Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jets on the Cover of Sports Illustrated (Part 1)

I've been scrolling through the impressive vaults of Sports Illustrated, making many personal and socio-political observations to myself that will ultimately be fodder for a pithy blog entry at some point in the near future. What else would you expect? But I would be remiss if I did not point out this week's landmark of Brett Favre appearing on its cover, the first such Jets-related cover in very nearly 10 years.

Favre's appearance is a little late coming. I understand there was something called the 2008 Summer Olympics, with the swimming guy with the mutant-sized torso and the slick bathing suit, and the two blonde American dancing gymnastic dwarfs, and the portrait of a genocidal maniac overseeing the passing of the marathon, and the sight of Kobe Bryant getting a gold medal, and the extraordinary use of human beings as totalitarian art in the opening ceremonies. I heard about it. They did not have the tension, the soul-searching, the bitterness and regret associated with the arrival of a living legend to the Eugene O'Neill play known as the Gotham Football Club. Maybe it's me. But SI finally got on board with the big story. Thank you. Very. Much.

I don't know why this is such a big deal to me. It was certainly a big deal when I was little. I suppose that having grown up a suburban kid who looked forward to the Thursday delivery of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, the magazine has always had a monolithic quality to me. But it did to everybody. SI was the industry standard that stood the test of time. Sport tried to be more like Esquire, but by the time the nation elected Bonzo's pal President, nobody liked to have monoliths wryly critiqued anymore. It was un-American, and SI remained very American while Sport lost its focus.

And during those formative years, circa 1978-1983 - which for me was late grade school to freshman year of high school - I was still unaffected by adolescent narcissism and therefore very much interested and curious about the world, its impressions, and values. I was still too young to know what any of it meant, but that to the extent that the world placed value on something, I was willing to pay attention. If the world at large valued the New York Jets for something - perhaps in the form of putting one of its players on the cover of America's biggest sports magazine - I was impressed and honored. I wanted the world's approval, so if the world paid attention to my football team for a week, it was a big deal.

And I mean featured on the cover, for the Jets made a cameo appearance for their loss to the Browns in the Divisional Playoff game of January 1987. But that's not what I'm talking about. That's related to an entirely other kind of psychological issue to which, I might argue, this entire blog is devoted.

Unfortunately for me, the only Jet featured on the cover during those years was Richard Todd, here being shown unloading the bread. Just as with the Brett Favre-Jets story, this August 1983 image comes a little too late to the career of Richard Todd, the successor of Joe Namath. The caption indicates that Richard Todd's career is reaching its crescendo, but Fate has already deemed it that he is done. The 1983 season ended with the Jets finishing injured and below .500, with Todd throwing 18 TD's to 26 INT's. I put the picture on my wall at home and even waited until Todd was traded to New Orleans to take it down. Had I been a little bit younger I might have left it up, for then Todd might have represented the achievement of the world recognizing that the Jets existed, that I existed. I had waited long enough. But I was already 14. I found that I couldn't control a brain addled by hormones and possessed of an inexplicable, unpredictable impatience with the world at large. Now, two words sprang to my lips every time I experienced a frustrating obstacle: Fuck it. The end of the 1983 season was both the end of Todd's career with the Jets and the end my childhood innocence.

Only two other players in Jets history have made it onto the cover. One is Keyshawn Johnson, here seen retrieving a pass in his great performance against the Jags in the Divisional Playoff game of January 1999, the game that sent the Jets to the AFC Championship. Why is he is there and not Vinny Testaverde or Curtis Martin? Because Keyshawn was the guy who, two season before, had professed a desire for the damn ball. Here the ball is just barely there, and with it the Jets are a long shot to go to the AFC Title game, their second since the merger. The rest is silence, a commodity that Keyshawn has never quite been known for, bless his undersized, ball-hogging, team-ditching, Parcells-loving soul. He made a great fumble recovery in that game that is still branded on my grateful brain. My first and only reaction to this cover during that week - among the happiest weeks of my life, I'm not ashamed to say - was why couldn't they have gotten a better picture of the helmet?

The only Jet left to mention had eight covers, and that would be Joe Namath, of course. As I've said before, Joe was bigger than the Jets and very nearly bigger than the sport he played. A story so large that only the silver screen could hope to contain it, albeit in the person of Jake Gyllenhaal. Yeah, right. Anyway, here is Joe's first SI photo in 1965, holding the soon-to-be outdated '64 Jets helmet. According to Mark Kriegel in Namath, the subject arrived very late for this photo shoot in Times Square. I'm imagining that afterwards the evening maintained its resilience under the increasingly gaudy neon light of mid-60's New York, complete with bar-hopping, club-tripping, taxi-jumping, stewardess-scooping - all still performed in the Jets uniform.

THE WOMAN: You play baseball?
BIFF: F-football.
THE WOMAN: Me too.

Or how about this one, portraying the crasser, more frank excess of the sexual revolution? Though this is meant to capture Namath cast as Captain Hollis in the forgettable 1970 western The Last Rebel, it really speaks to the perceived and real characters of Joe Willie. This is the Namath of the 70's. Who needs stewardesses? Now, nobody's making a secret out of it. Everybody's out to get laid. Everybody wants a piece of the big guy. I think the magazine wants to portray Joe as hating the thought of returning to practice; he's having so much fun, right? But I think that's Madison Avenue's misreading of the time. Come on, he seems to suggest, weighted with the fatigue one feels in the wake of extraordinary excess, Is this all there is? Existentially, Joe, perhaps not. But for the Jets, it's all downhill from here.

Click here for Part 2...


Anonymous said...

Don't we all long to be that guy? "Back to work, Martin Roche!"

Martin Roche said...

If by "work" you mean seducing nameless blonds and leading an explosive offensive, I'm sorry. I have a blog to write. Sigh.

Sportstuffblog said...

Too bad my favorite Jet, Joe Klecko, never made it on to the SI cover. He deserved it just as much as Gastineau. He even had a bit role in a movie (I think it was Cannonball Run). Come to think of it they should have put on the whole New York Sack Exchange. Oh well. Thanks for the nice post Sportstuffblog

Martin Roche said...

Agreed. Personally, the Sack Exchange gets short shrift when the great front defensive lines in NFL history are assessed. These were the most feared players on defense in their time, save for LT on the Giants. They made the sack a statistic. Yet SI put Tom Cousineau and Brian Bosworth on the cover.

sportstuffblog said...

The Jets had some pretty good Linebackers and Secondary guys too in those years, although nobody can compare to LT. But Buttle, Crable, Early Mo Lewis...I'm leaving someone out...oh no it was the 4-3 Defense. They needed good D with Ken (Happy Feet) O'Brien back there. Always "Edge of your seat" Football.

Martin Roche said...

Don't forget Kyle Clifton and Lance Mehl. I still say one of the biggest impediments to their success was injuries, especially in the Decembers of the Walton years. Ugh.