There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. There are 32 possible teeth in a human mouth. There are 11 men fielded at any point in time by a professional football team, be it English or American. And there are six players left to mention in the extraordinarily long but remarkably harmless list of players who've worn the number 26 for the New York Jets.
When Chad Morton ran back a kickoff for touchdown against the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium in week six of the 2002 season, I had a feeling that I sometimes get in the first third of a Jets season, where I suddenly think it's possible that my normally troubled football team will actually make the playoffs. I don't even entertain the possibility of what that will mean for me. I can't think that cosmically about it, though such visions can feel cosmically real. When I was a young man of 22, I was struck by a powerful, undeniable sensation of instant pure love at first sight when I saw a woman standing across the shoreline of beach on Lake Michigan. That's the woman I'm going to woo and eventually marry in a heartfelt religious ceremony, I thought to myself. ...the woman with whom I'll have children, with whom I'll share a country house, with whom I'll grow wise and old
No. Today, willingly without children, a city dweller, agnostic, I see a reflection of myself with razor clarity. I was wrong. It was not to be. It was never to be.
Most seasons it is not to be. For some teams like Dallas, New England, and Green Bay (at one time, Miami) making the playoffs alone is or was as inevitable as the needed belch after a long pull on your bottle of beer. It cleared away space in the digestive passage for more. For the Jets, a season's tenuous path tempts you to be drawn toward visions of vibrant hope. Usually, these spring with an early success: I remember watching Richard Todd's brilliance in the season opener against San Diego, 1983 thinking "this is going to be the season for which I have been waiting all my life." But it was not to be. Or watching the Jets beat the eventual AFC Champion Denver Broncos 22-10 in 1986. Obviously not to be. Dreaming of better days to come when the Jets blank the defending AFC Champion Buffalo Bills 23-3 in the 1994 opener. Not to be. You get this rush, this feeling that you are in contact with a destiny that has been written for you, and its writing even proscribes the final culmination of all your cloudy desires. The Jets will go to the playoffs. I have seen the face of God. No, sir. You are wrong.
But when future Jetskin Chad Morton returned that kickoff for a touchdown in an eventual 31-13 win at Buffalo, not only did he suddenly become a tantalizing free agent to-be, but I saw a vision for the near future that would actually turn out true. The Jets went to the playoffs at the end of the 2002 regular season. In fact, improbably, they won the division. Then they trounced Peyton Manning in the playoffs 41-0 in what may have been one of the happiest night of my life, and became, in the eyes of many prognosticators, totally unbeatable. Then in Alameda the Oakland Raiders treated them like a pistol-whipping steroids abuser does a pesky little neighbor who complains about the music being too loud, and the unbeatables went home. I didn't even wait for the second half of the Raiders game to begin binge drinking the horrible night away. Nevertheless, such successive weeks of hope and excitement are rare and beautiful things, and they can enable you to stay rooting for your team for at least another ten years.
I have a question, though.. When the New England Patriots begin their inevitable era of decline (bring it soon, sweet God in Heaven) their fans are going to have to live like I do now. They'll have to be loyal to just the team they have, warts and all. Do they actually have the stuff to do it? I don't think so. They didn't when I went to college in New England and the Pats went 1-15 in 1990 under Rod Rust. You couldn't find a fan anywhere.
Enough! I have to talk about Damon Pieri. I t would seem that he played in #26 for the Jets for one season - 1993, an uneventful one for both him and the team. Then he vanishes from football for a year and arrives in Carolina, playing two seasons for the Panthers and retiring in 1996 with one interception to his name. He is currently the defensive backs coach for Sunny Slope football camp. Go Green Vikings.
Drafted in the 18th round out of George Washington University by the New York Giants in 1963, Bill Pashe vanishes from training camp and Allie Sherman's notoriously disdainful attitude toward rookies and swims across the Harlem River to the Polo Grounds to play for the newly incarnated Gotham Football Club. Or did he? His only season listed is actually 1964, with the Jets, in #26, as a return specialist. Henceforth he specializes in not appearing in organized football ever again. With a degree from GW, though, I'm assuming he grew up to be a nice young man.
During our numbering of the Jets, we usually run across an eventual veteran of the 1968 Championship team. We reflect, we praise, we think wistfully, we regret, we move on. This process presents a challenge, though, when we consider Jim Richards. Sure, I see him on the sidelines of Super Bowl III, but where else? His best season would actually be 1969, which would also be his last. That year, he garnered three interceptions, which was one more than '68 standouts Jim Hudson and Randy Beverly would gather apiece. Longtime CBS sideline reporter John Dockery gathered five that year, while an improved Billy Baird got the same. Dockery would return in 1970, Baird would not (except as a coach) and Jim Richards would never be heard from again anywhere in pro football. I would show Dad all of these players' pictures in the now remarkably short Jets roster that you'd find in the back of your game-bought PRO! magazine. There would be Dockery, Beverly, Hudson, Baird. But no Jim Richards. I would mutely point them all out to Dad, fluttering like a tiny bird in the nest, hoping for a dollop of wisdom from a beautiful time when we were once champions. He would only squint at a picture with the naked-headed player staring beyond the camera. "I'll be damned," Dad would sparsely reply. "Bill Baird." There, I would think. A testimonial recognition of the past! It's all true! But what happened to Jim Richards? How could a guy who did pretty well on the defending champions not get a chance anywhere else? Does that enigmatic faraway look above reveal his vague anticipation of something wrong in the future, or is that the look of a callow young man who isn't capable of comprehending what he sees? Ah, well.
Omar Stoutmire. Say his name as many times as you like. Every time you say it it's like you're saying it for the first time. O-mar Stout-mire. Grand. Just grand. It seems I have seen Omar Stoutmire in many uniforms - as a Cowboy, as a Saint, as a Redskin, most especially in the Giants organization, where he played especially well in '02 and '03. But he played for the Jets in #26 in 1999 and left as quickly as the good fortunes of my team did that season. He has technically played twice in Washington, but he is not technically a Jetskin.
And finally, we come to you, David West. You thought we had forgotten you, or else you've gotten used to being left off at the end of the alphabet. But you're the first New York Jet to wear #26, and it's easy to assume that your efforts will go unappreciated, unattended. You are wrong, my friend. You played two games for the team with the funny airplane on their helmet. Damned if I can find you anywhere. But I know you're in that team picture (above) at the Polo Grounds. You can't hide forever, #26.
There you are.