For most of us, Joe Namath is someone about whom we read in middle school biographies and who never quite leaves the fields of our imagination. For Ray Abruzzese, Namath was a friend - a real, flesh and blood person. Abruzzese was in the right place at the right time. Born in South Philadelphia, he then went - of all places - to the University of Alabama, where, two years into his playing for Coach Bryant, he met the profoundly slick freshman quarterback from Beaver Falls, the future of football, the man who would revolutionize sports culture. From there, he hitched his wagon to Broadway's star. How could he resist? Ask yourself - if you had been a South Philly kid, growing up seeing that for every gangster there was always a retinue of fifty, wouldn't you do the math and assume that your future was to be in a bigger man's entourage?
After a couple of unsuccessful seasons in Buffalo as a pro, Abruzzese was brought over by Sonny Werblin to play in #25 for the New York Jets from 1965-66. (photo from New York Jets All-Time Roster) He is described in the Jets' 1966 Yearbook as a "tough tackler" at defensive back, but he was actually hired by the Jets to play more specific roles for Joe Namath - as familiar Crimson Tide face, as hanger-on, close friend, and self-professed bonus babysitter. Later, after Abruzzese was cut from the team, he became a business associate in Bachelors III and in whatever else those crazy boys were up to. In his Namath, Mark Kriegal suggests that Abruzzese was there for all the phases of Namath's rise and plateauing, sort of like Joe Pesci's Joey LaMotta in Raging Bull. According to script, though, the star eventually rejects the loyal brother-figure who has befriended and helped him. According to Kriegal, Namath rejected Abruzzese for various reasons and never reconnected, and he suggests that this is simply Joe Willie's way. We know Jake Gyllenhaal will play Namath in the biopic, but who will play Ray Abruzzese?
OK, before we go any further, while we're on the topic of the film, I just cannot possibly resist including this link. You know how you're at a cocktail party, and somebody's talking to guests with dead-eyed seriousness, talking louder by the moment, becoming increasingly impolite, inappropriate and downright menacing? Well...he's just acting! It's humor! Wow, Christ, I mean - what talent, huh? Even still, people start to move away toward the CD collection or pretend to look at the books on the living room shelf. This guy suggests (tongue and cheek? I think?) that Joe Namath sounded like a "retarded black guy." Wow! Did he really say that!? Gosh, isn't he shocking! Ah hell, who cares. This guy's Joe Namath sounds a lot like a really retarded stereotype of a normal black person. That kind of humor did work for Andy Kaufmann, I guess. (I guess)
Remember Ed Bell? Well, now we're talking about a different Ed Bell. Actually, he is Ed Bell prototype 1. He is the first #25 in the history of the Jets organization, which also means he was the first Titan to wear the number. He was a pioneer, the AFL's very own version of a Mercury astronaut, yet the New York Jets' All-Time Database says that this Bell had two interceptions in his only season with the Titans. It's not much, I realize. But Ed Bell's story goes further back for us. A link from Virginia Tech suggests that defensive back Ed Bell rubbed it in the face of Jim Crow's ambassadors when he played at University of Pennsylvania. (photo from New York Jets All-Time Database) Though they refused to play visiting black players in Dixie, institutionally racist schools like Georgia had to play against African-American players like Ed Bell when they traveled north to play urban schools, specifically Bell's Penn team in 1952 at Philly's Franklin Field. Such was the age when athletes by virtue of simply walking onto a field and being themselves became something unexpected and transcendent.
Number 25 Scott Dierking was a five foot ten running back, an unusual height for a running back unless you consider #42 Bruce Harper at the more extraordinary 5'8". (Does anyone remember the Jets' backfield in 1979 being called the "No Name Running Game?" I thought not.) Whether in how tall he was, how short he was, or in how many yards he gained year by year, Scott Dierking was always second or third in distinction. Dierking's best season was the injury-ridden year of 1980 when he was the team's leading rusher and had six TD's, but QB Richard Todd was also the fourth best rusher that year, so that'll give you some idea of what following them was like that season. They were supposed to go to the Super Bowl; they went 4-12. Like so many important Jets of that era, Scott Dierking arrived as a rookie with the Jets in 1977 and stayed until the Jets had exhausted their potential for the playoffs in 1982. By the standards of a young Jets fan's experience, there was no more exciting time to be alive than those years. Despite my own present-day capacity for nauseous, self-induced anxiety and terror, I will never feel as intensely crazed and terrified with anticipation as I was on the Sundays of those years. I sat on that furnace-brown rug we had in the living room, in front of a Jets game, waiting for them to live up to their reputation and potential, waiting for my life to change. Waiting.