Saturday, July 7, 2007

Colts 35 Jets 20 - 10/12/75

Dad found a parking spot in a lot near the number 7 line. It was a chilly, overcast mid-October day, and Flushing looked its usual ashen gray. We boarded the subway. All about were the smells of smoky middle-aged men who had probably started drinking before noon. Fans wore the popular Jets woolen hats with the flap, green peak and white pom-pom.

I looked across the subway car and saw another father and son tandem. These two were respectively older than my companion and I. The father stared off into the Sunday gloom, while the son stared at me, looking knowledgeable. He wore a blue and white wool hat. From either Queens or Long Island, the boy was my first introduction to a traitor – a Baltimore Colts fan from New York. He bared his front teeth at me like Jack from Lord of the Flies, stuck his tongue out, and ran his index finger along his throat.

I stayed close to Dad as we got off the train. New York subways in the 1970’s were far more forbidding places than today. Once apparently clean and safe, the subways were now covered in the graffiti that could now be found everywhere in a city that had been left for dead by the Federal Government.

Back then, New York felt, even to a six year-old, like a dam holding the floods of chaos to its breaking point. The tunnel from the subway reverberated with wild noises. There was some pushing among the crowds. I held onto his hand with the sense that if I let go, a palm would would reach up from beneath the subway grates and bring down to a circle of Hell.

Then I saw Shea Stadium. It wasn’t painted the terrible royal blue that it is today; rather, it was all gray and adorned with corrugated blue and orange aluminum shingles.

Outside the stadium, the smells of cigars, pretzels, chestnuts, warm beer, and hot breath were everywhere.

Inside, the mass evened out a bit. Shea was in a particularly neglected state in the mid-70’s, as was most of New York. Drainpipes leaked in the passageways, and the upper level walkways smelled of urine and were stained with the running rust of concrete cable.

The Jets would not fill up the stadium that day, as they had already turned fans off by week 10. They had matched the 1974 week 10 record of 2-7. Still, I ignored Dad’s warning that, “The Jets'll get killed today. Baltimore is at the top of the division.” The Colts were on their way to the playoffs in 1975 with a final 10-4 record. Dad knew whereof he spoke, but I chose to tell him it didn’t matter. It didn’t.

He shared a section of seats at Shea with a group of off-duty New York police officers in a level called the Loge, a purgatorial area between the box seats and the upper sections. At kickoff in the Colts game, a shorter member of the cops took out a Dove detergent bottle filled with whiskey and toasted his fellow officers.

Dove for your dishes, girls.

With a waft of cheap alcohol, a tone was set. It was the smell of Failure. The Jets obliged. Joe Namath was sacked seven times and intercepted four times. Their defense would yield 35 points to the Colts. The game is distinguished only in that it was Charley Winner’s last before getting fired the ensuing week.

Joe Namath was already a hero to me by virtue of all the books I had collected about the championship year of 1968 and of Super Bowl III, but now he looked a fragment of his old self. With heavy braces making his knees look bloated and cumbersome, Namath resembled a marionette.

“This is embarrassing,” my father said, as we watch Namath get sacked again and again. A constant wail encircled the stadium, and it was not from the planes flying low over the stadium on their approach to nearby LaGuardia Airport - it was the unhappy fans. Dad begged me to leave with him at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

But I would have none of it. I was mesmerized. The field was a fascinating, messy brown-green - a nasty combination of both the Shea Stadium football grounds and of the lingering Mets' baseball field. The crowd's fury at the Jets seemed also to resonate with me.

The seasoned fans of the past had now adapted themselves to this inferior team; they perhaps even felt a sado-masochistic joy at the incompetence they watched. Amid the bellicose and the drunk, I somehow knew that this was where I belonged. I was home.

My newfound passion for the Jets was one of those indelible conversions that last long beyond the period of initial euphoria. As a six year-old it would have been impossible for me to be prepared for the feeling of being touched by God, and maybe the best kind of transformations must happen to a young person who is too innocent to understand what is happening to him. What’s so funny, though, is that this is the complete opposite of what Dad wanted to happen. Dad had logically thought that in order to dispel my insane, new attachment, he needed to open me up to basic, hard reality of the Jets’ ineptitude. He is such a logical man.

It makes sense in retrospect. It wouldn’t be the first time such an attempt would fail on me. No. In time, my love for the Jets would embrace and help clarify for me all the dimensions of humiliation and defeat awaiting me in the world. Somewhere in the first half of the Colts’ game, I began jumping up and down in excitement toward the end of the game. I had lost it. I was ruined for life.

The shortest of the off-duty cops turned boozily around and gazed at me. “Has he been sneaking some of this, Charlie?” he asked, gesturing to his Dove bottle. Dad didn’t bother to answer.

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