Sports

Meet the man who helped make Joe Namath an icon

Lou Holtz had just taken over as the head coach of the Jets, and now he was trying to track down his star quarterback.

This was 1976 and Joe Namath was nearing the end of his run as the team’s franchise quarterback, but he was still the biggest star in the Jets universe. Holtz wanted to discuss his offense with Namath, and he knew where to go to find him — 450 Park Avenue.

That was the address of Jimmy Walsh, Esq., Namath’s agent.

“I want you to give me Joe’s number,” Holtz told Walsh. “I want to call him.”

“No sir,” Walsh responded. “I won’t give you Joe’s number. We don’t give his personal number out. I’ll let him know you were here. He’ll call you.”

Holtz had just met the gatekeeper to Namath. Hundreds of others who wanted time with Namath would run into this 5-foot-7, redheaded bulldog who became friends with Namath at the University of Alabama then would become his lawyer, agent, consigliere, adviser and confidante.

For 59 years, Walsh and Namath have been together. Walsh helped craft and cultivate Namath’s image, making him the first athlete to become a brand. Before Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning became the stars of TV commercials, Namath blazed that path for athletes, and helping him every step of the way was Walsh.

Walsh is the man behind The Man. He helped negotiate deals worth millions of dollars for Namath. As Namath became “Broadway Joe, Walsh took over another famous New York roadway — Madison Avenue. He went by Jimmy because it was more relatable than James, and soon the ad men all feared negotiating with Walsh.

Jimmy Walsh (l) and Joe Namath

The duo built an image together that benefited them both, and everyone learned along the way if you messed with Namath, you dealt with Walsh.

“I may be Joe’s biggest fan,” Walsh said. “To me, it’s always been a privilege to be associated with him. I’m not saying this to flatter him, but the fact of the matter, is I have great respect for his character. He’s an honest, decent man.”

’Bama Brothers

Walsh grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., dreaming of going to Rutgers. The son of a gravedigger, Walsh began attending night school at Rutgers after graduating from St. Peter the Apostle High School. He soon found night school was not for him and worked at Snellenberg’s clothing store, which claimed Albert Einstein as one of its customers.

One cold February day, Walsh was on his way to work when he ran into an acquaintance who told him he was now attending the University of Alabama. Walsh asked what the weather was like down there. “Sunshine and short sleeves” was the other boy’s response.

“I went home and wrote an application that afternoon to Alabama,” Walsh said. “Within a couple of days, I got the acceptance letter.”

When Walsh got to Tuscaloosa, he soon realized this was a much different world than New Jersey.

“It was an education unto itself,” he said.

Namath found his way to Tuscaloosa in 1961 to play for coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. One of the other players on the team brought Namath along to a meal at the soup store, a gathering spot on campus, where other students from the Northeast were. Walsh from New Jersey and Namath from Pennsylvania soon met. Namath remembers Walsh’s red hair that was shaved high around his ears. “His white sidewalls,” Namath called them with a laugh.

Joe Namath (l) with former Alabama coach Bear BryantAP

The two soon realized they had more in common than just their geographic roots. They were both Catholic and saw each other at church. Then, a group of guys took a trip to Panama City, Fla., at the end of Namath’s freshman year. Walsh and Namath went to breakfast one morning and discovered they both were Hungarian.

“We just ended up getting along really well,” Namath said. “It was like it was meant to be.”

The following year, Walsh enrolled in law school. After his car broke down on the way back to Alabama, Walsh’s sister gave him a plane ticket from Newark to Birmingham. The problem was Walsh could not find anyone to pick him up at the airport.

Walsh was landing close to midnight and had to register for classes in the morning. Birmingham is about 60 miles from Tuscaloosa.

“I’m in a real quandary. How am I going to get from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa?” Walsh said.

When he got off the plane, he walked down the stairs then heard “whoa” coming from above. It was Namath. By this time, Namath was the star quarterback for the Crimson Tide. He had violated curfew to pick up Walsh, risking the wrath of Bryant. Walsh remembers thinking that it was an incredible act of friendship.

“That locked me into Joe forever,” Walsh said.

Building a Brand

When Namath left Alabama, he hired Mike Bite, a lawyer he knew in Birmingham, to negotiate his first deal with the Jets. But Namath realized he needed someone he trusted in New York to help him with business opportunities. He knew who the right guy was.

“I knew that I wanted to be with Jimmy,” Namath said. “I wanted him to help me out and to guide me in New York.”

Walsh joined Namath in New York after graduating from law school in 1966. Two years later, the two were driving home from a game at Shea Stadium when Namath gave Walsh an assignment. AFL president Milt Woodard had ordered Namath to shave his Fu Manchu mustache. Namath asked Walsh if they could get an endorsement deal to shave it.

With the help of friend Eddie Jaffe, Walsh secured a deal with Schick Electric for Namath to receive $10,000 to shave his mustache in a commercial.

On Dec. 11, 1968, Namath went to a studio on East 78th Street and filmed the commercial.

“That became a very, very highly celebrated commercial,” Walsh said.

It became clear to Walsh that the ad men loved Namath and they could build a brand around Broadway Joe.

“At one point I asked Joe, ‘How into Joe Namath are you?’ ” Walsh said. “He said, ‘Jimmy, I am Joe Namath.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but Joe Namath is a name on a shirt, a name on things. It’s a brand.’ ”

Both Walsh and Namath learned by watching Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who was a master of promotion and using the press. A few months after shaving for Schick, Namath guaranteed a win in Super Bowl III and delivered.

Walsh was working as a law clerk at an office on 274 Madison Ave. Soon, the two lawyers he shared the office with were trying to figure out why Walsh’s phone never stopped ringing.

“To say it exploded is an understatement,” Walsh said.

The president of Nabisco was calling and then the president of MGM. Everyone wanted a piece of Namath and the road to Namath ran through Walsh.

“Joe was perfect,” Walsh said. “He was a great-looking guy. He was a literate, smart guy.”

Namath was worried about winning football games, not the hearts of the ad men. But he trusted Walsh, and the two learned as they went.

“It was critical for me because I was a football player,” Namath said. “My mind wasn’t always wrapped around these commercials or business opportunities. … My focus was on football and also wanting to grow. Jimmy had that side, business-wise. Without complete trust and confidence in Jim, I couldn’t have been myself in the locker room. I wouldn’t have been myself as a football player.”

Soon, Namath was selling burgers at Broadway Joe’s. He had deals with Braniff Airlines, Rex International, Butter-Up popcorn popper and Ovaltine. He was in movies with Ann-Margret and catching passes from Bobby Brady.

Walsh and Namath formed “Namanco Productions” in 1969. Walsh created “The Joe Namath Show” with Dick Schaap and Namath was everywhere.

When Beautymist pantyhose asked Namath to pose in their product, Walsh and Namath thought about it for a while then agreed to make the iconic ad.

Joe Namath graces the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1965.James Drake/Sports Illustrated SetNumber: X10836

But Walsh was also smart enough to not take every ad that came his way. He managed the Namath image carefully. When a bathroom product was offered, Walsh passed.

“I was always concerned about something that would be good for him,” Walsh said. “Money was not the main thing. It wasn’t just, get the biggest money.”

That’s not to say Walsh did not value a good deal. He gained a reputation for outrageous asking prices. He asked the Jets for $1 million over three years for Namath in 1972. He asked ABC for $10 million to have Namath call games for “Monday Night Football” before the 1974 season, a deal the Jets stopped.

“I always believed in the biblical thing: If you ask, you shall receive,” Walsh said. “If you don’t ask for it, you’re not going to get it. That’s the best way to start in a place that seems like it’s beyond possible and maybe you’re going to strike gold.”

In 1975, Walsh did strike gold with Faberge, landing a 20-year, $5 million deal for Namath to sell cologne and other products.

“Knowing Jimmy as I do, I stay away from the negotiating,” Namath said. “I know it’s best for me to stay out of the way. I don’t get in the middle of it. I trust Jimmy’s judgment better than mine.”

Still Together

Namath is now 77 and living in Florida. Walsh is 80 and in New Orleans. The two speak three to four times a week. Because of the pandemic, they have not seen each other in a few months. Usually when Namath is making an appearance, Walsh is right by his side.

“To have a friend that you can count on made a world of difference to me,” Namath said.

The two have known each other for 59 years and have grown old together through marriages, raising children and now doting on grandchildren.

Namath still can be found on your TV. His commercials for Medicare with that famous voice are in constant rotation. Walsh is behind that ad, too.

From Tuscaloosa to Times Square to your television set, Namath and Walsh have been through it all and remained partners, and more importantly, friends.

“I consider our relationship a gift from the Good Lord,” Namath said.

That’s good because if the Good Lord wants to talk to Namath, he’ll have to contact Walsh first.

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