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Sunday, January 30, 2011

NY Jets #48 - Part 2

They wouldn't let linebacker Brashton Satele #48 return to college after four years. Neither would my parents. Ultimately, my loss was not so great because I went to school in Rhode Island, and though I have a special place in my heart for the Ocean State, there was not much to recommend it other than its easy access to Massachusetts. Satele's alma mater was the University of Hawaii. Unlike most players who took the opposite approach, perhaps he thought he could enhance his potential for the NFL draft by playing one more year in college. And why wouldn't he want to return to paradise?

At six feet, he went undrafted in 2010, but showed up at Hofstra and was signed for a three-year deal with the Jets, though I don't remember seeing him play much this season. He is a local hero, and I have a soft spot for guys like that, which is why I liked Danny Woodhead. I have no idea what plans are for him, but if Vernon Gholsten still has a chance, doesn't Brashton Satele? The media in Hawaii rooted for his success, so why shouldn't we? And shouldn't all local news be delivered in Hawaiian shirts?

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The truth is that strong safety Brian Washington #48 played for the Jets during some empty spaces in my fan memory. I was at college, working at my first full-time job, then in love, then going to grad school and teaching for the first time. It was an Important Time in my life, a time I was using to evolve into the human being I am today, whatever that means.

In one's early 20's, everything appears to hinge on every decision you make. And to a certain degree, I guess it's true. How would I have known to move to Philadelphia - a city I had only visited only in seventh grade with my Dad - to go to grad school if I hadn't met a guy at a party in college who said he was going to move to Philadelphia for his program? A year and a half later, when I thought about a grad school, I remembered the university that my old classmate had mentioned and just applied there, on a whim. Eventually, it was the only program that took me. If I hadn't seen him at that party that seemingly insignificant night I would never have thought of applying there, I would never have moved here, I would never have met my wife, and so on. It felt like a time when Fate was guiding me. I guess It was.

But then it wasn't, quite. Maybe things just happened, as things are wont to do. But in such an atmosphere where Serious Moments seem to be happening everywhere, one is compelled to think that each relationship, each friendship, each trip to the supermarket, each day at work, each conversation, each day is filled with Portent. It gave me panic attacks.

Anyway, Brian Washington played for the Jets for those five seasons, my forgotten years, 1990-94. Among them, the one inspiring moment for the Jets that stands out is the 1992 recovery from paralysis of Dennis Byrd, the defensive tackle who went down against the Chiefs at home. His return to normal life after a paralyzing collision with teammate Scott Merseneau remains a moment of spiritual energy, a miraculous well to which the team can return again and again as needed. No one is permitted to wear #90 on the Jets anymore. Rex Ryan asked Byrd to speak to his players before the playoff game against the Patriots this past year, and the players carried the #90 jersey onto the field with them as they met their presumptuous rivals midfield for the coin toss. In 1992, Dennis Byrd arose and walked by the power of his will. And the Jets beat the Patriots.

Byrd's injury is a prime example of how disoriented I was about all my priorities during the '92 season. That weekend of his injury I was in New York staying over with my luminous and kind girlfriend. We were both lovely people. It was exciting to feel like we were that much in love, even when we didn't really know one another; all that was there were hormones and the incomparable human wish for something eternal, even in the face of hard truths.

We weren't broken up yet, though. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving, and I stayed over and then caught New Jersey Transit at Penn Station on Monday back to Philadelphia. I will never forget where I was, walking from the main entrance of the station, when I saw the Daily News headline about Dennis Byrd's condition. I hadn't even paid attention to the game the day before. Dennis Byrd would almost certainly never walk again, it said. I recall staring at the picture taken of his collision with Merseneau. The Jets had lost 23-7 to Kansas City, but they had long been out of the playoff picture, having lost their first five games what with Ken O'Brien's holdout and the legendary coming and going of Browning Nagle.

I hadn't been paying attention all season. I had been pretending to study to become a college professor. I had been pretending to be in love. I was practicing to become an adult, and mature people who were interested in going into academia didn't care about football. When I stared at that headline, something felt cold and neglected inside of me. It wasn't just the loss of yet another player that season, nor even the notion that the man's life as he knew it was in disarray. I had spent so much time away from my team, and with everything they had been through that year, I felt I had abandoned them. I felt I had made them endure it all alone. Why had I left behind the team of my childhood in their time of need? And for what? For the opportunity to play-act the life of an adult person? What kind of life was that? What kind of a person would do that? What kind of a man flat-leaves his team?

The following week I think I went back up to the city and and stayed with my girlfriend. Our weeks together were numbered. In the meantime, the Jets played Buffalo in a cold, meaningless game at Orchard Park, and they won on an interception for a touchdown near the end scored by Brian Washington. I don't remember watching it or reading the headlines about it on the passing newsstands of a railway station the next day. But Brian Washington united his team in the midst of their funk. It was their last win of their lonely season.

The Times wrote:

"Drawing strength from the faith that Byrd had displayed, and lifted by the news Saturday that Byrd had exhibited some voluntary movement in his legs, the Jets pulled out an improbable 24-17 victory over the Bills to cap what had probably been the most anguished week in the team's history.

When strong safety Brian Washington intercepted a pass by Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and zigzagged 23 yards through the outstretched arms of Buffalo players to score the game-winning touchdown with 1 minute 41 seconds to play, it did seem as if some kind of divine destiny was working for the Jets.

As Washington lay on the frozen turf in the end zone underneath a pile of his teammates, cuddling the football, his mind flashed to Byrd at the hospital.

"When I fell down in the end zone, I just said, 'Yes!' " Washington recalled. "In reflection, we look at Dennis and we look at what happened. He wants us to be strong, because he is very strong. We definitely drew electricity from him in this game today."


Does "divine destiny" work on us, or do we read into the work of our own will the intentions of something greater than ourselves? Does it matter to know one way or the other? Dennis Byrd's legs had begun to move that week. The Jets beat the Bills. He was beginning to rise and walk again.

It would be inaccurate and frankly disrespectful to a man's great achievement to say that I was likewise coming out of my fog with the Jets. The Jets would finish 4-12, then go 8-8 in 1993, a year where Brian Washington would nab six more interceptions. I wouldn't really come back to them until about a year later, when I was dating someone else who understood just how much they once meant to me - my wife. By 1995, hard-hitting Brian Washington and James Hasty joined the Kansas City Chiefs, leaving the Jets with even less than they had to offer the year Dennis Byrd went down. It felt like starting all over again. It felt like home.

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