Joe Namath went to dinner with Leon Hess and his wife in early 1977. They had been together for a dozen years and Namath, the New York Jets‘Super Bowl-winning quarterback, had a conversation with the owner who was so close to his heart.
It was a tough conversation that a Namath didn’t necessarily want but had to have. The Jets were in the middle of a transition with a new trainer – Walt Michaels replacing Lou Holtz. New York had designed a young quarterback, Richard Todd, and Todd needed iterations. Michaels wanted to play him.
Namath knew the team would take a few years to rebuild and it only seemed time for a break. Namath said the quarterback and owner shed tears.
Everyone understood that it was time for a player / franchise divorce.
Since Detroit designed Matthew Stafford in 2009, No. 9 has been the only constant for Lions fans until it traded in January. Derick E. Hingle / USA TODAY Sport
“If Lou Holtz had stayed with his staff for another year, I might have stayed with the Jets,” said Namath. “Whenever he left, I knew I just felt better for everyone involved if I got out of the way.
“When I say for everyone involved, especially the coaching team. I knew Richard had to work, wanted to work and that the right thing for me would be to sit because this team wouldn’t go anywhere this year. They would try.” and win games and they did, over the next few years they improved. But it was tough. “
When the jets passed on Namath, whose legs were already beaten, he signed with the Los Angeles Rams.
These were different times and Matthew Stafford is a different quarterback than Namath, although both were in their mid-30s – Stafford 33, Namath 34 – when the decision was made to move on. It’s tough for any quarterback who has been the face of a franchise for more than a decade to transition to a new team, which Stafford will do in March when his Detroit to Rams deal is complete.
It is rare for a quarterback to play with a team throughout his career. Tom Brady didn’t do it. Neither Peyton Manning, Namath, nor countless others who were vital to their franchise. Finding the time to move on is the harsh reality of sport – whether it’s the quarterback’s decision, the franchise, or a mutual understanding.
Some quarterbacks see the end in advance. Others don’t know until the end of the year. In some cases the mid-season comes abruptly. And when the quarterback – or those close to the quarterback – can spot it, last season will be a little different in a place that has become home.
Stafford told the Detroit Free Press in his only public comments since the deal that he and his wife Kelly had started a conversation about potentially relocating before the 2020 season. When things went bad, Stafford knew the Lions would embark on massive rebuilding.
Like Namath, he knew that a makeover at this stage in his career wasn’t the best situation for him – or the franchise.
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“Every time you switch GMs and a head coach, you know they want to involve their own people and that will take time,” Stafford told the Free Press. “And I honestly didn’t feel I was the right person to oversee this time.”
Which probably means sometime around Thanksgiving – whether before Detroit’s general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia were fired or after – Stafford had to suspect that his time in Detroit would end.
It would better explain that he insists on surviving a variety of injuries in the final month of the 2020 season. Maybe he knew it was time.
“I didn’t know in my senior year that it was necessarily my last year,” said Matt Hasselbeck, who played in Seattle for 10 years. “It kind of surprised me. But it’s only because I’ve been told all year round that we’re happy with you and are building something with you, but at the same time I wasn’t blind and fully understood because, hey, a new regime means brooding in their people, and that doesn’t offend me at all. “
For years, No. 12 and Joe Namath were synonymous with the New York Jets. Focus on Sports / Getty Images
Hasselbeck is grateful for what others around him did during his final season in Seattle in 2010. The Seahawks contested the playoffs and played at home against New Orleans. The legendary “Beast Quake” game.
After it was over and Seattle won, Hasselbeck had the ball in his hands. One of his teammates’ wives went to a police officer and asked to take his children to the field – something that hadn’t happened before.
“I’m there, have the ball, get ready to shake hands, conduct interviews, all that stuff. And suddenly my three children show up,” said Hasselbeck. “Right there. My youngest is like four or five. And I’m like, ‘Uhh, OK.’ So I put my son on my shoulders, I give the ball that is the Beast Quake Ball, I give it to my middle daughter, and I walk off the field with my kids.
“There are these great pictures and I’m staring at them now and they were on the cover of the paper. That was my last game in Seattle and I had no idea.”
Stafford might have felt it too. The Lions had him wired for sound in the season finale. The team shared their hugs throughout the video Matt Prater, Marvin Jones and Darrell Bevell, it seemed Stafford knew this was the end, too.
Just because Stafford went to the Lions and suggested a separation doesn’t make it any less difficult. During his dozen years in Detroit, he went from being a 21-year-old No. 1 overall winner to being a married father of four. Even if the intent is never to stay in one place for the rest of your life, some roots inevitably grow after a decade.
There is a life.
“They have a franchise. They do a job,” said former Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who spent all 16 years of his career in New York before retiring after the 2019 season. “And you’re going to change some teammates, you’re going to change coaches, but a lot of the coaches, the equipment staff, the media, the people in PR, these people aren’t changing.
“These people become like your family, and that’s how you grew up. And when that comes to an end, it’s difficult.”
Instead of going to another team, Eli Manning decided instead to hang it up with the New York Giants after 16 years. AP Photo / Patrick Semansky
The COVID-19 pandemic kept Manning more away from the facility than he otherwise would have been, but he knew it was time to leave. And that feeling of loss and pain is not unique.
“It was devastating to go,” said Hasselbeck. “Everything about it was difficult. You give everything.”
Their situations were different. Unlike Stafford, neither Hasselbeck nor Manning wanted to leave. It was clear that their times were coming to an end and the choice would not be entirely theirs. It might not be exactly Staffords either, but he made it clear that he wanted to move on.
He told the Free Press that he was disappointed not to have won a championship in Detroit and that his original intention was never to play anywhere else. He said he didn’t want anyone to think they were going to give up Detroit because “I gave everything I could here.”
Which reflects the feelings of Namath, who like Stafford went to Los Angeles and was more in agreement to part ways than the one-sided conclusion that one sees so often in professional sport.
“The hardest part was I didn’t want to leave New York,” said Namath. “I didn’t want to leave my friendship with so many familiar people that I’ve been there for 12 years in a row and have changed. I didn’t want to leave Mr. and Mrs. Hess. They were really wonderful people, the whole family.
“It was all tough.”
Stafford’s new reality is just as difficult. He’s excited about the new opportunity in Los Angeles and the opportunity to play potentially meaningful games late in the season.
But like everyone who gets into a new situation, they don’t know whether they notice it or not.
“It’s strange. Not only were you somewhere, it was who you were for a long time, for 10 years,” said Ken O’Brien, the Jets quarterback 1984-92 before moving to Philadelphia. “You look forward to going there all the time. You just fit in. You’re part of the whole jet deal and then you go somewhere else and no matter where you go, everything is completely different.”
For Matt Hasselbeck, the hardest part of moving from Seattle was influencing his family. Mike Roemer / AP Photo
Perhaps that stimulates Stafford, who has more talent overall with the Rams than most of his Detroit years. Football is still football. And as with Hasselbeck, the challenge of applying what he’d learned in Seattle to Tennessee was “refreshing in a way, too.” But Hasselbeck also learned to appreciate things he had in Seattle – food, for example – that weren’t exactly the same in Tennessee.
After his first year with the Titans, he said he owed a handful of calls from Seahawks employees because it was only then that he realized the importance of promoting his success and the success of Seattle.
Hasselbeck said one of the hardest things to do is his family and their transition. His kids, for example, loved Blitz, Seattle’s mascot. When they first arrived in Tennessee, they still loved Blitz more than T-Rac, Tennessee’s mascot. Hasselbeck had to explain, while they had connections in Seattle, Tennessee was the team to put down for now.
“It’s like, no, no, no, this is our new team,” said Hasselbeck. “It was like giving up on our family dog and saying, ‘This is our dog now. You don’t like that dog anymore.’ It’s like, “What are you talking about papa? This is our dog.”
“It was difficult. Definitely difficult.”
But that’s all part of what happens when your world changes and you uproot from one life to another. It is change. So life is. And for the Staffords – and for the new Detroit quarterback Jared Goff – It’s the first time that they really experience it.