Friday, August 3, 2007

Epilogue to the 1981 NY Jets Season

As the curtain closes on Henry V, Henry marries the beautiful French Princess Katherine. Yet the Chorus reminds us that this story is exceptional. Henry was a great conqueror in 1415, but his larger victory was doomed to fail. As soon as he died, not long after Agincourt, England began losing again; Henry’s frail son after him eventually lost all of France to its rightful owners. Shakespeare’s audience went home from the play saying, Oh, yeah. Right. Right. I forgot. We lost the Hundred Years’ War.

It’s a self-conscious sentimentality that many English now carry with them in their remaining obsession. Though once the sun never set on the British Empire, to hear it from them the last real triumph that mattered was in 1966 when England won the World Cup. That’s their Agincourt, their Arthurian story, too - once there was a brief shining moment, and since then, nothing.

The 1981 Jets finished 10-5-1 and were in the playoffs with a Wild Card. So did Miami, which meant that the Dolphins won the division. Again, had Leahy made his overtime field goal attempt in Miami earlier in the year... Oh, never mind. The point was the Jets were still in the playoffs for the first time since 1969. Here the Chorus tells us the rest. They played Buffalo at home in the AFC Wild Card game, my first great playoff nightmare.

In the muck and rain of Shea Stadium, the Jets played incompetently in the first half and trailed Buffalo 24-0 at halftime. But damned if the Jets did not suddenly come back in the second half. I had promised Dad not to get upset as we watched the game, but the polarized quality of the game was too much. The Times would later refer to it as one of the best playoff games in memory, but it was agonizing to me. Down 31-27, with under a minute to play, Richard Todd drove the Jets downfield, hitting all of his receivers - Walker, Lam Jones, Derrick Gaffney.

I loved the Jets, had nurtured that love beyond normal expectations, and now they were finally returning the favor. I loved them beyond measure, beyond reason. I had been infected by a higher expectation that accompanies even the slightest rise in winning.
Within the ten-yard line, Todd dropped back and threw into the end zone, hoping to find Derrick Gaffney down the middle. Instead found Buffalo's Bill Simpson. His interception was played over and over in instant replay until it became a flashbulb image, engendering horror and dread in my consciousness.

My sense of disappointment stayed with me that night, filled with dark shades of gloom that lingered well into dinnertime, then throughout the week and into the rest of the winter. It was depression, pure and simple, exacerbated by heartbreak. That evening of the loss, my parents grimaced at their misfortune, for they knew they would have to live with this unsmiling moribund throughout the off-season.

“Marty, Richard Todd doesn't care as much as you do,” Dad said. In March, when he asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I replied a division championship.


Anonymous said...

1981 was the first year I followed the Jets. 16 years old and impressed by Todd and company. I too was heartbroken by that playoff loss to the Bills. Here I am, nearly 30 years later still rooting for them. I have to believe they are not the same old Jets. This is our lot as fans. Your blog stirs up some good memories. Good writing there. J-E-T-S!

Martin Roche said...

Thank you. Nineteen eighty-one totally changed the way I looked at the world. I was 12. Bill Simpson's interception basically turned me into the agnostic I am today in all respects, except for the Jets.