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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Leahy

As he would in years to come, Pat Leahy played the key role in the season’s biggest drama. He was the lead scorer for the AFC that year, but he made one crucial mistake at the worst possible moment. I’ve never known a kicker to play such havoc with the circulatory systems of his fans, yet Pat Leahy would keep kicking for the Jets through 1991, getting better and better every year. In 1978, though, his timing was tragic. Even his looks conveyed it - his comb-over, his broken smile and an Irish sense for misfortune’s omnipresence – and it made him a complicated person to heckle.


Leahy, you suck. It feels bad just thinking it. You don’t heckle Charlie Brown; you laugh with him, and when you don’t, you pity him. I may be alone among Jets fans in this, but you didn’t heckle Pat Leahy. Yes, it is a notoriously unforgiving position. Leahy always carried an air of vulnerability that made him more human.


Even his All-Pro Topps card as the leading scorer of the AFC in 1978 captures him in a moment of pensive self-reflection that fits my picture of him entirely. The thought of seeing him line up for a crucial field goal makes my stomach turn in anxiety and empathy. God, Pat. You can’t shank this one. Please… For the love of humanity.

The 1978 home game against the Patriots toward the end of the season is the sharpest in the season’s catalogue. I should remember it foremost as the weekend my parents went back up to Westchester to look for houses again, and they bought some land. Jamie and I were back in Brooklyn with Grammy. When Mom and Dad returned, they were covered in mud. They had decided to go pioneering and buy a plot on which they would build an entirely new house near Pleasantville.

They told of a place high atop a hill, with an incredible view of the county. They could hardly wait to get started. So, we were moving.

“We were attacked,” Mom said suddenly.

“Well, not attacked,” Dad said.

She ignored him. “By Doberman pinschers that were sent out to sick us.”

Dad interjected with a muddy hand, “Clearly, they were from an estate somewhere in the vicinity.”

“We were chased. We were on their property.” She had the look of someone who hadn’t had this kind of excitement in her life since chasing a bus in the Village. Her eyes were wide.

“Wait a minute,” Dad said, looking over in her direction, “we were clearly not on their property. In fact, I think the dogs were being friendly to us.”

“They were wild animals, Marty.”

“They were not,” Dad said, now somewhat impatiently.

“I managed to escape the worst of it, Marty, but I didn’t run. I slid!”

My father gestured with exasperation. Enough, he said. My grandmother handed him a towel before he could track any more mud around.

“Really?” I asked excitedly.

“Slid down the hill on my derriere. The whole length of the way down the muddy hill. Dad got the worst of it, though.”

He called from the other room. “No I didn’t!”

She kneeled in toward me. Grammy tried to stop her from letting more brown crusted soil of a mysterious estate fall on her old carpet. “The Dobermans probably saw him in his puffy down jacket and thought he was a trainer in one of those padded outfits. You know? Like the kind we saw those German shepherds go after on TV?”

“Yeah,” I said excitedly.

“They were pretty disappointed to chomp down and discover goose feathers in your father’s coat!” She began laughing, covering her mouth with her dirty hand. “Daddy came back looking like a shipwrecked man!”

I had never seen Mom so excited, or so oddly deranged. It seems unlikely that she had taken a drink between falling down the hill and coming to Greenpoint. She reported it all, however differently from Dad, with enormous anticipation in her voice. Things were going to be different now. And for Dad, this was the next great phase in his career. We were moving from the Island.

Just then, though, Dad broke the spell of the day with some news. “Oh, Marty! I can’t believe I forgot. The Jets are sold out tomorrow! The game against the Patriots, at Shea. It’s sold out.”

Mom looked slightly disappointed. She knew her story ended there.


This meant only one thing. Only one thing. The game was on TV. Tee. Vee. The Jets had a record of 7-5 as they entered into that most crucial of home division games against the first-place Patriots.

Time slows down profoundly right here.

Something about the Jets being back on TV made me care very deeply about every moment of the game in careful detail. They were poised to go to the playoffs. The potential epiphanies were limitless. To actually go into the game’s moribund details would be ridiculous, even for someone like me. To me, the days and nights I recall leading up to the game are more telling. There were night sweats all the week beforehand, my fingernails bitten down to the nub, then two more jittery nights of sleeplessness before the game, and a resulting head cold. I kept it all to myself, for if I revealed too much to Mom I might have jeopardized my watching the game.

That day, I isolated myself from everyone. My parents, Charlie and - unbeknownst to me - Eddie O’Fallon, were all upstairs watching the game. I didn’t want to be disturbed. This was a layered moment in my history. I made that very clear. This was It. This was a religious moment. The Jets were going to go to the playoffs if they won. This was The Most Important Game of The Season For Which I Had Been Waiting All My Life. When Eddie came by for a visit during the fourth quarter, Mom very wisely told him to stick around with the rest of them above ground until it was over.

Yin, Yin, Yin and Yang. The Jets played brilliantly for three quarters and took the lead from the Patriots 14-10. But then Tony Franklin would make three field goals to Pat Leahy’s one such that it was 19-17 Patriots with under a minute to play. Matt Robinson drove the Jets brilliantly downfield, hitting Jerome Barkum and Wesley Walker for first downs. Pat Leahy was brought out for the winning field goal.


This was my first view of the Jets playing at home on TV in a while, and I had forgotten a critical thing about Shea Stadium. Whereas most arenas allowed for a normal wind flow through their confines, Shea took the wind from Jamaica Bay and cylindrically re-processed it into a mischievous swirl. To his defense, Pat Leahy was about to kick into that swirl. Yet I sensed a familiar foreboding as Leahy dug into the ragged turf and tested the November air.


Then, the snap. The kick. Even today, in my mind’s eye, the kick looks good. But suddenly I hear Mom scream upstairs. Dad howls with rage. It had to have been good. Didn't it go through the crossbars?

Yet upon replay, again and again, Leahy’s kick sailed wide right. It was no illusion. A sound of despair forced its way out of me, and I collapsed on the rug of the basement, having already spent the length of the game tensely dancing in front of the TV on the balls of my feet. The final stayed 19-17. The playoffs drifted errantly away into the swirl. Poor Pat Leahy reacted to his miss like a Greek tragedian, tearing off his helmet, and covering his face, uttering an obvious, Shit. He fell to his knees. It was such a big miss that a New England player came over to him and offered a consoling word. The Jets had never brought my hopes so high before.

I became disoriented. I wanted to cry. It felt like the right thing to do, but I couldn't let it out. So instead, I promptly passed out. When I came to, Eddie was standing over me. What could he say to console me? He sat me up as I came back to consciousness.

“Itth only game,” he said, more like a question than a statement. It was a nice attempt, and kind in Eddie’s fashion. He was correct, of course, but he and I both knew that it wasn’t true.

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