Saturday, July 12, 2008

New York Jets By The Numbers: # 26 - Part 3

When I first began this Jets-by the-numbers, I worked with two major assumptions. I correctly assumed that this endeavor would, at the very least, take me away from other more important and less interesting things to do. But I also felt that naming and identifying every player who has ever worn the Jets' uniform would teach me something about my beloved team that I did not already know. It has done this, but that's not what impresses me, entry by entry. Instead, I'm amazed at how brief and anonymous the football career is. Far be it that we should mourn the brevity of a career that today garners obscene contracts, but sometimes not even money can buy the satisfaction that comes with a long duration to the career of life's work. Pro football does not afford this to most players.

If every available record is to be believed, Pat Gucciardo entered one game in #26 for the New York Jets in 1966 at defensive back and then promptly vanished from the professional game altogether. Under "Anecdotes" on the All-Time New York Jets Roster, there is one brief entry: "Nicknamed Gooch." Technically that's not an anecdote, and it's not a terribly original nickname, but I am eternally grateful to find that out anyway.

Here #26 Jerome Henderson is pursuing the greatest receiver in the history of pro football, Jerry Rice, quite possibly in vain. This was the 1998 opener at Candelstick Park, a game that went into overtime. San Francisco won, 36-30. I had difficulty believing that CBS was not showing the game in Philadelphia, but they didn't - at least not until the overtime period. For some reason, they switched over, and I promptly turned from the AM crackling transmission of the game (Radio Free Europe sounded better in East Berlin) to my thoroughly beaten and often dropped RCA 15-inch TV, just in time to see the Niners' Garrison Hearst run what seemed like 500 yards to the end zone on the first possession of overtime. I don't like to brag, but I immediately spewed forth a stream of invective that equaled in quality the daily profane, screaming, freedom-rock tainted mental garbage that could be heard coming regularly from my next door neighbors, a family of truck drivers addicted to crack and methamphetamine. Those were the days. The Jets would lose the next week and then go 12-2 the rest of the season. In more ways than one, the worst of times are always coupled with the best.

A November 9, 1990 Times article about #26 Ken Johnson reveals the wandering part of the football player's life, its disappointments and all too brief hopes. Cut by the Vikings, re-signed by the Vikings in lieu of the Jets, then cut by the Vikings and signed by the Jets when they ran out of players in the secondary, Ken Johnson went where he could. The article quotes him: "I sort of wish now I had come to the Jets earlier," Johnson said today. "I had a chance to join them one of the times the Vikings cut me, but I decided to sign back with Minnesota. I know the cost of living was higher here, and I figured I could live better in Minnesota if I was getting the same money." He played an unknown number of games during 1990 and then was cut again, destined for nowhere else.

One injury is all it takes, and in the late 1980's, injuries and bad luck were all over the Jets. Number 26, strong safety Lester Lyles, is just one example. Lyles was not alone in being injured in the 1987 training camp that season at Hofstra; as many as seven starters were injured even before the season got under way. I vaguely remember the sense of disappointment I felt back then, especially after the Jets had done so well for most of the 1986 season. But by August 1987, I was also packing to go away to college for the first time while my family was abruptly moving from New York to the Deep South. I went from planning on going to school three hours by car from my family to living more than 20 hours away. For the first time in my life, the New York Jets meant little or nothing to me. It was an odd feeling, made only more absurd by the eventual 1987 strike. Lester Lyles was cut the following season, but by then I had decided to focus all my attention on the Mets and on their eventually unsuccessful efforts in the postseason. I wondered very little about the fate of my football team. I cannot imagine the young man I was then; I cannot imagine not being a fan now. So much older then and younger than that now. Yet I still find life as terrifying today as I did back then. The man always makes the fan in the end.

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