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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

NY Jets #51 - Part 3

There were a collection of players drafted by the Jets in 1976 who were integral to the team's growth over the next few years.  Richard Todd was drafted in the first round; Shafer Suggs was drafted second, and Abdul Salaam was drafted seventh.  Greg Buttle #51 was drafted third.  He had the face of a player who was new to me in every way.  He had a little bit of the Dan Haggerty/Grizzly Adams look about him, gazing out upon the new frontier and finding solace in the ursine arms of Gentle Ben.  He was part of the New Way.  The post-Namath Jets - my Jets, not my Dad's - the team that I would watch be rebuilt from scratch, and damn, damn, damn if they didn't just kind of almost pull it off.

No more would I rely on my father's stories of leather-necked men like Al Atkinson, Ralph Baker, Verlon Biggs, Paul Rochester and Jim Hudson.  The Jets would be stocked with nothing but youth.  In terms of average age, the Jets were in 1978 the youngest team in the pros, which is why SI predicted that year they would go 1-15.  They broke even.  By then, Todd, Suggs, Salaam and Buttle were all starters, as were guys drafted in '77.  Buttle played for the Jets his whole career.  He is on the radio for the Jets, and you hear in his voice his North Jersey accent.  Here he offers what I feel is a nice little tribute to Shea Stadium as the Jets' home.  We never got to the game early enough to see what he recalls as throwing footballs into the stands and shaking hands with the fans, but Buttle is right about the closeness to the field.  Fans could get so close that they were right behind the players and couldn't see the game.  Hey, 51.  Move.  And the fact is that fans frequently ran onto the field during the game.  I saw one guy in 1980 run off with a helmet during an impossible Jets loss to the winless New Orleans Saints.

Like his predecessor in number, Greg Buttle came from Penn State, where he was a standout.  My first introduction to him was the home game against New England in his rookie season, which the Jets naturally lost 38-24.  Buttle recovered an Andy Johnson fumble for the first Jets' touchdown of the game, and then intercepted Steve Grogan to set up the second, all in the first half.  Enjoy the harpsichord and Jon Facenda's sonorous voice of God as he speaks at the 5:40 mark.  Facenda quotes Buttle as saying,

"They pay me to practice.  Sunday, I play for nothing."  Facenda adds:  "If all the Jet youngsters hold to that thought, the team will be headed  to the right direction."

Perhaps this is actually the way God looks at us.  If Roche can live up to his resolution to avoid cake in the middle of the day, he should be moving in the right direction.  But I cannot say.  I have no control.  I merely narrate his endeavors at the behest of Ed Sabol as if I can.    

I remember the off-duty cop in front of me turning around and hugging me when Greg Buttle scored that touchdown, his parka smelling like a mixture of cigarette smoke, aftershave, bourbon and leather seats - the smells of postwar men.  I remember his expression when he pulled away, of absolute surprise and delight, a look that I didn't know that a grown man could have.  I suppose I realized then and there what being a fan could do to a person.  The world of men as I had seen it from watching faces as I held my father's hand walking through Queens, was a loud, explosive, mustachioed, grumpy place filled with raspy voices.  My wife says that in the 70's she imagined that her adulthood would be filled with the hairy, grass-smoking people who wore tight white linen shirts and white bell-bottoms, walking along Malibu Beach, listening to Eagles and Carly Simon songs as they played on eight-track.  That's what she saw in her mind's eye as she grew up in Boston.  I imagined the adult world as the off-duty cops who sat in front of my Dad, whose expressions were made dour by the frown of their mustaches.  They were vigilant, dissatisfied, yet hazy all the same.   

I thought it was a world I would have to grow into, but then it never came to me.  It was actually a world in its death throes when I got to it, passing out of existence.  By the time I was an adult, sports was for families and (with the absolute exception of the Lincoln Field in Philadelphia) would no longer tolerate men who smoked cigars in the stands and snuck hard liquor into games.  That was the world of Shea, a place for angry men who waited amid deep sighs and bluster for an instant to turn briefly into children again.  It rarely happened.  But it could happen.  

****

A few years ago I was teaching a star athlete in my Honors English class, which is highly unusual.  Honors English in senior year is usually for the art kids, the kids who take European History and the ones who want to be teachers someday.  Athletes aren't really in that category, but this kid, a lettered track and soccer player, was probably my best student.

Except being the top kid in class wasn't enough for her.  She wanted more.  I don't give out 100% grades on papers, but I do give out A's.  I would give her A's - 93, 94 - but she wanted more.  "What's it going to take for me to get a 96?"  She asked.  "A 97?"

"Look," I told her, "you get good grades.  Why do you need more?"  I know it seemed silly to ask, but these were the highest grades.  She was a senior.  Other students in class were in the slack of spring, uninterested in doing better.  I had to worry about my 11th graders who were failing English in my other class, the ones who cut class and didn't do their homework or were suspended.  I confess I had become acclimated to senioritis in my battle with my juniors.  But not her.

"I need a push.  You have to push me," she said.

"But you already work hard," I said that.  "I recognize that.  I do."

"You don't understand.  You have to push.  You have got to make me give more.  I need to do more."

This is the way athletes are, I realized.  They relied on inspiration from people that mattered to them, and in this case, I was her coach.  I?  A coach?  Since I had never been a successful athlete, I didn't know what that would look like if I tried.  But I had read enough about effective coaches to know what to say next.

****

Bryan Cox #51 played for the Jets from 1998-2000 and was specifically brought to the Jets by Bill Parcells, who loved players whom most of the league had written off as washouts.  I always admired this about the coach, and I do feel like it is the only redeeming thing I can find about him remaining in me.  Consider Ottis Anderson, Jumbo Elliott, Vinny Testaverde - guys that Parcells kept going and working collecting a paycheck.  It always seemed as though these players could alternately mentor the younger players and also prove to the boss that they could still play - a matter on which, it seemed, the boss never seemed to appear entirely convinced.  That's the thing.  In the modern era, it takes a psychological artist to compel people to play for him and him alone.  As he moved from team to team, Parcells took these devotees with him.  Keyshawn Johnson, Richie Anderson and Testaverde all went to Dallas with him.  

Cox is now a defensive coach with the Dolphins, Parcells' current managerial home; it is also where Cox began his career in the early nineties.  In only his second year, he became one of the most feared linebackers almost overnight by recording 14 sacks.  He was the first player I ever saw wear that oversized neck protector.  In the context of the times in which he played, with the heated nature of the rivalry between Buffalo and Miami during that time (in which the Jets played only a bit role) Bryan Cox was seen as the man with the target on his back.  He took the field at Rich Stadium rather famously with his middle fingers extended.  It was hard to take his side, but it was enjoyable to see the fans of Buffalo aghast at him.

Were they so innocent?  This is not a conclusive (or speedy) link, but Cox suggested that the racist hate mail he received from Buffalo fans prior to the game so unnerved him that he behaved "like a child."  It might have been around the time Jack McDowell gave his own Yankee fans the bird.  Good times all around.  I remember taking a ride around Buffalo in a crowded car when I was on a business trip as a glorified assistant, and our tour guide referred to the neighborhood passing by as "where the blacks lived."  That was 1997, some five years after Bryan Cox flipped Buffalo off and became known afterwards an "out-of-control player."  When he came to Jets, I worried like the sensitive fan that I am about his "presence in the locker room."  Today he is a defensive coach and possibly moving up the ranks.  There you are.

My favorite story about him comes in two interpretations.  The first is from the time that the Jets were clinching the AFC East in beautiful 1998; Cox comes to his locker and Parcells has left a gift for him:  a gasoline can half-filled with water, with the simple message:  "Merry Christmas."  In a story about Parcells for 60 Minutes, Cox clarifies the gift by saying that the note also asked Cox if he has "any gas left in the can."  Did he have anything left to give?  The coach needed more.

****

I am through with Bill Parcells, but I knew what I needed to say to my student.  I sat down with her and examined several very specific places where her writing needed stylistic improvement and asked her, tentatively handing the paper back, "Is there any gas left?"

"What?" she asked.

"You heard me," I asked.  "Is there anything left?  Can you give me more?"

She narrowed her eyes.  Suddenly she wasn't in English class.  She was on the field, being pushed for more.  She knew I'm no more a coach than Rex Ryan is a professor of absurdist drama, but I was playing a role.  And she got it.

"Yes," she said.  And the next essay she wrote was not just her personal best but also the overall best of the year.  

2 comments:

Slimbo said...

Beautiful stuff, here.

What year was that Buttle card from? I always loved that series with the earth-tone space-age borders.

Slap a turtleneck on Buttle in that card and he'd fit right into a 70's Sports Illustrated Cutty Sark ad. That's how I envisioned adulthood - from SI ads. Facial hair, rooms darkened by wood paneling and red shag carpets. Flannel.

Edward said...

Yes. Absolutely straight on about the turtleneck. And there was a chick there. The card is from 1977, with shots from the '76 season.