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Sunday, July 3, 2011

NY Jets #52 - Part 3

In 1997, Thomas "Pepper" Johnson #52 got the call from Bill Parcells. Come join my latest experiment, he says, and the men often take the call and the one-way flight to wherever he is. New Jersey, Foxboro, New Jersey again, Dallas, Miami. There aren't really any players from Parcells' coaching days still active, though if Pepper Johnson could play, I'm sure Parcells would play him. But would Pepper play for him?


Johnson was one of Parcells' favorite defensive players, and considering how much the old man loves defense, that's saying a lot. I saw Pepper Johnson as a Scottie Pippen to Lawrence Taylor's Michael Jordan, if Jordan was a human basket case. Aren't all superstars, by definition, basket cases? Jordan may still appear as a relatively impenetrable star in Hanes ads, but the man is wearing a Hitler mustache. This point cannot be avoided any longer. Does no one on these ads care enough about their product to make him change this? Is the world's most self-assured man trying to see if, like Serbia, he can call contemporary Western civilization's bluff? Or is this some cry for help?

At first glance, Pepper appears to have been playing the role he needed to play as a Jet - as a Parcells man, keeping the program moving forward, playing a inspirational role. But who was he really coming back to New Jersey for in 1997? Answer: the same man for whom he also played as a Giant, and the same man for whom is a linebackers coach today - the Dark Lord, Bill Belichick.

This is why Pepper is now our enemy, though I will always recall him forlornly standing apart the night we lost the AFC Championship to Denver in January 1999. It was his last game with the Jets and his last as an NFL player, and he looked saddened for the way it had to end. I guess I'll never be really bitter about Pepper Johnson helping to make my life a living hell in New England over the past decade the way I should be.


***

1) When we are young, our parents notice details about us that become apocryphal bits of characterization. Johnson's nickname apparently comes from his preference as a child for putting pepper on his cereal. As with any good story, it doesn't matter if it's true or not.

2) Not many people recall Pepper Johnson's celebratory dance, which might be idiotically construed by officials today as "taunting." I used to do it all the time when I was a teenager didn't have anything better to do on the dance floor. It had the effect of producing the same effect that urinating on yourself does in a crowded room.

I can find no evidence of the dance online, and people often say they saw it for the first time at midfield at the end of Super Bowl XXI, but I remember seeing it earlier. It's hard to find a reference to it anywhere online, except in an LA Times article on Giants guard William Roberts and Pepper Johnson doing "The Dog," a dance they evidently learned at their alma mater, Ohio State. This must be the dance. They were dancing The Dog.

3) Did Keith Byars learn the dance? I still don't exactly remember how it goes. All attempts to find a video of it online have only produced films of dancing dogs. But anytime I feel angry at Pepper Johnson's devotion to Bill Belichick, I will be able to remember what Keith Byars did to Pepper in 1988. I've mentioned it before in reference to Byars. You will never see a 6'3" 250 lb man fly as far as Pepper Johnson did that day. That's what you get for not teaching a Heisman runner-up The Dog, he seems to say.

****

Steve Reese, LB, 1976 Bucs
In 1975, I saw linebacker Steve Reese #52 in in the program for two games for the Jets at Shea Stadium, against the Colts and Steelers. I remember seeing his face In 1976, I saw him play one game at Shea Stadium, this time as a Buccaneer against the Jets, and this was his picture in the program. The Jets won 34-0. That game was one of the two times the Jets' total offense went over 300 yards all season, and as bad as the Jets were that year, the 1976 Buccaneers have a very special place in the history of American sports in terms of ineptitude. They left even their skeptics in awe of how bad they were. It's time for somebody to make a major film about a winless team dressed in sherbet orange at the dawning age of American decline.

I remember looking at this head shot and wondering what it was like to play for teams as progressively poor as the 1975 Jets and then 1976 Bucs. By the age of seven, I had come to grasp and accept the reality of the Jets' losing with a new zeal but also with a sense of the humbling nature of human existence. The only consolation I might have taken was what many of us - even children - believed we were witnessing when the orange Bucs took the field - that some kind of history was being made, the kind that wouldn't be repeated for a long, long time. If you loved a losing team, as I did, then you were endeared to the Buccaneers. Other kids I grew up with were enamored of winners only, the Steelers and the Cowboys, or later the Broncos and the 49ers. As the song goes, some side with the leaves, some side with the seeds. If you loved only winners, you always loved only a winner. When you loved a loser, then you loved all the losers who turned it around, as the Bucs did in 1979. And I root for the Detroit Lions just as sympathetically as Besitkas roots for Pluto.

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