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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

No-Name Entry

Two great players have now retired from the game this first half of the year, and we are all the worse for wear as a result. No, not Derrick Blaylock. I don't think he's officially retired. I mean Brett Favre and Michael Strahan, the latter I will speak of as a ploy to begin talking about something having to do with the Jets. That's the way it works here. I will do the following: 1) speak very briefly in praise of the retiree in question 2) discuss the Jet whom I cannot think of independent of Michael Strahan 3) (I think you know where I'm going here) speak in promised praise of a front four defensive line and 4) air out favorite football nicknames. Begin.

Either because of his weird near-whine of a voice, the spacious gap between his teeth or its subsequently forming lisp, Michael Strahan is a somewhat humanizing figure in a predatory game. I had a lisp as boy that I kind of taught myself to get rid of by adolescence, but I might also have realized that how you carry it makes a difference, and Strahan's was, in a manner of speaking, attached to a sack machine. Even so, he remains a gentle Giant. The image I have of Strahan remains the television-friendly, "gap-toothed grid standout" who brays, "More meat!" at Subway's "Jared" ("Jarrett?"), a kind of descendant of another telegenic Giant, Rosey Grier.

How appropriate that these two exceptional figures of the game - one offense, one defense - finish the same year. Brett Favre was the willing victim of Strahan's twenty-second and one-half sack, the sack that surpassed Mark Gastineau's 1984 record of 22 sacks in a season, set in Gastineau's prime. I remember seeing Mark Gastineau on the sidelines of the game that day, and it was nice of the Giants to allow him to be there to acknowledge Strahan's moment, especially since he had become anathema to so many people by then - his family, the Players Association, Brigitte Nielsen, Jackie Slater.

Mark Gastineau did not play long enough to figure solidly inside the parameters of the world occupied by Strahan and Favre, and he certainly was never regarded enough of a good citizen within to compare with those two, either. Still, like Gastineau, Strahan was a prima donna at times, although less of a ghoul in doing so, and, like Gastineau, he has had his lion's share of troubles in divorce court. High profile athletes often do. I'm not so sure, however, that that Strahan's progeny will be tripping merrily along the idiot box without a shred of talent and without anything more than an aspiration toward a modeling career. Let's face it; Mark Gastineau has had a strange life. And as much as Strahan will be justly remembered for his great defensive play, he is the half that seemed to have just survived the grinding machine of NFL fame. Gastineau was the half not so lucky.

Or was he? Play along here. Take away the legal troubles, Brigitte Nielsen, the domestic violence, the falls his opponents were allegedly forced to take in his mercifully short boxing career, the drugs, the crossing of the NFL players' picket line in 1987, and you have a young a pioneer of the early-stage mullet who was drafted in 1979 as one of two shattering bookends on the Jets defensive line. The other was Marty Lyons. Together with Joe Klecko and Abdul Salaam (and later Kenny Neil), they became the foursome with (I argue) the best nickname in NFL history, the New York Sack Exchange.

For those who do not know of whom I speak, let me assure you that the New York Sack Exchange, the Jets defensive front four from (at their best) 1981-84 were never the debonair or ebullient kind of athlete that Joe Namath represented. In fact, they were the post-Namath kind of athlete. They were the kind of characters you find populating the background of a bar fight in a Burt Reynolds film from the Carter years. Actually Klecko was in a Cannonball Run movie. Once the door had been opened to any particular kind of personality in a uniform that claimed a commercial right to existence, God only knows what kind of company would be let through the door, and in this case it was a bunch of unlicensed truck drivers. Actually, Klecko was a licensed Teamster. Man, he did everything.

But a Sack Exchange? An exchange of sacks? Among men? Wha? How brilliant! When they visited the actual Stock Exchange way downtown in the early 1980's, trading was temporarily suspended. Imagine the consternation in Paris and Brussels while Messrs. Gastineau, Klecko, Salaam and Lyons stood atop the podium, hearing cries of "Let's Go Jets!" Weird but true. Qu'est qu'il y a la probleme? "Uh, the Jets are on the trading floor." Gicleurs ? Avions ? Vous ne laisseriez pas la terre de Concorde à New York, mais avez-vous laissé des gicleurs dans la bourse des valeurs ? "Uh, yeah."

They retain a folk status among fans around the hibachi in the Meadowlands lot (and probably Gate D) as a group of individual renegades, like a Magnificent Seven minus three, each with his unique persona. Lyons the cleanest of the cuts as the cuts went, Salaam even more reserved (for a period of time the Jets and the football public did not know where he was living in retirement), Klecko the workingman's bouncer, and Gastineau the troubled star of sorts, preening, gesticulating, and, above all dancing. To see a Gastineau Sack Dance was to watch one man's interpretation of the flurry of activity one sees in two house cats fighting. He seemed a blur of arms and a gyrating head, a man set on fire desperately dancing for his life. It was an offensive defense, showy, full of brass, more trouble than it could possibly be worth after a while, embodying the spirit of Wahoo McDaniel and all the aspects of show biz that the Jets were originally looking for way back in in the 1960's in order to fill the seats at Shea. But while the Jets were fashioning a public image as the team with an erratic Sack Exchange, the Giants in the 80's were fashioning a championship defense that even made the one Strahan took to Arizona for the Super Bowl last January seem paltry. I still like being a Jets fan better, although God only knows why it had to be that way.

Which brings me to my last point, about nicknames. While looking around, I saw to my disappointment football has yielded very few good nicknames. Here's a pretty weak example of what I'm talking about, but the point can be made elsewhere, too. The Sack Exchange is a great nickname for the way it honors the important economic landmark of New York, but it also clarifies the foursome in terms of their status in history. They single-handedly made the sack an event worth keeping track of such that Strahan had Gastineau's original number of sacks to break for the record. Other such nicknames through time seem to fit the stereotype of the No Fun League. The "Crunch Bunch?" According to the link, "In the early '80s, Mario Sestito of Troy, New York is credited with coining the name after A NY Giants newsletter at the time called 'Inside Football' held a contest to name this offensive line." At least Jets fans needed no contest off the field for a nickname. I may sound like a bitter City fan to a better United in Manchester, but I'll take what I can get.

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