Dad took Mom to the last home game of the 1975 season, a loss to eventual NFC Champion Dallas Cowboys. They left us with my grandmother in Brooklyn and then shivered in the frigid chill of Shea Stadium in December, probably wondering why they had wasted a perfectly good evening on a lost cause in Queens when they could have gone to their favorite restaurant in Greenwich Village.
“What a disgrace,” my father said upon his return. All Mom and Dad talked about was the cold wind off Flushing Bay. Apparently, on their way to the game, Dad had told Mom that she was going to see a great quarterback, by which he meant Roger Staubach, not Joe Namath. However, they saw Clint Longley; Staubach didn’t even start the game for the Cowboys so that he might rest for the playoffs.
Mom looked beautiful, wearing a mink hat that was already behind the fashion. She had always looked great in her hats, but the 70’s were evolving into a time where such things were less preferable to plainer, more functional styles.
“Even with gloves on, Marty, look,” Dad said, taking them off. “Look. You see?” He revealed how raw his hands had gotten during the game, like the color of ground chuck. He felt I needed evidence of something miserable.
Things were changing for Dad. His world of possibilities had already begun to lose its mythical dimensions. He had kept on faithfully climbing up the ladder, but ever since he moved to the suburbs, his beloved team had failed to follow him along. I see now that the Cowboys game was the one that started him reconsidering his season tickets. He didn’t want another humiliating night like that again. He must have known that the Jets were going to get worse before they got better. He would give them one last chance, one final season, but if they showed no clear improvement, they would be let go like a doomed employee.
I didn’t know that he felt this way. He didn’t mention anything about it at the time. I just assumed that the Jets would always be a part of all our lives. But Dad had used the word disgrace.
Of course, in the world of the Gang Green, as the Jets are commonly called, the word disgrace is simply part of the vernacular. It is a verb fit for self-pity: This fucking team has disgraced me long enough, or an adjective used for self-loathing: It's a disgrace that I root for this fucking team. One of the off-duty cops in the Loge had said this very thing within earshot at the Colts game earlier in the season, and now Dad invoked it, albeit less profanely.
While researching Jets history from the 1970’s, I discovered that immediately after that loss to the Cowboys, the Jets’ owners stood around the locker room asking for complementary autographs rather than discussing the loss with their players. The Jets finished the season at their worst record to date, 3-11. The team was in disarray. Free agent John Riggins, with 1,005 season yards, was now likely to sign a better contract with a more competitive franchise. I thought John Riggins would always be with the Jets, so you can imagine my absolute shock and dismay when, before the 1976 season, he signed with the Washington Redskins.
His departure from the Jets taught me the valuable lesson that the market dictates everything. As a boy, I never entertained the notion that playing for the Jets was anything other than hugely fun, but then it probably was not, especially when they lost so often and when so few good players (except the aging Namath) were paid competitive salaries.
This was a new concept to me, but I wasn’t exactly alone. We take for granted today that a player could leave a franchise as quickly as he arrives, but during the 70’s, when free agency was only beginning to change all of American sports, no one could adequately explain to me why Riggins was leaving. I suppose that even the most observant of fans had yet to fully grasp the breadth of free agency’s power. You played for a team, you stayed with a team - right? Free agency’s impact was certainly beyond Dad’s experience. When my father had been a boy, DiMaggio had played his whole career as a Yankee; both Ted Williams and Bill Russell had played all their years in Boston, a city that both athletes disliked. John Unitas roamed a little when he was a rookie until he made a very long career in Baltimore, spending one short season in San Diego only when the Colts themselves finally let him go.
But Riggins was still at the beginning of his great career when he left the Jets. How could this arrangement with New York have failed? Whose fault was this?
At first, neither my corporate father nor my religious mother could adequately pin blame on one culprit. They simply chalked it up to life’s unfairness. But that wasn’t good enough for me. Danny Hennessey from down the street could pull down my pants in front of the neighborhood girls – our older neighbor Billy Vitale might have tried to run me down with his Corvette while I rode my bike. Sure. Life was already unfair. I got that. But John Riggins going to Washington? I needed something better than “Life’s not fair.”
So my parents ruminated, and each of them identified separate guilty parties:
"They didn’t pay him enough money," Mom said when I came home from school. She had dwelled on it all day for me. "If Dad were offered a job with more money," she said, he would probably take it."
"He asked for too much money," Dad said, as he took off his trench coat and removed his pork pie Stetson. "He thinks he’s more important than God."
Say what you will, but these people were preparing me for the debate that rages among fans to this day – who’s responsible for fucking up American sports the way it is – the owners or the players? I have insisted that all throughout my life, the Jets have been an integral part of my understanding of the world, and this is an example of what I’m saying: John Riggins taught me that where there are no easy answers, the clearest, most acceptable motive in American life seems to be self-interest. As I learned more about his release from the Jets, I realized that Riggins’ pay raise with the Redskins was not substantially greater; it seemed he didn’t want to play for the Jets anymore, too. He was going to be happier working somewhere else, and apparently my own happiness had absolutely nothing to do with his.
He felt the Jets didn’t deserve him, and what’s worse, he felt that my devotion to him was not worth staying for. This was a quality of life issue for him - a matter of self-interest.
Still, I continued to resent John Riggins as the years went on (despite looking up his statistics with the Redskins week after week) because I knew more than ever that my own happiness lay in rooting for a really bad football team. And I needed to somehow express this. Mom had written monthly letters to President Richard Nixon in the early 70's, demanding that he resign, so I decided to take her cue and write to John Riggins. I felt that if Mom could bring down the Nixon Administration, I might have some effect on Riggins’ mind.
I remember telling John that even though he was leaving, I was still staying with the Jets, and so should he. I never heard back. I consoled myself with the idea that my feelings must have had some impact on him, and though I never really believed in Santa Claus as a child, I did believe for many years that John Riggins kept my heartbreaking, crayon missive with him throughout the remainder of his Hall of Fame career.
I was a lot older than I’d like to admit when I finally realized the naïveté of such an idea. When Keyshawn Johnson left the Jets in 2000 for Tampa Bay, I blamed him for being selfish. I had to pull myself together and recall the lesson I first learned with John Riggins: I should really know better than to hold any player in the modern era responsible for feeling something as irrational as my own passionate love for my team.
But it's all I have. As a child presently operating the bodysuit of a man, I suppose that mine will always be, at its core, a child’s love for the Jets - one that constantly holds the basic laws of supply and demand in vague suspicion. True, the fanatic can offer his team nothing more than his own unconditional love and devotion (and his money) but it still feels good to say that I have stayed true to what I believe in, even if the only thing I consistently believe in happens to be a football team.