Freeman McNeil got a good run off to midfield at the beginning of the game, and the crowd pitched its voices high to hysteria the way a crowd can early in the game when it keeps its expectations naïve. They would roar like that again only well into the second quarter, when Abdul Salaam sacked Dolphins quarterback David Woodley.
All the signs in the rafters were for the Sack Exchange. The New York Jets finally had a nickname, this for their pass rush. The front four of Lyons, Salaam, Klecko and Gastineau. Thugs. They were fast, violent, angry men. Perfect for New York in the age of subway shootings and stickups.
I remember how angry Richard Todd was when he was hit late out of bounds; he had to be held back from fighting with the Miami defense after the play. He was already injured with a broken rib, and perhaps he felt that the Dolphins had aimed for his rib cage in the hit. Earlier in the year, Todd had punched out a New York Post reporter. He had grown weary of how often he had been contrasted with the savvier, cooler Namath. Though drafted from Alabama like Namath, he was not a passing quarterback there, but a running one. He played with less confidence, though no less courageously in pain. Still, he had not made fans feel the same self-confidence that Namath instilled, even in defeat. He was mercurial and introverted, aware of this, and it appeared to bother him.
I grasped every part of that. A football fan usually watches the action develop in the middle of the line or downfield, but I liked also to watch what the quarterback would do after he threw or handed off. Todd’s offense failed on offensive drives in the first and second quarter and reacted with arms flapping in frustration, making dramatic gestures when things didn’t go his way.
Throughout the game, Uncle Mike did not act like the kind of adult who was an aspiring parent, the way I assumed all adults were. He would often look at me in childish amazement at plays the Jets ran well in the first half, like when Gastineau sacked David Woodley and danced raucously around the field in celebration. “Did you see that?”
It was Gastineau’s trademark. Uncle Mike smiled at me like I was just another guy in the Loge. And I wanted to be a Guy Uncle Mike Hung Around With in Bars on Weeknights. I loved the idea of that. At the half, the Jets had failed to do better than a pair of field goals and trailed 12-6.
A high school band played “Hooked on a Feeling,” complete with its bizarre opening. I mentioned that Todd’s injury was starting to show. His answer was classic Uncle Mike. He paused, dramatically.
“How much Shakespeare have you read?” There was a lilt, almost a slur to his voice. It occurred to me at this moment that he might have been drunk, but it was still too early for that. I remember him having conversations with people at family parties about the Shakespeare Folios.
I remember Henry Winkler having a Shakespeare special on ABC several years before – the Fonz and the Bard. This is what I knew of Shakespeare. Bugs Bunny playing Juliet to Elmer Fudd’s Romeo. My uncomprehending look was sufficient for Uncle Mike.
“You should read Henry the Fifth. It’s a wonderful play, Marty.” I nodded at this. He continued. “Henry’s the king. He’s young, and he’s just been put in charge after his father died. His father made himself king after overthrowing the king before him. Kind of like the mafia.” Again the little man in front of us turned around, but this time revealed a smile of appreciation.
Uncle Mike looked at me meaningfully and lit another cigarette, exhaling with a flourish. It had gotten colder with the night. I noticed his hair was thinning and graying; he had small brown patches on his forehead. “He’s going into battle against the French. He’s outnumbered ten to one. And the night before,” he paused, “Henry prays that God will not punish him or his soldiers for his father overthrowing the old king. You understand?”
“Not to punish Henry for his father’s sins, you see - even though he knows that the English can’t win, outnumbered as they are. So you know what he does?”
I shook my head.
Uncle Mike smiled and inhaled. The smoke peppered out of his mouth with his words. “He gets up and gives a speech to his troops the morning of the battle. It’s called the St. Crispian’s Day speech. Instead of telling them they’re outnumbered, he tells them they can’t lose. So what happens?”
The little man in front of us turned around again and said with the hint of a smile. “A bird craps on his head.”
I was 12. I couldn’t control my laughter. But Uncle Mike laughed, too. “No, you asshole,” he said, slightly pushing the little man. He turns to me. “He gives them the halftime speech. That’s what’s going to get them through the rest of the game. Henry tells them they won’t lose; that they’ll remember this day for the rest of their lives.” His eyes lit up. “And they win. Damned if they don’t win every time I read it.” He nodded. “You never know, Marty. Words can do powerful things.”
Again, the man turned round for the last time. “Unless you’re a Jets fan.”
The listless Jets did nothing in the second half, and it seemed Uncle Mike’s lesson was purely for aesthetics. The self-effacing man in your head, or literally in front of you, was right every time. You can come close, but it’ll never fucking happen. The Jets managed only another field goal going into the fourth quarter. The game ground down to that hypnotic state that defensively played games often will where the sense of who has possession suddenly seems unclear. Even Uncle Mike said, “Boring football,” shaking his head, his own power for inspiring metaphor gone. “The usual.”
But the Jets stopped a late Miami drive short of a touchdown, and the Dolphins managed only a field goal with a little over a minute remaining. Without even so much as a moment to take in the end of the game, Richard Todd was suddenly now throwing effectively downfield. He found Wesley Walker, then a pair of running backs. I felt myself beginning to nervously hop up and down, just as I would do at home in front of the TV. The crowd became aware, as fans of losing teams so often do, of both the potential for heartbreak and also the imaginative possibility of winning, even if it had seemed so remote all day. The Jets were only down by 6.
With 40 seconds left, Todd threw an incomplete pass for Lam Jones in the corner of the end zone that had sent me on the tips of my toes, shrieking, as if I were watching somebody fall from a building. The crowd looked around at one another, as if to say, Is this really happening? Are we blowing the game again? Winning? What the fuck? Many were pale between pain and joy. The incompletion to Jones stopped the clock. Then, with a break from the huddle and an instant snap of the ball from the line, another pass play. I could feel every person’s body around me tighten up, ready for the impending trauma.
In a last try for a touchdown pass, there is a second’s suspense between snapping the ball and throwing it where on TV one can only see the quarterback and our unknowing sense of where he is looking becomes fraught with terror. But in person, one can see the streaming players piling into the end zone and have a good idea where the quarterback is looking. Todd must have known Derrick Gaffney was there in the corner and that Walker was split right of him. But he threw the ball into the center of the end zone between two defenders, where Jerome Barkum caught his pass for a touchdown. A great pass from an injured player and a great catch.
* * * *
My voice left my body at the same time as everyone else’s. It was Dad’s sound from years back, when I first became enchanted by the idea of being a fan. But here at Shea, it was now magnified by the self-same voices of 55,000 other human beings - the sound of men and women instantly, simultaneously saying the word YES! As ringing an affirmative as any human on Earth might hear - a chemical release of 12 years’ frustration. If I had rooted for the Jets through last place, how many more years did this single moment of joy buy me?
The crowd was wild, its sound twirled into a howl of monstrous joy. At last - the possibility of a playoff spot after 12 years of struggle. The Jets jumped for joy on the sideline. Around me, Uncle Mike, the off-duty cops and assorted other kindred Jets souls were grabbing at one another, toppling over one another in full roar, in the combined states of inebriation and euphoria. Grown men fell on and over me again and again. I turned around and saw one man holding another one. This one touchdown was probably the only thing that could have inspired these two grizzlies to behave tenderly toward anyone. I noticed that the taller man had tears in his eyes as he kept shouting into the empty night, while the other had fallen to his knees, gripping his friend around the stomach, leaning his tear-stained head in emotional exhaustion. He was not so much lost in the moment as he was just enervated.
I was hyperventilating. Uncle Mike shoved me with an assertive vindication that Hal must also have felt on the battlefield of Agincourt. It was a collective melee, a bacchae, a Dionysian moment, and though I can honestly say the game is so branded in my memory because the Jets were now in first place, I also realized that I had been given an opportunity to witness the lingering presence of innocence among grown men. To a nearly pubescent boy, this was quite a thing to see.
Leahy made the point after. Jets 16-15. Final. Tied for first place.