TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Broadway Joe was back on campus, finally getting a diploma to go with his football accolades.
Joe Namath, who won a national championship with the Crimson Tide in 1964 but quit school before going on to become a pro football great, was among 900 graduates to walk across the stage at Coleman Coliseum during commencement from the University of Alabama on Saturday, 42 years later.
Namath completed a 30-hour program over the last five years to earn bachelor of arts degree in interdisciplinary studies.
"It was fun, but it was hard," Namath, 64, said at a news conference. "I had a very difficult time getting myself to sit down and spend the time (studying)."
Some university workers had an equally tough time keeping their mind on education when Namath was around.
Harriett Cabell Walker, one of Namath's academic advisers, said female staff members went gah-gah the first time the old ball player walked into the office. And why not? Namath is still royalty in Alabama.
"I had to say, 'Treat him like any other student.' But everybody was asking him for pictures," she said.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Namath came to Alabama to play for coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. He left Tuscaloosa early for New York, where he won the Jets' starting quarterback job in his first season and was the AFL rookie of the year in 1965.
Known for his electric smile and shaggy hair, Namath opened a bar in Manhattan and delivered on his guaranteed win over the heavily favored Colts in the 1969 title game. That victory, as much as anything, cemented his reputation as a magician on the field.
After all that and more, Namath said he always regretted not finishing his degree, particularly because of a promise to his mother.
"It was a hole in my being, an empty spot, because I did tell someone I would finish," he said.
Yet it was something else that finally pushed Namath back to school. His daughter Jessica, who also attended Alabama, mentioned a few years ago that she would be the first person in the family to earn a degree.
"That started the process of investigating how I would finish," said Namath.
Namath enrolled in Alabama's external degree program and began reading and writing papers at his own pace. He credited academic advisers and friends, including old teammates, with pushing him to finish the work.
Namath had a reputation for partying when he was in school the first time, and he readily admits he didn't have much of a passion for learning. "I was focused on athletics, outdoors, sports," he said.
Despite that, Walker said she was surprised to see Namath's original grade transcripts when he first enrolled in the program.
"He did much better than I had expected," she said. "I had heard all these things about him, but he's a smart man."
Namath said his grades were "certainly acceptable" the second time around, but he didn't elaborate.
"I felt good about it. If I took the courses again I'd do better," he said.