What do these two men have in common? Are they New York's most relentless crime fighters? Its trigger-happiest detectives? Anzalone and Harper?
No, but they do wear the same uniform.
Not just the same number, but the same name and number, which no one else so far in our journey can claim for himself (or for someone else) - unless he can somehow lay claim to meeting himself, maybe in Milliways, which, as the Guide points out, is fairly embarrassing if not, of course, completely impossible.
First, the man on the right. This is Bruce Harper, who wore #42 from 1977-84 and is considered a universally loved Jet. Players like Bruce Harper are permanent fixtures in the memories of longtime Jets fans because, like Wayne Chrebet, they represent something of the indispensable underdog. In a franchise that ritually backs into the playoffs, such persons are always important. Bruce Harper is best known as a return man for the Jets; his 82-yard punt return just before halftime in a 1978 home game against the Bills at Shea was one of those moments that helped us to believe in a turnaround season when we saw one. Harper blazed down the sidelines. I was visiting Jake Walsh in Sag Harbor at the time, so I didn't see it on TV (I don't think the Jets sold out that season at Shea until the Patriots game, anyway), but I saw the replay the following week on This Week in the NFL, with Harry Kallas narrating the play, with the run documented in slow motion, taken from a camera positioned atop the right field upper deck. How do I remember such details. It's sad. But Bruce Harper had arrived to my world.
And he made himself indispensable. Though he was a return man, the 1978 runback was his only career return for a touchdown. Look at his statistics, and you see that he gained more on pass receptions than from the backfield, and he scored touchdowns on more pass plays than on the run. His career is even more impressive when you consider he was all of five foot eight. And from little Kutztown University in Central Pennsylvania. And a New Jersey native and current resident, no less. You couldn't have a better formula for a Jets hero, unless you were a walk-on from Hofstra. Bruce Harper is a man who represents the team's spiritual core. A six foot player is an underdog. Bruce Harper came from beneath the underdog. We are all Bruce Harper.
This might then explain the other man in the picture above. He is Ed Anzalone, or Fireman Ed, the Jets' "superfan," official fan of sorts, and universally recognized supporter of the beloved Green. He wears Bruce Harper's jersey. Why? I don't know. I guess I want to believe he wears it for the same reason that I think Bruce Harper represents the essence of who we are as a team.
We don't have a mascot, thank Christ. Instead, we have Fireman Ed, one of many such superfans around the NFL. Each team theoretically has one. Usually this person is a fan whose excess of spirit has made him a character of some local color who becomes so empowered by the subsequent attention that he develops into a self-appointed cheerleader. Every stadium has one, and if they are like Ed, they garner a following that the team then co-opts, hoping that they are not dealing with someone who has a severe mental illness. As we know, Fireman Ed hoists himself atop a larger man and leads the now famous cheer than anyone who finds out that I'm a Jets fan offers to me as if it were a lodge greeting. According to his bio, Ed has been leading the cheer since 1986, but I remember hearing it at Shea Stadium as far back as 1980; who knows when it began. Heard in full throat by the tens of thousands, it's highly formidable, almost like what totalitarian dictators crave when they stand on a balcony in platform shoes, hands on hips. The fact that the cheer is a four-letter word repeated thrice for those who missed it the first time, makes it - in my humble opinion - that much more charming.
"What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a teacher, actually."
"Wow, what's that like?"
"T! E! A! C! H! E! R!" TEACHER! TEACHER! TEACHER!!"
Nope. Doesn't have the same ring to it. When last we heard of him, Fireman Ed was going to be publicly roasted by Chad Ochocinco in the Jets' season finale, which didn't happen of course because Darrelle Revis is the finest cornerback in the world. Apparently in order to compensate for making Ed a part of his ongoing Vaudeville program, Ochocinco offered to fly the superfan out to Cincinnati for the Wild Card game. The oracle of Wiki tells us of Ed that, "though he was appreciative of the offer he declined to take (sic) on the moral ground that he did not think it was right to be flown out to the game by the opposing team. He did however say that if the Jets made him an offer he would take them up on it, though no offer has been made." Only men named Barrel Man, Chief Zee, Crazy Ray, Colonel Joe, Horse Lady, Arrowman, or Sign Man can see in such a circumstance the potential absence of moral judgment. They are something more than their team. They have their own reputation to uphold.
Perhaps when a famous fan's attention to his work begins to eclipse his team itself the fans and the world at large begin to turn the worm. Under "Everyone hates Fireman Ed," there's the usual rant from a Jets hater on Deadspin; I beg to differ. A superfan is a superfan, whether he's in it for his own fame or not. I write a blog no one reads. If someone made me a superfan of the Jets, such that under the New York Giants' guy named "Big Blue" you saw a new New York Jets superfan named "Martin Roche," I'd be flattered. What am I going to say? No? Probably. Still, Fireman Ed is less convoluted than Arrowman; he's less flabby and disturbing to look at than Barrel Man. He is what he is. If he weren't the superfan, some other person would be. Someone always is.
But the Deadspin rant offers an interesting wrinkle to the uniform riddle. Apparently Ed's favorite player growing up was Paul Warfield of the Cleveland Browns and, most damningly, the Miami Dolphins. The trouble is, do you know what number Warfield wore? It's the same as the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything:
You see? Like I say: I want to believe.