Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NY Jets #6 - Part 2

Until recently, the most important #6 in New York Jets history was Ray Lucas, and for half a season - the ill-fated one in 1999 - he was the Jets' starter. He was the greatest overachiever at a position that is traditionally mixed with promise, hope, misery and disappointment for the Jets. When all of us had so many big dreams for that season, starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde went down in the opener with a snapped Achilles tendon, and there was literally no one ready to take his place. You can blame Bill Parcells for both those situations. Right before the season opener, he ordered the grass they were planning to use be replaced by an artificial turf that caught Vinny's foot in the hot sun and helped snap his tendon. You can blame Parcells for not having any decent backup. I still do.

By the bye week, the leaderless Jets played themselves out of the playoffs. But then Ray Lucas took over and lead the Jets to a .500 finish. Parcells called it (at the time) his finest achievement in coaching. I prefer to thank Ray Lucas. He became a Dolphin in 2000 and then fell off the high wire, but for eight games in 1999, Ray Lucas was one of the the most successful QB's in the AFC. Today, if I wanted to say anything bad about Mark Sanchez (and it's going to be a half-hearted effort below to do so, let me say) then I would wear Ray Lucas' jersey to a Jets game.

Joe Prokop #6 is found in many of longtime Jets' placekicker Pat Leahy's best photographs because Prokop was the holder on Leahy's kicks during the 1990 season, the year Leahy was voted team MVP. Prokop was also the Jets' punter from 1988-90. He would be our Booth Lustig Award winner if not for a man named Bubby Brister. That's distinction in the world of the Gang Green for you. But on one very dull afternoon in another one of Bruce Coslet's (er, Joe Walton) unfortunate seasons (1989) Joe Prokop apparently took the ball at the snap of a Pat Leahy field goal and ran it in for a 17 yard touchdown in a losing effort against the Patriots. This must have been the design of the play. The well-traveled handler and punter was given his moment, and he took it. Life is worth living for a host of reasons that may seem mundane to anyone not looking very closely, the way one never really notices the man holding the ball for the placekicker. Doing your job well and dependably is its own reward, and I hope I don't sound too much like a high school teacher when I say that such things make life worth living. But who in the world would sneeze at the chance to run it past the point of things as they are? Who wouldn't consider such an opportunity even more worthwhile?


Sometimes I make mistakes. Sometimes I make dumb mistakes. In this case, I called Reggie Hodges #6 "Russell" Hodges in my last update and was properly corrected by davidill (as seen below). Now that I have failed to even so much as get his name right, I owe it to this man to paraphrase the very best of the mere tip of the iceberg that the web invariably offers - and who knows, maybe even more. How could I have lost the opportunity to talk about this man? Where to begin?

1) You can follow him on Twitter, and when you do, you will see a man who is happy with life, or at least happy in the way that Twitter presents all of us, in 140 characters or less. Reggie exists in a spectrum of experience by which I am fascinated. He believes in Jesus as an active, living presence in his life. I grew up Roman Catholic, and though there are many ways of believing in Christianity as a Catholic, I confess I never wrote or thought about Jesus in quite the way that a believer like Reggie Hodges does. I often wished that I could as a child, but always He seemed distant and mysterious, talking of love and the end of time all on the same page. Thinking about Jesus truly appears to make him happy (Twitter happy, maybe, but I believe it's the real thing in this case). For me, as a Catholic, Jesus always reminded me (without meaning to, no doubt) of my deep limitations as a human being (Jesus wouldn't have called Reggie Russell, for example, nor vice versa). He was always an example of what we should try to imitate, and He still is. There are people who talk about a personal relationship with Him. I know they're not crazy, but that's not what I have felt. My loss, I guess.

But theology classes never helped cure my sense of alienation from Him. Never mind how extraordinarily diverse the character of Jesus is when you start looking at Him historically. Read Bart Ehrman on the subject (Misquoting Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet) and you are shaken. Jesus has been many things to many people throughout time, but who he actually was historically is a subject of debate. Who He is to a believer like Reggie Hodges, a person of faith, is a matter entirely different. To Hodges, He is as real now as He was then. Hodges says, "I am a servant of God disguised as a punter." That's real stuff. I have always felt that the disguise I wear is just one that sits over another and another and another, to the point where who I am depends on whom I'm talking to. I suppose that this is often what life is like. I always imagine people like Reggie Hodges to be exactly who they say they are to every person to whom they speak, and I suppose that they may be happier than I.

2) There is something poignant to the punter's life. Unless he's Ray Guy, the punter going to be shuttled around as needed. He is not a glorified personage. His #6 is not as desired as, say, Mark Sanchez's. In six seasons, Hodges has officially played for eight teams, though he is signed with the Browns through 2012. His player's biography resembles that of a picaresque's nomadic hero. The Jets signed him when Ben Graham's punts kept falling short and sent him off the following spring. Signed by the Titans the following Fall, he was cut a month later. And though he didn't do it as a Jet, Hodges did something that ranks as a remarkable act among punters. He took a fake for 68 yards, the longest run for a punter in NFL history, and - if it is to be believed - the longest run from scrimmage for the Browns all through the 2010 season. And there you are. God works in mysterious ways.


I remember sitting at a wedding once next to an older woman who claimed that she had spent some time in her early 20's in Miami during the weeks leading up to Super Bowl III with Joe Namath. She never said in what capacity this time was spent. When you read about Namath's record of liaisons in Mark Kriegal's biography, it is remarkable. Any man who dated Suzy Storm alone is a star. He had poise.

Mark Sanchez #6 might someday get his own entry on our gloriously unread blog. At first, the funniest part of Mark Sanchez's fame was his overstated attribute of "poise." Deadspin used Sanchez as a poster boy for sports media's absolute dearth of original thought in its profligate use of the word. Because poise was all we were looking for in him, our expectations of his rookie year at the starting position were minimal. What else could we expect from a young, overpaid underwear model? Neil O'Donnell had poise, too, and it didn't do us much good, but he was an old man by football's standards when he was a Jet.

What we've discovered is that Mark Sanchez is intelligent on the field, with a manner of being that is Namath incarnate, the manner of champions who use their own self-confidence to deflect away the fear of failure. I suppose that's what poise is, isn't it? He played like Namath in his first season because he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, though made very good decisions in the postseason in January 2010 which did not involve red, green, and yellow colors on his sleeve, or even handing off to Shonn Greene.

Then in 2010, his numbers improved. He reversed his touchdown to interception ratio, with a QB rating that moved from 63.0 to 75.3. The Jets did their December dive, but they rebounded. When they took the field against the seemingly unbeatable Patriots in Foxboro, I noticed that Sanchez ran out of the tunnel with a calm, blinding confidence in his own happiness that Colisseum spectators must surely have seen in an occasional defenseless Christian who was about to be fed to the beasts. I suppose I would have still remembered that expression even if the Jets had lost. But they didn't. He is our quarterback.

But in case you haven't noticed, people in the field of athletics are twisted. They post very easily found videos about their wives' feet. They father children with different women with the speed of Genghis Khan. They accidentally shoot themselves. They also rape women in the bathrooms of bars, or possibly (well, "possibly" in Sanchez's case) even on college campuses. They send photographs of their penises to women who give them only the vaguest sign of professional interest. Then it all ends up on Deadspin.

Mark Sanchez's possibly/possibly not heated romantic relationship with a 17 year-old fits somewhat squarely into this paradigm - one that befits a person who has grown up believing, through community and educational reinforcement, that he is above the moral law. When people have razzed me about Sanchez's rendezvous with Eliza Kruger, I have caught myself nearly saying the same thing that Eliza said to Mark about her being legal in New York. How can I possibly defend it? I cannot. I certainly know the difference between an adolescent and an adult, but a 24 year-old man should, too. It's not exactly trapping a woman in a bathroom, but it's still morally wrong.

And what's remarkable is that, like Joe Namath in his time, Mark Sanchez could have any woman in any borough of America's largest and most culturally diverse city. But instead he texted a 17 year-old girl from Connecticut. This is also an aspect of the successful athlete's experience. His pampered life cloisters him from the real experiences of failure and success that the rest of us had to have with romance. Apparently the key to a great athlete's psychological growth is his ability to "forgive" himself when he fails on the field. I'm not always so sure that such failures are acceptable off it. This isn't a rationalization, but it is a psychological explanation for why men who take the field against an unbeatable team with the smile of a winner can also appear completely unable to grasp that a sober, intelligent grown woman might be interest in him for something other than his own vanity.

More likely, Mark Sanchez was not interested in conversation, but in exactly the kind of ephemeral, superficial adoration that a 17 year-old girl bestows on the high school's hottest football player. One senses that he needs to join the adult world, not just as an athlete, but as a human being.


davidvill said...

Hey Martin, the punter is actually Reggie Hodges, who followed Mangini to Cleveland.

Julio Rey said...

And Joe Walton was the coach in 1989, not Coslet.

Martin Roche said...

I really need to quit my day job.

Slimbo said...

WFAN had a story that during the season, Sanchez visited a kid in Queens who was terminally ill even giving the kid his number, telling him to text him any time. Even after the Miami loss at home, Sanchez got in his car and visited the kid's house. Sadly, the kid didn't make it though.
Sanchez is human and flawed, but he's good people.

Martin Roche said...

I like to think so. He's no Big Ben. I think that's pretty obvious. And I would take Mark as my QB over that savage any day. And I do mean that.