A moment of silence, if you please. This is difficult.
Fine. I'm ready.
Looking back on it now, it’s clear that the Jets' fate was sealed even before the game got started, when Pat Ryan pulled a groin muscle in warm-ups. He would re-injure it during the first half and would be replaced by Ken O'Brien, whose career had already begun its decline midseason after the fabled 10-1 start. Pat Ryan was forced to leave the game after throwing a thrilling 57-yard flea flicker to Wesley Walker that he threaded beautifully between Cleveland defenders. Jets 7 Browns 0.
Then O'Brien went a respectable 11 for 19 in relief of Ryan, but he couldn't quite convert on an absolutely critical third down quarterback sneak (a Pat Ryan specialty, I might add) on the Jets' very last drive of regulation time. Both teams played poorly throughout the game. Cleveland coach Marty Shottenheimer referred to it as "one of the finest games in the history of the sport," but we Jets fans knew better afterwards. The honest loser always sees the reality of the opportunities missed, and in truth the Browns played like shit most of the day as well, and it was simply we who made the most crucial mistakes at the most inopportune moments.
For example, the following can be recited from memory by many Jet fans: Jets 20 Browns 10. 4:14 remaining. Second and 24. Browns on their own 18. Late hit by Gastineau. Fifteen yard penalty. First down Cleveland.
Can you pin a collapse to a single instant? History provides so few moments, even if we study its snapshots. You can say World War I started because the Archduke Ferdinand was gunned down, but its causes are in its near and distant past as well. You can't just say that the Vietnam War would have been prevented if Kennedy had not been killed in Dallas. Would Dr. King have made people more aware of poverty in rural and urban America had he lived? How about an America without Nixon and Watergate because Robert Kennedy was elected President? What large, unwieldy conclusions have we developed to try and understand September 11? Historians know that our past is much more complex than we'd like it to be and that a single moment cannot provide anything more than a comforting, rationalizing antidote to history’s insanity.
However, let's be less globally significant. I would add that with its short seasons, football provides many such single instances, and that a single moment on January 3, 1987 changed everything for Jets fans. Freeman McNeil had run 25 yards for a seemingly consensus-rendering touchdown, making it 20-10 Jets over the Browns with 4:14 to go in the game. We were now so close. It had been a war between two vacillating forces until McNeil manfully took the reigns. We could breathe a sigh of relief for that single instant, yes indeed.
Encouraged by this, the Jets defense then held the Browns back on their next drive. With time ticking away, the Browns approached a crucial second down with 24 yards to go for a first down.
Concentrate. Concentrate. Don’t blow the lead. Please. Not again. I stretched my whole body out prostrate before the television. I had already chewed off the vestiges of my nails and now began at the cuticles and the raw skin. My mother came into the den and caught notice of this. I had been biting my nails for years, and of all of my many tics and my compulsive behaviors, it was my chronic, feverish nail biting that seemed to enrage Mom most. She told me that I wouldn’t be hired for a job someday because no one hires nail biters, but her claim backfired on me because my growing sense of justice told me that people who were obsessive-compulsive should not have been discriminated against any more than minorities, women and homosexuals.
Nail biters were treated unjustly, I concluded. She pointed out my hands to me in front of the game and reminded me of a bargain we had made when I was 12 that she would buy me a copy of Pink Floyd's The Final Cut if I swore off nail biting for a month. I went back to biting my nails after I got the album. It was clearly inferior to The Wall. I ignored her. It was Browns' ball, second and 24.
Quarterback Bernie Kosar threw an incomplete pass from his own 18. Yet, even before the camera zoomed to the endpoint of the play, I knew that something was terribly wrong. As they fell out of the frame, I saw Mark Gastineau apply a late hit on Kosar. I didn't see the penalty flag fall, and I made myself somehow believe that it was all going to be okay and that the hit was clean. It clearly was not. Gastineau pleaded his case to the officials as they awarded a first down at their own 33 to Cleveland.
From there, Kosar never looked back. The drive then continued until Cleveland's Kevin Mack made it 20-17 Jets. When O'Brien fouled up that crucial quarterback sneak on the Jets' next drive, the demoralized Jets defense then gave up the tying field goal to the Browns. 20-20.
Beyond that, I can offer no recollection, and perhaps it’s just as well. I literally cannot – or will not. Upon a visit to the 2001 preseason camp at Hofstra, I found a number of Jet fans that couldn’t talk about the 1986 AFC Divisional Playoff against Cleveland and would wave a hand as if to say, Please. I remember. I've never recovered. Simply put, the Jets fan marks history before and after that match up as two entirely different epochs.
At the expiration of the regular time, the two teams went into one overtime, and then another. More than two minutes into the sixth period, Mark Moseley won the game 23-20 for Cleveland with a 27-yard field goal. Apparently, Moseley had missed an earlier attempt in the first overtime, yet I remember nothing of the post-regulation time. It is repressed trauma. I suppose we all knew - from Flushing to Bayside, from Islip to Matawan - that it was inevitable that the Browns would win. We knew what we were looking at now that it threw off its disguise. Jets fans had come to know the teasing work of Fate so plainly now that the overtimes were merely perfunctory. Nothing could have saved us.
The collapse was so complete, so total that when it ended, Doug did not call (just as he had promised) but instead came to my house to offer solace. The absurdity of the Jets' losing on Gastineau's penalty made him want to reach beyond the barriers that separated us to touch an Untouchable with compassion. His eyes welled with tears.
“I don't know what to say,” he said. “I don't know what to say.”
In the present day, when I catch a student in my classroom or in the hall ways doing something so obviously wrong that he cannot explain it away, he nevertheless tries making several divergent, contradictory excuses at once in the hope that I will believe one of them. I didn’t do it. I didn’t mean to do it. Teenagers are generally used to being interrogated and yet are not equipped with the skills of escaping interrogation without being accused. Those conflicting explanations are usually the tip-off that he is guilty.
Quote Gastineau at game's end, trying to claim his penalty was not a late hit: “I couldn't stop," implying that he could not stop the momentum of his hit on Kosar. Then: “I’ve done that lots of times without being called."
It would be another five seasons before the Jets would be in the playoffs again.