 376 yards and three in a 44–34 New York victory over the Colts, its first against Baltimore since Super Bowl III. The game is considered by many NFL experts to be the finest display of passing in a single game in league history.
The Chicago Winds of the World Football League famously made a large overture to Namath prior to the start of the 1975 season. They designed their uniforms identically to that of the Jets and offered Namath a contract worth $600,000 a year for three years, a $2 million annuity ($100,000 per year for 20 years), a $500,000 signing bonus, and terms for Namath's eventual ownership of a WFL franchise in New York which involved the eventual arrangement for him to revive the WFL's Charlotte Hornets franchise in New York as the new team's owner. The Winds even dropped red from their team colors and went with just green and white to allow Namath to continue marketing his number 12 jersey in Jets colors. The WFL's television provider, TVS Television Network, insisted on the Winds signing Namath to continue broadcasts; Namath, in turn, requested a percentage of the league's television revenue. The league refused, and Namath stayed with the Jets. The Winds folded five weeks into the 1975 WFL season. Without a national television contract, the struggling WFL collapsed altogether a month later.
In the twilight of his career, Namath was waived by the Jets to facilitate a move to the Los Angeles Rams when a trade could not be worked out. Signing on May 12, 1977, Namath hoped to revitalize his career, but knee injuries, a bad hamstring, and the general ravages of thirteen years as a quarterback in professional football had taken their toll. After playing well in a 2–1 start, Namath took a beating in a one-point loss on a cold, windy, and rainy Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears, throwing four interceptions and having a fifth nullified by a penalty. He was benched as a starter for the rest of the season and retired at its end.
While taking a voice class in 1983, Namath met Deborah Mays (who later changed her first name to May and then changed it again to Tatiana), an aspiring actress; he was 41 and she was 22. They married in 1984, with Namath claiming, "She caught my last pass." The longtime bachelor became a dedicated family man when the couple had two children, Jessica (b. 1986) and Olivia (b.1991). The couple divorced in 2000, with the children living in Florida with their father. In May 2007, sixteen-year-old Olivia gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Natalia.
For the early years of his marriage, Namath continued to struggle with his alcoholism until his wife warned him that he could break up his family if he continued. By 1987, Namath was able to stop his drinking, though he would relapse after his divorce in 2000.
On December 20, 2003, Namath garnered unfavorable publicity after he consumed too much alcohol during a day that was dedicated to the Jets' announcement of their All-Time team. During live ESPN coverage of the team's game, Namath was asked about then-Jets quarterback Chad Pennington and his thoughts on the difficulties of that year's team. Namath expressed confidence in Pennington, but then stated to interviewer Suzy Kolber, "I want to kiss you. I couldn't care less about the team struggling." He subsequently apologized, and several weeks later entered into an outpatient alcoholism treatment program. In 2019, Namath said he used the incident as motivation to quit alcohol, explaining "I had embarrassed my friends and family and could not escape that feeling. I haven't had a drink since."
In July 2015, Namath joined the search for two boys who went missing during a fishing trip off the coast of Florida, and offered a $100,000 reward for the safe return of the boys. The boat was found six days later, and the search has been suspended, with the two boys presumed dead.
On June 6, 2018, Namath threw out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs baseball game at Wrigley field. The pitch was caught by Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager as of 2015[update]. Maddon idolized Namath as a child. This was Namath's first time at Wrigley Field.
Namath's prowess on the field, fashion sense, lighthearted personality, and stature as a sex symbol made him the first sports figure to appeal equally to men, women, and children - as proven by his various product endorsements over the years.  His nickname "Broadway Joe" was given to him by Sherman Plunkett, a Jets teammate. "Joe Willie Namath" was Namath's moniker based on his full given name and was popularized by sportscaster Howard Cosell. On the field, Namath stood out from other AFL and NFL players in low-cut white shoes rather than traditional black high-tops. The white shoes had started when Namath was at Alabama, where he kept having his worn-out cleats taped up as a superstition, especially when he had his first major knee injury in a game where he had forgotten to have them taped. When he joined the Jets, Namath continued to have his shoes taped until Jets coach Weeb Ewbank noticed that the excess tape usage was costing the team money, so he ordered white cleats for Namath. He originated the fad of wearing a full-length fur coat on the sidelines (since banned by the NFL), which requires all players, coaches, athletic trainers, et al., to wear league-approved team apparel.
Namath also appeared in television advertisements both during and after his playing career, most notably for Ovaltine milk flavoring,Noxzema shaving cream (in which he was shaved by a then-unknown Farrah Fawcett), and Hanes Beautymist pantyhose. All of these commercials contributed to his becoming a pop-culture icon.
Namath continues to serve as an unofficial spokesman and goodwill ambassador for the Jets. In 2011, Namath was representing Topps and promoting a "Super Bowl Legends" contest, appearing on its behalf on the Late Show with David Letterman. For Super Bowl XLVIII which was hosted in the Jets' MetLife Stadium, Namath and his daughter Jessica wore fur coats for the ceremonial coin toss to "bring back a little of that flash from his heyday" as a player.
On June 2, 2013, Namath was the guest speaker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, unveiling the Canton, Ohio museum's $27 million expansion and renovation plan.
As of 2018[update], Namath is the official spokesperson of the Medicare Coverage Helpline.
In November 2006, the biography Namath by Mark Kriegel appeared, reaching the New York Times extended bestseller list (number 23). In conjunction with its release, Namath was interviewed for the November 19, 2006, edition of CBS' 60 Minutes. A recent documentary about Namath's hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, includes a segment on Namath and why the city has celebrated its ties to him. In 2009, 40 years after winning Super Bowl III, he presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Pittsburgh Steelers who won Super Bowl XLIII. NFL Productions also produced a two-hour long television biography in its A Football Life series.