Thursday, November 11, 2010

NY Jets #45 - Part 4

It's hard to walk around with a name that everyone either associates with the most dread of household inspects or with a joint that has gone nearly past its usability among many hands and mouths. But like most of the blemishes of one's life, you get used to it, especially past the age of 12, when most kids are done pestering you about the obvious things that make a person ugly - your face, your walk, your voice, your name. Then you enter the adult world, where it's different. Grown people make quiet note of the blemishes God gave you, without needing to turn it into a soul-shattering verbal refrain that, as a child, you'd have to steel yourself for on the lunch line, day in and damned day out. Adults save such cruelties for their own private amusements, waiting for just the right moment to bat you back into mortal place.

I'd still rather be an adult. If today someone makes a reference to how I must get high a lot, or to Franz Kafka, or to being the only one who will be able to survive a nuclear attack, I can always say, "Oh. Yeah. Right. God. I've never heard that before."

But what about Tony Stargell, who played in #45 for the Jets from 1990-91? When I was a little boy in Pleasantville, NY, and Tony was 13 and growing up playing football in LaGrange, Georgia, Willie Stargell shared SI's Sportsman of the Year with Terry Bradshaw.

Willie Stargell
Willie Stargell was "Pops," the most recognizable baseball player of his day outside of Reggie Jackson and a fine example of a human athlete as well. Willie Stargell's power so obviously came from a frame unenhanced by performance enhancement, that in his near middle age he had a beer-gut. He preferred a good time to a statistical high, and he still won the NL MVP in 1979 at the ripe old age of 39.

I was a Mets fan, but I rooted for the Pirates in the 1979 World Series because they were National League, because they were the underdog, and because they were "Family," with Pops at the head of the table. Grown men of Tony Stargell's age still know who Pops was; he was larger-than-life, but he is gone now, long dead and gone by more years than I can believe. It seems like only yesterday that I was imitating Wilver Stargell's batting stance in my cousin's backyard, trying to capture his strange lilting action of the bat as readied for a pitch. Men of a certain age - my age and Tony Stargell's - know who Pops was. He was exactly the model of what sports isn't now. Sports is not really about fun, and to paraphrase an axiom of Wilver himself, the man yells play ball, not work ball. He doesn't yell "moneyball," either.

It seems awfully trite to say something like that nowadays, but the shift in priorities is infectious throughout our culture. The pay scale for baseball players is based on their statistics. The man who was recently elected to become the new governor of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth is imitating the fat man who governs New Jersey in the belief that public school teacher pay should be linked with the statistical data of student testing. Nothing can remove the love of learning any more than moneyball can ruin a love for baseball; people will still be taught by creative-minded teachers and will also still be watching baseball when these narrow-minded governors are dead and forgotten, save for being mere names on occasional bits of state park property. But both teaching and baseball are a whole lot less fun when they're purely the property of statistical content. And since moneyball became the way of America's Game, Willie Stargell's Pirates haven't been to the postseason, either. His statue stands a lot larger outside their park than Willie Stargell himself once stood, but for men of a certain age - mine and Tony's - that's pretty damned tall.

Tony Stargell
(no apparent relation)
Why must I go on like this? The truth is I actually don't have much to say. Tony Stargell started his career with the New York Jets at defensive back after being drafted by them in 1990. The Jets could have taken Ricky Proehl; they could have taken Neil O'Donnell, Bobby Houston or Anthony Pleasant (all of whom would go on to play for us eventually, anyway); more importantly, they could have taken Larry Centers or maybe even Fred Barnett, though lots of Eagles fans might argue otherwise. Tony Stargell was picked out of Tennessee State and played two seasons with us before going west to Indianapolis. Linebackers stay a while, receivers are needed even when they're not wanted, but the secondary seems so expendable. Tony Stargell is another name gone in and out of our franchise's defensive backfield, and his statistics make no more than a ripple than those belonging to Torin Dorn or Le-Lo Lang, both of whom were also drafted by as defensive backs NFL teams in 1990.

Torin Dorn's a funny name when you say it (didn't his parents say it to themselves beforehand?), though obviously Le-Lo takes the cake. Many men must carry such burdens, and they grow up and out of them. But Tony Stargell probably had to carry the burden of being perpetually asked if he was related to Pops, and when you're an athlete being compared to a legend with your name, you inevitably fall short, regardless of whether or not people understand that you're not related. And no, Tony Stargell was apparently not related to Willie. All of us make mistakes, but when Tony Stargell did for the Jets, the Colts, the Bucs, the Chiefs and the Bears, some smartass in the crowd, on the sidelines or even in zebras probably uttered the phrase, "Sonuvabitch should have stuck to baseball." And that's not fair.

Corky Tharp #45 is far right.
Thomas "Corky" Tharp was drafted by the LA Rams in 1955 after having a stellar career rushing at the University of Alabama. Five years later, he shows up wearing #45 as defensive back, playing most of the 1960 season for the New York Titans before retiring that year. Above, courtesy of Corbis, you see him in action, to the right, trying to tackle Houston Oilers rookie Billy Cannon. Corky's ride in football, which took him from Alabama to Canada with the Argonauts of Toronto and finally the Titans, is about to come to an end. Billy Cannon's ride in pro football will last another decade, during which he will be turned into an unused tight end for the Raiders and the Chiefs. In the image above, Corky seems already to be shying away from Cannon and the life that football has provided. It's fading time. It will come for Billy, too.

And if you can't tell it from that picture, try the two images below, a before and after. The one on the left is Corky Tharp, the young student who gained just over 2,000 career yards for the Crimson Tide, staring off into a seemingly limitless horizon. The second looks more like After - the smirking, knowing expression of an experienced grown man who has been converted several times over to the most dispensable of positions, playing on an AFL team that can barely break even.
Corky (before)
Corky (after)

Finally, we come to Earlie Thomas, #45 for the Jets from 1970 to 1974. Did he also start his career in the Canadian pipeline? It's an interesting question because apparently his NFL career began with the Jets at the age of 25.

On a humid day at Harvard Stadium in 1970, Earlie Thomas, a rookie out of Colorado State, intercepted a pass by Mike Taliaferro and ran it back for a 36-yard touchdown, giving the Jets a 28-7 third quarter lead. As they have been wont to do in my history with them, the Jets nearly gave away what was left of the game, managing to hold onto a 31-21 win. I find it interesting, by the way, that in 1968 the Patriots played at Fenway but then at Boston College's Alumni Stadium in 1969, and then at Harvard a year later. After that, they became the New England Patriots of Foxboro that we all know and love so well.
Master's or PhD?

Earlie Thomas' interception was just a little more than enough to keep Namath's offense ahead (Joe went 9-for-20 that day). It was am early start to his career; some men are aptly named after all.  Earlie never ran one back again in his entire career. He would pick one more off that season and make four more interceptions his remaining career, ending up in Denver in 1975. Some things come early to those who wait, but then are gone for good.
Some information on him from the 1974 Jets yearbook, apparently Earlie Thomas earned his Master's degree in something related to agriculture, for his dissertation (which speaks to a PhD) "ison aweevil parasite" (sic). At least he's doing some good somewhere, one presumes.

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