Pop - my grandfather - was the chief engineer in a paint factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and he was the only one who had to be alert on Christmas in case the works started freezing up. My mother would drive him down to the factory and wait in the car, looking up at it, while inside the building Pop got its guts moving and pumping to keep them warm and alive. She stared at the factory long enough to recognize it again right away when she went back just last year to see how much Greenpoint had changed. Today, Greenpoint is just another regentrified Brooklyn neighborhood where you need to be a millionaire to buy an apartment with even the slightest hint of Manhattan's view across the East River. She found the old factory right away, though of course it had been converted into lofts.
When he was young, Pop lost his beloved younger sister when she choked to death at the dinner table. His own father, a patriotic immigrant from County Wexford, broke his back and lost his own factory job the very next day. Pop came from a world without even a shade of guarantees, when the possibility of ruin lingered around the corner. It must have shaped him, I suppose, this way of being that I've been told is the peculiar property of people who have been displaced, rejected, persecuted - Jews, Africans, Armenians, Irish - a sense of humor that arises from an ingrained sense of doom. He was a happy man at parties but he worried himself to morbidity when one of his own children caught a cold.
I say all this because it reveals the contradictions of the lives of people like Pop; they relished with pride where they had come from, but he never thought anyone should leave the neighborhood for the big, bad world outside. He loved Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy's Notre Dame football because it was Irish-America's Harvard, a school for people like him, but when his oldest son, my Uncle Chris, a real, live, certified genius, wanted to leave Brooklyn and study chemistry at Notre Dame, Pop didn't speak with him for months. Why would you leave the neighborhood? Why would you leave me? But leave home Uncle Chris did, and he never looked back. And in doing so, he inspired my Mom and Uncle Mike to do the same.
In some way, therefore, Notre Dame became for us what it is for a lot of Irish-American families throughout the country - the cultural stamp of success. I wanted to go there when I was a kid because Uncle Chris went there, and of course being the middling high school student I was, I was promptly rejected. I knew I never had a chance. But before and after, I rooted for Notre Dame like they were some kind of family legacy. Their 38-10 Cotton Bowl upset of Texas in 1978 made up for the disappointment of the Jets' 1977 season. I followed the Forty-Niners in the early 80's because I couldn't believe Notre Dame could produce someone as brilliant as Joe Montana, the man previously resurrected in the 1979 Cotton Bowl by chicken soup.
Pop might have rooted against the Jets in the Heidi Game right there in the living room, sitting next to my Dad because the Raiders were quarterbacked to victory that day by former Notre Dame star Daryle (he pronounced it Daree-al) Lamonica. Perhaps Pop never liked the Jets much because so very few Notre Dame players really went through the Jets' system. John Huarte came and went and never got a number. There were Jim Carroll LB #55 (1969), Robert Farmer #25 RB (1989), Joe Katcick #77 DT (1960), Lance Legree #70 DT (2005), Bob O'Neil LB #62 (1961), Paul Seiler #79 T-C (1967), and Pat Terrell #27 S (1994). Whether this is typical throughout the league or not I cannot say, but I find it interesting that all of the above lasted no more than a year with the Jets.
Except for Bob Crable #50 who played his entire 1982-87 career with the Jets at linebacker. When Crable came to the Jets, I was ecstatic. In 1979, when he was a sophomore in #43, I watched him block a last second Michigan field goal to save an Irish win. The kick was pretty low but would have been blocked had it been sent straight skyward because Crable got the kind of height that basketball players dream of (though he might have climbed on someone's back). It looks impossible in the picture because it was. But at least they beat Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Bob Crable's pro career didn't possess the legend that he found at Notre Dame, and once again we must all simply agree that this is the norm. That's the way it is. College glory and pro fame are just two different species. He was drafted in the first round. Knee injuries hampered him. He accumulated 10 sacks in his career overall, which is going to be an important point below. He did play a full 16-game season in 1986 when the team found the momentum to go to the second round of the playoffs. I include a picture from Corbis taken on that exquisitely painful day of January 3, 1987, when the Jets blew a 10-point lead against the Browns with 4:14 left and lost the Divisional Playoff. Whether he imagined his hard work over that season would finally yield something greater in this game - the furthest in the NFL playoffs he had been since his rookie year - I don't know. Today, he is as a college linebackers coach.
No matter what the lead, no matter how far ahead the Irish were, my Pop paced the floors listening to Notre Dame games on the radio with his characteristically pervasive dread. No lead was safe, just as no guarantees existed in this life. Your boys could blow it at any minute. As I grew into my teenage years, I began to discover my extended families' assortment of ticks and traits programmed into my own, and I saw Pop's characteristic fears and anxieties in myself. I had inherited his sense of life. The world was filled with unexpected ruin. On January 3, 1987, Bob Crable's last playoff game, I felt a justification for this worldview.
There are many ways that ruin has come to the Jets. Football's two football strikes - 1982 and 1987 - did wreck us. They each followed an impressive playoff show for the Jets the year before (and it looks like it's going to happen again) and each time, the strike in some way broke their flow for years. The draft, too, has a notoriously gruesome past for the Jets; whereas some teams make mistakes in the draft that just make a paper cut, the Jets have historically made mistakes that actually hurt them for years. It's well documented.
But one could argue that the Jets have made very good draft choices since the beginning of the millennium. The lone, really brilliant choice in the 1990's was James Farrior, but in 2000, we chose Jon Abraham #56, Shaun Ellis #92 and Chad Pennington #10. Then there's 2001, with Santana Moss #83. In 2002, we picked Bryan Thomas #58, Jon McGraw #38; in 2004, we picked Jonathan Vilma #51 and Jerricho Cotchery #89. In 2005, there was Kerry Rhodes #25. The motherload was 2006: D'Brickashaw Ferguson #60, Nick Mangold #74, Eric Smith #33, Brad Smith #16, and Leon Washington #29. In 2007, Darrelle Revis #24 and David Harris #52. In 2009, Mark Sanchez #6 and Shonn Greene #23. There are some notable absences above from the team that went to the AFC Championship, and James Farrior was on the winning side of that game, but look at it. For the most part the team we brought was the team we drafted. It's amazing. Life is not all about blue ruin.
But earlier this year, Gholston was finally cut, having made a handful of tackles in three years and (as noted so often) no sacks. He is the kind of draft bust that people wrote about mockingly in terms of the Jets for years, but now he is the exception to the rule (we did draft Dustin Keller #81 that season, too). He is a top draft choice that didn't work out. The same might be said for Mike Nugent #1 in 2005, as well as the entire 2004 draft, which includes not a single active player. And our 2010 draft did not seem to produce much (I'm still imagining Joe McKnight doing something). It's tricky when you play well the year before. But still, the Jets now officially draft slightly above the average for success. But not Vernon.
Perhaps it was the hype that surrounded him as a defensive player, the sense of possibility we have never felt for, say, Kyle Wilson, drafted first round last year at defensive back. Maybe it's being a linebacker, the man at a position with the capacity to change the flow of a game just like that; can you imagine last year's team with a Farrior, or a Vilma, or an Abraham still on staff? I do when I'm daydreaming. Perhaps it's because we let so many great linebackers go over the years that we put so much hope - too much perhaps - on Vernon Gholston, so his departure feels poignant.
And so it is, Vernon, we say farewell: