Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Todd to Walker

The 1978 season began with Dad’s totally unexpected announcement that he had gotten tickets to the season opener against the Dolphins. I should have some memory of him actually telling me this, but I honestly think it was such a shock to my system that I didn’t have the schema to retain it accurately in my mind. But there we are, just as I remember it, in the 1300 section of the upper deck of Shea, far enough away from the field to see the full view of the Mets’ baseball infield, hash marks across it and all. This was the first time I had seen it clearly, which should tell you how good his old Loge seats had been. Because the Jets were still renters in the Mets’ stadium, they were condemned to play football on a baseball field.

An advertisement on WOR said that baseball and apple pie were as American as Chevrolet - not football, mind you, the brutal, ugly American game. Football was considered an inferior sport to America’s Pastime. Everywhere it was like that. Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Jack Murphy in San Diego, Alameda in Oakland - on every grass field remaining in the NFL, football teams shared second place to baseball teams. You can see in the 1964 photo below how Shea's infield ended at the 50 yard line.

The scales fell from my eyes. The Jets were visitors in their own city.
“It looks cheap,” I said to my father.

He looked at me as if I were crazy. “The Mets didn’t even let the Jets play any of their first four games at home until just recently. Can you imagine that?” That didn’t soothe me. He looked at me askance. “These tickets weren’t cheap, I’ll tell you that.”

No, but by today’s standards, they were - $22, total. They would cost five times that now. The Jets still did not sell out games, and though the seats were largely filled, there was still a sense of a day at the beach among the crowd. Fans did not dress in jerseys for a football game as they do today. The NFL had yet to master the art of merchandising, so the only time fans really wore the team colors and logo were in winter, when you wore the team’s winter-weight parka or wool hat. But even these things were nondescript unless you looked closely.
You rooted for the team with your voice, but otherwise it was difficult to tell the outwardly enthusiasm from behavior associated with binge drinking. In the first week of September, thousands of shirtless, hairy local men were out of the house on a Sunday and in the stands of Shea Stadium - drunk, yes, or getting there, stoned maybe - looking for one of the last tans of the waning summer.

At the start of the game they got loud, though. The Jets had not won an opener since 1972. And, between 1970 and 1977, they went without any kind of title, while specifically going 2-14 against the Miami Dolphins, who themselves had gone to three Super Bowls since that time, winning two. From the beginning of the decade, the two organizations had gone in opposite directions. At last, in 1978, the Jets would win both an opener and a game against Miami in one game. To the amazement of the crowd, and certainly to my own, the Jets took the lead at the beginning and never really let up.

It began with a first quarter touchdown pass from Richard Todd to Wesley Walker, who was perfectly placed in the corner of the end zone nearest us. Bob Griese was injured, and Don Strock was in his place, but Miami’s Delvin Williams made a circuitous touchdown run from midfield that was beautiful to watch, even for me.

Still, it was the Jets’ day, and forgive me for being swept away with remembering names and plays, but Christ, I was happy. The Jets were always one step ahead and won, 33-20.

When I got home, I made sure I saw the game’s replays on all the local stations. There was no Internet, no ESPN SportsCenter, no cable where you could watch replays again and again, so this required the kind of channel surfing whose art is now lost to the ages.
We had no remote control, just a switch you turned with your hand, and I sure did. Three networks and three local affiliates (this was New York). Channel 7, Channel 4, Channel 2, Channel 9, Channel 11, Channel 5. Back and forth, with time again for another shot at seeing it. I particularly needed to see the replay of the opening score: Todd to Walker, Todd to Walker, Todd to Walker. And, repeat.

This enraged my father, who always felt that the channel switch was just moments from breaking off the set. But then Dad also firmly maintained throughout my childhood that TV would literally melt my brain if I watched too much of it and that the refuse would pour out of my ears. His theories were taken with a grain of salt. Maybe he was just trying to get me to turn off the TV and think about something else other than the J-E-T-S - again, to no avail.

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