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Saturday, September 6, 2014

NY Jets #70 - Part 3

A chance to chat with Gus Frerotte
If all we can say about Lance Legree #70 is found in this single image, then that will suffice. Playing in 2005, in a meaningless late season losing effort, in one of the worst seasons in the club's history, Lance Legree is managing to offer a little trash talk to Gus Frerotte, whom he has presumably just sacked. This may have been the last sack of Legree's career, which ended the following year with a brief return to the Giants.

If he hasn't sacked Frerotte, then he's just getting in a little of the business with the sporadically talented, durable man whose name itself is synonymous with "journeyman quarterback," or more unfairly, "backup." The name "Gus Frerotte" is not one to strike fear into the hearts of any man or woman who loves Jets football, whereas "Dan Marino," or the unmentionable hair model who is the field general for the team that plays in Foxboro could both be said to shorten a Jets fan's life by hours or days at their mere mention.

It's a lesson to us as the Jets' season begins tomorrow, a lesson in how we all have to take whatever we can wherever we can. If all life has allowed you is the opportunity to tackle - or heckle - Gus Frerotte, then take it, and that's what Lance Legree did that mid-December day in Miami, when we had nothing at stake. Frerotte threw for almost 3,000 yards that season, for a team that went 9-7. That was good enough for Legree to ruefully enjoy stopping in its tracks, even for a moment. You don't know how many more opportunities you will have.

****
Jim McCusker #70 finished his career with the Jets in 1964. He belonged to an entirely different era that included playing for the Cardinals of Chicago in the 1950's and winning $4,000 when he played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship. As a resident of this fair city, I know that the allure of that championship has long waned, much more than the well-worn yet frequently trotted-out mythology surrounding the pelting of Santa Claus in 1968.

Both events happened at Franklin Field, and though famous stadiums of the old game are long gone, Franklin was fully purposed as both Penn's football field and the home of the annual Relays. I love driving by it; its small scale, brick facade, and pennants atop its spires are a living reminder of a time when it really was only a game and that, as McCusker reminds us in his Chautauqua County Hall Fame induction speech video at the Hall of Fame site, the most important thing you earned from an NFL Championship was a ring. The jewelry itself was enough. The red-brick monument of Franklin Field in West Philadelphia narrowly lines the road leading up to Walnut Street and the university. It sits resolutely in this existing world of identical stadiums, enormous screens, wealthy corporate boxes, package seating deals and acres of parking space, a world that poet Robert Lowell - in consideration of surviving relics of his own time - might have said "slides by on grease."

Bert Bell, dominoes, anxious men
The area around here was also the home of Bert Bell, who was the NFL Commissioner until his death a year before the 1960 title game. Bell lived in Narberth, a little Main Line town that is less fussy and more comforting than the towns leading away from Philly along Route 30, with their increasingly wealthy addresses. Bell was famous for designing each year's schedules on a cardboard sheet on his dining room table, setting up one club's schedule after another with his daughter's old dominoes set. Each team's name was put on pieces of paper and then taped to the dominoes, and he would then go about physically arranging the weekly contests in rows of dominoes during the off-season, with a glass of iced tea next to him. Men as powerful as Halas and Mara would petition Bell as he worked, knowing that that a now grown-up daughter's old toys held the key to their fate.

Even more engaging to me is the fact that little Narberth is the site of a crucial moment in the history of sports. In a local restaurant called the Tavern, which still exists today, Lamar Hunt met with Bell just a few months before the Commissioner's sudden death. According to Michael MacCambride in his great America's GameHunt secretly wondered about starting a new football league, but he proposed the idea to Bell of an NFL expansion to Dallas. Over lunch, Bell asserted that the league owners would oppose any move to Dallas and that the idea would go nowhere. The meeting cemented the idea in Hunt's mind of moving forward with what would become the AFL.

When Jim McCusker ended his career, he returned to his hometown of Jamestown, NY and opened a bar called The Pub on its North Main Street. Like the Tavern in Narberth, it is still open, though he has apparently passed ownership onto a nephew. It looks like a neighborhood bar where everyone knows your name.

On the eve of the new season's first weekend, I like these relics of the past - the stadium, the taverns, the dominoes. It must be a function of age, or perhaps just a vague wave of sentimentality passing through me like some brief vertigo, but it pleases me that all of these things still exist, with all of their cliches and mixed promises. The NFL that continues after Thursday's blowout win by Seattle is an enormous industry powered by towering wealth that tastes a little metallic going downI know that the world is more complicated now and that those complications are a necessary by-product of transformations greater than the game itself that also brought freedom and wealth to people who, at best, could only expect a piece of jewelry as a reward for bashing their brains out. And yet, aside from the fact that I think my team will probably manage a 6-10 season at best, or maybe even one as bad as 2005, the season as a whole inexplicably leaves me a little cold on a hot day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

NY Jets #70 - Part 2

Like a lot of people who love professional football in the United States, I actually know very little beyond the most obvious statistical evidence as to what makes its player good or crap. I know little or nothing about what makes for a good defensive lineman. Does he have a good rate of sacks? Maybe, but can he stop the run? It's nice that a player in the secondary has a lot of interceptions, but can he cover worth anything at all? While my roommates in college were taking miserably difficult classes in Statistics, I was an English major. Perhaps this explains their present-day, comfortable distance from sports altogether, enjoying its numerical ebbs and flows in several different fantasy football leagues, while looking like happy fathers and busy men with real lives. They're all Giants and Patriots fans.

To be a Jets fan is to be a student of Jacobean Tragedy. Take The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, a play that my old roommates in a rickety tri-level house in Providence might recall only because I obsessed over it while making it as the subject of my senior thesis. I don't even really remember if in my senior thesis had an actual thesis. I doubt it, in fact. The experience prepared me to be a blogger. I don't think a single thing I ever wrote back then had a main idea; it's a requirement I didn't make of myself as a writer until I had to teach writing for the first time to incoming college freshmen. The only way to truly know something is to be forced to teach it to someone else.

The Duchess of the Duchess of Malfi is a widowed noblewoman who has decided to remarry, this time with her new boyfriend, a handsome and devoted younger man of a lower caste. The only difficulty is that it's 1623 in the renaissance city of the title, and a woman has no right to marry for love, particularly when her two brothers feel they have the right to decide for her. Her oldest brother is the city's Cardinal, while the younger brother is the Duke, who clearly feels a jealous and incestuous desire for his sister. The brothers end up putting her into confinement through their henchman Bosola, who is reluctantly blackmailed into working for them. Everyone ends painfully and badly. It is tragic drama, after all. That's what the audience came for.

Statistics provide a cold picture of reality, but their lessons are also strangely comforting; after all, to see what went right or wrong in the exact light of day is to know what we believe is the truth, however ambiguously it may make you feel. But the experience of literature is subjective to the reader or the audience. I had a professor once who had to leave the theater in which she saw a performance of Duchess of Malfi because the Duchess' fate was portrayed onstage so honestly that she could not bear to watch. Imagine that. A performance so real that the suspension of disbelief is itself is so suspended that you feel that what you're watching is actually real.

Somewhere in the manner of sports' imitation of theater the fan finds himself contemplating the relationship he has with the drama unfolding in front of him. Are you like the fan who follows the statistical ticks and notches, keeping track of his ever-changing assortment of players on his fantasy team across the league each Sunday? If so...then you are the manor-less man, the one whose emotions are owned by no one, whose devotion to recently successful teams allows you some distance from the essential truth: that this tragic drama, like everything else, ends painfully and badly.

You are not a Jets fan.

My professor was a chain-smoking, chocoholic Englishwoman who looked like John Cleese's Anne Elk, and she had no interest in English football, let alone the American game. But she understood that the essence of drama is to mirror our powerlessness in the face of life's misfortune, miscalculation, hubris, misplaced hope, and its promise of certain death. In spirit, she was a Jets fan. I cannot imagine her rooting for a consistently winning team, an experience so numbing to the basic experience of human life that the only real refuge from its banality are the bare bones of statistical gatherings week in and out, as are the fantasy football trades up and down, like a market investor searching for an imaginary perfect team for a fantasy world. For me, the drama is so true to something that feels real that, a times, I cannot watch. I have to leave the theater.

*

I don't know if Mike DeVito #70 is a good defensive lineman. I do know that he started most of last season for Kansas City and that fans were happy to get him from us at the start of last year. Prior to that he played six seasons for us. When things were good for us, they were good for him. When things went bad for us, they went bad for him. The greatest complaint against him is that he has able to stop the run, but he is not as effective as a pass rusher. Does this make him any different or worse on defense than anyone in the NFL? I will leave that to you.

But on his Twitter account, he has been "building the tank," which I think is part of his desire to grow stronger as a pass rusher. He is a part of a defense that is living with the legacy of giving up a four-touchdown lead in the third quarter against the Colts in the playoffs last year. He is also a born-again Christian. As for recently, he was hampered by an injured hand at the beginning of the month, and only five hours before writing this, he tweeted, "The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent."

Football has become the national game because it mirrors how we look at ourselves as a nation of extremes. I have to say that although I have no real affection for the kind of contradictory absolutes that persist in religions, I do understand a little bit better why football players like DeVito are drawn so deeply to faith. Our media, our games, our online attachments are all marked by short-lived extremes in thought and emotion, and although a born-again person lives with absolutes, he or she is at least a believer in things that are ancient and are reputedly part of a whole tradition.

He's said some things on Twitter that I don't agree with, but at least his faith might be the extreme opposite to the abusive cruelty and violence that football players like Ray Rice and Aaron Hernandez inflict on the people they claim to love. His friend, former old teammate (and Mormon) Sione Pouha, said in a 2010 piece by John Holt on the Jets site that as teammates "we don't push each other," but that instead, "we don't let each other down." I don't know what distinction Pouha thought he was drawing when he said that, but perhaps DeVito's is a reassuring belief system is one that promises that you don't have to dominate other people in your life in order to feel empowered.

But then Pouha says this:

“If you found out that Best Buy was giving iPads out for 15 dollars, then you would want to share it with everybody, and that’s the way Mike DeVito feels and how passionate he is about it. He just wants to share it and let everybody know.”   

Which is more likely - the promise of Eternal Life, or cheap iPads at Best Buy? That, my friends, may well be the biggest question of contemporary American life.

***

Karl Henke #70 and Dave Foley #70 came the Jets, one after the other. Henke played on and off the bench for the the 1968 championship team, and then played 1969 for the Patriots, where his career ended.

Dave Foley was the first first rounder to come to us immediately after the Super Bowl, selected by the Jets in 1969 out of Ohio State. He played for Woody Hayes' national championship team of 1968. He played for us until 1971 and then went on to play six more seasons with the Bills, which meant that he belonged to the powerful brotherhood that blocked for OJ Simpson and basically enabled Buffalo to have an offense. He went to the Pro Bowl in 1973, the year that OJ broke the single season rushing record in the final game of the season, against the Jets. Today Foley heads a group that provides financial consultation in Springfield, Ohio. His brother Tim, with whom he is a partner, was a starter on the Notre Dame national champion of 1977. It must have been quite a Thanksgiving table year after year in the Foley residence.

*

I've just come back from a family reunion in Ohio, actually. I've written before about the Roche family reunion held in 2010. Enjoy, if you like.

This trip was also along Lake Erie. We gathered in a hotel in the town of Geneva, a longtime resort in the postwar era for longtime factory workers from Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Browns and Steelers fans side by side. All those jobs are gone now, and yet the area is still popular, however less crowded. There are wineries in the area that attract people. Small vacation houses dot the landscape. Our hotel was once long ago the site of a makeshift gathering of trailers that sat right on the lake. People could bring whatever they wanted to convert into a trailer.

According to the local history, the ensuring postwar blue collar oasis was off limits to teenage children, who were seen as carrying "city manners" with them. It's remarkable to think of how parents thought of their own children as a disease, when my cousins are so devoted to their kids. I was playing golf (yes, golf) with a couple of them, and my cousins preferred to stick to nine holes rather than 18 so that they could get back to their kids. Pretty much everyone I grew up with on my father's side of the family reproduced, and though I don't have kids of my own, what's wonderful is that the gaggle of the children adopt you as an uncle of sorts, as we travel down the sparsely populated main street with its hamburger places, mini golf courses and arcades.

At the arcades, my wife challenged me to a game of air hockey, which she won. Then I challenged her to a game of baskets, which I won. Arcades are places stuck in time. They always exist in a point that's at least two decades behind the time of day you enter them. I haven't seen this version of hockey to the left since playing it with my friends as a teenager. The players are still outfitted in the same uniforms worn by the Olympians of Lake Placid in 1980. The light fixtures that hang all around look like they could have come out of the earth-tone kitchens of my childhood neighborhood on Long Island.

And then, there are the pennants found inside the arcade. They're in pretty good shape. An early 1970's Chiefs.

And what must be a mid-to-late 80's Joe Walton-era pennant, next to the Falcons' red on black incarnation, probably from Reagan's America, both from a time when the extremes of our ways of being still seemed restricted to the games we followed.

And a poster on one of the rafters, almost overlooked. It's certainly dated from within at least a year of his death. He was not yet a myth, and his birth and death dates appear limit the possibility of his immortality. That would change, as all things do.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

NY Jets #70 - Part 1

The other day I was listening to "This American Life" about the twisted identities of Asa and Forrest Carter, two men who were in fact the same person, the latter resurrecting himself from the vanishing act of the former. Asa Carter was a violent, viciously racist would-be demagogue from Alabama who wrote George Wallace's inauguration speech of 1963. A radio personality with hatred for anything other than what he called "Anglo-Saxon" culture, Carter was so racist that when Wallace cooled on segregation and race-baiting, Carter decried him publicly, ran against him and then disappeared.

In 1976, Forrest Carter - a self-proclaimed storyteller of the Cherokee people - published his second book, The Education of Little Tree, a memoir of the care and teachings he received from his Cherokee grandparents and the lessons he learned about the "Way" of his people. It quickly became a staple of high school English classes. The novel preaches the importance looking toward nature to learn life lessons, and it teaches about the kindnesses that ordinary people of different backgrounds can show one another. It took at least two decades for the country to finally accept the fact that Forrest "Little Tree" Carter never actually existed. He was in fact Asa Carter - thinner, tanned, with a mustache, a cowboy hat and a softer, gentler demeanor. Forrest Carter was in fact no more full-blooded Cherokee than my dog. Asa/Forrest Carter died in 1979 as news was just starting to get round that he was, in fact, a fraud. After Oprah picked the book as one of her favorites in the 1990's, it went back on the nonfiction bestseller list, but the Times moved it over to "fiction." It continues to sell to this day.

I recognize that using Asa/Forrest Carter as a prelude here is not really appropriate at all, but that's never stopped me from making convoluted associations. In doing crack research on Gene Cockrell #70, I discovered two men with that name, roughly of the same age, living in Texas, and I wondered while studying their very separate existences if they were in fact the same guy. Both Gene Cockrells seem like fine, accomplished, good human beings, and unlike Asa Carter, the Gene Cockrells have nothing to hide. But one of the things about Asa/Forrest was his extraordinary talent at personal invention, and in this, the two Gene Cockrells seem well suited. Might they be one Gene Cockrell?

What is Gene Cockrell doing?
First, the player, the Gene Cockrell in whom we have the greatest interest. He was drafted out of Hardin-Simmons by the Browns but ended up playing all three of his NFL years with the New York Titans, which means that he also played at both tackle and defensive end for all three years of the Terribles' existence. In the football card to the left, he's approaching us with what looks like a tackle dummy. Was this a common routine at Titans' practices? Is this something from his college days? He looks almost as if he isn't taking no for an answer, and he's going to knock down the door himself. I want to believe that this was somehow Gene Cockrell's idea, this pose, though knowing how card manufacturers insisted through the ages on specific and ridiculous poses from their subjects, I doubt it.

It's a tea party. Get it?
Then there's this gem, taken from Tales from the American Football League, which shows five Titans planted next to the goal post of the Polo Grounds, overseeing the seeping of a giant cup of tea. One of them is Gene Cockrell #70. Can you guess the historical allusion at work here? According to Todd Tobias above, it's a tea party, and, if you follow the thinking of the guy who staged this amusing and slightly awkward photograph, there's a team coming to town to play the Titans that might be associated with an historical tea party:

The caption on back reads, “October 10, 1960 – The Boston Patriots will have no tea party these New York Titans players say as they gather in the “tea formation” to brew special plays for their Saturday night game, Sept. 17th, with the Patriots at the Polo Grounds.  

Tea formation! Tobias suggests that what we see here is the "simplicity" of the old league, but to be honest, I find the strangeness of the image to be the best part of it. It's not simple at all. Football players are sitting around having tea like something out of Lewis Carroll. Do each one of them get a sip? It's surreal. I understand it would be difficult to post something like this today without it being derided on Deadspin, but who thought this up? My money's on Harry Wismer, but some part of me wishes it had been Gene Cockrell.

Deeper questions remain, though. Where did they get the props? For a team like the Titans, whose expenses rarely ever met the basic needs of running a football team, the extravagance of a giant tea set seems shocking. The fellas up there appear to be good sports, and it's nice to know that despite worrying about whether or not their paychecks will clear, the Titans' players are still upbeat. It's still 1960 - very early in the Titans' existence - so the cash for big tea place settings and historical metaphors may not last much longer.

After his football career was over, Cockrell returned to Texas. He went into rodeo and then became a rancher, and a successful one at that, owning ranches in the US, Australia, Brazil and a gold mine in Costa Rica. In an article in the Amarillo Globe-News covering his induction into the Pampa (Texas) High School Hall of Fame, Cockrell speaks kindly of Titans coach Sammy Baugh, and adds, "I've thoroughly enjoyed my life."

I've thoroughly enjoyed my life. I'm still amazed that anyone can say that, and I'm slightly horrified by the notion that I've never heard anyone say it before either. I don't imagine being able to do so myself. I've thoroughly enjoyed my life. The other day I was chatting with a colleague about trying to quit smoking, and she said that what kept her from doing so was "the psychic pain of living in this world." I don't know what precisely she means, but in spirit, I know exactly what she means.

"Audrey"
But then there's another incarnation of Gene Cockrell. There's a man bearing a resemblance in age and appearance to the rancher and rodeo man. This is Gene Cockrell who lives in the town of Canadian, Texas, known for his remarkable roadside art. His most notable work is a one-ton sculpture that sits atop a hill overlooking the road that leads in and out of town - a yellow-spotted brontosaurus dinosaur named "Audrey," named for Cockrell's wife, a love token as grand as the Taj Mahal, as one writer put it. As the Roadside America site notes in the above link, he has also created renderings of all sorts of animals, space aliens, statues of Jesus and Cowboy cheerleaders, most of which adorn his Canadian (Texas) home.

Looking at the images of the two Gene Cockrells in the different stories above, I see similarly wrinkled, sunlit faces, square chins, smiling eyes, and the long gangly ears of old Texas men. A little closer, though, and I see that the sculptor is probably ten years older than the rancher, and so the rancher alone is our man. There are two Gene Cockrells after all.

The questions that survive Asa/Forrest Carter are about the contradictions in his own words - how could one man preach such a different messages about tolerance and intolerance? That he made himself into an entirely different person suggests (as Allen Barra says in the link above) that Fitzgerald was right and that there are no second acts in a single American life. It's why, like Don Draper, he needed to create an entirely new persona. The most optimistic (and probably most simplistic) interpretation of Asa Carter is that he saw the error of his ways, and he found a platform that allowed him to be a gentler human being.

Is this why I want so much for the two Cockrells to be one person? I want to believe that Gene Cockrell, a self-taught artist of large and small proportions, is also the rancher who has traveled the rodeo circuit and dug for gold. I suppose I want to believe that there are no limits to the possibilities of our lives, no boundaries to the human experience, regardless of how much time is left to us. I want to know what it means to thoroughly enjoy one's life.

***

Whenever I dwell on these kinds of things, I know it's also time to bring up yet another member of the NFL Strike "replacement" squad for the Jets in 1987. In this case, it's Tony Garbarczyk #70. Drafted out of Wake Forest but then cut by the Buffalo Bills in 1986, Garbarczyk answered the call the following season for interested persons to replace the starters as scabs in the middle of one of the worst seasons the NFL has ever known. He is on record as playing two games at defensive end and that's all, though considering that Mark Gastineau and Marty Lyons both crossed the picket line, it's hard to say how much starting time he got. Originally from Hauppague, NY, dead center of Long Island, he was a Jets fan, and it was only a ride along the Long Island Expressway, through the tunnels, onto the Garden State Parkway, and then to the Meadowlands to get to his dream.

In one article I found on Garbarczyk's college days there's one snippet suggesting that he was so enamored of Mark Gastineau while at Wake Forest that he wore a black glove over his hand after he broke his thumb, just like Gastineau. How surreal it was for him - if only for two weeks of the strike - to suddenly be in the locker room with Gastineau himself, and potentially playing at the same position. One wonders if the Long Island boy took one look at Gastineau, who at the time was a fashion casualty, and saw everything he could dream of being. Or, instead, did the scales fall from his eyes, and suddenly all he could see was everything that's wrong with pro football?

Friday, July 11, 2014

NY Jets #69 - Part 3

I just finished reading David Peace's Red or Dead, about Liverpool's legendary manager during the 60's and 70's, Bill Shankly. If you can get past the style of its narration, then it's worth reading as an epic, with its relish for naming names and numbers and statistics, its love of ritual and routine, and because its protagonist is an epic hero.

"Shanks," as he was called, is depicted as a struggler in his relentless dedication to a singular purpose. He is, perhaps, the only real example of an athlete or coach whose main motivation was to satisfy the fan, the supporter, most specifically the ones cheering in the Kop, the "Spion Kop," the stands behind the goal, so named (also in different stadiums throughout Britain) for its resemblance in angle to a hill lost in the Boer War. In the novel Shankly prefers a modest salary but is willing to force management's hand to pay out for the best players from around the country. Just to bring championships to the fans he loved so much.

One of my favorite moments in the novel comes when Shankly advises Ian St. John, his most valued and loyal player in the 1960's, that he must begin to think about retirement. The "Saint," as he's called, was Scottish like Shankly, and the two have a wonderful showdown about the indignity of time's passage. Shankly suggests to the aging St. John that he should consider an apprenticeship in managing. The Saint agrees, but adds that he already knew Shankly was trying to phase him out during the previous holidays, when club's assistant secretary forced him to take a smaller Christmas turkey, the ones meant for the reserves, rather than the big ones set aside for starters:

"After I had scored one hundred and seventeen goals for Liverpool Football Club. That was when I knew. When your bloody lap dog gave me a tiny fucking budgie for my Christmas turkey. That's when I knew I was finished with this club. But still I played for you on Saturday. And I still scored for you on Saturday. Didn't I, Boss? For you. For you, Boss."

If you try reading it aloud in a Scottish burr, it's even better. Shankly is always quick to correct his players that they do not play for him, but for the Kop. But it never works. His players love him and will do anything for him. Next to their salary, they care more about him than they do the fans. His players are always surprised when their time has come, and they can't believe someone they love so much would end it all for them. But the game must end, as all games do, and the athlete's time on the field is always briefer than he thought it would be. 

"It comes to us all," Shankly says in response to the Saint. "It comes to us all, son."

***

A touchdown, no? 
Jason Fabini #69 is depicted here in a very important moment in the history of professional football. It's 1998, and he has just helped Vinny Testaverde across the line in a last second, fourth down goal-line touchdown to beat Seattle at home, at the Meadowlands, 32-31.

Fabini was a part of the best Jets offensive line since the unsung heroes of Super Bowl III - Hill, Herman, Schmitt, Rasmussen and Talamini. Along with Kevin Mawae, Jumbo Elliott, Todd Burger, and Matt O'Dwyer, Fabini was on a front line that allowed Testaverde to be sacked only 19 times (Steve Young was sacked 48 times!) and gave him the space to be the second leading passer in the league. The Jets won their division for the first time since 1969 and were one quarter away from going to the Super Bowl. To me, all of this is as if it were yesterday.

If the local network in Philadelphia didn't show the Jets game on my analog TV, then I was mostly out of luck. There was no way of following the game online in the ways there are today, so I was left to try and pick up Howard David and Dave Jennings on WFAN or WABC. I did that day, and heard both of them broadcast Vinny's touchdown. But then they hemmed and hawed over the replay, wondering whether or not the ball had actually crossed the line. Turns out it didn't, but because there was no official instant replay, the touchdown stood, and the Jets moved to 9-4. Had it been reversed, the Jets might not have ended up with home field advantage in the second week of the playoffs. On the basis of this and several other official miscues that season, challenges were officially made available to coaches the following season. Hence the red flags that you know and love so well.

But Fabini is doing the right thing in the above picture. He's possibly aware that his quarterback didn't make it, but he's signaling touchdown anyway. (During the World Cup, it seems that the squads with the greatest number of flopping players usually had the best chance of winning. Even Bill Shankly is depicted in Red or Dead as ordering his trainer Bob Paisley to paint a bruise on the scrotum of one his players who was being investigated by the FA for punching an opponent. Shankly's player apparently insisted that the guy he punched had been grabbing his balls.)

Shankly's players are depicted as solid blocks of stone, surprised when their Boss benches them, and easily manipulated when he goads them to see things from his point of view. He flatters them when he needs to. The Saint has a rare perceptive eye. Jason Fabini and his elder colleague Jumbo Elliott seem almost as if they speak of Peace's book when the following is quoted from a 2000 article from Gerald Eskanazi, just before the beginning of what would be a tumultuous season:

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Aug. 23— ''Are you trying to say I'm stupid?'' Jason Fabini said to Jumbo Elliott, his former mentor who is now his backup.
''No, it's just that I've got an I.Q. of 140,'' Elliott said today before downing a handful of protein powder. Then, he added, ''And went to the University of Michigan.''
Of course he's saying that Fabini is stupid. It could be argued too that Elliott's own haranguing might have been in defense of his own intelligence. Jumbo had just recently resolved the business surrounding his 1999 arrest for apparently punching a Long Island bar patron and urinating in the women's room sink. To give Fabini a little credit, the intonation of his question might have been, "Are you trying to say I'm stupid?" But Fabini was also arrested that night, along with Matt O'Dwyer - something that Messrs. Talamini, Rasmussen, Herman, Schmitt and Hill probably never experienced.

Jason Fabini is considered a member of the Jets Four-Decade Team. Here he seems to show himself to be a good chef. But here he is implicated, but not accused, in an enormous marijuana ring his brother ran out of one of Fabini's several homes in Indiana, presumably while Jason was out of town. Here is the record of a 2009 appeals case suggesting that now that since he was unable to play any further, he would need to modify his child support. The Internet is the enormous wasteland graveyard of our miserable indignities, especially those that mark our transition from active player to getting the "fucking budgie." But I remember too that when Jason Fabini was one of the blocks of stone opening for Curtis Martin and closing for Vinny Testaverde, he was great indeed. Our memories are more valuable than the Internet.

***

If there is any coach who ever inspired the kind of devotion from his players the way Bill Shankly did, then it would be Bill Parcells. Consider William Roberts #69. Roberts played 14 seasons on the offensive line - all for Parcells - with the Giants, the Patriots, and the Jets (in 1997). Roberts might have seen his arrival with the old boss as being business as usual, but he could not have missed the historical fact that the Jets have always been a place where good and great players come to metaphorically die (Leonard Marshall, Art Monk, Ronnie Lott). If any conversation resembled the one between Shankly and the Saint, it might have taken place in 1997, when Roberts' season and career were coming to a premature end. Perhaps he was called into the Great Tuna's office for one last chat. Like the Saint himself, did Roberts see the signs of it all ahead of time, or did it come to him as one great shock? Regardless, it comes for us all.

Monday, July 7, 2014

NY Jets #69- Part 2

Jeff Criswell wore #61 in his first three seasons with the Jets, and then wore #69 for the duration of his career, both with the Jets and the Chiefs. From little Graceland College in Iowa, Criswell was a 6'7" near 300 lb. offensive lineman who played seven of the most unhappy seasons in the franchise's history, 1988-94 - the end of the Walton era, the underachieving Coslet years and the first year of Pete Carroll's professional head coaching life.

That entire period marks the beginning of my life in the adult world. Western Civilization was still existing in a time before everyone starting looking for everything they needed on the Internet. There was nothing to watch on my 13" analog antenna TV. I drank watery beer advertised on television because that's all that the corner stores sold. Football was filled with steroids, mullets and embarrassing sideline hats. It was as if the world had run out of good ideas and was just waiting for a hit of some kind of new street narcotic that would take us away from the dreadful experience of being present with our own thoughts. All the photographs from that period that show up on friends' Facebook pages as "tbt" were taken with cheap little cameras, and the colors of the shots look faded, blurred and drab, as if Kodak knew the experiences we were having, and the pictures we were taking of them, would go lost in some box somewhere.

Jeff Criswell sits in the offensive line next to Dave Cadigan in my memory; Cadigan was a less effective, and a self-professed steroid user. The two were apparently called the "Penalty Pals," not because of steroids but because they were heavily penalized by officials during the 1992 season. It wasn't actually supposed be that bad a year for the team. There were signs of optimism. We drafted Johnny Mitchell out of Nebraska, which seemed like a good idea at the time; the previous season we drafted Browning Nagle. A person of generous spirit would suggest that neither of those picks was, in premise, bad - even if that's exactly how they turned out. But then we lost Al Toon and Dennis Byrd for good, forever, kaput. The year was a complete bust in so many ways.

Criswell and Cadigan had a short-lived radio show on WFAN in 1992 called In the Trenches, which was supposed to capture the nature of the offensive lineman's life. I always think of offensive linemen as the least verbose kinds of athletes, as resolutely stoic - frowning at the antics of the receivers, linebackers and secondary. The entire story of the show seems a little vague; perhaps they were taken off the air because, as Criswell says, "Dave and I tried to express some factual things that we knew were true."

On the surface, that sentence is a confusing redundancy that suggests some factual statements are not in fact true. But consider that he might have been talking about why he felt the team was still good even if it went 4-12 that year, or maybe he and Cadigan tried to explain away the high number of penalties they were given. In each case, perhaps the statistical facts and numbers do speak for themselves, but maybe each conceals some other truth lurking beneath the surface. In the 1993 link above, Criswell points out that he gave up only two sacks the season before, one of which was to Bruce Smith, which in 1992 was sort of like giving up a two-pointer to Michael Jordan. So, he wonders, where's the respect?

I've always wondered the degree to which a player gets labeled as a cheat for initially true reasons, yet then gets almost routinely penalized by officials without an extra thought - even profiled - the way an unimaginative teacher decides to label a particular student as "bad" because, well, somebody has to be the kid you complain about in the teacher's lounge. Clearly, in their effort to elaborate on the greater truths existing amid the facts and statistics, Criswell and Cadigan must have tried to defend themselves on the air. It didn't work. Criswell was benched by the end of the season. The WFAN show was abruptly canned.

He needs a lot less defending than Cadigan; Criswell was a reasonably good lineman on a badly injured, badly coached team. He and Cadigan resented Coslet, but it was Criswell who started almost all of his games with the Jets and then finished the last two seasons of his NFL career as a regular starter. Still, no matter what they may have tried to explain on the air as being true in the face of facts, or vice versa, their audience was still the tri-state area, a place (unfairly) derided by the rest of the country for its situational sense of moral right and wrong, yet one nevertheless unsparing its condemnation of athletes who fail to meet high expectations. It's a region for which schadenfreude is the local delicacy. As Criswell himself suggests says in the August 1993 link above (a few months after he had skipped minicamp for the way Coslet treated him the year before) had the Jets done better in 1992, then maybe the radio show would have done better, too. Both enterprises were doomed to fail, of course. (How could they not? And why would you listen to a show hosted by offensive linemen?)

Criswell is quoted by Timothy Smith above as saying, "They got taken from the show that we did to the next show with Mike and the Mad Dog. And they just tore us apart." Obviously something is missing from that statement, so I'm not sure what he means. It's not even good grammar. Who's "They?" Was Criswell saying that Mike and Mad Dog tore apart the Penalty Pals on the air? It certainly seems conceivable that at least one of the reigning lords of New Yawk bombast would enjoy the Pals' failure, as fans so often do when highly paid athletes try to explain their sense of the truth and so unselfconsciously fail. It's a sport in and of itself.

****

The Jets' all-time database lists Steve Hammond as having worn #69 at linebacker in 1988, and the NFL's Database concurs that he was available for two games that year and did nothing else in his NFL career. At first I thought that maybe the NFL was wrong (wrong??) and that maybe his statistics indicate he played the two games of the strike season the year before. However, the Pro Football Database agrees that it was 1988, though it suggests that Hammond instead wore #96. In the larger sense, in a career spanning a mere fraction of a forgotten and barely successful team season, the truth of uniform number doesn't matter, except for our purposes.

Still, it's worth noting that Hammond, who probably graduated from Wake Forest and went undrafted in 1982, was 28 years old when he played his rookie season in the NFL for two games in 1988. So Steve Hammond's story is more interesting than that of the average washout in the league, and yet, like his uniform number, its whole truth gets lost. Consider that if Hammond gone on to play more a few more games than he did - or even better, a few more seasons - then his story would be deemed as extraordinary, and not just mildly quizzical to someone like me who apparently has nothing better to do. Much like our own struggles toward finding relevance in this world, his long odyssey toward the NFL must remain his property, mysterious and unknown.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

NY Jets #69 - Part 1

Next week, AMC will be showing the last episode of the first half of Mad Men's final season. They're cutting it in half the way the network insisted Breaking Bad be done, and though Walter White's end was made even more suspenseful by halving his final season, I don't think it's as good for watching Don Draper make his final leap into the void. For one thing, the show has been in a perceived (though I would argue exaggerated in most people's descriptions) slump after season six, and it's just getting very, very good again in number seven. This feels cruel for those of us who have wanted to see Don and Peggy work out their demons together, as they did in last week's episode.

Don: I worry about a lot of things, but I don't worry about you.

Peggy: What do you have to worry about?

Don: That I've never done anything. And that I don't have anyone.

There you go. That's the show I remember. So I want it all, now. And I'll have to wait another year.

Season seven in both parts will probably run the span of 1969. We're somewhere in June, I think. Late June, maybe because someone is grateful at one point for the air conditioning in a hotel. Don talks about seeing his wife again in LA at the end of July, which he would have called "the end of month" if it had been July. There's also no discussion of an impending moon launch.

Baseball should be important to everybody sooner or later. For one thing, after finding the late Lane Pryce's old Mets pennant crumpled beneath the radiator in his new, smaller office, Don, in a drunken haze, invites the sober Freddy Rumsen out for a trip to Shea with him. In June 1969, the Mets are not yet the wunderkind of baseball. But if it's June, the Mets are beginning one of the most exciting climbs to the top that an organized ball club has ever known. They began the month with a nine game winning streak and finished it 19-9, still behind Chicago, but not for long. Maybe it's appropriate that Don - newly demoted to work for Peggy - identify with Lane's adopted baseball team, for the 1969 Mets were the "Miracle," which is what it will take to save Don in every respect before the end of the show.

It's also important because no matter what month of 1969 it is on Mad Men right now, the New York Jets are the champions of professional football in the United States. Sporting events get very little airplay on the show, which is why the Mets pennant (though definitely not official-looking) is so vital. Granted, Harry Crane came up with "Broadway Joe on Broadway," the TV special that gave Dow Chemical some commercial air time to make Americans think of something other than its napalm product being dropped on jungles in Vietnam, but Super Bowl III was simply mentioned on the show as "the Super Bowl," and not as a triumph for the home town football team. I was disappointed. How could I not be? Is Matt Weiner a Giants fan?

***

If two names could fit into the world of Madison Avenue 1969, it would be Sid Abramowitz and Harry Boatswain, both of whom wore #69 for the New York Jets. The number has two wearers who lasted a while in uniform, and four who were with us for barely a single year. Sid and Harry would be two of the latter. Abramowitz was drafted in the fifth round out of Air Force by the Baltimore Colts in 1983, and then later played for the Jets in 1985, a good season as Jets seasons go.

Harry Boatswain was born in Brooklyn, on June 26, 1969, maybe even during the very evening that Don and Peggy have that conversation above. He passed away in 2005. The single season he spent with us was 1996, the very worst season of the franchise's existence. Jere Longman quoted Boatswain at the end of an article in the Times about Jets players giving away presents at a community center at Christmas time, near the end of their 1-15 season. Longman suggests that it is a brief reprieve from a genuinely demoralizing season, but that even as they hand out footballs to kids, the players see looks of sympathy and pity for them. Why continue? wonders tight end Kyle Brady. Longman writes:

The players continue because they are professionals, and they are paid exorbitantly to play a game they have played since childhood. The season is lost, but there are smaller battles to win. A personal confrontation with an opponent. A contract for next season. Sometimes the rewards are simple gestures that were routine, even ignored, in the past.
''I got a letter from some kid in Africa who said I'm his inspiration,'' said offensive tackle Harry Boatswain. ''I don't know if it's true or not. Probably, my brother sent it to me to make me feel better.''

How Harry Boatswain became an inspiration to a child in Africa is indeed a mystery. He probably had reason to be suspicious, and he probably did have a good brother. Where that child from Africa, if he did exist, came from, and where he was going, leaves me with a sense of life's dislocations in time and in place. Seasons are lost, battles are waged, gestures that we make to one another as a means for making sense of it all come and go. There is always another year, apparently.

But life was too short for Harry Boatswain. His premature death came from a fatal heart attack apparently, while residing in Las Vegas. At the Stern Fan Network in 2005, three participants mention Boatswain's obituary in the Daily News. One says that "he lived out his Jet dream," possibly even speaking verbatim from the obit. Boatswain was a Brooklyn boy who, like me, was born in the year of his favorite team's only championship - only then to play for them in their worst year. Only the Jets could do that to a loyal fan. Only us.

Of course, as one other participant puts it, he died owning a Super Bowl ring, the one he earned while with the 1995 San Francisco 49ers, who might be rightly thought of as one of the best football squads ever. In his life's span, there was one professional ring, and the Jets, his favorite team, did not make it possible. Sure it's ironic, but hardly a consolation for someone dying so young. I just hope he felt like he had done more with himself, and felt the presence of more people in his life than Don Draper apparently does on a lonely night, somewhere near the beginning of Harry Boatswain's own brief existence.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mike

This is Mike.

I don't know how old Mike is or his breed. 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 an animal shelter, 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. We were on a walk home one day, and 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 three 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 pack. 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 manipulative way to start, and it is. I can offer no cogent argument on wrong or right but only 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 would eventually would have to do some deeper soul-searching. Last year I just knew that Michael Vick would be picked up by the Jets. I just knew it. After all, it's exactly the same kind of short-term solution our club usually chooses in the midst of its own search for a Messiah at QB. 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 a 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.

When Vick played in Philly, he was often beaten to a pulp on all sides by the defense. Andy Reid's final 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 outcomes, but then we cut back and forth across the neighborhoods of the show, and at one brief but harrowing point, just before we leave, we see a group of little boys 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 worth nothing. People do evil. And they can change too, I guess.

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 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 that a being so often treated with cruelty by its 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, 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.