As I said earlier, there is something about the #49 - or about any number on the cusp of turning over to another tenth - that it does not attract a great many players, nor many players who stay long. I wonder if, when he is given this number, a player says, "Oh. I see how it is." Look at #'s 19, 29, 39, and you'll find some of the least notable Jets players among a franchise roster that doesn't count many legends.
But in each, there are notable exceptions. Keyshawn Johnson #19. Bake Turner and Leon Washington in #29. Johnny Johnson #39. Here we acknowledge Tony Paige, who played for the Jets in #49 from 1984-1986. During the Jets very best showing, Paige was a steady presence in the backfield alongside the more prominent running machine, Freeman McNeil. After the sad, sad end to the 1986 season, he then played for the Lions and, more crucially, the Dolphins. I remember how sore it always felt to see people like Woody Bennett and Tony Paige in the backfield for the dread Fish. Paige played the way fellows like him are expected to. He ran short yardage, he blocked for McNeil, he took short passes. He made 469 yards in receptions for the Dolphins in his second-to-last season for them, 1991.
He is currently a sports agent - which I'm surprised more former player's aren't - in this case for Perennial Sports Management. He is the agent for Kris Jenkins #77, and apparently the organization itself claims it has signed Cam Newton for representation, which is a little like Diaghilev signing Nijinsky, only without all the homoeroticism. This is a bizarre time to represent football players and agents obviously, due to the Lockout that will likely negate the entire season (a circumstance for which I am obviously in denial, as I never, ever write about it; why write about something that you don't want to happen? It's why I actually couldn't be a journalist). Plus Jenkins was released by the Jets a month ago, after a heartbreaking injury to his ACL toward the beginning of last season. Altogether, the Lockout is a weird place to be for Tony Paige. Agents tend to rebound regardless, probably more easily than do players. Kris Jenkins was quoted as saying that "Tony has always been with me, every step of the way. If it wasn’t for Tony then I probably wouldn’t be in the game at this point." One would hope Tony will still be with him now.
To his credit (although this is probably the kind of spin that modern agents are expected to use), Tony Paige does say on the Perennial website that in the world outside of football that:
"...The problem is, your career as an athlete won’t last forever...the average NFL career is about three and a half seasons and in the NBA, the average player is around for less than four years.
Because of this, athletes need to be smart about the money they make during their short active years. They need to save, invest well, start companies and foundations and begin making inroads to a post-sports career."
This is something that I've tried to consistently make note of - the disposibility of professional football players. Perhaps Tony Paige is exactly the kind to guide men like Jenkins in this sense.
Did I just say that about an agent?
On an entirely different subject, Tony Paige plays a part in an adolescent, subconscious experience (in other words, a dream) that I still recall vividly to this day.
It was February 1987. I was 17. The Giants had beaten the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI 39-20 maybe a week or so before. I had watched the game with friends, thinking about how my Jets had been just weeks away from the very same game. No pain will leave you like the first great betrayal of your life, and Mark Gastineau's late hit on Bernie Kosar in the 1987 AFC Divisional Playoffs is a pain that will be with me long after I have been left as an friendless, miserable old man in a nursing home. I will still be crying "NO! NO! A FLAG! SHIT! OH SHIT!" and the nursing home attendants will ignore me with the disdain that they reserve for the facility's most incontinent, deranged old fools.
Anyway, I had a dream some nights after Super Bowl XXI that the Jets beat the Bears in the very same Super Bowl. (Ironically, both the Bears and the Jets had lost earlier on the playoffs the same weekend to the Redskins and the Browns, respectively - the two teams that the Giants and the Broncos would then beat in their conference championships.) The dream goes like this: it is midway through the fourth quarter. The Jets are up by one over the Bears. Night has fallen on Pasadena. Our quarterback takes the snap somewhere in Bear territory. He is neither Pat Ryan nor Ken O'Brien, but John Rogan. Yes. You don't know who he is, except that he played for Yale in the early 80's and was apparently signed (briefly) or was a walk-on for the Jets in 1982 right after his graduation. I don't think he took a snap for the Jets, but he apparently he played for the Montreal Alouettes from 1982 to '83. Somewhere, around 1982 (this is still reality now), I think I must have read some kind of article in Newsday or the Times when I was maybe about 12 or 13 about John Rogan trying out for the Jets when he was a rookie. This article chiseled itself profoundly into my memory, waiting for a moment when my mind needed a mythology to condole me (as mythologies do) and it provided a fine, unconscious antidote to reality.
Back in the dream, John Rogan, quarterbacking the Jets in Pasadena for the Lombardi Trophy, hands the ball off to Johnny Hector who then laterals it to Tony Paige #49, who then throws the ball accurately back to Rogan, who is now streaking down the sideline - a kind of play that John Elway used to sometimes run - with only a barely recovered Dave Duerson or Gary Fencik for the Bears coming too late to tackle him. The Jets win the Super Bowl by eight. Maybe they tag on a field goal, too. Who knows.
In real life, John Rogan does still exist. Today he works for a group that, near as I can tell, recruits "high-level senior associates for corporate clients," which sounds like finding matches among high-level executives, board members and corporations. Perhaps he and Tony Paige could trade notes on millionaires.
I woke from my dream filled with a nervous joy that quickly dissipated when I realized that it wasn't real; but unlike other such dreams, the vivid feeling of happiness it gave me has remained with me even to this day. I can still see it happen through my mind's eye. It wasn't real, but it felt real. They didn't win, but somewhere in the cosmic infinite of one human subconsciousness, they did. John Rogan was a hero. And so was Tony Paige.
Tony Richardson #49 blocked for Marcus Allen and Priest Homes in Kansas City; he blocked for Adrian Peterson in Minnesota and then for Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene in New York. An article in SI from last year gives some sense of how valuable yet expendable men like him really are. Though at pressing 40, the man can hardly complain. He's made good work of it, and he is the offensive equivalent of a mensch. He's a guy who's job is to be in front of you while you run for daylight. This is a man who shouldn't worry about having a future career beyond football because he's probably got a plan. Most men who block for stars do. At least that's my conjecture, but I assume he knows something that a lot of other players don't.
I knew we'd have to return to the subject of the Lockout. Historically, Richardson is a member of the NFLPA's board, and his article in the Huffington Post doesn't have anything new to say from the point of view of players facing the Lockout: football is popular, fans are being cheated by the Lockout, owners won't open up their books, players are already giving up enough as it is. But we all know that players will ultimately be blamed for the the absence of football this season. Eventually, players are expected to give in, despite how grotesquely wealthy and cynically bloated the ownership really is. Remember what Tony Paige said: players "need to save, invest well, start companies and foundations and begin making inroads to a post-sports career." They are the expendables, whether they like it or not. The owners are not, only because they have actual control over the comfort of their fans, as well as more long-term cash.
In the end, the unionized worker can certainly expect that he will eventually be asked by a mostly underpaid, non-unionized public, "What makes you so special? How come you're different from everybody else?" In our culture, we always take it for granted that it's perfectly normal that there should be rich men who make enormous contributions to political campaigns, who gouge prices, who move their businesses where the labor is cheapest, and imagine with a hubris characteristic of Gaddafi that their money is their ultimate self-justification. For some reason in America these persons are seen as more worthy of the wealth they possess than the unionized workers whose labor fills their coffers.
As a teacher, a person sometimes told that I don't have a "real" job because I have part of the year off, I can honestly sympathize with grossly paid football players whose season lasts from September to January. I know (as I've learned in Wisconsin recently) that when push comes to shove, management will spin it to make it look like union labor is taking advantage of low-wage non-union people in hard times. And that is garbage.
So here's to you, Tony Richardson. I honestly don't mind how much you make. Yes, it's a bucketload more than I earn. I'll continue to root for football players who are "overpaid" throughout the darkening months each year because they're work is what makes football what it is. Football is not Jerry Jones, not Bud Adams, not Bill Bidwill, not the Irsays, not former owner Art Modell, not Mike Brown, not Pat Bowlen, Daniel Snyder, nor even the Rooneys or Woody Johnson. They call their teams their "product." When I am bereft of happiness on Sundays next season, I'll know it was the owners' fault that the Lockout was put in place. Money speaks for money just as the devil speaks for his own.