Thursday, July 14, 2011

NY Jets #54 - Part 1

I started collecting football cards when I was six, just after I saw my first Jets game with Dad.  My collection wasn't that large.  I remember that the most important players I got from the 1975 Topps season were Coy Bacon, Mel Gray, and Randy Vataha.  Not a Jet in the bunch, which was heartbreaking for a small child, but familiar in the order of things.  I was a Jets fan, after all.  I assumed football cards had the same significance in the world as baseball cards, and it took me all of four more years of collecting to see that this was not true.  "Why do you get those?" Jake Walsh, a classic know-it-all friend, would ask in that way that was intended to remind me that I was stupid.  In 1978, Jake followed the Red Sox until the end of the summer, when suddenly the Yankees hit their stride.  Then he was with the Bronx all the way.  Eddie O'Fallon kept the dream alive, though, and we constantly bought and traded football cards in front of the deli on Merrick Avenue, between Orchard Street and Old Mill Road during the summer before the start of the season.

Sometimes you'd see distracted men coming into the unwelcome sunshine from the Lucky 7's Cocktail Lounge on the corner of Old Mill Road.  They seem like they were awakening from their sleep, tilting and reeling, listing like wounded ships.  I remember how one of them tried to chat with us in a voice that registered as a growl as we stood there, straddling our bicycles, going over our loot.  You guys got cards, huh?  What you got?  Who you got?  When we wouldn't answer or would just stare, he quickly renounced his offer of friendship and told us we were ungrateful children for the world we had inherited.  I couldn't help but notice the Lucky 7's windows, diamond shaped, colored and frosted, concealing the bleary light within.  Today, my old football cards are somewhere in my house, in a narrow box, kept from the light and the world like those afternoon drinkers, and I wonder where Eddie's are today, or where he is, rather.   

I gave up collecting football cards by 1979, though I had made my best collection that year.  I had become weary of the poorer characteristics of Topps cards.  They didn't show a great deal of action, and even when they did, the cards had no logos on the helmets.  Here Jake Walsh may have had a point; at first I assumed that there were some games during the season when teams played without logos on their helmets; maybe they were out being cleaned, or maybe players were sometimes asked to pose with a blank helmet.  I didn't realize the lost art of touching up the photos on cards, in the same way Stalin would have portraits touched up to remove people from reality.  Topps had a less pernicious reasoning for editing out the logos - to avoid copyright infringement.  That never happened on baseball cards, except when an entire mop-up revision needed to be done to convey a change of team for a player, as with Oscar Gamble in 1975.   

This is still better than my college roommate's fake ID
This looks like #54 Troy Benson's driver's license, but it's his 1989 NFL ProSet card.  It just happens to do something that I have never seen; it puts his face on the back of the card, alongside the statistics. As the write-up points out, Benson posted fairly good numbers in tackles, finishing "alone in second" in tackles on the team for 1988.  Now that's a phrase, isn't it?  "Alone in second."  It really conjures a sense of being a Jets fan.

Anyway, this might as well be Troy Benson's driver's license photo for 1989.  He has the look of a man who has been waiting on an unconscionably long line, being commanded by perpetually angry people to sit in one area, move to another, then go back to another waiting area because he has not completed his paperwork in full.  Other than that, he looks like an average football player I knew in high school, with his nose wide and flat, his large chin taking up half his face, and his eyes far apart and dull.  His hair sits flatly on his head with a fashionable part down the middle; he has the signature blond mustache of the era, with the look of a man you will run into when you both coincidentally need to pick up a case of Bud Light at the Circle K - that is, if you didn't live in Troy Benson's home state of Pennsylvania, with its Blue Laws.
Stan Blinka, LB
Stan Blinka #54 is looking up at us as if we are twelve feet tall.  Perhaps he is looking up at the football gods, asking for some help.  Blinka was a fairly accomplished linebacker for us from 1979 to 1983.  He played one season alongside with the Denver Gold in the USFL.  I found him on Facebook, and he looks healthy, happy and satisfied.  I suppose that's how I look on Facebook.  Does anyone ever offer up a Facebook page filled only with images that conjure the bleakness and fear inherent to the human condition?  At the risk of sounding like George W. Bush talking about Vladimir Putin, I looked at Stan Blinka's picture on Facebook, and I thought I saw enough of him to say that this man has a good soul.  On the NFL database, I found only statistics on interceptions (he had three in his career) but sadly nothing on his tackles or assists. 

There are two things on the Interwebs I found about him. Though he was born in Columbus, Ohio (day-dreaming of playing for Woody Hayes, I presume?) Blinka went to Sam Houston State in Texas and was then drafted by the Jets.  Here's a good article on his return to his alma mater in 2010, along with many other SHS alumni, to inspire last year's players as they took the field at Reliant Stadium to play rival Stephen F. Austin University (the Lumberjacks).  The players left the tunnel with old SHS players standing in a line, rooting them on, which is nice.  I wonder if any other players there would be labeled "NFL stars," as Blinka is in the article.

The next set of stories though are a little less flattering to Blinka, but I would argue that they represent a larger problem that defenders are dealing with even now.  After the Jets' 15-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers in 1982, Packers Coach Bart Starr filed a complaint with the NFL over a hit Stan Blinka leveled at Packers' receiver John Jefferson.  Here is the New York Times story on it.  Here are more stories on its immediate after-effects.  It seems to me that the hit, which I do not recall, was one of those that makes officials, coaches, players, reporters, and league executives mindfully stop and reflect (or more likely pretend to reflect) on the true nature of the game.  What can be done to stop football's worst brutalities? they ask. So Blinka was fined and briefly suspended for the hit.  If you scroll down and find Dave Anderson's article on the issue (which has two grainy photographs of the forearm hit to the head) Anderson notes that the league claimed that, up until that hit, it had been 63 years since anyone had been similarly fined and suspended as Blinka was that week in 1982.

Anderson is right to point out the hypocrisy of this decision.  He gets Pete Rozelle to look at Stan Blinka's record of penalties to show that Blinka was, to that point, statistically a clean player - especially, Rozelle admits, "for a linebacker."  Anderson also maintains that it is difficult to believe that the league would really require 63 years to find as egregious a hit as Blinka's apparently was.  Without any real precedent, the punishment seemed fairly arbitrary, except that the Blinka hit occurred only three and a half years after Darryl Stingley had been paralyzed by Jack Tatum.  The league felt that it could concretely deal with the inevitability of paralysis.  They did not even realize that someday they would also have to devise a strategy for understanding the long-term psychological, physical, and emotional effects of even ordinary week-by-week contact; of course, they still don't know how to respond to such realities today, though they claim to try.  The league tries again and again, often in vain, to reduce the number of horrors that the game, by its very nature, creates.

What stays with me most, though, is that in trying to find out specifics about Stan Blinka's career (other than those from my own memory, of hearing Spencer Ross say his name on WCBS) I discovered only information about this now largely forgotten moment.  How little we really know of each other from the Internet, yet it is fast becoming our sole source of all knowledge.  It behaves like our own memories, holding onto only the fragments of things we would otherwise soon forget or enhancing those things that we have sugarcoated into believing about ourselves.  There is much more to Stan Blinka's career - the career of an otherwise clean player - than the one moment we find in cyberspace.


Slimbo said...

Lucky 7's. Good lord.
1970's South Shore, Nassau County.

GLD said...

Stan Blinka was easily one of the best LBs against the run I have ever seen. Understated style, never one to hog the limelight--indeed, he let others have the spotlight even when he was the one deserving it--he quietly & steadily tackled the hell out of opponents. I saw him stop a TD attempt from the 1 yard line, with one arm, and just quietly walked away with none of the showboating of his teammates...quiet dignity that kept him in the shadows a bit. He mentored newer players and was clearly respected.

I remember the hit and was furious about the outrage it caused. Not the egregious hit as so many claimed--tho not typical of him, it was no worse than other fouls--but he was made an example of and sadly, that's what he's remembered for now.

I'd like to remind people of the extraordinary tackles he made, the quiet strength he brought to the field, and the leadership he provided. He was also a kind, generous person off the field. Stan Blinka was my favourite player back then...and he remains so today.

Martin Roche said...

Great info. Thanks very much for that!

Motor23 said...

Great comment, I had the pleasure of meeting him the other day back on campus at Sam Houston State. He looks good and is very much in person who you described. I looked up to him as a Bearkat and he remains very humble.