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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

NY Jets #53 - Part 4

(We thought the rest of the season would be like this.)
Cody Spencer #53 was a linebacker for the Jets from 2006-08. He comes from Texas where I suspect a lot of guys are named Cody. He went to North Texas University and had a decent year in 2008, which was the Brett Favre season. He seems not to have an NFL career after his 2009 season with the Detroit Lions. I confess I don't remember much of his playing but I do recall that 2008 season, and I remember thinking how strange the world seemed, what with the hometown Phillies winning the World Series and Barack Obama becoming President-elect, and Brett Favre leading the Jets to an 8-3 start. At the far right of this picture you see Cody Spencer celebrating the away victory over the Patriots that year.  Things seemed just great.

The world seems like it is spinning back into more familiar territory now. The Phillies can't win the World Series without regular hitting, Obama is on borrowed time as President, and the Jets are as distant a memory to Brett Favre as he is to us. Sports and politics are the easiest way to gauge history simplistically.

But Cody Spencer is special because research on him produces one of those Wikipedia moments that is priceless. Recently I saw Jimmy Wales interviewed by Stephen Fry, and Wales talked about the extraordinary, simple beauty of Wikipedia as an information organization checked by volunteers. He said that it was remarkably American because it was started and maintained by ordinary people. This is all true, and though I tell my students not to rely on Wikipedia for their research, I do tell them that it's a great place to start. If I had been able to access it as a kid, I would have either done better research because I would have known where to begin, or I would fallen down the endless rabbit hole of links that Wikipedia often enables. Either way, I would have been happier. The world would have been more open to me.

But nothing - certainly not Wikipedia - is foolproof. Cody Spencer's Wikipedia page includes the following:

Spencer attended Grapevine High School in Grapevine, Texas where he taught Tommy France all about the hot boudin. As a junior, he helped lead his team to the Division I Class 4A State Championship.

There two bits of information here, but which is the more valuable? Which do you think - the bit about Tommy France, or the throwaway thing about Grapevine High School?  What are the essential qualities of a person? I don't know if someone should notify a Wikipedia volunteer, but then why bother? Isn't it important for readers to know that he taught Tommy France about the hot boudin? And what is the hot boudin? Is that a euphemism for something? Did Tommy put that there in Wikipedia, or did Cody? The Encyclopedia Britannica never allowed, however temporarily, for inside jokes, and maybe that's a shame. In real life, the hot boudin is spicy sausage indigenous to Cajun country. (And how did I find that out? You guessed it.) Is that all the hot boudin is to Cody Spencer and Tommy France? The world may never know, but if the world visits Spencer's Wikipedia page, where he exists in terms of two kinds of information juxtaposed together, they'll be presented with a complex picture of a person, at least until the Wikipedia volunteer edits out the most interesting part.

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Jim Sweeney #53 came from Pittsburgh, he went to Pitt, then he ended up retiring with the Steelers in 1999. Today he apparently coaches high school football in the Pittsburgh area.  But he was a center for the Jets for a long time.  

What is it about centers?  The center has the opportunity for a long career, but with very little recognition.  The center never talks smack. He never taunts. He is, according to tradition, the guy who touches the ball first, the keynote and the keystone.  
Jim Sweeney is right up there with seasoned NFL offensive linemen. Draw a through line from Jets centers like #'s 52 MIke Hudock (1960-65), John Schmitt (1966-73), #65 Joe Fields (1975-1987) and you reach Jim Sweeney, who became the regular center for the Jets after Fields left, starting from 1984 to 1994. For better or for worse, that's a pretty remarkable record of stability at one position for such unstable Jets teams. 


Obviously there were other guys at center during the years 1960-84, like Wayne Mulligan and Warren Koegel, but the center is often the steady influence, the rock in the stream. Everybody could use a center, a person on whom you can rely to snap the ball with unerring regularity. He returns to the huddle with you, seeing you shake your head. What was I thinking? you ask yourself. Am I really as untalented as they say? Are they really saying that, or is that just in my head? 

No.  Get out of your head you say. I keep telling myself not to care about what anyone else thinks, but it just gets in there and drives me nuts. The center just stares at you and knows he's got to pull left or right or get in and push forward. He isn't plagued by your doubts; he has mastered the art of not listening to the constant trash talk from defenses come and gone, trying to distract him. He looks at you and simply waits for you to call out the next play. Get out of your head, he seems to say to you. You're not doing any good there. Between 1984 and 1994, amid adolescence and the unsteady transition to adulthood, like a quarterback drafted early on with great expectations, I could surely have used a Jim Sweeney. In that time, he snapped the ball to Ken O'Brien, Pat Ryan, Tony Eason, Browning Nagle, Boomer Esiason, Kyle Mackey, Mark Malone, and Jack Trudeau. That's a lot of disparate personalities struggling at the most public spot on predominantly losing squads.


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How bad is it?
Linebacker Bill Zapalac #53 is also known as Willie Zapalac, Jr, the son of longtime NCAA and NFL assistant and coach Willie Zapalac, Sr. The Zapalac name may have been unknown to most Jets fans between 1971-73 when Zapalac the younger played for us, but in Texas, the Zapalacs are/were a football family. The elder attended Texas A&M, was a coach there and at the University of Texas, which is a little like coaching for the Jets and the Patriots (which, as we know, people have done). Willie Sr. built offensive lines at those schools, but Willie Jr. played defense at Texas while his father was assisting under Darryl Royal, which must have been interesting. Did he prefer defense just so that he wouldn't have to play under his Dad? Was he "Willie Jr." at Texas, or "Bill?"

He graduated from the Texas School of Applied Architecture and apparently helps run a construction company in Austin. Though there are no defensive statistics kept from his years in the NFL, other than starts at linebacker and defensive end, we can consult his 1974 card and consider the expression on his face. Is he wondering skeptically about the impending electrical wiring and concrete support system problems at Shea Stadium? Somebody would need to, eventually.

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