Sunday, September 5, 2010

NY Jets #24 - Part 1

Leon Burton
He was a 1990 inductee into the Greater Flint Afro-American Hall of Fame. However, we're here tonight to honor Leon Burton as the first #24 in the history of the franchise. A standout back at Arizona State, Burton didn't play in the AFL very long. The Edsel of 1960's football clubs, the Titans were a bad place to start, and not a fair way to end your professional football career. I'm glad the folks at Flint had the decency to remember their native son, anyway.

Freeman McNeil
Freeman McNeil #24 was one of my favorite players from the 1980's. Smarting after years of watching the Jets play poorly, and knowing that our best player, no matter how good he was, was half-blind, it was exhilarating for me to watch McNeil as a second-year runner tear up defenses in 1982 and finish as the league's leading rusher - a distinction almost no Jets have had. (Have any? I should know that!) I resent the fact that he is included in ESPN's evaluation of historic Jets draft blunders. He might have played better, surely, through his career, and his promise dropped off as the Jets' underwhelmed us through most of the 80's, but he is no Lam Jones or Blair Thomas. I beg to differ. His breakaway touchdown (begin the link at the 1:46 mark) against the Browns in the 1987 Divisional Playoffs - stumbling, regaining himself and sprinting his way to the Dog Pound - is a still visceral memory of joy. We were going to the AFC Championship Game at Denver. Such brief joy. Then watch the rest of the Greatest Games segment, parts 6, 7, and 8 of 8, and you will understand how my adolescent sense of a benevolent universe gave way to a nihilism painted as black as night.

In 1992, Freeman McNeil was also the named person representing the players' interests in the McNeil vs. NFL case that helped rule against the NFL's efforts to sustain parity among teams by protecting up to 37 players from free agency, aka Plan B. The court ruled in favor of the players headed by McNeil, the man with the historically appropriate name of Freeman. As with Curt Flood, the ruling in McNeil's favor came too late, for that same year McNeil retired.

Freeman McNeil
(at his most calm)
I would add one more thing about McNeil, one of my all-time favorite Jets. I recent search on him produced this startling image of a man who looks as though he is hosting an episode of Masterpiece Theatre from the 10 yard-line of the Meadowlands, or better yet a main character for a summer network show about a football player who fights crime in his spare time. It's Freeman McNeil, chatting in the December 1997 issue of Pipe Smoke. This was the time before the Internet was destroying print matter, and there was a magazine for everything - taxidermists, tree doctors, dry cleaning, and pipe smokers. He speaks very well of Jets fans; he goes so far as to say that he felt the 1982 Strike Year team "was one of the best teams assembled in the history of the game," which I love, even if I'm inclined to disbelieve it. Freeman McNeil loves his pipe:

"My wife has a rule," says Freeman, 38. "No smoking in the house, or around the children. So I go outside with my Peterson and a cup of Earl Grey tea with sweet milk. It's very soothing. I'm at my most calm when I'm relaxing with my pipe and my tea."

When are you at your most calm? Are you ever at that point? I don't think I really have an answer to that. There's jogging, yoga, reading, biking, writing, meditation, but I haven't the discipline for any of these as consistently as I'd like. One presumes Freeman McNeil does some of those things in retirement even still. But would you begrudge this man his pipe? Not if you're a fair person. Not by a long shot. He looks too pleased with retirement for you to step in and be just another person to talk to him about the distant possibility of mouth cancer. Hell, no. He can keep smoking. He's Freeman McNeil.


Artimus Parker
(not deceased)
Behold #24 Artimus Parker. He was probably drafted high by the Eagles in 1974 after belonging to one of the greatest squads USC ever produced. He did snag four interceptions for the Eagles in 1975. Yet he would have to wait until 1977, his lone season with the Jets, and his last in the NFL, for another interception. I would love to know in which game that INT came, especially since it was good for a total of 45 yards. Somehow I had come under the impression that he had died in 2004, which he had not. Neither did I. We're both lucky men.


Was the late Johnny Sample really a dirty ball player? Number 24 was certainly confrontational, but in light of the more egregiously gruesome displays put on by Jack Tatum and the like, Sample was more of a trash talker than a "dirty" player, whatever that means. He relentlessly pushes and needles Fred Bilentnikoff after the play is done throughout the 1968 AFL Title Game, but it was Randy Beverly who tried to trip Fred's legs after he caught a Raiders touchdown in the first half. Sample was clearly a character absolutely indispensable to the Jets' morale in Super Bowl III, hectoring his former teammates on the Colts. After intercepting the ball near the Colts' goal line, Sample decorously places the ball on Willie Richardson's head.

Sample passed away last year. In an interview during NFL's Greatest Games discussion of Super Bowl III, done while Sample was still alive, Tom Matte insists that he would never speak to Johnny Sample if he saw him. His reasoning derives, we presume, in no small way from the event that transpired between the two during the game. In pursuing Matte during a 58 yard run, Sample failed to stop himself and apparently stepped on Matte's groin when Matte went down, compelling the offended party to get quickly to his feet and, accidentally, knock a few of an official's teeth out in the ensuing but brief donnybrook.

Johnny Sample did not step
on Tom Matte's groin
But let the truth now be told. Whatever frustration Matte felt was directed at the wrong man. He may not have liked Sample, but Johnny Sample did not step on Tom Matte's groin. I can't believe I know this, but from frequent viewing of the matter at hand (don't ask and stop laughing) I have seen the truth with my own eyes. The guilty party (and even here, it was probably an accident) is Jets lineman, #80 John Elliot. If anything, Sample might have been guilty of a late hit. After the play, Willie Richardson points at Sample as if to say that he's done something wrong. Watch it for yourself, beginning at the 7:22 mark. You be the judge. Is Tom Matte still right to hold a grudge against the late Johnny Sample? To my mind, Sample never denied doing it, so perhaps not. This may have been to serve his reputation as a dirty player. It's a strange game sometimes, and the men who play insist on behaving strangely.

It was strange for Jim Tiller, too, the second #24 in franchise history - a man with 11 games with the New York Titans to his NFL record, 43 yards rushing, no touchdowns. According to Titans' press material on Tiller, he "worked as a social worker during the offseason." It's not exactly the field of work I see football's toughest players going into, which might explain the terrible Titans that much more. But if Harry Wismer was in charge of dispensing information on his players to the press, can we ever really know the veracity of this information? Henry Ford was right. History is bunk.


Julio Rey said...

Artimus Parker's INT was against the Patriots at Shea, which they won in an upset, 30-27.

Martin Roche said...

How could I have missed it? I'm not what I used to be. You are awesome, Julio. Thank you. That was maybe the best victory they had that season.