Thursday, June 25, 2009

NY Jets #37 - Head Shots

This is not really a head shot for Billy Hardee, but this snapshot from some game in 1977 (the overcast loss to Seattle? to Pittsburgh?) is a reminder that life is filled with promises that don't quite end up as promised. That might be the running theme for this unusually diverse group of otherwise unknowns who were destined to wear #37 for the New York Jets. In this case, the lesson herein is that sometimes a snapshot has to do for a head shot, and that's just the way it is. It also does not mean that we will not call it a head shot, regardless. We reserve the right to contradict ourselves.

And Billy? He intercepted a Bert Jones pass at some unknown point in a 33-12 loss at Baltimore on November 20, 1977. This is what the record shows, but where and how did I watch the game, for surely I did. I know that if I went under hypnosis I would be able to remember details about the day and evening in question. At least I hope so. It was my parents' 12th wedding anniversary, and the game was on TV. This much is fact. Was I staying in Brooklyn with my grandmother while my parents went into town? Was I at home, watching my father tackle yet another daunting home improvement task? What does it mean that these things aren't there in my memory anymore? The score remains the same, but if I coax the memory further, will my mind affect such a change upon it that the past is changed too irrevocably for me to rely on any truth there? If I cannot recall these games from among my memory's signposts, what will I remember accurately? And if I cannot remember any of it anymore, then who exactly am I?

Let's move on.

The story behind JoJo Heath's play in #37 for the Jets is, on the surface, a simple one. He was the #37 on the 1987 replacement squad. For almost all of the replacement players we mention here, that would be enough. He showed up. But JoJo's story gets rather complex, and his might act as an object example of a larger idea we'll draw on further in this entry about the consequences of athletic dreams.

At defensive back, Joseph Elroy "JoJo" Heath was the team captain of the 1979 University of Pittsburgh team, and he was drafted in the sixth round after graduation by the Cincinnati Bengals, only then to be traded the following year to the Philadelphia Eagles. After 12 games there, Heath's career ended. Six years later, nearing 30, Heath joined the replacement squad for one last try at football and was promptly sent on his way when the replacement Jets gave way to the real Jets who, truly, did not play that much better. There is little record to show what he did as a Jet.

On December 30, 2002, JoJo Heath was found stabbed to death in a wooded area some 20 miles or so outside the Pittsburgh. He was 45 years old and was apparently the victim in a crack deal gone wrong. According to the official story, Heath came to a home regarding money owed on drugs but ended up dead from an altercation after it all went sour. He was stabbed 26 times. A confession was obtained, and in 2003, his convicted killer was sentenced.

Almost six years later, JoJo's son, JoJo, Jr., was wounded by gunfire in the midst of continuing violence among young people in and around the Pittsburgh area. I don't mean to sound so naive. Here in Philadelphia, the same menace exists among young men and women who grown up like JoJo's son, without parents or with incarcerated parents. I teach some kids who exist with that reality everyday. The remarkable thing is how limited, even futile the promise of athletics are as a means for escaping the madness. We know that almost no one that we can name has become a star in the NFL, but in our mythical, boundless dream world of American fame and success, sports do more than flesh out our aspirations. They mask the true realities of those hopes, too. They make us believe that anyone can do it. It may not be the fault of the game but a fault within a culture like ours where if we dream it, we believe we should have it. Would that it were so.

This might do for our introduction to another head shot of former Jets cornerback #37 Anthony Prior. Prior was distinguished as a player more for his speed than anything else, and his journey through the Jets went then to the Vikings, then to the Raiders. He also spent time in the CFL. What distinguishes him here is that he is a lone player to speak eloquently about something that has bothered me throughout this naming and numbering process over this past year: about how short an NFL player's career is, and how little reward - aside form the quick and fleeting cash - there is in the end. That does not even speak for the nameless, endless numbers of people who will never even get off the college football bench after making athletics the core of their educational study. And to what end?

Here is the Nation's review of Prior's book, The Slave Side of Sunday, and here is his somewhat riveting talk on the subject of football's empty promises to African-American men. I would suggest that any athlete is better off in the modern era than in past years where his pay was about as good as a teacher's. But perhaps our updated assumptions about athletics as a golden ticket have lead us to think of athletes as having no potential other than the one that requires that they eventually be ground down to a nub for our entertainment, all in exchange for big money. I don't know if Prior's statistics on the number of football aspirants who actually make it to the pros is true (and his style of presentation is somewhat broad) but it doesn't feel exaggerated in light of the fate of JoJo Heath. The sentiment rings true.

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