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Sunday, August 7, 2011

NY Jets #55 - Part 2

Mark Brown #55 played linebacker for the New York Jets from 2003-05. Then his career statistics end. Those three seasons, Herman Edwards' last as coach, were difficult for Jets fans because it seemed as if we were always one or two injuries away from ruin, and sometimes ruin was inevitable anyway. Then in 2005, the fragile apparatus finally gave way, and no amount of duct tape could keep it standing any longer. Consecutive losing seasons are difficult, but a 4-12 season after being a game away from the Super Bowl the year before was just too rough on the system. By the Bye, we were done. Brooks Bollinger started nine games at quarterback. Vinny Testaverde, who was 42 in 2005, started four. These were desperate times.

The 2005 season ended at the Meadowlands between the Jets (3-12) and Buffalo Bills (5-10). It was the kind of game that comes up at the end of every season between two clubs whose chances at the playoffs ended at least a month before. They're not the worst of the worst teams that'll have everything to gain in the draft (though the Jets drafted well months later); they're just two teams that'll end with a whimper, hoping to salvage what is often referred to in the locker room as "pride." It's really just an opportunity to clean out your locker. It's an existential crisis - what is the purpose of this? one is compelled to ask. Is anyone really watching? Does anyone care enough to pay attention if I do well? Should I even try? Why?

Mark Brown ending on
a high note.
On New Year's Day, a smattering of cold, loyal, hungover, disenchanted, or maybe just bored faithful came to the game. They came because they had tickets, because they didn't want to mingle at home with relatives over pork chops and apple sauce, because their friends would be there, or unfortunately because they wanted to enjoy the last of the season's as yet unpublicized horrors at Gate D. Watching Fireman Ed do his schtick that day is like watching a kid's clown perform at a wake. The game was mostly decided by the two placekickers, Mike Nugent and Rian Lindell. The Jets limped to one touchdown on offense, yet they won 30-26.

But for one man, there was something eternally meaningful. While the game effectively ended with Justin Miller's kickoff return for a touchdown, Jets linebacker Mark Brown intercepted one of Kelly Holcomb's passes in the second quarter and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown. The image of him in the end zone is forever frozen on the card you see above, and it seems particularly important because it was Brown's last game in the NFL. It gave the Jets a 17-6 lead that they would squander in the third quarter, but Mark Brown can rightly claim that he hit one of his professional highs in one of his very last opportunities. If only life were like that all the time, allowing us these dramatic chances to find meaning in a purposeless existence, then maybe we would try harder. Or maybe we wouldn't try as hard; we would just always wait idly by for our chance to come round. I don't know.

****

Notre Dame used to make quarterbacks. USC used to make running backs. The University of Miami used to make receivers and defensive front lines. Penn State made linebackers. In the 60's the Jets had Ralph Baker #51, but then in the 70's and 80's, the team featured Nittany Lion linebackers like Dennis Onkontz #35, Greg Buttle #51, Lance Mehl #56, and Ron Crosby #55. I wonder if they all simply felt resigned to end up in Flushing. I've come to adopt Penn State a little bit as my local college football team, which means that I follow them when they're undefeated but don't when they're not. Alright, I'm a bandwagoneer. It's painful to watch Joe Paterno trying to coach lately, though, and it's too bad that young people in Happy Valley see him as a dithering old man propped up by coaches and players. At one time, he paced the sideline and gesticulated like a deranged math teacher, complete with pit stains, hard-frame glasses and a pocket protector (one of those is an exaggeration).

Rob Crosby
At the risk of generalizing, defensive lines are formed by men who, like Albert Haynesworth, simply move their mass against the offense. Secondaries are filled with roving, jittery, hectoring guys who must not allow anyone to get behind them, though receivers often manage to. But linebackers make the decision to go forward or back, entering entirely different zones of defense with disparate strategies of playing the game. Rob Crosby did this for the Jets from 1979-83.

In this image at left it looks as though Rob Crosby has suddenly thrust himself into the frame and is now eyeing your lunch. Near as I can tell, this photo was taken at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. This picture might be from the Jets' 17-14 loss to the Browns on December 7, 1980, a bad game in one of the most disappointing of Jets' seasons. It might be from the Jets' 14-13 win over the Browns on December 12th the following year. You can see Municipal's light towers reflected in his helmet. It's obviously cold out, Crosby's got his hand warmer stitched into his jersey, and there's an overcast, wintery afternoon light very like the kind cast at Cleveland Municipal in December. The light within the stadium in winter was always washed gray by persistently overcast skies, while the stands were made darker by Municipal's large overhang. The effect of watching a Browns telecast was such that you'd think the color had gone wonky on your TV. Colorblind players might have felt right at home in Cleveland, though I don't know if Rob Crosby is colorblind.

Like Rob Crosby, the wind-blown, tired-looking linebacker John Ebersole #55 (at right) also went to Penn State and ended up playing eight seasons at linebacker for the Jets, from 1970-77. In his 1977 card, he looks exactly like a man who's witnessed the deep decline of the Jets' franchise in the 70's. "O, woe is me,/To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!" A defensive rating of -7.1 in 1975!

Without many other statistics, it's still worth mentioning that Ebersole made three interceptions in 1974, one of which he apparently took for 41 yards. I've tried looking for it in the vast collection of 1974NFL's Channel without any luck. There is one moment of funny choreography from the Jets' final game of that season, a 45-38 win at Memorial Stadium. Go to 1:26 of the clip, and you see second-year Colts quarterback Bert Jones, who shredded the Jets earlier in the year, overthrowing his man and instead hitting Ralph Baker in the linebackers' no man's land. The ball then jettisons off Baker and high into the air, producing a Maculate Interception: under the ball are three men - Baker, Burgess Owens and John Ebersole. It looks like Ebersole's got it, but then Owens is faster; he gathers it and makes it into the end zone where he is upended by Jones. It's Baker's last game, and it's the last time the Jets will beat the Colts until 1978, when Bert Jones will be out of the picture with injuries.

Today, John Ebersole is listed as the Vice Chairman of the Celebrity Golf Board of Directors. I'm not sure what that means, but he looks like he plays the celebrity golf circuit. This spells hope for all of us, especially in the era where being a celebrity can be permanently defined by anything at all. Perhaps the Chinese are our economic overlords now because our most prescient prophet was Andy Warhol. At least Ebersole's LeeMo Marketing write-up grants him his celebrity status for toughness. "Once played almost an entire game with a separated shoulder and a broken hand," it says. (And a broken hand.) "Also had the dubious honor of leading the NFL in concussions in 1975 and 1976." I don't know why anyone would call that "dubious." I can see "unfortunate" maybe, but not "dubious." I'm just glad to see he's survived his injuries with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact. Not every player does, as we know.

****

In midseason 1965, linebacker Mike Dukes #55 was traded or released from the Boston Patriots to the New York Jets, perhaps to play alongside Wahoo McDaniel. The statistics show that he suited up for three games, and that is all. Sadly, he was killed in 2008 in a car accident in Beaumont, TX. On his memoriam page, you see him proudly displaying a championship ring from one of the first two AFL Championships in 1960 and '61 by the Houston Oilers, for whom Dukes also played at linebacker. A year before his death, his son Brandonn had written to the great site Remember the AFL and asked if anyone knew where he could acquire a game tape of the 1962 AFL Championship Game between the Dallas Texans and Houston Oilers. It's poignant that he was looking for something he thought would interest his Dad in retirement. I truly hope Brandonn Dukes found what he was looking for in time.

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