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Monday, June 29, 2009

NY Jets #39

Johnny Johnson
Thirty-nine is thirteen three times. Does this explain its general absence from the annals of the greatest? I conjure Larry Csonka's bruised spirit, one so dedicated to life's coexistence with pain that he actually made a teammate vomit in the huddle when the unfortunate glanced at Zonk's gruesomely bloody nose. In the modern era, Laurence Mulroney and Steven Jackson have some claim on the number's voodoo, such as it is. But number 39 will not be joining football's House of Extravaganza. He will not be opening any cologne lines. He will not be changing his name to "Tres Nueve."

So we begin with Roderick Bryant #39. It's become a kind of a cliche on these pages to talk about the short-lived career of the average player in the NFL secondary. He comes and goes with the success of the receivers he covers. At the beginning of his rookie season in 2004, in his first play as a pro, Bryant broke up a crucial pass thrown by Peyton Manning. It was an auspicious start. He played 13 games that year, but then he was never heard from in the professional game again. He's out there, somewhere. "Roderick Bryant" is the kind of name you might find on the marquee of a late 40's studio film: Roderick Bryant, as you've never seen him before. The next thing you know, he's lucky to make a guest appearance on The Love Boat while Fred Astaire gets the handoff (of a cat) from O.J Simpson at the end of The Towering Inferno.

Jehuu Caulcrick #39 is somewhere out there, maybe even still on the squad. But among Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and Shonn Greene, is there any place on Rex Ryan's Jets for the Winner of the Booth Lustig Award for #39? Born in Liberia, a child of that nation's civil war, his father was a member of the 1992 government there and was murdered. Jehuu Caulcrick was something like a folk hero and embodiment of the American Dream at Michigan State, but will he be with the Jets in September? His first name means "Yahweh is he." Caulcrick isn't He, but if Yahweh could come back as anything he wanted, why wouldn't he come back as a short but powerful running back? Does that mean Leon Washington is God?

If your name is Saladin Martin, who played in #39 in 1980 for the Jets, are you more likely to be like your namesake, one who apparently vanquished his Crusader enemies in the 12th century with a sense of chivalry for which Medieval Crusaders were supposed to have been known? Please, I don't know.

Regardless, Andrew Davidson played part of the 2002 season at cornerback for the Jets in #39. Perhaps if he had an interesting name, we could say more. We, meaning I, can't.


****

Fred Julian is at least one player in the history of the franchise whose career was interrupted by the Cold War. At 5'9", he lead the New York Titans with six interceptions in 1961, even when competing with Dick Felt and Roger Donahoo, each of whom clearly has a funnier name than does Fred Julian. He remembers Harry Wismer fondly - checks arriving on time, first class travel - and he remains not at all bitter that the Titans cut him when they anticipated that Julian would be called up by selective service to face down the Soviets over the Berlin Wall. Call him a happy revisionist. Call him content. He appears in his photograph as exactly the kind of square-jawed member of the generation that did not identify themselves as casual free spirits. Though Michael Vick may be trying to return to the NFL, Fred Julian never did. For better or for worse, he is an object example of the difference between the past and the present.

****

Three times an unlucky number makes 39. Three men who wore #39 for the Jets have one particular nominal trait in common - alliterative names:

First, Harry Hamilton #39 for the Jets from 1984-87 at safety. He was memorable, hard-working, tough player and among the smartest of Jets to have ever played, which means that he had to be cut by the team. As this 1988 George Vescey article from the Times points out, "Any way you look at it, the way the Jets lopped off this solid citizen and solid tackler demonstrates the transient and anonymous nature of pro football." Sounds like something I'd say, George. He also points out that it's easiest to blame and shortchange the secondary for giving up a touchdown instead of going after the defensive linemen for giving the QB the time to find his man. Harry Hamilton's dad infers that the color of this scapegoat in general cannot be ignored. This is all starting to sound familiar. There have been several unhappy stories among former Jets players in the #30's.

Then, another Harry. Safety Harry Howard, #39, who played for us in 1976. There are intangibles here, as they say. Intangibles can be items about a player that are not statistically quantifiable, like a locker room presence, an intimidation factor on the line, or an ability to distract your opponent. But what if your identity itself is an intangible. In the Jets' own online All-Time Roster, Harry Howard is literally "an intangible without a name," which is also how Lou Holtz in 1976 described a player named "Louis" in Harry Howard's write-up. This means that the Jets organization is currently mistaking Harry Howard for Louie Giammona, a running back drafted out of Utah State, whom we will meet when we cover #45. All we know about Harry Howard is that he was drafted out of Ohio State in 1972 by the Rams but played only one NFL season as Giammona's teammate four years later on the dreadful 1976 Jets squad.

Johnny Johnson
Starting Lineup action figure
There aren't many players who get the NFL in-action figure - the kind that Dad picks up at Kennedy Airport when he realizes he still hasn't bought anything for the kids on his business trip to New York - but #39 Johnny Johnson did before the 1995 season. The only trouble was Johnny Johnson wasn't there by the start of '95. He had enjoyed five successful seasons as a tailback in the NFL, first with the Phoenix Cardinals, then with the Jets from 1993-94. In that deranged 6-10 season in '94 with Pete Carroll, Johnny Johnson ran for 953 yards on the ground. Then, while the Jets fell deeply into the mire of Rich Kotite's uniquely depressing leadership, Johnny Johnson vanished from pro football as quickly as an ambitious government minister in Stalin's inner circle. And in the midst of the gloom that followed, we fell under losing's ponderous spell. History was rewritten. Adrian Murrell kept us amused, but our memories became unreliable. Did we ever have a Johnny Johnson? Didn't we used to have a big, powerful backfielder once? Where did he go? The Cardinals? Wasn't that where he started? Was his name Jimmy Johnson? No, that's the Cowboys' old coach. Oh, never mind. Just end the season. Where have you gone, Johnny Johnson?

****

Maurice Tyler had four interceptions in his first season at defensive back for the Bills in 1972, but then after that his career was a long succession of packing and unpacking, town to town, up and down the dial. Who will ever speak for the traveling secondary player who's only as good as the imagination of the the coach will allow? Look, the game has changed a great deal, and defenses have evolved, but it didn't change quickly enough for Maurice Tyler. He was marked by that most anonymous of distinctions in his career - he changed his number each time he moved to a new city: #42 in Buffalo, #23 in Denver, #25 in San Diego, #27 in Detroit, back to #25 for the Giants after playing in #39 for the Jets in 1977. Nary a winning season the whole way. I'm not sure if that's the way he looked that particular season the Jets went 3-11, but the combination of the afro and hearty mustache is, by definition, unbeatable - even if Maurice Tyler's career was not.

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