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Friday, March 27, 2009

NY Jets By the Numbers - #35 (Part 1)

The first time I ever heard of someone almost dying was when I was about eight. I had heard that my cousin had fallen to the ground, had punctured his tongue with his teeth and nearly bled to death. Actually, I don't know if he was in any grave danger, but he had to be given stitches in his tongue, which was as close to death as an eight year-old could imagine. Clearly he had been to the edge and back. He had experienced something formidable that I had not, and from thence forward, despite being the same age as I, he always seemed somehow braver and wiser for having experienced something that apparently brushed him so close with mortality.

The second time I ever heard of someone almost dying was when it happened to #35 Mike Augustyniak, who's not a cousin nor a contemporary. He ran in the Jets' backfield from 1981 to 1983, was a graduate of Purdue and only a little taller than Bruce Harper, though only a little shorter than I am now. He was playing well in his rookie year, much to the surprise and delight of everyone green, but Mike Augustyniak also broke two ribs in two separate games. He had been a walk-on in camp and had been given the same kind of platitudes fans would later give to Wayne Chrebet - "hard-nosed," "gutsy," "plucky," "hard-working." Certainly looks it in his picture, doesn't he? The first rib was broken in preseason - no sooner was he on the team than he had broken a rib. No problem. But against the Pats in the regular season, he broke another that punctured a vital organ such that he nearly bled to death internally. He lived and played well later on the year, but I remember my reaction to his near fate, and it spelled the change in my overall worldview from eight year old to twelve: that's what happens when you're plucky and hard-working. You almost die. Hard work will almost kill you.

BJ Askew is not your current #35. He was signed by Tampa Bay just before the beginning of last season, and though I was filled with foreboding about it, and though the Bucs paid him an extraordinary amount of money last year, he gained little more than a neck injury on the ground. Again, football leads you to place where you wish for the injury to another. That, as anyone in any sane, humane spiritual tradition will tell you, is just plain wrong. Nevertheless, I offer here an ironic photo of Askew in dejection, with another famous castoff kneeling near him, lost in his own thoughts. How the wheels of Fate do grind.

Bob Brooks is the second #35 in franchise history, and that, literally, is all I'm going to be able to say about him. Sometimes that's all we have.

As I understand it, the league will very likely go to 18 games in a few seasons, but some men have gone that distance before. Dexter Carter #35 may have had the longest and strangest season of any player, certainly any player in 1995. He went from suiting up for the defending champion San Francisco 49ers for seven games to playing 10 games for the New York Jets. As I recall, Carter preferred playing more of an active role in the backfield with a team that needed him than in a secondary role on a team with plenty of talent. But then a year later, Carter returned to the Niners. Something always told me he was a saucy lad, but I don't know if that's even really relevant. I just remember the 1995 Jets' season as a long, horrible hangover awaiting a worse bender - and I do not necessarily mean that in a literal sense. Back in the safety of San Francisco for the final year of his career in 1996, we assume that Dexter Carter learned his lesson. Don't leave the f@#$ing boat.

Do you know Roger Donnahoo? Does he know you? He is the first #35 in franchise history. He played a single season - the Titans' first - in the number, and as far as the eye can see, this is all he contributed to professional football. He looks in his football card like he has a successful career in defense awaiting him, and possibly even a Senatorial run. The flame burned briefly but brightly for him. He returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns in 1960. These are the kinds of plays that turn the momentum of the crowd right around, but without a crowd at the Polo Grounds, how would anyone have known that Roger Donnahoo, much less the Titans or their opponents, were doing anything? Was that what kept Roger Donnahoo away from the game he loved? Was it Harry Wismer's bouncing checks? Whither you, Roger Donnahoo?

On November 14, 1976, at Shea Stadium the Jets outright pummeled the famously inept Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who would absolutely have exceeded Detroit's extraordinary 0-16 mark had they been given the opportunity to play 36 games in a season. I've discussed my attendance at this game before and the brief, illusory sense of joy it gave - the kind that a child always needs every once in a while - the ice cream cone before the mumps shot. Just before the end of the first half, with the score 17-0 the Jets' Steve Davis #35 scored a 5-yard touchdown that I recall because it seemed from my vantage somewhere in the Loge that he just barely made it. The ball just appeared to cross the threshold of the end zone. The Jets had taken a 24-0 lead even before the half. There was something in his just barely making it that made it all the more potent to my seven-year old brain. Anything seemed possible in that sweet, terrifying moment - even a seemingly phantom touchdown. I howled at the top of my lungs with abandoned joy at something concrete and real for probably the first time in my life. Steve Davis did that. That's what being a fan is - remembering moments like that. It was the second-to-last touchdown of a career that ended that season. Wherever you are, Steve, thanks.

Scottie Graham #35 was born in Long Beach, Long Island, two days after I was, and two months after the Jets' Super Bowl triumph. He was drafted out of Ohio State by the Steelers, picked up by the Jets, allowed to play two games and then sent to Minnesota for an average runner's career of 1,000-plus total career yards and more than five seasons. Whereas drafted out of the University of Minnesota and raised in the wild, abandoned weedlands of East St. Louis, IL, #35 Kerry Glenn nabbed four interceptions for the Jets in his rookie season of 1985. This raised many expectations for his career, yet he lost out on the next season with a foot injury. Isn't this often the way? He did manage a respectable career with both the Jets and the Fish, but he would never again post such numbers.

"He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot... But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever."

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