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Sunday, April 27, 2008

NY Jets #20 - Part 1

Number 20 has sixteen entries. For the sake of sanity, I cannot possibly mention something brilliant, pithy, erudite, droll, witty, and prescient about them all. I have limits, and the number 20 has shown me how deep mine go. I will try, though. I will try.

First, let's begin with Leon Washington's precursor, Richie Anderson, who delighted us in #20. In truth, Richie was wildly versatile and likable, although occasionally susceptible to fumbles. He had more receptions than Wayne Chrebet in 2000, and spent ten seasons with the Jets, which is saying something, considering he endured seasons with Coslet, Kotite, Parcells, Groh, and Edwards. He is one of those fellows that Parcells himself pulled from team to team. However, a recent job as receivers coach with the Arizona Cardinals ended when he was caught soliciting a prostitute, a criminal violation to which football players seem particularly susceptible.

Michael Bates was #81 and #82 with Seattle, Cleveland, Carolina, the Redskins and the Cowboys, but when he came to the New York Jets he became #20 for one (his last) season. It could happen to anybody. But neither you nor I was selected to the NFL's All-1990's team, and Michael Bates was. I don't mean to offend you. Don't be sad. He also won the bronze in the 200 metres in Barcelona in 1992. Now I know that didn't happen to you. How do I know? I know because I was sitting in a horrible apartment, paying more than I was originally assigned for campus housing in graduate school, wondering what in hell I was doing in North Philadelphia, sharing space with a morbidly depressed roommate who punched holes in the walls of our place every time there was a wrong number, all the while ignoring the scurrying rodents and roaches by watching - God help me - the Summer Olympics. I remember. Now why can't I forget?

With an excellent afro and, later, a juicy fu manchu, Delles Howell played cornerback in #20 for the Jets from 1973 to 1975. Delles Howell was a part of a famous trade that brought Richard Neal to the Jets in lieu of several key draft prospects. This did not prove to be a good idea; however, as the Jets' yearbook pointed out, he was certainly one of the tallest cornerbacks of his time at six foot two.

The Jets' All-Time Roster lists Don Herndon as the first #20 in the organization's history. Nothing beside remains, except for the fact that he played in only one season for the Titans (somebody had to be a halfback) and he was originally drafted by the Giants. That was his career. Damn.
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"Leander" is one of the lovers in Midsummer Night's Dream, and Leander Knight played 13 games in 1989 for the Jets at cornerback in #20. He wins the Booth Lustig Award for Funny Name, but is it fair to call someone's name funny just because it doesn't sound like a football name? You're free to disagree as you please.

Obviously we are mostly in the secondary with #20. Does the constant grind of the game ever get to these guys? A few punt returns, some kickoffs, one interception in one year. Three interceptions the next, maybe. Then, no more. Other than that, there is the constant repetition of coverage, play after play, where the ball doesn't even really get thrown in your direction. You constantly feel out of the play's control. You're not a mind reader. Davlin Mullen played four seasons in the NFL, all in #20 with the Jets, drafted as he was in the fateful year of 1983, finishing his career in 1986. He had three interceptions - his season-high - in 1985.

There are very few things that I knew by the time I was a third grader on Long Island, but it's interesting to think about the range of my limited knowledge. I knew that the statue of Christ outside our local church signaled a touchdown, I knew that Richard Nixon ate cereal without milk (or so my mother said), and I knew that Steve O'Neal held the record for the longest punt in NFL history at 98 yards. He played from 1969-73 at punter for the Jets and wore #20.

This record still stands. It happened in 1969, and one wonders if it will ever be broken. In the thin air of Denver's Mile High, on the same day that the Denver front line reduced Joe Namath to a quivering mass in a 21-19 loss, Steve O'Neal's punt was estimated to have gone at least 70 yards through the air and then took an endless Jet bounce, culminating in a slow roll. A generous bounce is a nice surprise but not that extraordinary of an event on a punt, so the kick itself must have beyond category. There are no films of the event, no remaining evidence other than the awe that Denver's returner Billy Thompsen says he felt when he saw it sail way, way over his head and eventually stop at Denver's own 1. To this date, no one knows where Steve O'Neal actually is, if in fact he still is. One senses that if a record-holder does not even try to cash in on his moment of glory, then he must not have come to a good end. I dunno. Via cum dios, Steve O'Neal.

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