The prevailing image that comes to mind is of him playing in the 1991 NFC Championship Game. Like the shark approaching the boy on the raft in Jaws, Leonard Marshall closes in on an unsuspecting Joe Montana. I have heard it said in many places - and I knew just from watching the game on TV back then - that it was one of the most brutal games ever played. I myself was on the cusp of being an adult; I was graduating from college in five months, and unlike all of my friends, I had no plans or ideas of who or what I would be. My girlfriend left me for a bank teller on Long Island. As much as it could for a relatively sheltered white boy, life left me feeling unmoored, tense and hazy.
The game itself was the sequel to a particularly close Monday Night game earlier in the season, which ended with Ronnie Lott and Phil Simms face to face, yelling at one another. The title game was a solid block of tension from the start, broken in the third quarter by a Montana touchdown pass to John Taylor. The tension returned when Jeff Hostetlor was hit at the knees by Jim Burt; what happened next may have been part of the ensuing outrage from the Giant bench.
Watching it, of course, you see why Montana was in such a position to be leveled by Marshall. As with anything related to the Giants' defense, Montana was so vulnerable because of Lawrence Taylor. Montana moved aside to avoid LT, but his preoccupation with the greatest of all linebackers left him in Marshall's path, and in a second, Joe Montana's career was permanently altered.
We watched it in my apartment on Oakland Avenue. My roommate was a itinerant tri-state area football fan, switching his allegiances back and forth between the Jets and Giants, depending on who was winning that season. The last four years he had therefore been a Giants fan, with some occasional gestures of sympathy toward me and my time in the dull Bruce Coslet years. On that night he invited all the Giant fans in his circle - including a guy dating a Tisch family relative just so that he could get free Giants tickets - and they all watched the game with the kind of focus and anxiety that they would someday give to watching their wives give birth.
When Montana went down from Marshall's hit, he immediately tried to regain a sense of his wheres and whens, like a collapsed drunk on an empty street. The guys gathered round the television in the apartment let up a great cry. One of them had chosen to watch the game in the next room - a behavior that I know I've adopted when I tried watching Jets playoff games - needing to be alone to simply process the intense strain. As they cried victory, he came out of the room and shushed them all like a chiding mother, reminding them of their manners. Even he could see how bad off Montana was, and it was terrible way to win the conference title.
"He's on queer street!" said to guy dating the Tisch girl. Queer in this case wasn't meaning gay by our present definition, but was based on its older sense. To whit, according to the 1811 Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence:
QUEER STREET. Wrong. Improper. Contrary to one's wish. "It is queer street," a cant phrase, to signify that it is wrong or different to our wish.
His words have stayed with me all these years. Late in the game, as Montana sat looking confused and disoriented on the 49ers bench, and as the Giants took the lead, Pat Summerall said it best when he reported the extent of the damages done to the greatest quarterback of the time.
"The word from the bench," Summerall said, "is everything hurts."
Monday was the 46th anniversary of the last Super Bowl the Jets have ever won. In two months, I'll be turning 46. I have always been in the peculiar position of measuring the subjective nature of time's passage with that coincidence. Young people are kind enough to show polite restraint when they find out how old I am, while most adult people don't think it's that old. Even if I have lately been feeling some aspect of an ongoing midlife crisis, I'm still mentally as old as I was the night Leonard Marshall send Joe Montana to Queer Street. Still, 46 years is a really unfortunate amount of time for a fan to be waiting with eagerness and devotion for the next championship.
It doesn't seem so long ago that Matt O'Dwyer #70 played for the Jets, but now I suppose it has been a while. His Wikipedia page rightly mentions that in his career he blocked for three great runners of the time - Adrian Murrell and Curtis Martin of the Jets, and Corey Dillon of Cincinnati when O'Dwyer played for the Bengals, starting in 1999. The front line to which he belonged in 1998, the page also points out, was one step away from the Super Bowl, and I can't help but put that year, the Jets and the Super Bowl in Miami that year together, for we were one quarter away. I vividly recall O'Dwyer and the others, lining up in the playoffs, looking more formidable than any other Jets front line since the one that played in another Super Bowl in Miami, the only one we've won. It seems like yesterday. They were one quarter away. That isn't that long ago. But in football years, it is.