A story about the other famous shoplifting quarterback, excerpted from the book Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie's Last Quarter.
Two things seldom found on Joe Namath while he roamed Tuscaloosa in his college days were underwear and a wallet. The former requires little explanation. And Namath had little need for the latter because he rarely had to pay for anything. Oftentimes, store owners lavished their wares on him. Clothing stores regularly contributed to Namath's wardrobe, hoping that he would be seen in their shirts or hats around town and on the road. Other times, Namath simply took what was not offered.
Once, after he had spent time at a gas station fixing a flat tire on the doorless Chevy Joe and Hoot Owl drove, the station's owner discovered a store full of empty wrappers and bags, evidence of the fast-food feast Namath and Hicks had enjoyed while he worked. More commonly, though, Namath ate his way through the local A&P grocery store. Walking the aisles, he dined leisurely on a variety of items: a quart of milk in one aisle, a ham sandwich in the next, and a Moon Pie for dessert. In fact, these smorgasbords became so commonplace that Hicks or Namath often brought along a bottle opener so as to facilitate their consumption of RC Cola.
If Namath believed that his feasts were going unnoticed, he was mistaken. The manager of the A&P knew exactly what was taken and who was taking from him. He turned a blind eye to Namath, but his acceptance ended there. Namath's celebrity, his value to the university's prestige and Tuscaloosa's pride, earned him favors not extended to other hungry shoppers.
One night in the fall of 1963, Namath and a couple of fellow Northern carpetbaggers—Wibby Glover, a friend from Namath's hometown of Beaver Falls, Pa., and Jimmy Walsh, from New Jersey—stopped at the A&P on their way to a party. Wibby decided to pick up some bologna, hiding it in his jacket and leaving the store. Outside, the store manager grabbed Glover by the arm as two Tuscaloosa police cars rolled into the parking lot with their blue lights flashing. "Beat it," the manager shouted to Namath and Walsh. "This doesn't involve you." Namath and Walsh remained, as the manager began to regale the policemen with a story of Wibby's outlandish offense. "This guy right here," he started, pointing at Glover but probably thinking of Namath, "he's just plain evil and bad. He comes in here and takes what he wants. Every time he's here he just walks out with everything he can carry." When the police made Glover empty his coat and pockets, they discovered not only the bologna, but about forty dollars in small bills. Glover had not stolen the money; he had come into the store with it, prompting the cashier to blurt, "Man, you crazy! You got forty dollars in your pocket and you stealing a dollar-fifty worth of baloney?!"
The police took Glover to jail, and he could hardly have been more frightened if the prison had been in Istanbul. As his stomach began to churn, he thought he might throw up. His biggest fear was that these policemen were going to put the Yankee on a chain gang and throw away the key—this was not Beaver Falls and he was not Joe Namath. After an hour, he was released. Walsh, a law school student, knew what to do and arranged for bail. Walsh also knew how to be a smart-ass. On their walk back to the parking lot, he serenaded the shaken Glover:
Saving nickels, saving dimes,
Working till the sun don't shine,
Looking forward to happier times,
On Blue Bayou.
For Glover, the crime meant a court date; for Namath, it meant a visit to Bear Bryant's office. Sitting in Bear's famously low-slung couch, feeling like he was sinking into it, Joe listened to Bryant. "Joe," the coach began, "I understand that your friend got into some trouble." Shifting high behind his desk, he got to the crux of the matter. "Now Joe, we don't want anything or anyone taking your mind off of where it should be, right?"
"Yessir," Namath answered, with sincere respect.
"Well, then," Bryant concluded, driving to the place he assumed Namath's respectful answer was pointing, "I think he's got to get out of here. He's got to go."
Then Namath did what so few had ever done—he surprised Bryant. "If he goes, sir, I go. He's a personal friend of mine."
The words shocked Bryant, but only for a moment. Recognizing in an instant Namath's sincerity and the fact that he might lose his quarterback to a minor violation not even perpetrated by one of his players, he regained himself and his position as the coach. "Okay," he began. "He made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. As long as he straightens himself out, he can stay."
In court, Glover waited in a large crowd of defendants. The language of the proceedings was not fit for a brothel. "This motherfucker done it!" began one argument. "Fuck that, motherfucker! I ain't done shit!" That the judge permitted the flow of indecencies almost to the point of physical combat did nothing to calm the still-horrified Glover.
As the last obscenity faded from the courtroom, Glover found himself alone. "Your Honor," he called, "what about me?"
"What's your name?"
"Wilber T. Glover."
"That case has been thrown out," the judge replied, beginning to walk out. "You can leave." Obviously someone had intervened, Glover realized, and he suspected Bryant himself.
Only after the court date did Namath tell Glover about his meeting with the coach. Wibby, hearing the story, burst out, "Are you crazy?!" It had been bad enough to spend an hour in jail for $1.50 worth of bologna, but Namath had risked his entire football career on the cheap meat.
That Sunday, Namath and Glover walked toward Morrison's Restaurant. It was a favorite of theirs because it was a cheap and good cafeteria-style diner. The place loved them in return, as the wait staff fought over who got to bus Namath's tray and receive his phenomenal dollar tip.
On their way, they saw Bryant and his family coming out of church. They moved toward each other, and Namath told Glover, "You have to apologize to him. Whatever you do, don't look down. Look him right in the eyes and tell him you're sorry that you made a mistake." Then, before waiting out of sight, Namath added something that only Bryant's players really knew: "He can tell if someone isn't sincere."
Seconds later Glover approached Bear. "Coach Bryant," he began, following Namath's advice to the letter and staring into the blue eyes, "I made a terrible mistake and I want to apologize and thank you for helping me out of this situation." Stomach churning, Glover concentrated on one thing: Do not blink.
In his signature gruff mumble, Bryant replied, "'S'okay, boy. Everon' makes mistakes." Then came the lesson. "You jus' need to use this as an example of how you learned somethin'." They shook hands and Glover returned to Namath.
Namath was as excited as Glover had ever seen. "That was incredible!" he whisper-shrieked. "I don't think you ever even blinked!"
The episode constituted more than another legal blip for Namath in Alabama. In fact, it came to define the selectively permeable boundaries for his mischievousness. That Namath's loyalty to his friends could not be called into question became abundantly clear to Bryant. Joe certainly understood that it was he who possessed carte blanche in Tuscaloosa, but he expected full coverage for anyone in his company. For Bryant, this was a newish situation that he hoped could be covered by his traditional method of turning every shortcoming into a life lesson. But he could not be sure. Moreover, the incident also showed the coach something of the Northerner's cockiness. Not only had Namath stood up for his friend, but his friend had shown no sign of being intimidated by the great coach either. Glover was certainly grateful, but just as certainly not cowed—at least not outwardly. Could this be the beginning of a larger problem? That the local police, judge, and even the manager of the A&P could be counted on to overlook just about all of Namath's insubordinations was what Bryant depended on. But what would happen if Namath ran across someone outside the coach's influence? What if it had been Namath who had been thrown into a jail cell, even for just an hour?
From the book Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie's Last Quarter. Copyright (c) 2013 by Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Image by Jim Cooke.