December 20, 2003. A night that shall live in infamy.
The New York Jets hosted the division rival New England Patriots in a game that Chad Pennington (remember him? He’s actually a regional color analyst for the NFL on Fox these days) and “Gang Green” would lose to Tom Brady and company, 21-16.
But there would be no catch that stood out during this game. Not even a tuck rule.
For this Saturday night game, with the ESPN “Sunday Night Football” crew in tow (there was no NFL Network back in 2003), would be overshadowed not by a play during the game – but, rather, a pass.
It’s just after the two-minute warning in the second quarter when Suzy Kolber was interviewing Joe Namath, the former quarterback who led the Jets to their only Lombardi trophy thus far (much to Rex Ryan’s chagrin), and who would be honored in mere moments during a halftime ceremony recognizing the Jets’ “four-decade team”.
Kolber starts by asking Namath to comment on Pennington, the current quarterback of a Jets team who had been 6-8 coming into the game, and who had been picked off by Willie McGinest for an interception return touchdown.
Namath: “I believe everything that anyone else has watched, ugh, Chad play… impresses me, the same thing impresses them. He’s a quality, classy quarterback, who has a touch on the football. He’s not a thrower, he’s a passer…”
Kind comments from one Jets quarterback to another. But there was a mysterious presentation of those comments by Broadway Joe, that Kolber certainly recognized.
“I felt like, uh-oh, Joe is in trouble here,” Kolber disclosed in an interview in USA Today, in recalling that interesting exchange with the Hall of Famer. “Let’s get him out of it… Get him off the air as quickly as possible,” was what she was thinking as she solicited Namath’s thoughts on Chad Pennington.
But the pro that she is, Kolber tried to make some sense out of it.
“When we first started talking and he was slow and deliberate and in his speech, what was going through my head was, ‘Maybe it’s just really cold.’ And none of the executives in the truck were alarmed either because nobody said (to) stop.” In fact, it was right around the time Namath opined Pennington was a “passer” and not a “thrower” – is there a difference, really? – that “the direction in my earpiece was, ‘keep going.'”
That, she did, right after a Curtis Martin draw play.
“Joe, it’s been a tough season for Jets fans. What does it mean to you now that the team is struggling?”
To Namath’s credit, he did provide a multi-faceted answer to Kolber’s question, reminding her that Pennington had actually missed six games at the start of the season (they would go 2-4 in that stretch) and the team had the potential to be better next season.
Unfortunately, those insights played second fiddle to his Casanova act.
Namath: “I wanna kiss you. I couldn’t care less about the team struggling. What we know is we can improve. Chad Pennington, our quarterback, missed the first part of the season, and we struggled. We’re looking to next season, we’re looking to make a noise now and… I wanna kiss you!”
At that point, Kolber could have responded six ways from Sunday. (Or Saturday, considering it was a Saturday night game.) But rather than get caught up in Namath’s advances, she looks at the big picture.
“I think the way I felt about it at the time was that he’s a really good guy having a bad moment that happened to be captured on national television,” Kolber told USA Today.
Indeed, Kolber told Namath that his penchant for puckering up with her was “a huge compliment.” She then mentioned Namath would be honored at halftime, as Namath could be heard behind her exclaiming, “Yeah!”
“If we had known definitively he was in that kind of state, we wouldn’t have conducted the interview,” said Jed Drake, days after the Kolber/Namath chit-chat. Drake, mind you, was working in the ESPN production truck the night of that game – you know, when they instructed Kolber to “keep going.”
The interview led Namath to apologize to Kolber. He also admitted to being “full of too much Christmas cheer” that night; about a month later, he would publicly announce that he was battling alcoholism.
“He felt humiliated,” said Kolber. “It’s a shame he has to be remembered for that moment… I knew he wanted it to go away.”
So, why is Kolber coming clean about that infamous interview? This Saturday night, HBO will be debuting a 90-minute documentary about the quarterback, produced by HBO Sports and NFL Films. The documentary is titled, simply, “Namath.” It will cover his rise from Beaver Falls to Alabama to the AFL. No doubt, you’ll relive that Super Bowl III victory against the Baltimore Colts that Namath would “guarantee” the underdog Jets would win.
And it will also look at Namath’s life after football – including, but not limited to, a slurred interview he did on ESPN back in 2003.
Make no mistake, Namath, who is a contributor to ESPN Radio 1050/New York during football season, regrets letting that “Christmas cheer” get the best of him, and much like some of the 220 career interceptions he’s thrown (far more than his 174 career touchdowns), he wishes he could have that one back.
But is Suzy Kolber a class act? Even Joe Namath can guarantee that.