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Thursday, February 10, 2011

NY Jets #49 - Part 1

Number 49 exists in a purgatorial state. Sometimes a running back, sometimes a linebacker, sometimes a tight end, occasionally a corner, he is rarely the star. He is an opportunist, awaiting his next chance, but only a few minutes away from the cut. Therefore, the list for #49 is a curious mix of players who made little distinction in the pros and, on the average, only about a season and a half with the Jets. It is the most notable list in that sense only; those that came did not stay long.

At cornerback in 1980, Steve Carpenter #49 played pro about as long as the average player in the NFL - two seasons. Originally from the southern Illinois town of Staunton, he attended Western Illinois, was undrafted, played a year for the Jets, then returned to where he more or less came from, and played for the St. Louis football Cardinals for the 1981 season.

There was once a time in my life where you could name any part of the areas in and around St. Louis, and I could tell you what zip code you had. It was a requirement for my job. I was a volunteer coordinator for an adult literacy program, and I had to match volunteers with students. I had a big map at my desk outlined into zip codes, and if you were an adult literacy student in Jennings, MO (63135), I cold find you a volunteer tutor. If you lived in what used to be the old Gaslight district (63108) maybe I could get somebody from Clayton (63105) to lend a hand. But it was harder going in Staunton, Illinois (62088). It was on my map, but I never got any calls from there. And that's my story.

Ten years later, Travis Curtis #49 started as a safety in 1990. He nabbed five interceptions in 1987, his rookie season, with the Cardinals. That was their last year before moving to Phoenix. I remember people telling me while I was in St. Louis in the early 90's, after Bill Bidwell moved his team out west, that people were there at Lambert Airport to jeer them off to Arizona. I could never comprehend that a group of fans would let their team go happily, willingly and, according to reports, joyfully. I just didn't get it. Bidwell moved them from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960, and nobody I ever met in the Mound City ever said they went to a game or even thought about how much fun they were.

In Jonathan Franzen's early novel The Twenty-Seventh City - which near as I remember is a ridiculous story of an Indian (Hindu) woman's takeover of the St. Louis police department - there is a moment when fans are at a Cardinals football game at Busch Stadium when, I think, the scoreboard begins reading gibberish and the entire building catches fire. It's as awkwardly imagined and embarrassing to read as Cardinals football was to watch (at least that's what the natives used to say). In his 1988 review of the novel, Michiko Kakutani wrote that, "Though Mr. Franzen uses language and an adept puzzle-making ability to create a clever narrative of Pynchonesque intricacy, he has a tendency to manufacture complications for the sheer sake of complexity." Did a fan of Cardinals football have any choice but go for broke and light the stadium on fire?

Maybe Franzen wasn't a fan of Cardinals football; I confess I have never been a fan of his writing. I always feel like reading his fiction is like taking a forced march through SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN LITERATURE. Instead, he is tiresome. As I recall, in the novel, the nefarious Police Chief S. Jammu wants to unite together the city (i.e., 63103) and the suburban county (i.e., 63115), which would be deeply troubling to anyone, say, like Franzen who has previously waxed in a characteristically defensive manner about the beauty of growing up in the fortunate suburb of Webster Groves (63119). And just in case you were still paying attention, Travis Curtis played a nearly full season for the Jets in the oblivions of Bruce Coslet's 1990 Jets squad, and I have nothing to show for it, except a memory of sweating my way through that particular football season, trying to keep a doomed relationship alive, wondering where I was going to work after college graduation. The answer was St. Louis, apparently then America's 27th largest city. If Jammu had gotten her way, who knows what could have happened? Today St. Louis now our nation's 52nd city. Poor, poor Gateway. I was hoping, for the sake of verisimilitude, that it would be the 49th.

It was a bigger city than #27 in 1971 when George Hoey was drafted by the Cardinals as a defensive back, and in his rookie year, he ran back a kickoff for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles at Busch Stadium. By 1975, white flight had St. Louis in a downward population spiral, and George Hoey was given #49 to wear for five games in the hapless Jets season of 1975, his last in the NFL.

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