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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mike

My dog's name is Mike.

I don't know how old Mike is or his breed, if there is any to be discerned. We adopted him four and a half years ago from a shelter. He didn't have any tags or any information when he was found by a thoughtful woman in central New Jersey. One day, while driving along a road somewhere near the shelter, this woman saw Mike sitting alone by the roadside, obviously waiting for someone. He was probably waiting for the very same people who had opened up the door of the car they had been driving him in to let him out, presumably never to see him again. He had probably been abandoned.

I've known this for four and a half years. I've known that this is probably what happened because the woman who found him, who also runs the animal protection group, noticed this quality of discipline about him. At first he seemed reluctant to go with her. He was obviously waiting, possibly believing that the people who had left him behind would eventually return. Finally, she persuaded him to come along with her. They weren't coming back. Who knows whether this registered with him or not? It still very nearly brings tears to my eyes when I think about that.

Before Mike, I had never owned a pet in my life. It took a while for me to warm to the idea. But when, for the hundredth time, my wife showed me an online picture of a dog in need of adoption, I saw Mike. I don't know what it was. His description was that of a dog who seemed trained, loving, in need of human company, and, as the write-up said, "in need of someone who will talk to him." His expression on the web site is one I recognize now as Mike's look of pretending, without much conviction, not to be worried. That look never let go of me.

"I'll drive to Jersey for that dog," I said. And that's how we got Mike.

Actually, his name wasn't Mike. The woman who rescued him named him "Sojourner," because he was on a journey, she said. I liked "Mike." I always wanted a dog named Mike. I don't know why. I certainly didn't like the idea of even saying the name "Sojourner" to people when I envisioned them asking his name. Sojourner Truth was a great woman, and hardly the kind of person whom you'd think would be honored by being named after a dog. No. A simple name, to the point, effective: Mike.

At first, when we met him, he looked small, and now I realize he was just making himself small to our eyes. It's something he does when he's afraid, especially when a thunderstorm is coming. He shrinks himself down almost as if he might disappear. When we finally went to pick him up a day later, though, he trotted to our car in all his glory - a big Shepherd mix - about 80 lbs, eager to take up our entire back seat and move on to his new home. He was and is a big guy.

No sooner did we first have him than we almost lost him. After a few months of walks and epic games of fetch, he let me know one day that something was terribly wrong. He told me directly. We were playing fetch on a cold January day, and he told me to stop. I picked up the frisbee, and he barked at me, angrily. He was clearly telling me something. So I stopped. We walked home, but he got slower and slower. He limped badly. He wouldn't go upstairs to bed that night. So we moved the Aerobed downstairs to be with him, but he started making horrible sounds of pain and couldn't walk.

We carried him to the car and went to the animal hospital at Penn. My wife and I just sat speechless while the vet took him into another room to examine him. Normally she and I will nervously talk one another out of our dark places when they make themselves known. "The black eyed dog" is what Churchill called depression, and we have spent our lives together shooing it away from each other's sight. But this was our dog, whose eyes, as you can see in the picture above, are the windows to his soul. How could we lose him when he was only ours for just a little while? I realize that when people face the prospect of losing their own child with such a thought it is much, much worse; I know that. I know the difference between a human and an animal. To know only a fraction of that experience, though, was bad enough. So we didn't know what to say to each other.

We were told that a chronic problem - of which we had previously no idea - of ruptured disks in his spine was paralyzing him. We were also told that surgery might fix it. And, after five thousand dollars, months of rehab, day after day of helping him walk outside amid snow storms and freezing weather so he could relieve himself, of crating him, of sleeping downstairs with him night after night, of changing the dressings on his stitches, he got much better. Today he is walking happily, though we're really not to play fetch with him anymore, just to be safe.

The surgeon told us that Mike had probably been gradually dealing with the problem for some time before we got him, hiding the pain of it, the way dogs do, because they are often more courageous about pain than we are. They don't understand themselves as being separate from a group. They won't show pain because they know the pack will abandon them if they do, which might explain why he was abandoned in the first place. He was in pain when he was left behind, and he shouldered it as long as he could until it became too much for him. Perhaps whoever owned him in New Jersey couldn't afford to save his life, so they offered someone else the chance to do it. If I tell myself that now, then I can at least feel grateful that we could do it rather than feel angry at someone whom I don't even know for making him feel like he didn't belong, for treating him like he was disposable. Maybe they were just doing what they thought was right.

***

This is my actually a piece on Michael Vick, who will in a likelihood be starting for us on opening day. You might consider it a manipulatively winded way to begin, and it is. I'm afraid it offers no cogent argument on wrong or right but rather a handful of thoughts on the nature of the soul, human or not. I wrote pieces on Vick's arrest and guilty plea when it happened, but I didn't know how to label my entries back then, so nobody could really read them. I'll offer them now, if only because they reflect things I still feel. We live in in Philadelphia, and five weeks after we adopted Mike, Michael Vick signed a one-year deal with the Eagles. Obviously I would have picked a different name, but now Mike was Mike, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I was at least impressed by the fact that Michael Vick handled himself with an air of apparent humility when he came to Philly, with the air of a man who was trying to recover a life. He was paid a lot of money, too, of course. I would have been more comforted by grander gestures toward animal rights. After all, he had gone to prison for something that happens in Philly all the time. But even as a fan of the Eagles, my second-favorite team, I could never really root for them with Vick under center.

It never felt right. I just couldn't do it. I tried to reassure myself of a central truth - that all people deserve second chances, but it was no use. I understand that there is perspective to be had. Darren Sharper's own alleged inhumanity toward women looks just as horrific, if not more so. And I still mean what I said in my six and a half year old-year old posts; there is something in the life an athlete - perhaps even in the way that he or she is treated - that must engender a sense of the disposability of loyal things. But it didn't matter. When Nick Foles took the starting job with great success this past season, it was a pleasure to root for the Iggles again.

But I also knew that I myself would eventually would have to do some deeper soul-searching than that. I knew it. Last year I just knew that Michael Vick would come to the Jets. I just knew it. After all, it's exactly the same kind of short-term solution our club chooses in the midst of its own search for a Messiah at QB. It is exactly the wrong kind of decision to make. As someone said to me in consolation this week, when Vick is at his best, no one is more exciting to watch. Except that even before he was arrested, Vick was already in decline. He did learn to pass a bit better in Philadelphia, but it's too late now. I just wish I were not waiting for someone to use their common sense and develop a practical, long term solution rather trying to find the magic trick at QB. It's certainly not Mike Vick; I didn't think it was Geno Smith, but then why do we keep trying to vacuously remake New York's shitshow of a football team year after year? Right now I almost hate my own team more than Mike Vick for reasons that have nothing to do with dogs.

Vick will be peculiarly difficult for me look at in our uniform. When Vick played in Philly, he was often beaten to a pulp on all sides by the defense. Andy Reid's last season in Philadelphia was a bloodbath, but rather than be frustrated, as every Philly fan was by the insanity of his schemes, I felt an empty sense of karma every time Vick was thrown down. I didn't relish or enjoy it, but I recognized it for what it was in some small way. I don't want to feel that way about Vick this year, especially if he starts most of our games. But I think I just might. Memory is tricky in the way it colors your soul. Poet Robinson Jeffers once alternately described humanity as a clever servant but an even more insufferable master. It is easy to forgive a penitent man who was cruel to an animal that is wired to love and to be loyal to human beings, but it is very hard to forget.

***

In the last moments of the last episode of The Wire, we see all the different characters receive their rewards, their comeuppance, or their unjustified attainments, but then we cut back and forth to and from the neighborhoods of the show, and at one brief but harrowing point, just before we leave off, we see children pouring what looks like bleach on a crying cat, just for fun. We are reminded, as Auden said, that those to whom evil is done do evil in return. Nothing evil exists in just one person; it is everywhere, in our thoughts, our pleasures and our violent games, and it is born from a world where people are taught that love and gentleness are worthless. People do evil. And they can change, too.

In order to find my rationale for rooting for Vick this year, I have to believe that somehow he understands that. He is a different man, I will tell myself. We all have some darkness within us, some violent rage that will never see the light of day. Vick was justly punished for allowing such cruelty to play out in his life. But then I don't know him the way I know Mike the dog, and I'm presently wrestling with the idea that I have to weigh my love of my team with the love of an animal that guides me through my day. Maybe I don't have to weigh them against one another at all. Maybe they can just coexist. Maybe I should just relax. I don't know.

So instead, like any annoying dog owner, I'll just leave you only with thoughts of Mike, the mutt. Whether or not I should weigh in on the nature of my new quarterback's soul, let me at least finish illustrating in my own winded way how a being that is often treated so cruelly by its own feckless masters, a creature without even a sense of its own mortality, can also have a soul. And Mike the dog possesses one.

He wakes us up early, and is demanding. He follows a rigid inner schedule, and trains you to follow it. He expects to be walked twice a day, and he gets his two walks. He expects his meals at certain times. When you arrive home, he welcomes you with an extraordinary, spinning dance that turns quickly into a police escort. He will shepherd you from room to room, getting physically behind you to force you to the kitchen when he needs to, or to bed at the end of the day. When he walks with you, he more or less leads the way, and you are subject to his stopping the pace for his investigations of the smells of the world, one by one, with his nose to the ground.

He expects to receive a great deal of attention, particularly when company comes. He will bark in your face when you are putting on your shoes to take him outside, as if to reinforce both how excited he is about the prospect of our thousandth time up to the college campus at the top of the hill and to impress upon you that, once again, you are probably behind the clockwork schedule he keeps in his mind. You do not say the words "walk," "treat," or "dinner" in his company; you say them backwards so as to avoid giving him a false expectation. He is particularly adamant about Sunday, the day both of us walk him in the morning; it is his happiest day - the day we are all together, as we are apparently supposed to be all the time, in his mind. None of this bothers me in the way it would with a human.

At night, he sits with me as I aimlessly watch TV and leans against me for both affection and to protect me, the way dogs will lean against the things that they care about, claiming them as their own. We love Mike with our whole hearts, and I know that despite our unpunctual humanity, he loves us too because it is in his species' peculiar and beautiful nature to do so.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Rex Ryan, Not on Fire: A Belated Tribute

I placed this fiery chair into what was supposed to be the season-ending post of this blog. But then the symbol became irrelevant.

Actually, is it a symbol? A symbol is supposed to represent any number of different things, whereas a sign typically represents only one thing. A cheap, wooden chair, likely dosed with lighter fluid, beginning its process of carbonization, could represent many things. In this case, it's supposed to represent the "hot seat." But then it's a misplaced metaphor, isn't it? The idea was that this post was supposed to come after the firing of Rex Ryan, but even if Ryan had been fired, a chair on fire would not have been the proper image to use. Maybe a chair reduced to ashes would have been better. Of course, it's irrevelant - the man still has his job, and the Jets finished what I predicted would be their best-case scenario record for 2013, breaking even.

Maybe the idea was that the fire would represent Hell. After the firing that never was, Ryan, in this post, was supposed to be sent (for his likely brief time of unemployment) to the Underworld, much like the one to which the ancients imagined their mythological heroes would be sent - a place filled with the spirits of others who had died and gone before them. Then the heroes would return again to the surface, carrying in their minds the newly learned wisdom that only the dead can know. In this case, Rex Ryan would visit - and be visited - by all the Jets ex-coaches whose ranks of relative infamy he would have joined.

Whom would he have met? Weeb Ewbank carrying around his heavy bronze bust, remembering Ryan as the chubby kid who once carried Namath's stuff around the locker room. Charley Winner trying to sell an overstock collection of embroidered Jets polo shirts from the 1970's. Lou Holtz offering barely coherent dadgummits about the superiority of the college player. Walt Michaels working the coat room, mumbling to himself. Joe Walton walking around the underworld lobby ranting to no one in particular about Joe Fields and Joe Klecko. A sneering Bruce Coslet complaining about player injuries. Pete Carroll actually wearing a monocle and silk top hat and offering unwelcome advice about defensive backs needing to be physical on every play. Here to take my bags, my good man?

(per Slimbo): Richie Kotite is found in the lobby, sitting in the easy chairs by the phony hearth, staring constantly in a hand-held mirror, hoping once again to win the New Year's annual Alan Rachins lookalike contest held in Emerald Room. It's a stretch, but the Coaches Underworld holds it every year to keep Richie from getting too despondent over winning only four regular season games in two seasons with us. The stragglers they pull off the street are the designated runners-up. It keeps the old coach's ego intact. Of course it's becoming a bit superfluous, for the memories of that time - of the self-loathing and humiliation Jets fans felt during his two seasons as coach - are becoming so distant that even Martin Roche initially forgot to note his presence in this place of misery. To be loathed is bad, but to be forgotten is worst of all.

Anyway, Bill Parcells is in the Underworld lounge singing "My Way," hurling an empty gas can at Rex. Al Groh is just barely visible in the background, still wearing his UVA hat, accepting tips from VIP's going in and out of limousines. And who is the shadowy figure going in and out of the car? It's not Herman Edwards - he's in the Avocado Room, practically handing out excess copies of his inspirational books. C'mon. People. Basement's not gonna clear itself out. Nor is it Eric Mangini - he's filling out an application for the coat check job, hoping that something opens up soon. Nevertheless he regards Rex Ryan with an air of superiority that Ryan cannot possibly take seriously.
 
But it was not to be, and though about a month and a half ago, I might have despaired of his getting rehired, the truth is that I'm happy, like a lot of you, that he was retained. On the one hand, no one better was available. Who would they have gotten? Mike Shanahan? Jim Schwartz? Ken Whisenhunt? What kind of world are we living in? Without a running game, without Revis, without a practiced, seasoned quarterback, without even so much as a reliable backup, the Jets had, according to the scribes, a simple set of very bad outcomes awaiting them at season's end. The club avoided most of them. Of all of predictions, the most common was that Rex Ryan would lose his job.

The simple, childlike joy that all the players showed the moment they learned that Ryan would be back for another year was enough of a happy ending for me, though it shouldn't have been. We should expect more than what this season gave us, but then that's the essence of being a Jets fan, isn't it? You can count on your hand the number of times that the Jets have convinced the world that they are a good team, a solid and formidable team. More often, Jets fans are left with their own relative measures of happiness. By breaking even, we did better than anyone expected. Only a Jets fan can truly enjoy the pleasures of knowing that. Once long ago, in an age before all their success, it used to be true of Patriot fans, too. It will be again someday, my friends. Mark my words.

No. Where would we be without our clown car's master of ceremonies - at least in terms of entertainment and color? Large numbers of Giants and Pats fans I know are happy that Ryan is back. Some are glad because they believe that Ryan is not all that great a coach. But they're secretly glad too that they will be able to enjoy his histrionics, his eccentricities and his bipolar moments of irregular logic for another year, just as we will.

What's New England got? Belichick. He is that shadowy figure going in and out of the limousines in the Underworld. He is the man whom Parcells spawned; he is the man who made Mangini. He was our coach for an hour or two. So long as that little cocktail napkin resignation sits snugly in the pocket of the overcoat he wears over his hoodie, he is always allowed free access to the restrooms and the dry cleaners in that Underworld hotel, that place of misbegotten dreams and years.

But underneath all that genius, that brooding, simmering intensity, what is Bill Belichick? Nothing more than a stumpy little hermit neighbor in a ratty sweatshirt who never so much as returns your wave as he steps out of his house to collect the newspaper from his steps. You wave at him every time even though you know he won't react to you, just to get on his nerves. You can't help it. And I have a feeling Rex Ryan would get a kick out of doing the same thing to him. Say what you will (and I will) our coach is flawed in an understandable and human way. Like you and me. I'd prefer him as my neighbor.

My favorite moment from that video - a clip that more than one wistful Jets fan said resembled a celebratory Super Bowl locker - came when John Idzik announced to the team that he believed that Ryan's club was not a cocky team with an attitude problem but rather a team that had earned its place. Behind the General Manager's back, hearing that the Jets were not a trash talking team, Rex Ryan can be seen to make a sheepish expression. If you say so, he seems to say. But actually, he smiles to his players, that's exactly what we are. 

You and I know it's true, and whatever expectations we have for next year, we know that Rex Ryan will be what he has always been, a source of unbridled entertainment and hysterical frustration for all of us, one sometimes more entertaining than the game itself. But the seat remains very warm, all the same. The metaphor finally fits.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

NY Jets #68 - Part 5

Kevin Mawae #68
There are players that you never really let go of, and considering the number of great ones who've been let go by the Jets, the dropping of Kevin Mawae #68 in favor of Nick Mangold has always seemed like the kind of bargain football demands of its fans. Mawae was the victim of a sport that fashions a player into a machine's specific part that can be easily replaced.

You are not versatile in football; you are the position you play, and aside from football's era of the titans and giants (mythologically speaking) when men played 60 minutes, the only player in the modern era I can think of who was radically changed from one position to another was Marlin Briscoe, and I wonder if it was because of his race. Baseball engenders versatility in the great ones who are still wanted on the team. When Jim Rice was put in left field, Carl Yazstremski was put at first base. In football, there are no second acts. Kevin Mawae was released after going to the Pro Bowl six times with the Jets, perhaps with the idea that he was going out to pasture. Instead he would go the Pro Bowl three more times with the Tennessee Titans.

I have a fellow fan who only keeps a Mawae jersey in his closet and no one else's. My friend Nate has never lost the image of Mawae hiking for Testaverde and Pennington at the end of the last century and at the start of this one. Since Nate's a little younger than I, those are his Jets, the ones that sealed his ferocious fandom. For me, it's the Jets of the early 80's which took my childhood loyalty and shaped into it a volatile love affair that will last a lifetime.

Nate comes by his love honestly. By right, 1999 - Mawae's second season with us - was absolutely a Super Bowl season in the making, and just as I was once filled with flimsy dreams that were ruined by AJ Duhe and Dade County, Nate remembers how opening day 1999 crushed those dreams entirely. Vinny's front line was formidable (it allowed him the touchdown that never was against Seattle at home in 1998), but it couldn't save his Achilles' tendon. (Being a Jets fan is knowing that both moments were defined by a bad decision over field conditions. Miami neglected to put the tarp down before the Mud Bowl; the Meadowlands had a new turf that caught Vinny's foot. It was put down just prior to the opener to replace the grass they used in exhibition.)

The 1999 season was the quintessential one of the Parcells era, with promise, bombast, and terrible disappointment, followed by a quick exit from the Tuna himself when he became bored with the whole thing, as he was wont to be. Everything after 1999 is the current era, with its three coaches - Edwards, Mangini and Ryan (never mind, Al Groh) - bobbing us up and down, in and out of the playoffs, as we kept waiting for something like Parcells' overpowering team of 1998-99 to return. To me, Kevin Mawae is the star of that team, opening up the way for Curtis Martin.

"It's Meh-why," Nate reminds me. "Not Ma-way. You're embarrassing yourself."

Nate's in his early thirties, shortish, nattily dressed to teach science each day. But he is among the surprising number of Jets fans at the school outside Philly where I teach. He's prematurely gray at the temples and in his goatee.

"Can you spell Augustyniak?" I ask him in the school cafeteria. We have lunch duty that day. It's not unlike sitting as a teenager back in my old high school in New York, as we needle one another about sports. My old high school friend Doughy was a Giants fan, and we used to have borderline hostile conversations in the cafeteria that shifted back to a kind of neutrality when one of us needed the other for the Math homework.

"Auga-what? Who's that?"

"Never mind," I say. "Meh-why."

Kevin Mawae was also the NFLPA Leader during the 2010 Lockout. An article from USA Today talks about his role in the process and how he felt in some ways that the end of his career, one way or another, was hastened by it. He speaks about the players he has met over the years who suffered irreparable damage playing the game. To Sports Illustrated last summer he was adamant about something I know bothered me as well about the NFL's settlement with veteran players. Although the $765 million deal allowed suffering players to receive compensation, Mawae said it also drains future bargaining power for current players. He says, "the rest of us have lost the ability to take the bully behind the shed."

I love that metaphor. The league doesn't do anything without calculating how it can win the battle in the long run. Like any corporate entity, it knows what it can do to its workers, and the money that its players are given is always the devil's argument for the league to use and dispose of its workers any way it wants to. Did this deal make future bargaining with the league more difficult? After all, what players need is compensation beyond a pension, but as the years roll on, and further compensation is needed for the current players and recent retirees, it's never going to come from the league without a fight. The more the league relents and gives, the more it will find justification to fight to give nothing later on. We already gave you guys money. It's a tricky endgame.

I still miss Kevin Mawae. It's hard to replace someone who works like the heart of a team. To Nate he is an emblem of a time when his team made him the most excited, and I suspect it's because he represented what was best about them back then. For me, he is the guy who wants to take the bully behind the shed. Everybody needs somebody like that in their lives. He is an Infinite Jet - so much so that I hope he will soon have a place in the Ring of Honor, though I would have preferred that he go into the Hall someday in our uniform.


***
Schmitt, Johnson, Grantham, Namath, Talamini and Stromberg in 2008
In the 2008 photograph above, we see Mike Stromberg #68 who was on the Jets' roster during their championship season of 1968. Behind him, I see the omnipresent sunglasses of Joe Namath; there's Curly Johnson and John Schmitt, both looking well. Number 60 is Larry Grantham, a true legend, part of the Ring of Honor. His expression is cartoonishly grim and resolute. He is a man who seems to dwell on the basic truth that this is probably the only trophy his longtime team will ever hoist. As a result, with the knowledge that the only Infinites who will ever enjoy this privilege are the ones who are beginning the last acts of their lives, he is understandably somber on what is obviously the occasion of the team's 40th anniversary of Super Bowl III.

Of course that's not what he's really thinking. The truth is that's what I'm thinking. Larry Grantham may have been not feeling well that day in 2008 as he has struggled with his health in the last few years. He's one of those guys who's second acts in life make him a hero. As for Mike Stromberg, he may have traveled up to the Meadowlands that weekend with Earl Christy, who evidently lives in the Tampa area as well; Christy is the emcee for a Tampa-area bar that specializes in catering to transplanted Jets fans each Sunday of the season. Ladies and gentleman, give a warm Jets welcome to Super Bowl III veteran, Mike Stromberg.

***

Rich Cimini ranks David Ware #68 as one of the worst picks in the draft that the Jets ever have made. That's a weighty claim, as we know. The single fact that Ware never even played in a game for the Jets after being drafted in the fourth round in 1993 makes him a good candidate, though. The other might be what I discovered about Ware as he was trying to return for the '94 season. Apparently, he seemed unhappy with the idea of even playing pro football.

By the end of an article from August 1994 in the Times, Gerald Eskanazi suggests that Ware ultimately made up his mind to return to play (or sit on the bench), though we know he didn't even make it through camp, whether because he was cut or he just quit. The intriguing thing is that Ware was also considering going into teaching instead of returning to camp at Hofstra, and though he may have been momentarily talked out of it, he may have taken the path and joined us in the profession, as many former players do. Pete Carroll, who was beginning his career as a head coach for the Jets that summer, apparently had a conversation with Ware that at first convinced him that Ware wanted to stay. Ware's confusion over what to do was, according to Carroll, one of those situations "where people get their priorities out of order." Or, perhaps, in order, depending on how you look at it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

NY Jets #68 - Part 4

I had been building up with some expectation to writing about Reggie McElroy #68 with remembrances of his playing for the Jets throughout much of the ups and downs of the 80's. He also had a career well into the 90's with Kansas City, Minnesota and the Raiders. Drafted in the second round out of West Texas A&M in 1982, he missed his first season due to a knee injury, but then came back to start consistently the next few seasons, missing half of 1986 with injury, then returning, then missing a season again, and then returning. For better or for worse, that's how many linemen live their football lives, yet his was technically as long a career as Winston Hill's. But as soon as I went looking into the Interwebs, I found really nothing more than a note on his Wikipedia page that adds that he is now a defensive line coach for the Rolla High School Bulldogs, of Rolla, Missouri. He's been everywhere, and yet he is nowhere else to be found, except in teaching young people how to attack the very position he used to play.

Here is his Pro Set card to the left. He looks very different from the monsters in charge of the offensive lines of today's game. He's 6'6" - big, but tall and fit. He looks like a modern tight end, more like Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, rather than a Vladimir Ducasse. He doesn't look so much like a man who would be able to stop William Perry from reaching Ken O'Brien or Pat Ryan by merely standing still, as he might have been asked to in 1985. Instead he looks like a player with size and speed, someone athletic who might run the sweep in front of Freeman McNeil. That's probably what he did, but my uneven memory from adolescence doesn't have anything specific in the bank. All I remember is John Brodie, in one of his last years of broadcasting games for NBC, pronouncing the tackle's name with his central California accent as Mackle-Roy, rather than Mac-El-Roy, which is how I thought it would be said.

And why did he end up in Rolla, a town far from his boyhood home of Texas? Kansas City was one of his last professional stops, but Rolla is a little bit closer to St. Louis, along Route 44. I once lived in St. Louis a long time ago and would travel along Route 70 to Kansas City to visit a girl I knew there. It seemed like the longest three hours of my life to get there, if only because the sky and the Earth seemed joined in equal halves that never seem to change in appearance. The landscape was so flat and wide that it became a hypnotic drive. There were very few unique landmarks that differed from town to town, from the last place you saw to the next thing coming on the horizon. I wouldn't be able to live there for long. I needed to live in a place where I wouldn't always be able to see from so far away what was coming.

But if so little physically changes year to year in the world where you live, are you ever inclined to think of life itself as a shifting thing, where change is the constant norm of life? If by living in a city that has changed so much in the last 20 years, am I mistaken in thinking that every day can bring the chance of experiencing something genuinely new? Or is that belief just simply one more delusion - the kind that we all tell ourselves in order to believe that we are more than just a particle, a piece of something lost in the larger something that a band that named itself after a flat and wide midwestern place once sang about many years ago?

In the picture above taken at the Meadowlands (back probably in 1985 when the Jets still wore white at home) Reggie McElroy stands tall and ready, his knees for the moment working well enough, looking straight ahead for what's coming at him. And how does he look at life now? Does he still stand in position? Does he want the men he trains on defense to attack their opponents just as he was once attacked? Has he now taken the position of the object on the horizon, having switched from playing offense to coaching defense?

Rolla is a town that calls itself "the middle of everywhere," a phrase that cleverly anticipates what you're already tempted to say. Reggie McElroy's switch in allegiances reminds us that our distinctions among things are often just illusions. Like the earth and sky in equal parts, like offense to the defense, perhaps everywhere and nowhere - so many things are two merely sides of the same coin.

***

John McMullen was the first #68 in franchise history, playing in the Jets' first season as well.

Dave Middendorf #68 closed out the decade playing guard for the Jets in 1970 after two seasons with the Bengals. Middendorf settled in the Seattle area, where he currently resides as a physician with a private family chiropractic practice. As with Reggie McElroy, the knees were the constant source of his pain, and apparently Middendorf ended his career after serious knee surgery. However, his pain and the chiropractic help he received afterwards inspired him to go into the field. His views on vaccinations aside, if you live in Puget Sound area and are concerned about the possibility of suffering vertebral subluxation, then by all means look him up.

Friday, November 29, 2013

NY Jets #68 - Part 3

According to Rich Cimini at the start of this season, the Jets were as young at potential starters as they were the last time they were the youngest - 1979. The season started with a home game against Cleveland, a long, laborious, agonizing exercise on the baseball/football field at Shea Stadium that the Jets lost 25-22. Eric Cunningham #68 was one of four rookie starters on that day. The others were Marty Lyons, Donald Dykes, and Stan Blinka, all of whose careers went further after that day than Eric Cunningham's.

According to the Football-Database, Cunningham started only one game in his career and apparently remained on the sideline until 1980, the last year of his career. Does this mean that the only game he started in his entire career was his first as a pro - that warm, dusty, error-laden game - the beginning of two frustrating Jets seasons to come? I remember the feeling I had during the first game I started at wide receiver in peewee flag football, when I was nine, a year before Eric Cunningham began his pro career. It was my only football season as a player. It was hilarious and terrifying fun. To a little boy who had watched football with a sense of fascination on his parents' Sony Trinitron, it was impossible to figure out how it really worked on the ground. I was like a fish in a blender, just waiting for the spinning to stop.

By the third game of the season, the coach - a tall, borderline personality case - sent my friend Pete out to run a pattern that was made for the wide receiver. Probably one of the four patterns I was supposed to run - the down-and-out, the down-and-in, the post, and the buttonhook. After losing consecutive games, maybe coach was just trying something new. Pete ran out, turned around, and our quarterback had the ball exactly where the pudgy-faced little kid needed it, and Pete headed for the sideline, which he ran along for the touchdown. It was the end of my career at wide receiver. The game had slowed down for Pete enough that he made the play that I couldn't and probably wouldn't have made.

I'd lie if I said I wasn't hurt by it, but it was the first of many valuable lessons in how sports can sometimes mirror a world where sentimentality and affection mean little to nothing. Life is a casting off of things, as Mrs. Loman says. We are here, then we're not, and someone is there to take out place - maybe even someone as nice and friendly as little Pete was in real life. Did Eric Cunningham watch his chances leave him that sandy afternoon, not quite even knowing what was awaiting him the following week? Did it end just after it began? Was he badly injured? What happened? The air is full of our cries to know.

Charles "Tank" Marshall #68 was drafted in the third round in 1977, two years before Cunningham. But Marshall came with greater expectations and hopes, especially for a team that had never adequately replaced its defensive line with anything resembling what they had in the late 60's and early 70's. Out of Texas A&M, Marshall played only a few games for the Jets and then his NFL career ended. I have the vaguest of memories seeing him in the 1977 yearbook as a valued lineman to be, with a future ahead of him.

What the future held for him is unclear, but as a former standout college player, he was at least alive and well enough to give an interview at the TexAgs site where I learned that his nickname has two possible origins. At almost six feet in the sixth grade, he broke a teammate's helmet in practice with his forearm, compelling someone to remark that he hit like a tank. His brother also referred to him as "Tankhead" when he was little because of the size of his skull.

At the link above, there is an audio of a radio interview done with Marshall who sounds very well. Apparently he has been a presence at many Aggie training camps over the years, and unlike the way I often picture old men whose best football memories seem to be from college, Marshall today seems to see his experiences in the past as a gift that keeps on giving to generations of other players. As a self-described elitist Northerner, I'm so compelled to love the professional game but to disparage the Southern collegiate one that feeds the pros. But though Tank Marshall still resides in the past, he's very much in the present too. Much like South itself.

Though he does note that as an African-American player from Dallas, he was only taken aback when he first arrived at A&M by the strange custom of his classmates chewing Copenhagen and leaving cups of spit behind in the classrooms after lectures.



Sunday, November 17, 2013

NY Jets #68 - Part Two

Last week was the Bye, and frankly in this season of stirring ups and heavy downs, a break from the Jets was a chance to rejuvenate oneself, to take a look at the last of the changing leaves and find solace in nature. I walked my dog Mike up near the campus of the nearby college. It was wonderful.

So I decided to repeat the experience today, even if I could already feel the agita developing in my chest, a burning feeling in my stomach, which I really hoped was nothing more than an ulcer. If the pattern of this season continued, the Jets running game would be shut down, Geno Smith would throw three picks, and the Jets would lose to a team they should beat rather than, say, beat a team like the Saints.

And that's what happened, though Geno also fumbled an additional turnover. But at this point it was still the morning, and I could maybe tell myself that by understanding and respecting the pattern of this ridiculous season, maybe the pattern would change. So I bundled up instinctively and took Mike outside, wearing my Dad's old woolen Jets hat from the late 70's.

But autumn in Philadelphia is tricky and, frankly, a little insincere. Is it so much to ask for the weather in November to be crispy and clear, the way it was when I was a boy? Indian Summer is all there is in Philly's Fall until Christmas comes, and whatever sense of transition you thought would come from C to D is instead met by a balmy wind that strips the trees of their final color of the season. So when I walked Mike up the hills of the campus, I realized it was too hot for the wool hat. So I took it off and jammed it into the side pocket of my coat.

***

Roger Bernhardt #68 came out of Kansas, probably a little too late to block for John Riggins, and was initially drafted by the Steelers in 1973. He ended up with the Jets. The sense of what could have been as opposed to the way it ended up was probably helped by collecting a paycheck and starting at least some of the time. The two seasons he played with the Jets and in the NFL were spent blocking for a declining quarterback, while the Steelers were beginning the greatest run of success a team has ever known in the post-merger era. Maybe I'm just a resentful, bitter and regretful person (i.e., a Jets fan) and unable to look at a life experience without injecting my own ennui, my own sense that things could have been better, if only just this or this had or had not occurred.

I wasn't able to find anything about Bernhardt's life after he left football before the 1975 season. There is a property lawyer with the same name who operates out of San Francisco and teaches at Golden Gate University. But that's not him.

***

I told myself when I put it in my pocket to be careful. Gradually the hat flops out of my pocket and falls to the ground as I walk.

Usually somebody walking behind me lets me know it's happened.

"Hey - you've dropped your hat."

I pick it up, thanking him or her, a little embarrassed that I'm still wearing a hat that belongs to a football team I've been following since I was a little boy. I'm supposed to be caring about other things more important than that by now. I'm supposed to be caring about something larger - money, a house, children, or maybe a better idea for a happier life. I'm supposed to be a more responsible person than this. I pick it up, hoping that no one notices the crude little helmet stitched onto the brim, the one with the silly oval logo I was always grateful the Jets returned to in 1998. I could explain it all to anyone who wondered what I was talking about, walking Mike up on the campus, but they're art students up there, and I don't think any of them even care about the Philadelphia Eagles, a team whose fans have suffered as much (and disposed of themselves just as badly) as the fans of my team.

"Thanks," I usually mumble, while moving briskly along.

***

John Bock #68 played two seasons with us at offensive line. He was one of four undrafted free agents to start for the team, which can mean only one thing - the two seasons he played for us were Richie Kotite's brief reign of error. Bock played at the University of Louisville before then and eventually went on after the Jets to play a more solid role for the Dolphins, who at that point had one of the best offensive lines that an aging Dan Marino (and Damon Huard) could ask for. A few years later, he was hired to coach the offensive line at Florida Atlantic University for Howard Schnellenberger, who also coached him at Louisville. Schnellenberger coached at FAU until 2011 and may now be playing golf somewhere in South Florida. Bock's current whereabouts are unknown.

***

Anthony Clement #68 played every game in his two seasons for the Jets. As I journey through the Interwebs looking for things about him, I see that the Jets are losing badly to Buffalo, and suddenly the reminders of Anthony Clement are intertwined with all of our past and present failures as a franchise.

In 2007, the Jets let Pete Kendall and his unhappiness go, and they were left with Adrian Clarke and Anthony Clement on the front line, and neither unfortunately could do anything to prevent defenses from getting to Kellen Clemens. Whether it is an old fan forum found amid the detritus of the past, or Joe Caproso's reflections on past failures compared with last season's misadventure, Anthony Clement remains another object example of the Tannenbaum era's mistakes. One has to expect that even if your place on the team is the result of an historically bad GM's judgment, you will still be maligned on the Internet for all time. You will still be considered a symbol of a team's failure. That's why I was hoping to find something about Clement's whereabouts today. It hardly seems fair.

Even as I write this, there are demands from all around #JetsTwitter for the end of Rex Ryan, the end of Dee Milliner, Geno and a front line that has ceased to exist, at least for today. The foaming at the collective mouth has begun:
  1. in meltdown mode right now. Fire Rex. Bench Geno. Shut the stadium down!

This is the week when we don't remember our tradition as a brave and enduring underdog. This is the week we remember Wayne Hunter, Vernon Gholsten and Anthony Clement. If our season ends on a worse note than 8-8 (which I predicted we would finish at best) then who will play the role of embodying this year's blunders, the way Anthony Clement unfairly did in his own time?

One more note: after playing every game of his final season starting in the NFL, Anthony Clement was brought in by Bill Belichick's practice squad in New England the following summer, possibly to only collect information on the New York Jets, the club that remains that coach's private, obsessive object of hatred. Whether we lose or win, we can console ourselves that we will remain a permanent fixture in his mind - a bugaboo in the brain of that singularly pernicious and nasty little man. On this dreary Sunday, I will take what little consolation I can from that.

***

Sure enough, the wool hat fell out of my pocket. Mike stared into the horizon for squirrels. I didn't see the hat's green and white on the ground amid the autumnal colors anywhere.

I could have gone home and declared it a loss, or tried to find it by retracing my steps. I encouraged Mike to help me find it, ignoring the fact that by merely speaking to my dog you're not actually communicating with him, unless you're using the words walk or dinner. So I led him in the direction we came from, hoping he'd pick something up with his incredible nose.

But Mike's primary job as a middle-aged male dog is to find things on which to urinate. That's his thrill in life. As writing a blog is for a middle aged human, it's his way of letting the world know that he's here, that he exists, that his life has meaning, and although I thought he'd be game for retracing our steps, he was just the opposite. We've been there, already, he seemed to say. I've pissed on everything that way. What's the point? So it was up to me to find it with my own eyes, thinking that as I got further and further back to where I came from that it would eventually show itself.

Eventually, it did. The hat's been through the wash enough that the sharply white brim showed against the leaves lining the path between the quad and dormitory houses and the caretaker's house. If it had been a Redskins hat from the 70's, it wouldn't have stood out and would have been lost to the ages. Dad wore the hat when I would rake leaves with him in the front and back yards of our house in North Merrick, and he wore it to the last home games he attended before giving up the season tickets for good. There are worse places to be forgotten - amid the splendor of nature, in football's best time of year - but I don't think I would have felt good about leaving it behind.

I took a picture of it - with Mike's right leg and feathery shepherd tail making a barely perceptible appearance in the upper right hand of the frame - and put it back in my pocket. I made sure to keep the green and white pom-pom top snugly inside so as to prevent it from falling out again, and I went back to my house to watch the Jets get thumped. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

'68 - Our Year

I was born in St. John's Hospital in Woodside, Queens, a week later than my due date. It took 12 hours to deliver me. This is not a source of confusion or a surprise for people who know me. I knew how much I loved my wife when I wanted to be on time for our first few dates. Otherwise, I have a constitutional need to be late for everything. I'm late for work often, late for meetings, even late for doctor appointments - for lots of things. It's an inconsiderate way of being, and what precious time I earn from not being on time is not effectively used at all. 

It's a failure of character. Maybe from the very start I was reluctant to come into this ridiculous world. It was early 1969. So many things had transpired in the country since my parents first realized they were having a baby. I have always believed in some way that I was a consolation child, conceived a week after Robert Kennedy was murdered. And if you believe that the child you're carrying can sense the melodies and intonation of Bach, then the imagination can gather a sense of how my world might have been formed amid the chaos and mayhem of 1968.

My mother was an opponent of the war in Vietnam. She loved Dr. King and RFK. It had been a bad first six months of the year. The latter half spent carrying me weren't much better. She watched the Chicago riots around the Democratic Convention, watched Nixon get nominated with equal horror, and felt defeated when he got elected. I wasn't surprised when she told me that she and Dad went to see Bullitt the night Nixon won as a sort of consolation. It's one of my favorite movies.

But then the football season of 1968 coincided with the national election, and by the first week of November, the Jets were headed toward beating the Houston Oilers at home 26-7, a dramatic win for the club as they began a 5-1 run for the rest of the season. This too must have had an impact on my formation, isolated though I was from human contact, but cognizant all the same of voices raised, cheering about something. The day I was born, the New York Jets had been the champions of professional football for a month and a half. 

Nineteen sixty-eight is a magical year for Jets fans. It's our year, the year of both our only championships – the AFL Title and the Super Bowl. If you love the Jets, then you’ve probably seen so many photographs of the action of Super Bowl III that you can probably identify the quarter in which a photo from the game was taken and, if you’re like me, you can name the play that’s transpiring. Before 2004, the Red Sox had 1918. Before Mark Messier, the New York Rangers had 1940. The Cubs, apparently, will always have 1908. England has 1966. The New York Jets haven’t won a championship since 1968. One of the most tumultuous years in American history is therefore also our most important.

There are worse cases, I suppose. The Lions have never won a Super Bowl, or anything since their league championships in the 50’s. It's since 1964 for Cleveland. There are exactly two NFL teams that have never won a conference or Super Bowl championship – the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans – franchises much younger than the Jets. The Chargers went once to the Super Bowl in 1995, as did the Falcons in 1999, the Oilers/Titans in 2000, and the Seahawks went in 2006. They all lost. The Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings have never won a Super Bowl, despite multiple appearances.

The Kansas City Chiefs have never repeated as Super Bowl champions in almost the same span as the Jets - nor has Miami, though not for a lack of trying throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Even the Cardinals have won a recent conference championship. Teams like the Saints, recent winners for the first time, may very likely win another one again before the Jets will. Winning replicates itself over and over for franchises that see themselves as winners. Referred to as clowns, with only four divisional titles in our history, we Jets fans - further and further away from 1968 - struggle to imagine ourselves in this same way. 

It’s not easy. This is a team whose chant is the simple four-letter spelling of its own name - one that was led by a Long Island fireman who himself was eventually booed out of the stadium by his fellow fans. Only a base mired in its own bellicose self-hatred could do something like that. We are a people with a serious image problem. 

During the recorded broadcast of Super Bowl III – which I’ve watched countless times –somewhere midway through the third quarter, Curt Gowdy says that the Jets team he is watching is young enough to be dominant in the NFL for years to come. It’s hard to tell how true that was at the time, but it was very soon most certainly not to be. Matt Snell’s knee would not last much longer past the big game of his life. Namath would go injured in 1971 and ‘73. The offensive line would not be able to support him forever as he continued to lose mobility. Wide receiver George Sauer would leave at the end of 1970. Verlon Biggs would leave for Washington. Johnny Sample would retire. Randy Beverly would go off to New England. The team would change. It would get worse and then get worse some more.

Yet, ironically, the New York Jets - a franchise that remains a pinata for mockery even while the Giants remain winless - are historically pinned to a year of historical transformation. It doesn’t matter how many Super Bowls the Giants have won with sturdy, poised quarterbacks like Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler or Eli Manning. The quarterback whose image is always the last in Super Bowl retrospectives is the MVP of Super Bowl III, #12, with his index finger aloft, setting the new standard for how athletes - and everyone, come to think of it - declared themselves a winner. Somehow, Jets fans like Bernie from Hackensack, Armando from North Bergen, and me - people portrayed by the media as knuckle-dragging subhumans - are all attached to this extraordinary legacy, and it dogs us as much as it keeps us buoyant.

By the time I went to my first Jets game, I carried a perennial sense that Something Had Happened just before I was born, and I had missed it. Everything now seemed to be in the wake of a record amount of change. Nobody wore hats the way they had only years before. Men didn't wear suits on the weekends. Boys and girls were a little hard to tell apart. I see now that what followed was merely a part of that enormous Something, too, the aftermath of a massive transformation never to be repeated. I had no choice but to be handed this peculiarly altered world, without any hope of reward for my faith.

Everything since 1968 has been about trying to make sense of it all while waiting for it to happen again, like a Second Coming always in vain. We have only one year. Perhaps, as they all watch hopefully in their middle age, from the vantage of their PSL’s at the Meadowlands or on NFL Network or (like me) online - Colleen from Hempstead, Diego of Haverstraw, and Rick from Bayonne are all feeling the same way, too.

Monday, September 30, 2013

NY Jets #67 - Part 5

An an analyst on ESPN this week, former Jets tackle Damien Woody #67 said that the Giants would be green with envy to have the Jets' defensive line. If this comment ends up being the highlight of the season (and it probably will be) then I'm fine with that. Neither the Giants nor the Jets distinguished themselves on either side of the ball this weekend. And I'm not a Giants hater; much of my extended family are Giants fans. But since December 25, 2011, my life as a fan has essentially been the long nightmare that immediately followed the pass from Eli Manning that Victor Cruz took for a 99-yard touchdown.

That year, after being manhandled by Philadelphia, we held out a bizarre sense of hope that we would beat the Giants in Week 15. Big Blue looked a little lame at that point, but of course they would go on to win the Super Bowl. Rex Ryan's public notes of confidence going into the game were his usual misjudgment, the kind of braggadocio made by a drunken uncle at a backyard barbecue. Blue had the last laugh. They always seem to. But there we go. No sooner am I talking about Damien Woody than I'm talking about the past, the past, the miserable past, and the sweet, burdensome pain that it brings to any Jets fan. What would be without our sense of torment? I guess we wouldn't feel like fans.

Rex and Damien Woody in happier times
Damien Woody's career was a fine one, moving through New England, Detroit, and the Jets, from 1999-2010, managing to miss Detroit's winless 2008 season and then enjoying two winning seasons with us. His last game was the Jets' 17-14 Wild Card Playoff win over the Colts, which sent us off to their playoff win against New England. He tore his Achilles' tendon in the Colts game, and I seem to remember him being led from the field, though I know that we didn't know he had blown it out until the following midweek. I remember feeling a sense of unease that should have bit deeper than it did, if only because Wayne Hunter replaced him.

After the Patriots game - the happiest moment in my fandom - came the AFC Title Game loss to Pittsburgh. But here I go again, trying to mine through the recent past to make sense of where it all went wrong. Maybe it didn't all start with Cruz's touchdown, but with Woody going down for good against the Colts. No wonder his praise for the Jets' defense resonated with me this week. I'm still wading through the bad signs from the past to find the sign that things are going to get better again.

***

Kimo Von Oelhoffen in 2006
It seemed as if everything was going to change. Years and years of losing were on the verge of being forgotten by a single, elusive playoff win. I speak not of the 1981 Jets, but the 2005 Cincinnati Bengals, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round. On the second play of the game, Carson Palmer was hit below the knee by Kimo Von Oelhoffen #67, and the Bengals were on their way to losing in the playoffs once again. Even after apologizing to Palmer through the media, though not to the quarterback himself, Von Oelhoffen was released by Pittsburgh at the end of the season and picked up by the Jets. His single hit changed Palmer's fortunes; he's obviously never been the same.

Von Oelhoffen lasted a season with us, another year with Philadelphia, and is today retired and settled in Washington state. More importantly, his name was given to a special addendum to the rules guarding quarterback safety during the offseason in 2006. It's the "Kimo Clause," which penalizes defenders who do not take as many measures as they can before hitting quarterbacks low. If his name had been "Bill" I don't know if there would be a "Bill Clause," but such is the way with names.

The clause came up for discussion again when Tom Brady was injured in 2008 after being hit by Kansas City's Bernard Pollard, who had been taken down, got up again and then hit Brady below the waist, injuring his knee and taking him out for the season - an event about which I don't remember having any feelings. Various observers, partisan or not, considered that Pollard had broken the Kimo Clause, leading immediately to the institution of the "Brady Rule," which says that if a defender is brought down in pursuit of the quarterback, then he must stay down, otherwise he will be penalized, unless he is blocked into the quarterback. This seems a bit more easily enforceable, whereas the Kimo Clause suggested rather absurdly that defensive players somehow go through a mental checklist of items mid-flight the way a pilot of a plane actually does before flying.

Established in much the same way that violations are written and rewritten by kids playing among the amorphous boundaries of a suburban backyard, these hastily written rules and clauses are absurd after a while. Basketball and baseball don't have to worry about these kinds of things. Basketball is a game that's made organically complex by the infinite strategies that can be applied to its rather simple structure. Baseball is inherently complex and is allowed to remain as such because its loyalists are such rabid traditionalists that the game is impervious to fundamental change.

Regardless, the constant changes in pro football, which are almost all dictated to defenders, favor the offense and the passing game, which makes football as great as it is. The problem is that it's not really what football originally was meant to be. In training and drafting we are constantly trying to mold and shape defenders into superhuman giants who would have obviously towered over players in 1927, yet we somehow expect these defenders to still play the basic 1927 game, with smash and grind, even while we are also hoping that we can keep the ball flying in the air. We want everything out of football. So we nip and tuck at it, searching for the right formula.

But football is also characterized by the two impulses in American life - violence and litigiousness. Football has always been an unmanageably violent game because we like it that way. We're talking about a culture that took boxers, put them in a cage and let them beat one another into senselessness and called it UFC. But our conscience also compels us to use rules and clauses to manage our violent obsessions and turn football into the perfect game we all imagine it to be. A rule here, a clause there, and maybe, just maybe football will find itself working just the way we idealize it, with players hurt and challenged on the field, but nobody permanently damaged. I cannot tell if a vanishing pipeline of players from high school will kill the game or the game itself will become obsolete through its contradictions. Probably neither.

***

Opening Day at Shea, 1964
Back in 1963, when the dominance of professional football was a mere gleam in the eye of a disoriented postwar superpower, back when players took water refreshment on the sidelines out of soup ladles, Jim Price #67 played linebacker for the New York Jets. He had been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, only to be washed out and picked up by the AFL Jets the same year, playing in the franchise's last season at the Polo Grounds.

On New Year's Day 1964, he became part of what was apparently the biggest AFL trade ever; he, Dick Guesman, Ed Cooke, Chris Janerette, and Sid Fournet went to the Denver Broncos for Gene Prebola, Gordy Holtz, Bob Zeman, and, most importantly, Wahoo McDaniel. By securing McDaniel, the Jets had what would be for a year a marquee player, or rather for what passed as one for the newly revamped Gotham Football Club. But say what you will, tens of thousands more fans attended the first football game at Shea, the season opener of 1964 against Denver (as luck would have it) than ever attended the Polo Grounds to watch a pass thrown from Dick Wood or Al Dorow. The Jets won 30-6.

Now, as a linebacker for the Broncos, Jim Price got to see what he was missing. When his replacement made a tackle against Denver, the Shea announcer would playfully say, "Tackle by....you know who...."

And the Shea crowd learned to dutifully answer: WA-HOOOO.

And so was born the football-as-entertainment model that the Jets have more or less followed over four decades. A jet car patrolling the sidelines, a professional wrestler and Choctaw warrior at middle linebacker, a bonus baby quarterback, the Sack Exchange and Gastineau's Dance, Keyshawn Johnson, and Rex Ryan's clown car - these are all pieces of a larger puzzle that is the Jet way. It all began with Wahoo McDaniel, and, by default, with Jim Price's departure to Denver, although Price might not have thought of it that way.

***

As Wikipedia points out, Dwayne White #67 "was nicknamed "The Road Grader", for his run blocking prowess and as such is also considered the first to receive that name." 

The first? You read that right. Personally, I didn't know the name was up for controversial discussion. It's a great nickname, though, and it fits White's size and position. What running back, especially the elder Freeman McNeil, Blair Thomas, and the assorted other unknowns who ran in the Jets backfield from 1990-94, would not have appreciated the road being paved before them with the bodies of opposing defenders?


I say "pave" here, but that's a misnomer. Dwayne White was a road grader. A grader prepares the road that will eventually be paved. A grader creates the road as it can first be imagined into being. The road paver then lays the asphalt. Dwayne White - laying blocks where he was supposed to, perhaps even traveling with runners on a sweep - would by definition therefore be grading roads unimagined and unheralded. In this way, the grader is really a misnomer. Guards and tackles always travel on the paths that all offensive lineman throughout all of the game's history have traveled. They don't create any new roads. They retread the old ones. They're really just pavers, or re-pavers.

But I love the name "Road Grader," and I'm glad that Dwayne White, who went on to play two more seasons for the Rams after leaving the Jets in 2004, was given that nickname. After all, none of us are really grading absolutely new ground in this life, but we like to believe we are, and given the pitiless nature of human life in the scope of historic time, maybe we deserve to believe it. What option do we have?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

NY Jets #67 - Part 4

The other day I was reading a profile of Bryan Cranston, who referred to the character he plays on Breaking Bad as "the role that undoubtably will be the first line of my obituary." After years of solidly working in small and larger projects, he has now become one of the most vital actors in an age when people like Walter White are a fascination. As a superpower who slowly destroys everything valuable around him, Walter reminds us of something. But no matter what he does from here, it's likely that Cranston's future work will always be measured against Heisenberg, Walter's alter ego, the one who knocks.

All of us will have a first line to our obituary. Considering what that means for most of us, Cranston is obviously lucky. For some of us, the first line will be bad, wincingly bad. Martin Roche, who attempted to write rather subjectively and disjointedly about an underachieving football franchise, died today after a short battle with liver cancer. No, I'm not sick. Not that I know of. But whatever I imagined my life would be has constantly adjusted to the simple tolls of time. I was going to write my first novel by the time I was 30, my first published novel when I was 40. Now I try to take solace from knowing that Louis Kahn still didn't have a sense of his artistic vision until he was well past 50. But what will I do when I get to that point, and my grand work of supposed genius is still not done?

But what if your moment has already come and gone, leaving you no choice as to what you'd like that first line to be? What if your claim to obituary fame will be "Buttfumble?" What if that thing is really beyond your control? What if you are Everett McIver #67? Only Everett McIver can answer that question, and my guess is that he'd answer it favorably - I am well, I have a life, and I don't have to answer to anyone, and I applaud that. But popular culture doesn't care about people as actual human beings, so it's likely that McIver will be known for "Scissorgate."

It may be that he doesn't mind that. As many people who were witnesses to what happened at the Dallas Cowboys' training facility on July 29, 1998 say, McIver did nothing to provoke what eventually happened to him. The entire story is vividly retold in a 2008 article in The Guardian about the Dallas Cowboys of the 90's. To whit: Cowboy players were receiving complimentary haircuts, McIver sat down into the chair when his turn came up, and even as the job was being done, teammate and clinically insane wide receiver Michael Irvin entered and demanded, on the basis of seniority, that McIver immediately give up his seat and let Irvin get his cut instead. The two argued, eventually coming to blows, and Irvin stabbed Everett McIver in the neck with a pair of scissors, a laceration that required seventeen stitches. Rather than allow Irvin to face the legal consequences of the assault, the Cowboys apparently offered six-figure hush money to McIver, which he took. 

Everett McIver vs. Bruce Smith -
Let's see you try this.
If you do an image search of Everett McIver, you will often find Michael Irvin. Some of us are simply destined to play no role of distinction in this life, and yet some others must play a supporting character in another man's Hall of Fame story. Yet McIver has a success story of his own in that he was an entirely undrafted free agent when he first signed with the Jets, his first professional team, and managed to keep a starting role through much of his career. At 6'5" and well over 300 lbs., I remember McIver as this enormous oak tree standing at the guard position, a vast abutment making his jersey number seem smaller than everyone else's. He began his career in #74, but then moved to #67 in 1995, his final year with the Jets. He found greater success with Miami, and spent two seasons with Dallas, playing one year quite regularly beyond Scissorgate.

But dig a little deeper still, and McIver comes across as a guy who continued to bounce back from challenges both big and small. The simple truth is that the very worst thing that could happen to a person happened to him in 1991, when his infant daughter died during surgery on her heart. Deadspin put McIver in their top 100 Worst only for being unable to block Bruce Smith in 1994 as a rookie, which is ridiculous. But then what the hell would he care? I would suggest that McIver is probably the kind of person to look at life - and maybe even the promise of whatever his first line will be - with a fair measure of clarity and perspective that we might all envy.

***

As we discovered a few weeks ago, Howard Glenn was playing in place of Bob Mischak #67 on the Titans in 1960 during the weeks that Glenn was gravely injured and then died. Mischak went on to have an AFL All-Star career that ended in 1965, after playing for both the Titans and the Raiders. But Mischak earned his earliest fame while playing for Army in one of those moments that become immortalized.

Against heavily favored Duke in 1953, Army was about to seal a 14-13 upset, when suddenly Duke appeared poised for a score. Red Smith waxed rhapsodically about what happened next because a Duke player also named Red Smith took a reverse downfield, with seemingly no one to stop him. In his biography of Vince Lombardi, David Maraniss also talks about this moment too, since Lombardi was at the time on the Army coaching staff. Smith was moving toward the goal line, when Bob Mischak came from behind with incredible speed, caught up with him, and stopped Smith from scoring. He saved the game.

Maraniss says that what Mischak did was pretty extraordinary; he managed to help the team redeem the season: "When Bob Mischak made that unlikely play, what (Head Coach) Blaik called 'a marvelous display of heart and pursuit,' Army's football team regained its soul. Not just Lombardi, but all the coaches, and even the stoic colonel (Red Blaik), cried in the locker room after the game..." The play itself entered into Army lore, apparently even becoming part of West Point's lessons in leadership.

It's difficult to comprehend what Mischak's play meant to people at the time. In the years beforehand, the West Point team had seen players go on to multiple wars, and the endeavor of football itself had taken on the quality of historical events as large as the deeds of Patton, Eisenhower and Macarthur. These were moments of great skill, lionized to mythology. It was just football, but it wasn't.

The title of Maraniss' biography of Lombardi is When Pride Still Mattered, one of the very best sports books I've ever read. The title itself is a test of the modern aesthetic. Can you actually say it without laughing? But that's the point. Players played for pride and were rewarded for playing only for that. Lombardi is often seen as the representative of that tradition, its last lion, dying just before he had a chance to see it wither into nothing. Now, pride as a motivation for courage is often honored like the memory of Lombardi himself, yet so far from the reality of contemporary American endeavors that it seems like a Saturday morning cartoon version of a way of life. As a pro, Mischak played for a team that couldn't even afford to pay its players on time, but he would always have the memory of playing for Army, stopping Duke's Red Smith, and inspiring Red Smith of the Herald-Tribune. He was the essence of pride for its own sake.

If you consider the modern quandary of paying college players to play - which is truly fair in a market sense - and imagine the ripple of consequences that it will then have on college tuition, enrollment, housing and program funding, then suddenly pride - harmless, virtuous pride - seems like the ideal reason to play. But that's not who we are now, and pride may have once mattered, but it ceased to be sufficient a long, long time ago.

Given the lingering legacy of Bob Mischak, and what he represented to a world long gone, I found this odd online tribute to Mischak himself on YouTube to be affecting, even appropriate. I can't quite put the pieces together. It's a kaleidoscope of images, mostly of Mischak looking proud on pro football cards from his days with the Titans and Raiders. In the background, you hear what sounds like the strains of a lone guitarist playing something sentimental and melancholy. But occasionally, a few other images pop up - a corporate photo of a man, whose face is concealed from us, certainly too young to be Mischak. Another is the torso of a large, heavy, anonymous man wearing spandex, holding what looks like a foam legs of a dummy.


What do these have to do with Bob Mischak? Who are these people? Are they all metaphorically Bob Mischaks? Are they other people named Bob Mischak? Do they have the spirit of Bob Mischak? The images then cut back to Mischak himself again, but they study his number, then maybe his chin, never quite getting the full man into focus, almost as if this is some video art piece that, if nothing else, reminds us that whatever mythological power Bob Mischak represented to all the Reds - Blaik, Smith and Smith - today it's nothing more than an unfiltered mess, a random set of images, destined to remained ambiguous to us forever.