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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

NY Jets #16

I realized that this is going to get a lot harder as the numbers go up. The lower the number in football, the less likely that a player has worn it. I think. Or maybe it's just that football has more numbers for a greater number of players. I don't know. That's Math. So, to 16:

Though he set the record for touchdowns at Montclair State, Walter Briggs made only one appearance in relief of David Norrie at quarterback for the Jets, going 0-2 in an unspecified 1987 game. If neither of those names sound familiar to a Jets fan it's because Mr. Norrie and #16 Walter Briggs were replacement players during that season's strike. Scabs, basically. Of course, the replacement Jets played about as well as the regular season Jets, which was pretty poorly.

Mark Malone had a good career as a sometimes backup, sometimes starter, mostly for Pittsburgh. The 1985 Pittsburgh playoff victory at Denver is one of his big moments. Four years later, clearly on his way out, #16 Mark Malone played one game for the Jets on Oct. 22, 1989 at Buffalo where he went 2-2 for 13 yards. There he ended his career (how many quarterbacks finished their careers with us?) He was an ESPN reporter for several years, and is now broadcasting in Chicago. No doubt he often hears of how his moustache makes him look like the Brawny paper towel guy. I always like to think that sports figures of a certain generation are allowed to wear a moustache without fear of reprisal - athletes and relatively young coaches of the late 1980's: Dave Wannstedt, Bill Cowher, Mark Malone. A free pass is granted.

Brad Smith is the current holder of the #16 on the Jets, and he is depicted here playing quarterback in an exhibition game, but his life has been a lot more exciting because of some kind of "wild cat" whose attack is predictable, yet always surprising, and Smith is always there when this cat attacks. Initially, I thought, well, another Ray Lucas. But Brad Smith is no backup (neither is Kellen Clemens) and when we needed him at year's end, he created a single-game menagerie of joy and fun against the Cincinnati Bengals. Both runs came before the end of the first half. But I urge you to also consider Smith's courageous response to Patrick Willis' hit in a loss to the 49ers last year. Brad pops up like a whacked mole, only to be persuaded by what looks like the entire team to take a breather. There's a little Brad Smith in all of us, waiting to emerge and break through the front line of an overrated defense - waiting to surprise people who underestimate you at their peril.

But tonight we're here to talk about the most important #16 in New York Jets history, Vinny Testaverde. When I was a kid, rooting for Penn State against Vinny's University of Miami in the 1987 Orange Bowl, I confess that I thought Vinny haughty with his Heisman and all. Turns out that this did not at all describe the unlikely man who would someday quarterback his equally unlikely Jets team into a conference championship game in January 1999. In the end, Vinny was all heart, and though he may have been plagued by interceptions and Sam Wyche early in his career, Vinny was an intelligent, beloved quarterback in that wonderful 1998 season. His QB sneak touchdown against Seattle that year was not actually a touchdown, and it may have permanently re-inaugurated the replay era, but it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. He was that rare Jets thing - the right guy in the right place at the right time.

Then it all came crashing down when he snapped his Achilles' tendon against New England in the '99 opener. My heart broke for him as much as it did for the Jets because although he had a journeyman's career starting out in the Brucie Buccaneer outfit, Vinny is a Jet in spirit (even if he was a distant backup for New England this past year). All through his seemingly endless career, he has never won a Super Bowl ring. Vinny is so important to us that, amid all the joy that was the last Super Bowl, even I felt the smallest twinge of sadness over that sad truth. It passed.

I'm just grateful that his greatest hour was still yet to come after the '99 season, in the Monday Night Miracle at home against the Dolphins in 2000. At halftime, the score read 31-3 Miami, and I WENT TO BED. My wife didn't even tell me the results until I heard them on the radio the next morning as I was getting ready to go to work. We weren't married yet but were living together rather uneasily. I wasn't really sure where it was all going. When I heard the score - 40-37 Jets, she launched into a pillow attack on my head. She had stayed up and watched it just so she could tell me about it. She had been so excited about my hearing the score she could barely restrain herself.

"Why the hell didn't you wake me?" I asked, aghast.

She looked at me, incredulous. "Why should I have? You gave up on them. What kind of fan are you? I didn't give up!"

No, she didn't, and neither did you, Vinny. I knew that I needed to marry this woman, and I owe it all to you. Thank you.

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