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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NY Jets #54 - Part 2

When I go the gym, I find that I don't have the enthusiasm that people have when they work out. The people who grunt and wheeze when they lift more than their own weight. People who do handstands against the wall. People who do those crazy things with the heavy ropes. People who do pull-ups far beyond the point it seems possible. People who take up a lot of room doing exercises. People doing that spinning thing. I run on the treadmill and then work on the machines for a little while and sweat so much that people sometimes look at me as if to say, Are you OK? You look like you're going to die. And I don't like pain. I don't endure it well. If it hurts even vaguely, I stop doing it and go home.

Once I went a little too far with the running and began to have horrible weakness and nausea and felt myself disappearing. I don't know what was going on with me, but I decided that the best thing for me to do was to follow the example of a wounded dog and find a private place to die. In this case, a bench in the locker room was the best place. I lay down, hoping that someone would find me and bring me to the hospital. I tried to call out for help, but no one was there, and I didn't have the strength. Then in about five minutes, I found that I could get up again and walk out of the gym, acting like nothing had happened.

Maybe if I had a trainer like Dwayne Gordon #54, I would know what I was doing. But then male trainers at gyms tend to flirt with beautiful women while they're supposed to be counseling you about how to perform an exercise on the machine without ripping your muscles out of your shoulder. I don't blame them. What else are they supposed to do? They advise people about working out. It sounds a little dull, frankly. They try to communicate essential information about working out correctly with people who, for the most part, have unrealistic expectations about why they are there. And there you are, strapped to a Pec Dec machine that you're supposed to be using to turn your distressingly flabby pectoral muscles into something resembling a man's, and your trainer is pretending to talk shop with an inquiring blond who is pretending to be talking shop with him, and no one's noticing that you're letting your arms go way beyond your line of peripheral vision. Ah, what the hell, you say. This must be the right way to do it. Two months later, an equally disinterested orthopedist informs you of your partially torn supraspinitis. You hope the trainer got lucky.

Maybe Dwayne Gordon is different.  He is described as the Fitness Trainer at 24 Hour Fitness in the Bronx, and that is where you'll find him. He played linebacker for the Jets in the late 1990's, ending his career in football and beginning his career in fitness in the vicinity of where his life began, in White Plains, NY.  I'm sure he does a good job.  

Olrick Johnson does a good job singing the National Anthem at professional football games. He too has found an avocation after football. In this video, he sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" quite briskly before a Vikings game in his old Vikings uniform. The announcer has to clarify at the end of his performance that "Olrick played for the Vikings in the 1999-2000 season" because you sense that the crowd at the Metrodome asked, in their various clanging Northwestern, Scandanavian-American tones, "Ol-what-who Johnson?  Sure doesn't ring a bell with me."  The speed with which he gets through the song is advisable for television, but it's also the secret of singing our National Anthem in public.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" has tonal changes that seem ridiculous.  The lyrics are a series of run-on sentences and its overall structure is that of a wandering, searching, appositive-filled question. "Is it still there?" it basically asks. "With all the shit that's happening, do you still see it?" That's it. If you stop to think about what's being with each digression of thought, about when and how often we hailed the flag, amid rockets and bombs, how it inspires you in the midst of terror, you find yourself wandering with these parenthetical ideas, and this, I believe, is where people get off track, forgetting lyrics, repeating verses, going off-key. Don't think about it, move quickly before you realize what's happening, add embellishments to the ending notes of the late verses, and get the hell out of there. Like life.

Johnson was listed at the Jets All-Time Database as a #54 but on the Pro Football Reference Database, he wore #52 for the Jets. If we missed him earlier, then we're making up for it now. As a pro, he suited up for the Vikings, the Jets and the Patriots for what appear to be no more than 28 games over two seasons. He also has what appears to be a gospel/R&B album called Bless My Soul. There are categories we have in Infinite Jets for pros who went artistic after football, though it's rare. George Nock #37: sculptor; Al Woodall #18: artist and gallery owner of a sort (to my delight, I found that Nock advertises on his old teammate's website); John Riggins #44: actor, radio personality, alien abductee. Bless my soul, indeed.

****

After playing football in the AFL for the Oilers, the Jets, the Dolphins and Broncos, Edward "Wahoo" McDaniel #54 became one of the country's most popular professional wrestlers in the late 60's and early 70's. Professional wrestling today is filled with cartoonishly huge, steroid-addled monsters who bellow and preen the way wrestlers always have. Their stunts are less humorous than they were long, long ago, and certainly the WWE wrestlers today are more athletic than I remember them in the past. My brother recently took his son to a WWE bill at the Westchester County Center, where back in 1983, he, my cousin Will, Dad and I once saw Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka square off against his nemesis, the Magnificent Muraco.

Back then, wrestling was somewhere between worlds. Many wrestlers still looked like bar bouncers, with whatever they lacked in muscle matched by just their sheer size. Snuka, though, looked like the buff trainer who unselfconsciously who flirts with the blond at the gym. Muraco looked like the guy whom the gas station manager forces to come over to explain to you the work that's been done on your car. Snuka is considered by many to be a pioneer of the modern WWE look.

The Tomahawk Chop vs. the Figure Four Leg Lock
As a native Fijian, he might have taken inspiration from Wahoo McDaniel. It would seem that from the moment Ed McDaniel was born into the Choctaw-Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma, the son of a man known as "the Big Wahoo" (making him the "Little Wahoo" for a while before finally settling on the simpler "Wahoo") he understood that success would come by way of the barely harnessed power of his large personality. In this way, professional football was at the right time in the right place, but professional wrestling was his true calling. In a genuinely good young adult biography on him by G. Neri, McDaniel is described as discovering, while playing games with his white classmates, that the Indian was always tied up and killed. To some degree, that lesson must have always resonated with him. In a changing world, where She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was eventually replaced by Little Big Man, McDaniel wore his nickname on the back of his pro football jersey (which they eventually did for most players in the XFL) and then wore his feathered headdress into the wrestling ring. He "played the Injun," as Neri says, but he wanted to be the Lone Ranger. He never lost the label of the former, but he insisted on taking the top billing of the latter.

In this way, he was also in the right place for Jets' owner Sonny Werblin in the early 1960's, a man who preferred his marquee players to be independent-minded attention-seekers. At the University of Oklahoma, McDaniel chafed under the disciplined style of Bud Wilkinson much as Joe Namath sometimes did under Bear Bryant. At OU, he was as large as a Native American legend.  According to Neri, he ran 36 miles on a bet for $100. On a dare, he ate a pile of jalapeno peppers and washed it down with - and I am quoting directly here - "a can of motor oil." Phantom reader, like professional wrestling itself, the point here is not whether or not any of this is true. Werblin understood the power of myth in the circus show, and so he brought the large person of Wahoo McDaniel over to the Jets from Denver in 1964.

Wahoo McDaniel is the ur-Jet. Where the New York Titans had merely tried in vain to replicate the success of the Giants, the Jets were different from the corporate style of the Big Blue. They had pom-pom cheerleaders, a go-kart Jet car, fan giveaways, halftime spectacles and, for a time, a man named Wahoo. Because there was no Super Bowl, the goal was to put otherwise unsuspecting circus fans in the seats, and give them a show. Apparently Wahoo did. As a former Jets season tickets holder, my father has distinct memories of watching McDaniel play. It didn't matter if he played well or not; his name was "Wahoo," which is fun to say in unison with tens of thousands of other people.

Sept. 12 1964 - NY Jets 30 Denver 6
On the evening of September 12, 1964, the Jets played their very first football game at Shea Stadium. It was my Dad's first Jets game there, too, and the home team won 30-6. It was also Wahoo McDaniel's first game as a Jet, and it was against his former team. Several sources have corroborated this, including Dad:  apparently McDaniel recorded 23 tackles in that one game. I haven't been able to find anything to show that this constitutes a record. People are right to say that tackles are hard to pinpoint and track because they involve so many assists, though we know how many tackles, overall, players amass each season. For perspective, since 2000, the NCAA record for tackles in one game is 26. I'm inclined to think that Werblin found his temporary marquee in the man who made 23 on opening day.

Dad remembers  that at some point during the game, as McDaniel was in on one play after another, the Jets announcer began to join in on the carnival atmosphere of Shea. I wonder if Werblin gave the announcer $50 to do it. Neri writes:

When Wahoo became unstoppable, the announcer got the crowd going by shouting “Who made that last tackle?” The crowd would chant back, “Waaa-hooo!”

Dad remembers that this went on for a couple of games, and the announcer then went on to say, "Tackle by you-know-who...," and the crowd would respond in kind. To my knowledge, Wahoo McDaniel never had a game like that again, but you never have quite another game quite like the game of your life. They put his name on the back of his jersey, which was doubly profane by the standards of the corporate NFL Giants who never allowed anyone that distinction until long after it had become standard practice elsewhere.

This wasn't enough for Wahoo McDaniel, though. He became an early marquee player for the 1966 Miami Dolphins. Then in 1968, according to Neri, he punched out a San Diego cop even before he got to put on a Chargers uniform. The novelty of "Wahoo" on the back of a jersey had worn off. Joe Namath had re-written the rules of conventional sports. By beating the Colts, Namath made the AFL circus the industry standard and, unwittingly, had helped enable pro football to become even more corporate. But Wahoo McDaniel's secret passion for professional wrestling, that most unconventional of professions resembling sport, was his logical next step. In his time he straddled both worlds, the mythical and the real, like the land between the Chickasaw and the Choctaw.

He passed away in 2002. But Wahoo McDaniel lives in each and every one of us who love the Jets. Perhaps we forget the greasepaint and slapstick our forefathers embraced when they decided to stop waiting in line for Giants tickets and started going to Jets games at Shea. If you are sometimes fatigued by the absurd, outsized circus barker personality of Rex Ryan and his traveling show of troubled overachievers, just remember where we all first came from. We are not Titans pretending to be Giants. We are Jets fans, born to live and die lying on the bench near the precipice of insanity, torn between the world of sport and the world of entertainment. We are all Wahoo McDaniel.

Wa-hoo.

3 comments:

Dr. Mike said...

My first exposure to the Jets was on my 9th birthday, October 3, 1964. My mom got two tickets for my dad and I to see the Jets play the Chargers. It was a Saturday night game. The game was tied with one play left.Lance Alworth lined up for the game winning field goal. I remember like it was yesterday...The kick was blocked. The PA announcer said," and the kick was blocked by guess who!"
"WAHOO!" we all shouted. I have been bleeding green ever since.

Slimbo said...

Thanks for posting the link to Snuka-Muroco. Absolutely made my day.

Martin Roche said...

Dr. Mike - thanks for that; it's an awesome memory, and I wish I had been there myself. And I had no idea Alworth kicked as well. The AFL must have been wonderful to watch. And my pleasure, Slim. That was at MSG; Mick Foley says that Snuka's leap from the top of the cage was a crucial moment for him.