Sports

Former Jets’ Joe Namath and Winston Hill: A rose, a scotch and a Hall of Fame friendship

The 50-year friendship between the famous quarterback and his trusted protector was born at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, 1965.

Joe Namath, recovering from knee surgery, hadn’t played a down in the NFL yet. He was 21, already rich because of a landmark contract with the New York Jets, but he felt helpless and alone in a new city. There was a knock at the door and in walked Winston Hill, the team’s hulking left tackle.

Namath and Hill would go on to play 12 years together in New York, winning a historic Super Bowl and reaching the ultimate football destination — the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In fact, Hill, who died in April 2016, will be feted posthumously next Saturday as a member of the Centennial Class of 2020. Namath was so moved by Hill’s selection that he got emotional.

“I tell you what, the eyes, they got full of tears of joy, I promise,” he told ESPN.com.

But, on that fateful day in 1965 in that hospital room, they were a couple of strangers from very different worlds.

Namath, who is white, was a party boy from Western Pennsylvania, brash and free spirited. Hill, who was Black, grew up in a small town in Jim Crow Texas, where as a young boy he once watched a youth football game through a chain-link fence and asked his father, “Why can’t I play?” The son of a pastor, Hill was deeply spiritual and more strait-laced. He didn’t cuss, didn’t smoke and didn’t drink.

Except for that one time when he met Namath. (Wink, wink.)

There are some days in your life you never forget — a wedding, the birth of a child, a career milestone. For Namath, that first meeting with Hill in the hospital is one of those days. It happened 56 years ago, and yet Namath still has a high-def recollection of the moment. It speaks to the depth of their friendship and what Hill meant to the entire team, which embraced his goodness and saw him as a galvanizing influence in an era of social unrest.

“In my mind’s eye, I see him to this day,” Namath said. “I was in the hospital bed at Lenox Hill Hospital. A quiet knock at the door. I say, ‘Come in.’ Winston and his wife, Carolyn, came in. That was the first time we met. He had a black leather trench coat on, carrying his hat and a rose – a single rose in his hand. The two of them stood beside my bed, and we talked. This was the new style, I guess. I had never seen it before, welcoming people and all.

“At the time, Rheingold [beer] was our sponsor, and in the corner of the room was a Rheingold cooler with some bottles of whiskey on top. I remember asking Winston to help himself to a drink. He looked at me, he looked at Carolyn, he turned around. I saw him pour maybe a half of water-glass full of Scotch. He turned around and he drank it down straight.

“That’s the only drink — the only drink — I ever saw him take in 50 years. (He laughed.) I swear to God, I don’t know why he took that drink other than maybe trying to help me, but that’s the only time I ever saw him drink any alcohol. It was wonderful. He was wonderful. He and Carolyn just wanted to welcome me to the team, and that was the first time we met.”

The scene was so Namath, who made sure his room was stocked with adult beverages. (He said his doctor stopped by at the end of each day to check his knee and enjoy a quick pop.) It also spoke volumes about Hill, who never wanted any of his teammates to feel like the little boy on the other side of the chain-link fence.

The Scotch-drinking story is part of Hill’s family lore, passed down to his three children. Daughter Hovlyn May shared a postscript to her father’s out-of-character chug, saying with a chuckle, “He walked out of the room, leaned against a wall and nearly slid down the wall.”

The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Hill wobbled, but he made a friend for life, months before he guarded Namath from the fierce pass-rushers of the old AFL. Namath played 136 games for the Jets, with Hill at left or right tackle in every one of them.

“They became the best of friends,” daughter Heather Hill said. “As Joe got to know him even more, [the drinking story] became a little more remarkable and a lot more hilarious.”

Namath was the most celebrated player on the Jets’ Super Bowl winning team in 1968, famously guaranteeing a win over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, but no one was more beloved than Hill, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection/AFL All-Star who started 174 consecutive games from 1963 to 1976. Most of Matt Snell’s 121 rushing yards in Super Bowl III against the Baltimore Colts came behind Hill, who was so dominant that Colts center Bill Curry once said, “Winston Hill was probably the most valuable player in the game.”

For years — decades, actually — it bothered Hill’s teammates that he never received Hall of Fame consideration. He finally broke through last year in the expanded Centennial Class, four years after his death at the age of 74.

“It’s a very sentimental thing because of the love we all had for Winston,” said Namath, who was inducted into the Hall in 1985. “He was a special man. It’s meant so much to everyone — his family, his teammates.

“Winston never brought it up. Winston never talked about it. He wasn’t that kind of guy. Even in private moments, he didn’t talk about the Hall of Fame. He’d just smile and that’s when someone else in the crowd brought it up.”

Hill and Namath played together during a turbulent time, with the Vietnam War raging and racial tension erupting in cities across the country. Hill, in Mark Kriegel’s biography “Namath,” is quoted as saying the team “reflected the racial tone of the country. You had players from different parts expressing different views.”

Former Jets center John Schmitt told ESPN he recalled only one incident of racial tension, in 1966, prompting three Black players — Hill, Snell and Sherman Plunkett — to call a team meeting. He remembered it as “a serious meeting. The coaches were afraid of losing control.”

By all accounts, Hill got along with everyone. He was the team chaplain, a gentle giant with no ego. He rarely lost his cool, although Schmitt recalled one time in a game “he really got pissed off. He hit this guy so hard in the chest that the guy’s feet were in the air.”

“He had a reputation for having big ears, a big heart and tight lips,” Hovlyn May said of her father, who also had an incredible memory. He was able to memorize entire chapters from the Bible and full scenes from William Shakespeare plays.

Hill experienced racism at a young age. In Gladewater, Texas, a small town near the Louisiana border, Blacks weren’t allowed to play football with whites. This was the 1950s, when segregation was prevalent across the South. His father decided to do something about it, reaching out to predominantly Black churches and schools to form their own league. Winston’s team was called the Bumble Bees.

And so began his football career, which took him to Weldon High School, to Texas Southern University (where a scholarship endowment bears his name) to the Baltimore Colts (drafted in the 11th round and cut) and then to the Jets. By the way, his old high school in Gladewater? It now has a wall mural of Hill, who went from excluded child to local legend. The trophy case includes a “Golden Football,” a Super Bowl III replica donated by Hill.

“There’s no way we could’ve won that game without the guys up front, especially Winston,” said Namath, named the Super Bowl MVP.

Namath and Hill were an odd couple — the playboy and the chaplain — but they hit it off. Namath lived in a fast world — TV commercials, movies, legendary nightlife, etc. — and he appreciated Hill’s humble and consistent nature. It was an easy friendship for Namath. Growing up in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar town known as a football hotbed, his best friend there was Black. He never understood the divide between Blacks and whites.

“I’m grateful for the way I was brought up, because I never lost that respect,” Namath said. “I’m frustrated in this day and age with our country and the world still carrying some anger and hatred toward people simply because of their color and religion. I think it’s masochistic to carry dag-gum ill feelings and be disrespectful.”

Namath and Hill finished their pro careers together in 1977, an unmemorable season for them with the Los Angeles Rams, but they stayed in touch when their playing days were over. There were letters and phone calls, but the strongest connection was Namath’s youth football camp, which he ran with former teammate John Dockery for more than 40 years.

Hill showed up every summer as a counselor, along with his wife and kids. Even in retirement, he had his quarterback’s back. It was an annual vacation in rural Connecticut. While Namath, Hill and teammates gave football instruction to kids, family members enjoyed the trappings of a summer camp.

“We grew up with a lot of uncles,” Heather Hill said, “and Joe Namath was always part of the experience — during and after playing football.”

Hill, who settled in Colorado, died in 2016, two years after his beloved Carolyn. After football, he opened a ribs and barbecue restaurant, and it exists today as Winston’s Smoke BBQ in Centennial, Colorado. He was a gifted motivational speaker and devoted his spare time to helping underserved communities. Hill’s was a two Hall-of-Fame life, as he was inducted last fall into the Black College Football Hall of Fame.

Schmitt, his former linemate, called it “a disgrace” that it took so long for Hill to be enshrined in Canton. That occurred in April for members of the Centennial Class, which will be honored again this weekend with the Class of ’21. His daughters will be in Canton, with Heather, an accomplished singer, scheduled to deliver the national anthem.

Namath, 78, doesn’t drink anymore. In his own way, he will toast his old friend’s overdue recognition.

“There’s a lasting, joyful feeling in my body’s soul, and I’m thankful,” he said. “I can see his face. I can see him now, he and Carolyn both. Wherever that next level is, he’s humbly smiling.”

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