Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Steelers 20 Jets 7 - 11/16/75

Even now, on the rare occasion when a man is smoking a cigar on a street corner near the expensive cigar shop where he has bought it, the odor is reminiscent of the aroma of old Jets’ fans at Shea who were chomping, spitting, drinking and swearing into the winter air. The brand of cigar is probably a bit more expensive than the cigars I recall.

Dad and I went together to see the Jets play the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers of 1975. The Jets wore their whites against the black-clad Steel Curtain. We were in the presence of greatness, and none of it was evidenced on the Jets' side.

The Shea Stadium football field was turning to rusty sand on this unusually warm November afternoon, and the swirling winds of Flushing whipped the dirt into little cyclones that flew out of control beyond the barriers of the building. The Jets managed only a touchdown pass to Eddie Bell. Steelers 20 Jets 7.

Dad was right, I thought. They stank. They stunk it up. They sucked.

They were total shit.

My football team was for shit.

As we left with the sullen masses down the concrete steps of the stadium, I asked him something, more out of curiosity than of concern. "Are they ever going to win?"

He took that for a crack in my wall of happiness. Technically, I already sensed that the question was off limits. You couldn't just root for winners like Pittsburgh because they won regularly. Could you? That seemed for chickens, for sissies - for kids that didn’t take football seriously.

"Had enough?” he asked hopefully.

That was not at all what I was suggesting. I looked at him as if he had suggested eating my brother for dinner.

“Fine, fine,” he said, dejected. “I guess I'm renewing season tickets for next year. Jesus.”

His tone kept me awake on the sleepy ride back home to North Merrick. However, the question of whether or not it was worth spending a winter’s Sundays at Shea Stadium began to make sense when I saw how my classmates at school reacted to my transformation into fanatical Jets fan.

Suffice to say there was ruthless haranguing - the kind found most particularly on Long Island. Schoolboys favored only the football teams that won – the Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, and Minnesota Vikings. They did not seem capable of accepting the high price of loyalty in the face of adversity. They seemed to appreciate its spiritual value about as much as the lions did the value of early Christians' faith. Dinner, in other words, was served.

For most little boys, it made more sense to enjoy survival and go with the crowd. You admitted neither weakness nor fear. If you rooted for a losing football team, you were likely to get an emotional and physical pounding from the boys on the recess ground, which was apparently what you deserved. And this is what I got for being a Jets fan. Even boys whom I suspected had no interest in sports at all – boys who would probably someday cheer loudest for Cher or Liza Minnelli – would spit the Merrick Raspberry at me and insist that they were loyal Dallas Cowboys fans.

Religion, however, gave me relief, and even a sense of purpose. If they curse you and beat you all because of me, Jesus' Sermon went, then know that I am with you through it all.

Christianity implied to me that self-sacrifice was a way to justify oneself in salvation. The Catholic Church in predominantly Roman Catholic Nassau County Long Island told us that it was a noble thing to be tormented as the Fathers of the Church had been for their faith. It was just like Mom had told me - one must always take the long way round, the hard way out, not the easy way.

Because the Jets meant so much to me so quickly, like a newfound faith, a spiritual parallel between both faith in God and faith in the Jets made sense. The stronger I was in enduring the barbs of my classmates for rooting for a losing team, the stronger my devotion. As a conscientious servant to my faith, even through the darkness, I believed would be redeemed and rewarded with the Jets' second Super Bowl Championship, and this time I figured I would be around to see it. And certainly in my formative years. Oh, certainly. Yes.

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