Sunday, February 10, 2008

NY Jets #12 - Part 2

Dad also promised he would take me to the Sunday game in November against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and I was holding him to it, even if I no longer harbored any actual hope of seeing them win. The only lingering interest he still had was probably for my benefit. He had been traveling on business a great deal of late, and his absences were creating anxiety for Mom, for she was now the one parent in charge.

Other women in the neighborhood would sometimes try to encourage Mom to try craft making, to join the PTA, or be a den mother. What she really wanted was an occasional respite to go shopping in the city. She couldn’t do it if Dad would return from business trips and then to go to Shea on Sundays with me or Uncle Mike, leaving her alone again to play Mommy. Things had to change. So just before the Buccaneers game, Dad felt torn. We came home from Mass, and while I was prepared to go almost immediately to the game, he suddenly told me that we needed to rake the leaves in the backyard.

I froze. He was kidding. He was kidding, right? It was noon, and kickoff would be in an hour. I looked at him. He didn’t entertain the gesture but simply handed me a rake, and to the backyard we went and got solemnly started. He went about it with an eerie calm, as if he knew something that I didn’t. I became worried. What follows is quite clear in my memory:

“Does this mean we aren’t going?” I asked.
“No, no. Not unless you don’t want to go,” he answered, suspiciously.
I looked at him.
“Dad, there’s a game today, right?”
“Yeah. Tampa Bay.”
“At Shea?”
“At one o’clock?”
“What the hell is this, twenty questions?" he asked with uncharacteristic impatience.

Then, he adjusted his tone a little. "Yes. Now rake that side.”

He motioned toward the other side of the oak tree in our yard. He had already filled one lawn bag which he casually left open, and began unfurling another. “Hold this one open,” he said. Precious moments were ticking by. What was going on? I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Dad we have to go.”
“We have to do this first.”
“Why didn’t we do it yesterday?”

He looked at me, and in that instant I saw something, a withering look, one I would only understand myself much later in life as a husband with chores to do.

We kept bagging and raking; in the process, he actually turned on the transistor radio, with Marty Glickman doing the one-hour pre-game show on WOR. Dad seemed almost to be teasing me now, to be illustrating the time wasting away. This is a test, I thought. Either that or some kind of joke, and perhaps Joe Namath was around the corner of the house ready to throw the football around the way he did with Bobby on The Brady Bunch.

Then it hit me.

He was testing me, but not so much to discover the depth of my loyalty to the Jets, but to see if he had a kindred spirit. For the first time, I realized it. I knew what was going on here. He was leaving the Jets behind. He didn’t want to go to the game.

Holy shit.

We were raking leaves because he knew he should have done them the day before, because he now possessed a guilty sense of abandoning his wife to a mundane world, and because he wanted to see if I’d tell him to forget about the game. That’s okay, Dad. There are lots of enjoyable things a father and son can do together instead of another Jets game.

But no way. It wasn’t even a question. I helped clean the yard but then stared apprehensively at him when it was all done. He knew my answer. It was hopeless.

“I’ll get our coats,” he said, looking dejected.

“The wind will be bad. It might rain,” he added.

“I don’t care.” I didn’t.

It didn't rain. Actually, the game against the Buccaneers took place on a sometimes sunny afternoon. It would be Namath’s last victory in a New York Jets uniform. His poor play all year had been the product of countless knee injuries, a failing arm, bad protection in the pocket, inferior coaching, and the latent effects of an irresistible man’s colorful life. Tampa Bay was an expansion team that year, going 0-11 into the game. The Jets would shut them out 34-0, scoring 21 by halftime and 13 in the second half. For once, Namath seemed perfect; his passes still arched oddly in the wind, and he couldn’t scramble out of trouble any better than before, but he managed to look like a winning quarterback for one more day. Clark Gaines went over 100 yards, too. And it was beautiful.

The crowd went mad. Men like Dad had howled for and at Joe Namath for 12 seasons, and they were now howling appreciatively one very last time before letting the idol of their fantasies go. After all, Jets fans were not Namath's metropolitan playboy. He was an envied bachelor who got a great deal of action, while they were working class stiffs from Queens, Jersey and the Island.

Namath was Dad’s friend and he was their friend, too. By mere proximity, he had given them the weekly illusion that they were as hip as he, and in return they wanted Joe Willie to fade gracefully away into history. This is what fans and players do for one another; each provides the other with an illusion, and I daresay that with the exception of players’ salaries, it is the fan who eventually receives the better end of the deal. The fan is as close as he can be to someone else’s victory, with no expectation other than to be near it. John Riggins may have shown me that money mattered above all things when he left the team, but I suppose that when a player's salary runs out and the career is over, he then has to rely on the fans’ collective memories in order to move on, or perhaps profit from the past. Even still, no amount of money made at celebrity appearances or at memorabilia signings can bring back the authenticity of the player’s first-hand experiences, which is probably why at such events the player and the fan finally come face to face.They are finally at common ground.

And so this was Joe’s last winning experience on the field of his beloved city. Even at the age of seven, I knew that this was a poignant moment, and as the time ticked away, I began to cry. Dad looked at me. “Jesus Christ, Marty,” he said, hopeless, “they’re winning. What the hell is wrong with you?” The cops heard him and surreptitiously looked round, only to have my father quickly use their own line on them:

“Nothing to see here,” he said.

“I know,” I said, sniffling in response to his incredulity. “It’s just…” I grasped at superlatives, “…beautiful.” I felt transcendent. The player’s greatest gift to the fan was given to me at last.

And, if nothing else, the Buccaneers game finally made me believe the Jets could win when I was there. The Marty schneid was over, at least for now. We counted down the seconds, I tallied up the statistics for Clark Gaines, and as we left, I begged Dad to put off his impending divorce from the Jets. I asked him to take me to the next home game against first-place New England; he said yes. There was no We’ll see. He smiled.

But it wouldn’t last. The following week, despite going ahead by 10 against New England in the first quarter, the Jets returned to normal, coughing the ball over to a vastly superior Patriots team, missing tackles, and with Namath returning to form throwing key interceptions. The final, 38-27, seemed significant to me because the Jets had scored a whole 27 points against a first place club, but on the cold platform of the number 7 line, Dad dismissed this facile observation. Despite my protests, he angrily insisted on leaving the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter. There was no persuading him otherwise. My identification with the Jets as noble failures was no longer charming to him, and as we waited for our train, I sensed that this would be my last home game for a long, long time.

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