I still wasn’t anywhere near ready to face the truth of how bad the Jets were. While waiting for the school bus to take us home, I was standing next to an older boy from the fourth grade, admiring his beautiful teal jacket with the orange snap-on buttons and the Miami Dolphins’ insignia on it. I wasn’t subtle. The boy caught me staring and asked testily, “What are you looking at?”
I shook my head. “Wow.”
“Are you from Florida?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was out of my mind. “No. Stupid.”
I was struck. Not that he had insulted me. I was hit by the implications of what this meant. The depth of betrayal.
“How come it doesn’t say Jets?” I asked. “Aren’t you a Jets fan?” I asked him as if I were talking about something as fundamental as the rules of subtraction.
He contorted his face into a look of horror, like I had accused him of wetting his bed or something. His jacket would certainly have protected him. It really was a nice jacket. “Because, you jackass,” he said, taken aback, “the Jets are terrible. They suck.”
Then he looked at the other kids on line, then back again at me. “Don’t you know anything?” he asked. Then, for good measure he added, “You’re fucking stupid.”
I didn’t get it. Maybe he was so aghast because the Dolphins had beaten the Jets at Shea 43-0 in 1975. But that didn’t matter. Miami had just gotten lucky, I figured. Forty-three points luckier. Right?
And still, the 1976 season was the Jets’ second disgraceful season in a row. By week 12, they were 2-9.
Both victories came against the then hapless Buffalo Bills. Mom and Dad went to the first of these, at Shea. Pat Leahy won it for the Jets on a last-second field goal.
Mom bruised her hand from clapping against her coiled wedding ring. Future star of Hill Street Blues Ed Marinaro, in his only season with the Jets, rushed brilliantly all day.
After the game, Mom called Mrs. Walsh, a neighbor who had been minding me that day, and I was brought in from the backyard to receive the good news. Mrs. Walsh’s son Jake had just sucker-punched me, and I had a bloody lip. The final was 17-14. I felt so happy I could even have punched Mrs. Walsh when she looked derisively at my lip and said, “You’re not a very good fighter, are you, Marty?” Such things passed for sympathy on Long Island.
The second win against the Bills in 1976 fell on a Halloween Saturday. I was supposed to trick-or-treat with a couple of friends whom I eventually left behind so that I could find a place to watch the game. I had not even wanted to go out on Halloween in the first place, and I may have been the only kid in North Merrick who felt this way. I wanted to watch the game.
When I had discussed it with Mom, she didn’t take me seriously. “You’ll be angry with me someday that I didn’t make you go,” she said. “I don’t want you on some analyst’s couch someday telling him I didn’t make you go out on Halloween and enjoy yourself. You have that astronaut’s costume from last year. It’ll fit you. Put it on!”
She was wrong. It didn't really fit. It was my old GI Joe astronaut costume. You didn't know GI Joe went into space? GI Joe went everywhere. Cardboard box containers, space, Vietnam.
Here he is on the moon - checking himself, evidently.
She was also wrong because the Jets game was far important than Halloween, even if football came more than 14 weeks a season and Halloween only once a year. I knew I had to find somewhere other than home to watch it because Mom would only have sent me back out to find my friends.
Finally, though, I found the perfect sanctuary. I quietly tip-toed into the sitting room of the Sacred Heart Church rectory where elderly Father Sheridan was fast asleep in his La-Z-Boy chair in front of the Jets game. It was a warm Halloween that year, so the priests had left the front door open and the screen door unlocked. A bowl with candy lay untouched on the table next to him (who went trick-or-treating to a rectory, anyway?). I walked in quietly and sat down on the carpet next to his chair. Occasionally, I looked over at him. Save for the vanilla pallor, his occasional, rising snort in mid-breath was the only indication that he was still alive. And when he did finally wake up late in the game, he startled me almost as much as I did him. I was still dressed for Halloween.
“JAIIISUS!!” he cried out in terror. “What the - …. Gah! What the hell are ye?!”
I never looked back. Like a cat with suddenly somewhere to go, I darted out the screen door. Jets were up, 16-14 in the fourth quarter. They would win by five.
Eventually, Dad and I went to the 1976 home game against the Baltimore Colts. The drizzle and cold were an appropriate setting. The Jets were shut out, 20-0. All I could see was that big kid in the Dolphins jacket, sneering at me. I felt sick. Late in the game, Namath took a tremendous hit from Baltimore’s Fred Cook. He fell on his back, clutched his helmet in pain and lay there in that position for a while.
He had been in worse positions before. He'd look worse later. But there was no way round it; no matter what the attempt now, Namath’s best days were behind him. He was given absolutely no time from his blockers to throw the ball, and each time he dropped back to pass, the fans leapt to their feet in morbid wondering if this was finally the hit that would end his career. Why else would you pay to sit and watch a Jets game at Shea? As Joe would go down again and again, the cops in our section would collectively gasp, Jesus Christ! His knees. His knees!! Please!! Don’t kill him!!And now, their fears seemed justified.
“Oh my God, Dad,” I said, tugging at my father in horror. We stared at the motionless Joe. “They really did it! They killed Joe!”
My father shook his head with only a shred of irony. “Looks like it.”
A terrible hush fell across the stadium. He was done for the day. I suddenly became aware of the brutality of this exercise – on Joe Willie, yes, but also on me and on my own sense of optimism.
Was this how Rastafarians felt when Salassie was overthrown in Ethiopia?
Without any adequate real model, I simply went from fanatical convert to sullen believer. The following week, I took an ironic inspiration from the fact that Cook’s hit on Joe Willie was featured in a Sports Illustrated article about injuries to quarterbacks. There, in the photograph, was Joe holding his head, with Fred Cook lording over him.
A Jet in SI! The last time that had happened, it had been a 1972 cover story referring to the Jets as "jittery."
I felt so proud, the way a parent who is so desperate for recognition might take cheerful notice of his child in the police blotter. That’s my quarterback who’s crying out in agony, I thought to myself. It was the only mention the Jets would get in the magazine all that year; in fact it would be the only mention any Jet player would get in Sports Illustrated until 1978, when it was said that Wesley Walker “no longer has boards for hands.” Who said mediocrity went without reward?