Gorman: Namath's humbling homecoming
Following an introduction that was otherwise unnecessary, Joe Namath entered the gymnasium Friday afternoon before an assembly of Beaver Falls students who knew him only by his legend.
On the day of their biggest game of every season, against arch-rival Aliquippa, Namath made a heroic homecoming. Here he was, Broadway Joe, wearing a white No. 19 jersey with the Tigers' orange-and-black trim.
"It's always more fun to share a football game, a championship, a night like tonight where we're going to whip these Aliquippa Indians," Namath said, emphasizing every syllable of Beaver Falls' top-ranked nemesis for effect.
It left a lasting impression on Deyne Richardson, one of three Beaver Falls captains to present Namath a framed jersey after the dedication of the practice field in his name. Namath will be inducted into the Larry Bruno Foundation Circle of Achievement, named after the late Beaver Falls coach, along with former Baltimore Colts tight end Jim "Bucky" Mutscheller and the undefeated 1960 and '61 Beaver Falls football teams.
"I just knew about the New York Jets' Joe Namath — not the Beaver Falls' Joe Namath — so it was really cool to know I'm walking the same halls and playing for the same team as he did," Richardson said. "It was real inspiring to hear it from the Joe Namath."
The day humbled a man so supremely confident he once did commercials wearing pantyhose and getting a shave from Farrah Fawcett but who had quietly slipped in and out of town to visit family in recent years.
"Quarterbacks aren't allowed to get overwhelmed; we're trained to try to keep our poise and composure," said Namath, trailed by cameras for an HBO documentary. "But I was feeling it, with the goose-bumps and all."
So were the adults at the ceremony, including a man who wore a No. 12 New York Jets jersey. Here was their idol, the man who led Beaver Falls to the 1960 WPIAL title, Alabama to the 1964 national championship and boldly guaranteed the underdog Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and proving prophetic in a stunning 16-7 upset in 1969.
If there was an unfortunate part of Namath's return, it's how much it overshadowed Mutscheller. A 1948 Beaver Falls graduate who played on Notre Dame's '49 national champions, Mutscheller caught a 6-yard pass to set up Alan Ameche's 1-yard touchdown run that clinched the Colts' 23-17 overtime victory in the 1958 NFL Championship against the New York Giants, known as The Greatest Game Ever Played.
But Namath's worldwide fame put Beaver Falls on the map.
"I think it was a big thing to acknowledge the fact that he was from Beaver Falls," teammate Butch Ryan said, "that Beaver Falls is his hometown."
Awestruck Beaver Falls coach Ryan Matsook echoed that sentiment, knowing most middle-aged men in Beaver County count Namath as a hero and the next generation of Tigers will play on a field named in his honor.
"You think of Beaver Falls, you think of Joe Namath," Matsook said. "You don't realize or understand how much it means to these young men, the tradition standing before them. It's a big game, always is, but it has a little extra meaning tonight. There's a big gap between that rich tradition then and now at Beaver Falls. To have him back here brings it full circle."
Namath's old teammates reminisced about that '60 season, with Ryan recalling that Bruno emphasized such precision in ball fakes that the Tigers twice had touchdowns called back against Butler because officials didn't know where the ball was and missed a Beaver Falls player crossing the goal line with it. Tom Carter remembers watching Namath run the option so smoothly that Midland was tackling other Tigers while the quarterback held the ball aloft as he ran untouched down the sideline for a 63-yard touchdown.
What Namath shared was what this school and this town needed most: himself. He posed for pictures, personalized every autograph and did so with a smile and words of encouragement for today's Tigers. He will be at the Carnegie Library in Beaver Falls at 9:45 a.m. today to sign more memorabilia, then will be honored tonight at a banquet.
"It just means a great deal that finally he's come home," said Ed DeRose, a 1953 Beaver Falls graduate and member of the Larry Bruno Foundation committee. "He never, ever failed to mention Beaver Falls in all his travels. Anywhere we would go, we'd say 'Beaver Falls, home of Joe Namath.' He's done so much in his lifetime, but he didn't forget home.
"That's the big thing: Joe Namath didn't forget home."
Once a Tiger, always a Tiger. Namath still owns this neighborhood.
Joe Namath visits Beaver Falls 9/9/11
Joe Namath visits his hometown of Beaver Falls on Friday September 9, 2011.