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Monday, June 16, 2008

Worthy of the Hall (or Maybe Worthy-ish)

So for once, I will not talk numbers. Today, I wonder aloud (to obviously no one in particular other than myself) as to who among the Jets family deserves to go to the Hall of Fame. Here I mention six candidates total, knowing that one should be considered a lock, another being a good choice that might take time, another who will require a generous but unlikely senior vote, two more that are admittedly debatable choices, and one more who is simply in poor taste. (Note: all images from Ebay)

Exhibit A: Curtis Martin. I have heard some people suggest that Martin's limited playoff experience makes his case a harder one to argue. I have heard people say that the relative brevity of his career disables him from a shoe-in induction. I have heard people from the New England area malign his candidacy because he gave up three big ones with the Pats in favor of a near decade of the Jets' own schizophrenia. Simply put, no matter how history plays out, each of these arguments is essentially wrong-headed and misjudged. As a player, a teammate, a star on teams that have middled their way through time, Curtis Martin is the absolute, consummate sportsman. Yuz all haytuz. Retire his number, forge the bronze.

Exhibit B: Joe Klecko. The Jets are aggressively pursuing his candidacy. His number retired, Klecko was the player chosen to lead the recent Jets rookies on a tour through Canton (this is a yearly NFL trip for all its rookies). Click on "Jets" and check out how goofy he looks in the group picture. He resembles a man who has not been seen by his son in anything other than a business suit for some time, and now the boy realizes his Dad hasn't any sense for comfortable weekend clothes. God help me, the son thinks. Is this my destiny, too? Klecko's also had experience doing the public speaking route, whether he is talking about Catholic values or talking to the Teamsters; often such audiences overlap. He has had his share of personal suffering and has managed to turn his life around by becoming a more virtuous citizen. Though he was less talented than Gastineau in terms of sheer speed and stealth, Klecko was the strongest player of his time, and he went to the Pro Bowl several times on the basis of playing multiple positions at the front line - something which very few players at the defensive front can claim. Put him in, baby. And buy him some comfortable-looking pants.

As every Jets fan who cares about this issue will tell you, a recent discussion between Dr. Z of Sports Illustrated (a voting Hall of Fame member) and Ron Wolf (once a member of Jets management many a moon ago) raised the issue of who deserves a shot at the Hall. They both agreed that two Jets deserved the honor. Both said Klecko deserved a chance, but they also argued for Exhibit C: Winston Hill. At this link, you'll see that Hill's analysis of his own name is humorous. I saw him play in his very last season for the Jets in 1975, but his career spanned back to 1963. Of Winston Hill, the late Matt Snell once said, "So graceful, so light on his feet." And from a bruiser that's a rave. Was Snell being facetious? Was he ever? Such an unlikely characteristic (Hill's lightness, that is; not Snell's humor) for one so large as Hill was not so easy considering that Winston topped the weight class of his time at 270 plus pounds. A three-time AFL All-Star. Three-time Pro Bowler in the rotten 70's. Winston Hill deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Here's the thing though. Historically, the Hall has given preference to players at the scoring or stopping points of the ball, not at the offensive line. The HOF has done its share to try and amend this, but offensive linemen learn as early as high school that they will not get the cheerleader (not that I knew anything about that personally, either; I ran cross country and did theater; these had their own emasculations). This prejudice against tackles and guards was especially true when Winston Hill first became eligible for induction, and, to be honest, his name wasn't even brought up at the time that I can tell. The other indignity about the voting is that once your name has come and gone for a few years, you become forgotten in favor of the newly eligible. People are already talking about the class of 2012 - Favre, Strahan, Sapp, et al. Jonathan Ogden will richly deserve the honor at that time, but it won't be like any of us will expect another offensive lineman to be inducted along with him. Usually one a year is seen as enough. Gary Zimmerman is this year's. By then, Winston will still be waiting in his own late 70's, the 1970's themselves dwindling receding further and further from his memory.

By then he'll share this trait of short-term memory loss with the NFL itself, who treat their elder players - even those like Mike Webster, who made it to the Hall - like discarded family in the old country, left behind for the land where the streets are paved with gold.

How about some more sentimental long shots? The Conigliaro AFL site leaves Winston Hill out of its AFL All-Time First Team but does put Gerry Philbin on its First Team's defensive line. I would vote for Gerry Philbin because he's a Jet. Whether he deserves it or not is like asking me who deserved to win the 1999 AFC Championship. Philbin had a strong ten year career in the NFL and endured playing one year (or half of one) in Downing Stadium for the WFL New York Stars. Must have made him sentimental for the more innocent days of training along the Hudson River with the fledgling Jets.

I'm happy to see online discussion point out Marvin Powell as an even more likely long shot to go to Canton. Powell was probably the best offensive lineman on the team in those unsteady years of the 70's and early 80's. As a kid, all I remember hearing about him was that he was going to be a lawyer someday. He studied law at USC. There were always pictures in the yearbook of him fitted into badly tailored suits - Marvin Powell, future attorney at law. I have no idea how that turned out. My own law career did not pan out. However, I also did not go to the Pro Bowl fives times - Marvin Powell did. But if Winston Hill has little chance at Canton, does Marvin Powell?

* * *

I find that most online discussions regarding any Hall selection are characterized by two things: 1) needless acrimony 2) that someone hauls out that old bitch of an argument that Joe Namath is in the Hall of Fame when "he clearly doesn't deserve it." I see the point, though I cannot agree. Namath changed the game and the course of American sports, and for that he is entitled. Then couldn't the same argument be made for the short, checkered career of...

...Mark Gastineau?

Ha. I know what you're thinking, right? Just put away your extraordinarily large and rotting grapefruit. I'm just arguing that Gastineau's extraordinary athleticism and, oh I don't know, joie de vivre, changed the way the game was played. Lawrence Taylor was infinitely more important, I grant you, yes, but...

Oh, enough. Who am I kidding? Although the Sack Dance is slightly more offensive than the histrionics of Terrell Owens and Ocho Cinco, today Gastineau's nonsense would probably be deemed as punishable Taunting, that cardinal sin of the No Fun League. Actually, that's a bit like the chicken and the egg since it could be said that the Sack Dance was the ur Taunt and that his excess made them take all the the fun out of the game. Mark Gastineau was the class clown/village idiot who ruined it for everybody. "Oh yeah? You kids don't like it? Don't blame me for canceling recess. Blame it on your little smart ass friend Gastineau over there. Now how funny is he?" Great. Nice going, Mark.

But these are the least of all his sins. I still haven't forgiven Mark Gastineau his late hit on Bernie Kosar in the Nightmare of January 1987. I should, God knows, but I've never been a very strong man. I'm not about to start now.

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