Saturday, July 21, 2007

Raiders 28 Jets 27 - 10/23/77

Dad did not renew the season tickets for 1977.

We didn’t have to worry about what to do with him on weekends because he had to work more Saturdays and Sundays. Now the Jets were never sold out at home (the Giants did sell out week after week, despite their equally poor performance). Even today, in the present era of Direct TV, the NFL dictates that without a sellout, a game has to be blacked out on TV in the local area of the home team; thus there were no Jets games at Shea that season on TV. I just told myself that this was all just a new test of loyalty.

I had become accustomed to the visceral experience of Shea. I made Charlie giggle at Mass by imitating Shea’s announcer: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN (gentlemen): PLEASE RISE AND GREET OUR CELEBRENT, FATHER (father) SHERIDAN (sheridan). Mom thumped me for that one. The last straw, though, was midway through Mass when I mimicked the noise of the planes that flew low over Shea Stadium before landing at LaGuardia Airport. I don’t even remember how Mom reacted to that, which is a little frightening to consider.

When Dad came back from work on the Sunday evening of the Jets’ opener at Houston in 1977, he found me slumped on the floor of the den. Awful, as so many of their openers are, the Jets lost 20-0, thus confirming in his mind everything that he had thought about renewing tickets.

“Marty…,” he said, his voice going down an octave in sympathy, “it’s just not worth it. We would have been miserable at Shea this year.”

I said nothing.

“You’re going to need a new distraction this year,” he said. “Why don’t you go outside and see what your buddies are doing?”

Buddies? Who still used that word? My buddies were not as important to me as the Jets, though they were probably better at football. I wasn’t ready to give up watching games by Flushing Bay, even if Dad was. He hated spending money on a loser. He hated the long drive from North Merrick to Flushing. He hated the dilapidated and unsafe Flushing Meadow-Corona Park just outside the stadium. He despaired of the drunken losers at the game who were watching a loser play, and he winced at the association he thought I might make with them. He didn’t want to be a Guy anymore. He wanted to be a reliable husband and a good father. He and I saw life differently.

As if to emphasize the loss, the Jets actually managed a 2-2 start, including a last minute 30-27 win over the Patriots. The week before Halloween the Jets played the defending champion Oakland Raiders at Shea. Dad was away on business again. Much of the 1977 season would be spent with Mom, following games on WOR. On the day of the Raiders game, Mom, Jamie and I went to the A&S department store in Hempstead, and we listened to the game on the car radio. I was already maturing into a skeptical, if loyal, fan. As the game started, I could feel an anxious hesitancy arising out of me, the kind that accompanies me now, in the present time, with every Jets game. Don’t get your hopes up.

I was growing up, I suppose. I wasn’t all the way there yet, but I was already beginning to form a gray filter through which I could look at the world. Today, this filter has evolved into a veritable philosophy of full-blown doubt that persists throughout the week leading up to a Sunday Jets game and - win or lose – continues well beyond the game into the ensuing week, so that every day seems like Sunday. Yet it has also come to establish itself as an entire way of being for my life beyond football and has grown larger than my fandom, forming a worldview that manifests itself everywhere in my adult life: Don’t get your hopes up. On October 23, 1977, though, it still seemed innocent enough to invoke it as a defense mechanism of short order. The Jets were playing the champion Raiders: Don’t get your hopes up.

At this time, the Jets were the youngest team in football. Their 1977 draft had included players who were already starters - people who would eventually nettle all my expectations in the decade to come: Richard Todd, Wesley Walker, Bruce Harper, Mickey Shuler, Marvin Powell, Joe Klecko.
I listened forlornly on the car radio for the fire alarm sound at kickoff. Oakland received, and the Raiders quickly scored with a Mark van Eegan touchdown at the end of a 78-yard drive.

“You can change the station,” I told my mother.
“That’s a terrible attitude,” she said. “We should see how they do from here. They might score.” She threw the pronoun we with regard to the Jets. “There’s nothing worse than a fair-weather fan,” she added, strangely. Was she talking about Dad?

No sooner did the Jets have the ball than Richard Todd, the Jets’ replacement for Namath, threw a 70 yard bomb touchdown to Richard Caster. He would throw yet another to Wesley Walker in the first quarter. Only the Hand of Fate, or rather Its Foot, in the form of Jets’ place-kicker Pat Leahy, could stop the Gang Green;
his missed point-after made it 14-13 in favor of Oakland at first quarter’s end. For the first time in my memory, the Jets were challenging a championship team.

Don’t get your hopes up.

Or maybe I could. By the second quarter, Mom brought Jamie and me into A&S, and I could feel an electric nervousness building within me again. I begged her to let me stay in appliances, where I might catch the Jets score on the NBC Game of the Week being shown on dozens of Zenith Trinitrons. The score momentarily flashed on screen, and to my amazement, it was now Jets 20 Raiders 14 in the second quarter. Mother of God.

On the way home we listened to Marty Glickman’s play-by-play on WOR. The score stayed that way into halftime. I can vividly recall Glickman’s harried voice, normally laced with Doom and Loss, this time saying, “Unbelievable as it may seem, fans, the Jets have actually come out for this game!” He then allowed us a moment to listen to the gratified Shea crowd as the Jets headed for the locker room. When we got home, Mom shut off the car radio in the driveway, but I sat in the backseat of our Nova with my face pressed against the vinyl headrest.

“You have to come in now,” she said, hiding a smile. “You can listen inside, too, you know.”

It was no use. I was numb with an accelerated state of mental growth. My brain’s synapses were now firing in new directions, charting neural pathways for heretofore unknown concepts. Since October 23, 1977, I have measured time by being able to catalogue memories within their contemporary historical context – all because the halftime score was 20-14.

My primitive childhood memory bank systems were now upgraded by the empowering and novel experience of the Jets beating the Raiders. Not only that, but it was also as if the colors of the world around me suddenly became vibrant as never before. The blue of the sky was uniquely complex, as were the blues of the half-shells in which the Virgin Mary stood on the fading green autumn lawns throughout North Merrick.
Within the sky were different kinds of clouds, each forming a unique shape of something recognizable on Earth. My mind’s eye, in the process of stitching together Marty Glickman’s dramatic narrative, had somehow activated a range of signals that would, from now on, enable everything I encountered in both the foreground and the background of my experience to receive a fuller, more detailed accounting.

Listen to this Shea crowd.

And I wasn’t there for it. Shit.

And yet....

And yet, as it was, the Jets did not defeat the Raiders that day. Oakland would come back in the second half; Pat Leahy’s errant point-after in the first half would prove to be the first of his career’s few but fatal misses. The Raiders won, 28-27. But still, the strange order of things, the mysteries and paradoxes of life, were beginning to take shape, if not real clarity.

As the priests told us in catechism, though no one knew the time of his or her unfortunate departure from this Earth, there was a promised order in the seeming madness of God’s plan. The Jets-Raiders game made this paradox clearer. No halftime lead was ever safe. No division lead was secure. But the game had the potential to punctuate the fan’s life with moments of victory, joy, and wisdom. Like death, you didn’t know when these happy moments might come.

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