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Saturday, June 14, 2008

More Thoughts On Numbers

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains...


-Tennyson

One of the things that I've come to appreciate in my continuing efforts to name all persons who have worn the New York Jets uniform, number by number, is just how seemingly meaningless our endeavors are on the popular scale. When we are given our sweet release from this life, we will probably not be known for the good work we did, and for the most part, even if we're lucky, the content of our lives will be whittled down to whatever bare bones, statistical evidence of our existence that the world has on hand.

Take Leander Knight, #20. Here is what the records show: "4YR 1INT." He played for three different teams in four seasons, one of which was the Jets in 1989, and amid all of it he apparently recorded nothing more than one interception. The problem here is not that he was unusual in this sense but that he is commonplace. The game is populated with the best efforts (so one assumes; one is a fan, not an expert) that will never get recognized or appreciated. Just like you and me. You don't have to be a Jets fan to understand that this is true; you need only realize the sheer numbers of people who have played in your team's colors. It's only a matter of time before you start thinking about the infinite, nameless persons through centuries who have walked the deserts of the world, herded sheep on its moors, tilled its soil and heard the wordless beauty of a distant song. It is enough to crush a person existentially sometimes.

So what does a player have to hang onto? As with all forms of human history, only those players who truly stand out (not always for good reasons) have a chance at immortality. Having your number retired is one way for this to happen, but it's no guarantee. Three players have had their numbers retired by the New York Jets - Joe Namath, Don Maynard and Joe Klecko, two of whom are in the Hall. This is a little unusual around the league but not by much. You retire numbers, I think, with an eye toward honoring the players and in hopes of making them appealing to Canton. I don't think it works; Bob Dee's retired #89 for the Boston Patriots doesn't make him any more likely a candidate than Pete Lammons of the Jets whose good but not great career in #87 remains unretired (it's Laverneus Coles' uniform anyway).

The Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs each have a promiscuous seven player numbers retired, whereas the Dolphins retired a more demure three. Most tellingly, the Cowboys and Raiders have retired none, which means they are above such exercises out of sheer uniform preservation. There are only 99 numbers from which to choose, you know. More reasons to hate them, I suppose. Pittsburgh was reckless enough to retire Ernie Stautner's #70.

There's something in this for the New York Jets fan to take home with him. Teams like the Raiders (who may never climb out their current funk so long as Al Davis is alive) and the Cowboys have a history of winning so vast that their fans may feel dwarfed by its timeless legacy. When a Jet's number is retired, it goes into a factory sealed case and is symbolically placed (it looks cartoonish, actually) against the wall along the sideline. It makes the fan feel more like he is a part of the history of his team. The player stands in civilian clothes at a halftime ceremony, microphone in hand, acknowledging the fans' tributes. Now that he is liberated from wearing the very same burdensome number, he has become one of them. As Tennyson's old, retired Ulysses says of immortality, "I am become a name." At least now he belongs to himself; his number belongs to us.

Perhaps Raiders fans wear their own mythological, suggestive outfits to the games at the Coliseum because their team does not belong to them so much as much it inspires them abstractly and creatively. That's not so bad, I guess. It's still better than being Cowboys fan. Those living in the nearby vicinity of Irvine, Texas probably think they will be Raptured anyway, so Earthly immortality means very little to them. Persons bathed in the justifying blood of their Lord are not liable to see one player as distinct from another; all those who play in Cowboy whites are deemed to be Christian soldiers.

My point is that I think that to be a true fan is to follow your team to the bitter end. This is what my Dad told me, and though he is not the Jets fan he once was, I still believe he is correct. These numbers are important to us because they are the history of our team, and that's why I will keep track of them some more. In fact, I'll probably get cracking on #25 a lot sooner than I thought, too. It's a lot of fun; it wastes an amazing amount of time while I should be doing more important, less interesting things.

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