Monday, February 18, 2008

New York Jets By The Numbers: # 13 - Don Maynard

Don Maynard's #13 is one of three numbers that have been retired by the New York Jets organization. He is, without question, one of the very best receivers in the history of football. In that way, he is that rare thing for the Jets - a player who is a legend in the NFL and not just on his team. With maybe the exception of Joe Klecko or Curtis Martin, Maynard is one of the few players on the New York Jets who is a legend for his consistently excellent performance and not just for his eccentricity or charisma. Until the 1980's, at least a decade after they retired, he and Charley Taylor were still the top rated receivers in NFL history.

He was always my Mom's favorite Jet because he played without shirtsleeves, something she nevertheless discouraged in me when I went outside and pretended to be Don Maynard. In the old footage, one sees this strange picture of a weedy man in shirtsleeves, long legs and white shoes, scampering the sidelines or running the post for a Namath pass. His face always made him look a little older than he was, and I always felt he resembled one of the more haggard, nearly forgotten persons in a Walker Evans photograph, looking with caution into the distant horizon, hoping for a better day.

Even as a boy, Dad told me about the mythical 75 yard Namath pass Maynard caught against the Raiders in the 1968 AFL Championship. Dad was there, after all. I suppose everything that makes Maynard great can be encapsulated in that one catch. The point Dad made about Maynard is that he could catch passes that he couldn't really see, as if he could feel where they were before he caught sight of them. I believe that's supposed to be called "spatial intelligence." Don Maynard had it. I read about the catch in the Punt, Pass and Kick books from my childhood, and they described how Maynard twisted his body around to the other side after seeing that the pass was not to his left. So he maneuvered around as best he could to catch it over his right shoulder. Many people rightly believe it was one of the best catches you'll ever see, and I rewind it on my NFL Films recap of the game, imagining how my Dad must have felt when he saw it.

Had it happened in the present era, his catch would have been challenged. It came late in the game and eventually set the Jets up for a clinching touchdown that was caught by, yes, Don Maynard. Had Raiders coach John Rauch the power to do so, he would certainly have thrown the red flag. Maynard makes the catch, comes down with the ball but then drops it once he's down. Also, the hash, end zone and sideline markers are so obscured by the horrifically scarred Shea Stadium turf that it is not entirely clear at first whether Maynard came down with possession of the ball in bounds. However, cognizant of the fact that history protects all officially made decisions, I can still attest that after watching it again and again, rewinding it like a good NFL official in a warm box above the field, the pass is clearly caught in bounds with both feet in place and that, remarkably, Maynard maintains possession. The catch holds up.

Three things for #13: If you see Maynard interviewed about the 1968 season on America's Game, he still gets choked up. Secondly, on the Jets' history DVD, Maynard insists that George Sauer, not he, was the better receiver of the two. Finally, when the Jets were wallowing in the misery of a second moribund season under Ritchie Kotite 1996, Don Maynard announced that we would gladly volunteer to coach the Jets although he had absolutely no coaching experience. Pride, humility, and guileless delusion. This skinny, wiry, slightly goofy Texan is, in my books, still one of my favorite football players on any team anywhere, period.

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