Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hang On

What do you do when the drowning stops?

The question is a good one. It is posed by Philadelphia's own Dr. Dog, a band with singers who sound near the hysterical breaking point at all times on their terrific album Fate. The question infers two possible states of being: 1) You have stopped drowning because you have been saved. 2) You have stopped drowning because you have ceased to be and are no more.

So which are we? I've been putting off the question all week. I'm surrounded by Eagles fans who, still buzzed from the contact high of the Phillies' World Series Championship, are living with an uncharacteristically high-humored resignation over the likelihood of the Eagles being out of the playoffs. I know one thing about Andy Reid's teams. They rise to the occasion like an uncle you thought was sewn to the fabric of his La-Z-Boy chair, only to watch him smilingly rise to his feet when an old drinking buddy comes to the door. "Playoffs? Well, shit. Maybe I'll have one." I put on my Jets scarf today while getting ready to go home from work, and an instinctive look came over the face of one of my colleagues, a close friend, someone who knows how much they mean to me. She gave me a withering look. I love Philadelphians for this. They take their teams so personally that it is impossible for them not to react to someone who feels something honestly comparable for another team. She looked at me almost as if to say, "What's that all about?"

The trouble is that I don't know what it's all about right now. Still reeling from the fact that the Jets' experienced offense could not outsmart in an inexperienced Denver Broncos secondary, I'm left wondering if the drowning is done because I'm either dead or alive. I remember Dad using the 1968 Jets' loss to the Broncos at Shea as an object lesson in not counting yourself out. Everybody thought the Jets were done after Namath threw five interceptions in a 21-13 loss, and at the end of the game Joe Willie said, "I stink."

Did he stink? I asked Dad. I was eight. By my bedside he was reading the chapter on the '68 Jets' from Random House's Championship Teams of the NFL, putting me to sleep for the 78th consecutive night with the story of the plucky New York Jets team that interrupted the four-year battle for AFL primacy between the Chiefs and the Raiders with a season that culminated with a ridiculous upset of the NFL in the Super Bowl. It was a Jets season that could be read by a little curly-cued boy in need of a metaphor for all of life's hopeless endeavors. You think you stink, kid? Dad asked. Lots of people think they stink. Sometimes they do stink. But it doesn't have to last forever. Doesn't mean they actually stink forever.

Nobody says that anymore: stink. It might not mean anything now, but when Namath spoke of himself in this way, it sounded to reporters like a startling self-denunciation. Can you imagine a modern player evaluating himself this way? Even John Unitas in his time refused to denounce himself with anything more than a dismissive hand. When you reporters make mistakes, Unitas said sarcastically, you use erasers. I wish I could do that

But Namath said, I stink.

But it didn't mean he believed it about himself. Had he believed it, he would never have taken command of the offense with his more conservative play through November and December of that year, 40 years ago. He would never have taken on Lou Michaels. He would never have guaranteed a January win, even after with as many Johnny Walkers in his system as he had that night in Miami.

So where do we go from here? Did we stink last week? Yes. But to invoke Dr. Dog once again, I wonder of the answer is right in front of our eyes. We can do this. Damn it, people. We can do this.

And what you though was a hurricane
Was just the rustling of the wind
Why'd you think we need amazing grace
Just to tell it like it is

Let's go on. Hang on. Hang on.

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