Thursday, January 8, 2009

NY Jets By the Numbers - #29 (Part 3)

As the 1972 Jets' Yearbook points out, Rocky Turner's real name was Harley, an innocuous name back in the day. Today, "Harley" is filled with all kinds of conjured lore associated with a specific kind of motorcycle with a specific kind of rider. It seems logical that a man who played a physically brutal game would want to have a name that associated itself with ball-grabbing machismo, so to the present-day person, "Harley" seems like the right one. But prior to the culture's institutionalization of "Harley," "Rocky" was more that kind of name. And before the institutionalization of "Rocky" by Rocky, a man named Rocky was a guaranteed ass-kicker. Or so you suspected.

I'm not sure about Rocky Turner, though. According to the yearbook, he studied biology, which is a little wimpy, but then his hobby was also "snakes," which, no matter how you look at it, isn't wimpy. (I'm not sure it's a hobby, either.) Especially if the guy who keeps snakes (which is what is meant by "hobby," I guess) is named Rocky. Still, Rocky Turner was six feet, 195 lbs in 1972 and, according to the yearbook, "similar to Dan Abramowicz." That doesn't sound macho; it sounds like he's being compared to his dentist. For those of you who don't know, Danny Abramowicz was a scrappy six foot wide receiver for the Saints back in the Billy Kilmer/Archie Manning days. Scrappy. But is that any way to describe a tough guy? To add to our quandary, Turner's career lasted all of two seasons with a declining Jets squad in the mid-70's. But blest as he is in the present day with two macho names, does he really have any right to consider himself unlucky?

Whereas Robert Turner's nickname was "Bake." That's no mistake - the card is from 1970, but the photo is from 1969, Bake Turner's last year as a Jet. Bake Turner was one of my Dad's favorites, an overachiever, playing from 1963-69 for the Jets. There must be something about this number. It produces little guys with big ideas.

He's our #29 from the Super Bowl squad. Dad may really have liked him because he was a star of sorts when the team didn't have a star. His statistics for 1963-64 were pretty good, with nine and six touchdowns at wide receiver, respectively. But by the time the Super Bowl came into the American vernacular, Bake Turner had simply become another one of the supporting characters on a team fronted by Namath, Snell, Boozer, Maynard, and Sauer on offense. Bake was a return guy by then, and certainly not the only one. He had two touchdowns catches in 1968, both from Babe Parilli, and both came in late relief of Sauer or Maynard in assured wins over the Bengals and Dolphins. But revenge can be sweet even for the bench squad. Bake Turner, our official winner of the Booth Lusteg Award for New York Jets Player in #29 With The Funniest Sounding Name, felt as much enthusiasm as Johnny Sample in beating Baltimore in the Super Bowl because like Sample, Bake had also been drafted and cut by the Colts.

But nothing says distinction like a cowboy's song - at least in New York - and apparently Bake Turner could sing. On Johnny Carson no less. Courtesy of Going Long, Jeff Miller's oral history of the AFL, we see that Bake got his fifteen minutes of fame right after the Super Bowl - or, as much fame as "The Singing Jets" could really garner when the only good singer in the group was only a supporting player on the field named Bake. The Super Bowl as an institution has endured the ravages of American popular culture so fundamentally that today a singing or rapping foursome from the winning squad on national television would just seem too amateur - even for a country hopelessly hooked on crack like "American Idol."

But finally - and I know I'm obsessed with this stuff - Number 29 Rocky Turner, whose real name is Harley, replaced number 29 Bake Turner, whose middle name is Hardy.

Little men. Big ideas. It's fitting that we close our discussion of Jets in 29 with their current mighty mite, Leon Washington. A Pro Bowler in 2008, Leon struck fear in the hearts of special teams throughout the NFL. The question that everyone asks at the end of this season is why he isn't being used more often in the backfield? He was astoundingly fast, wasn't he? The picture we provide here from the Times is the way many people saw him that year - as a small man who gets suddenly smaller very fast, until he is a speck in the distant end zone. My favorite moment of his from this season was his 61 yard kickoff return against New England at Foxboro, a bittersweet sight for sore eyes that sad season. At first Leon appears (if I may paraphrase Bill Cosby on Gale Sayers) to literally split in half and then reassemble his protoplasmic form in enough time to hurtle through space with such speed and that camera man has to expertly adjust and keep up with him. By the time he is about to reach the end zone, the two Patriots chasing him have already pulled up.

Watch him. It's not just the haze of a video of a video. His churning arms and legs are a white blur.

Two thousand eight was a special year for him, as was the year before. But then Leon broke his leg during a meaningless game against Oakland, and the next year he was in Seattle. I do wish this man nothing but the best because he was so much damned fun to watch. Sometimes that's the best reason to care about a sport you love. Players like Leon Washington make it so. Would that he could make it so again for the 12th Man.

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