Mom suggested to Dad that they bring me to the Jets’ August training camp scrimmages at nearby Hofstra University. I would now enter more fully into the world of the real fan, the one who speculated as to the season before the season began. Like most teams back in the 70’s, the Jets opened their camp practices and evening scrimmages free to all spectators, and afterwards fans were encouraged to stand next to players and ask for an autograph.
Today, I would need to be a successful Wall Street attorney’s child, or a successful Wall Street attorney, wearing a special badge to have such privileges. Sports are the least egalitarian of industries in modern American commerce, so spectatorship has become a competition unto itself, rooted in class differences. Aside from the corporately-owned luxury boxes, it seems that player autographs and team practices are additional ways of drawing the line between haves and have-nots, even when the latter group usually produces the more informed and loyal of fans. There is no other way to operate. It’s a shame you cannot issue mandatory tests to fans with the best seats.
Yet what are the rewards? Heated luxury boxes actually have the effect of physically removing the fan from the full experience of spectatorship, anyway. When the Jets actually win the Super Bowl in the future (moment of silence, all, please) it will not matter whether I witness it live from the 50 yard-line or on a TV in my neighbor's basement. We true fans are often in distant proximity to our beloved teams anyway, and we live in this reality with a combination of grudging acceptance and good cheer. It would do no good to complain about the cost of being a fan, for it is viewed as naïve and sentimental to do so. Teams know that they can charge the most indifferent and wealthy bidder whatever they like for tickets, and we, the rabble, will still spend money somewhere.
I oblige the Jets franchise by purchasing cheap things from their catalogue that somehow embody the complete depth of my loyalty. Only a true fan would eat his nachos out of a plastic Jets helmet, for example. I understand that everything has its price and its buyer. However, I can testify that in 1978 an autograph from your favorite player at training camp cost absolutely nothing.
Mom suggested I bring a friend to the scrimmage, and instead of the usual choice of Jake, I chose Eddie O’Fallon. We were given a small program as we entered the Jets’ training camp, yet Eddie and I quickly forwent the opportunity of naming the Jets’ best prospects and sought to get players to come off the bench and sign autographs. It must have been tiresome for them - urchins swarming around the fencing between the benches and stands, calling out their names, hoping they’d respond. Already, I noticed that most kids didn't recognize any of the players and were just looking for a cheap thrill.
Who’s that? What’s the name on the back of his uniform? Oh, "Todd."
"Hey Todd! Todd! Todd!"
Charlatans. They didn’t even know the starting quarterback when they saw him. I held back for a while until the crowd dispersed a bit, and added a decided Mister when I called out to him. With that, Richard Todd turned around and glared in my direction. He was a gangly-looking Southerner with golden locks, an angular nose, and a wide mouth with which he scowled. He stated emphatically:
“After we’re done tonight.” He pointed to the players’ exit area.
We got the same results as the night wore on with Joe Klecko, Greg Buttle, and Lawrence Pillars. But wide receiver Wesley Walker rose to the occasion. He was further down the sideline and already signing autographs. Before he went back on offense, I managed to get his signature with his “#85” advertised as well. The night was a success.
But I wasn’t entirely won over to him yet; this was before Wesley’s dramatic first-drive touchdown catch of the ’78 season opener against the Dolphins; before he caught a 68 yard bomb from Matt Robinson to secure a staggering comeback over the Denver Broncos in week nine of 1978; before I learned he was blind in one eye - a staggering liability for a receiver that still boggles my mind. So I snuck over with Eddie to the sideline again and asked for yet another autograph.
“We shouldn’t do thith,” whispered Eddie, as we prepared the request. “He’ll get mad.”
I suspected not. “I want to try.”
I called out to Walker again. He was nearing the water table. “I got you already,” he said to me.
It came out of me: “Not me. Not yet.”
He nodded, took a drink of water, walked over to the fence and without looking said, “You sure? You’re not mistaking me for someone else?”
He took the pen from me; he may even have noticed the previous signature on the same sheet.
“Awrighty,” he said. “There you go.” He calmly did the same for Eddie. “You guys take it easy now.”
He turned back to the bench, leaving us strangely awed. Children understand the magnitude of small acts of kindness. It was a matter of karma. Wesley Walker quickly took John Riggins’ place on my wall simply because he didn’t need to prove us wrong. (Yes, that is Herman Edwards covering Wes in the picture).
Before we left that night, I got a little carried away. Richard Todd wasn’t lying. At the players’ exit, we were permitted to swarm them and get autograph after autograph. We touched their sleeves. They were massive, quiet men. The slightest among many was Pat Leahy, the place kicker whose errant point-after had cost the Jets the Oakland game in 1977. His slight frame within his large shoulder pads made him like an accountant wearing a football uniform to an office Halloween party. Perhaps because he seemed so small compared to the others, I shamelessly flattered him as he signed an autograph for me.
“You’ve got a golden toe, Pat,” I said.
He looked wryly at the page he was signing for me. “Really? A golden toe? I could use one of those.” He shook his head and handed his autograph. “Keep it coming, kid.”