He’s walking the hallways of Jupiter Medical Center, near his home on the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. At 72, Namath has a gait that is slightly stooped but determined, his grin craggy but still infectious.
He greets the men and women at Jupiter by name, hugs the nurses, asks after family members. He chats with fans who approach, encouraging them to stay healthy.
Namath’s eyes sadden a bit as he pauses at a treatment bay where a patient is groaning in distress. “I’ll tell you what,” he sighs, a familiar dollop of Alabama still sweetening his phrasing five decades after his college days with Bear Bryant, who called him the greatest athlete he ever coached. “You see what some of these folks have to go through and you think, ‘There but for the grace of God …'”
Namath’s mission nowadays is to give concussion victims reason for hope beyond divine intervention.
A few years back, he’d begun to think about his own cognitive issues — they didn’t seem serious, but he wasn’t sure. He occasionally wondered why he had just walked into a particular room or lost track of his keys. He also struggled with depression. Namath thought about the bone-crunching blows he had taken in his pro career — knocked cold at least five times, with no treatment except smelling salts. And he pondered the fate of old comrades, struggling through the aftershocks of concussions years after retiring from football, living in fear of losing their minds.
In 2012, he began an experimental hyperbaric oxygen treatment from two doctors at Jupiter. Neither of them was a neurological specialist, but after 120 trips into Jupiter’s oxygen chambers, Namath perceived extraordinary improvement in his brain function. And ever since, he’s been telling the world — friends, teammates, reporters — about the benefits of his therapy.
Last September he and Jupiter officials launched the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center. With great fanfare, they announced their goal to a throng of media at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York: to raise $10 million for a clinical trial of hyperbaric oxygen on 100 subjects suffering from symptoms of brain damage. Namath would be the lead fundraiser and cheerleader for the project.
The Hall of Fame quarterback has never been conventional, and he knows what he’s selling is a leap beyond the fringes of accepted science. To many experts, the endeavor raises serious concerns. But to Namath, the truth is as simple as the air we breathe.