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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

NY Jets #55 - Part 3

Lately the weather on the east coast has been boiling hot. It's rarely below 90 this summer, and when it is, you know it's not really a reprieve. Neighbors say, "Better than yesterday, right?" And I nod. I don't say anything. I just agree. But it's still too hot. Most days are overcast, and the heat just seems to hold itself still under the dull clouds. I should have gotten used to this kind of thing in between years at college when I spent my summer breaks in Memphis, Tennessee. Dad moved us there just after I graduated from high school, and I would return to Memphis each May. I worked in an auto parts warehouse where we'd unload trucks, going from near 100 degrees in the vast building to something approximating the surface of Venus inside the trailer. You endured, staying perfectly still, like a lizard camouflaged on a desert rock.

Memphis is a sleepwalking town. There is a Civil Rights Museum on the site where Dr. King was killed, but when I first lived in Memphis, the Lorraine was still a seedy motel, the sort of place where a hooker brought her john. Things change slowly there. When there was talk about the city getting an NFL team, the locals responded in a typically Southern way, with the kind of smile that politely masks a deep reluctance. You get the same thing when you sit down at a Southern restaurant and are met by a waiter who wants to be your friend yet never remembers your order. The South loves college football, which is played for honor. The North loves the professional game, whose fans believe they have made a contributory investment in the club. That they are both wrong may help to explain who we are as a nation.

Every time the NFL played an exhibition game in Memphis, just enough people would show up to make the league curious. The Phoenix Cardinals played Doug Flutie's Patriots at the Liberty Bowl in 1990, and I went with my brother and his friends, who were only interested so that I could buy them beer. Still, local impresarios like Pepper Rodgers and corporate giants like Fred Smith tried to make pro football happen in Memphs. But it never happened. When Jacksonville got the Jaguars, it seemed a folly to keep trying.

But then Rodgers and Smith turned to the CFL, which tried expanding into American markets that couldn't get an NFL team. Smith pledged to be owner of the CFL's Memphis Mad Dogs, and Rodgers assumed the Presidency. The cynical venture collapsed after just a year, and the whole story is starkly painted here; Rodgers wanted to turn the CFL into a rival of the NFL, while Smith invested nothing more than his initial $100,000. The team's uniforms were a bizarre forest green not unlike the Jets of the late 70's, but with the number placed in the right hand corner of the jersey front.

Not the Most Valuable
Canadian
Alex Gordon #55, who played linebacker for the Jets from 1987-89, with a longer career elsewhere in the NFL until the mid-90's, was picked up by the Mad Dogs in 1995. When you look at his stats, you get some idea as to the difference in quality between the two leagues. According to his information on Jimmy Wales' dying website, Gordon led the Mad Dogs with 61 tackles, and he registered seven sacks, which was almost his career total in the NFL. After the team fell apart, he was picked up in the "dispersal draft" (as if he were some kind of molecule) by the Toronto Argonauts who, as luck would have it, won the 1996 Grey Cup. Alex Gordon's career ended on that high note. By the way, the Most Valuable Player for that Cup was Toronto's Doug Flutie. It says something about the expectations of our brothers and sisters to the north that there is also a Most Valuable Canadian award in the Grey Cup. It reminds me of an old friend of mine from Montreal who, for example, will hear William Shatner's name in conversation and suddenly blurt, "And you know what? Canadian!"

****

Bobby Houston, LB
Bobby Houston #55 played his best years at left linebacker with the Jets, from 1991-96, the formative years of my twenties, the time when a young man is supposed to be on the path to discovering the grown man he will someday become. His thirties are the time when he accepts the man he has already become. I don't know where I heard that, and it sounds like nonsense, but there you are. Perhaps his forties are a time to reflect on what he could have been. As a teacher, I'm sure that my students' standardized test scores will soon be used to see what kind of professional I am. I may have one or two Pro Bowl years, or I may end up looking like Bobby Houston did: no Pro Bowls, no All-Pro years, but a career filled with solid, dependable play.

For his best years he shared linebacking position with Mo Lewis and Kyle Clifton on Jets teams that consistently ranked at or below average on defense. For better or worse, Houston, Clifton and Lewis must truly know one another. He retired with the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, the greatest team that never was. At the very end of his career, he could at least say he was this close. Had fate been kinder to all of us that season, he might also have met the Jets in the Super Bowl, but then I'm being too much like a man in his forties again, thinking about what could have been.

The Spring 2009 article from Lifestyle Magazine profiles a retired Bobby Houston. One thing he mentions is being robbed as a boy selling peanuts in RFK Stadium at Redskin games. "A man crept up behind the little league star," it says, "and said 'don’t turn around' and proceeded to rob him. From that moment forward, Houston’s childhood was primarily spent enrolled in self defense classes." Personally, I would have stopped selling peanuts at RFK. He says that if he had known the odds he would eventually face in his football career, he probably would never have tried as hard as he did. How's that for what could have been? But then none of us can go back and change anything, and we made the decisions that we made back then because we were the people we were back then and not the ones we are today.

But with all the regret we see in the lives of players who retire, Houston makes middle age seem approachable and decent. It might be that he is just being profiled in a magazine and putting on a face, following the athlete's stoic credo to remain instinctively positive whenever someone from the press asks him a question. Maybe I've been feeling rather old and lost lately myself, and I need to hear someone talk about simplicity and humility, traits that Bobby Houston says he willingly embraces: “There are a lot of empty millionaires out there,” he says.

One burdensome realization for the former athlete is knowing he will never be as rich as he was in the years when he was just discovering the grown man he would someday become. It's the inverse of what we are taught to believe is the American Dream. I'm just optimistic enough to believe that Bobby Houston really believes he was never an "empty millionaire" at heart. I want to believe he always knew who he was. I'm not sure any of that will be of comfort to someone like Randy Moss - the bright young rookie teammate of Bobby Houston's on that '98 Vikings team - but by now, at 35, Moss probably knows who he is and is probably content with it. I suppose he has no other choice.

****

If I had been forced as a boy to pick any team other than the Jets to root for, I might have picked the Kansas City Chiefs. There is absolutely no basis in geography or logic to support this, but I think about what my father told me about Vince Lombardi. My father loved the Jets, but he also felt loyal to the entire AFL enterprise. To make my childhood enthusiasm for football that much more amusing to him, he insisted to me that Lombardi was a "bad man" because he had said at the end of the Super Bowl I that the AFL was inferior to the NFL. With a Catholic boy's paradoxical mix of infallibility and inferiority, I reacted to what my father told me by being loyal to every original AFL team (except Oakland), but most especially to Kansas City because they were the league's first Super Bowl club and because, without question, they had the coolest helmet decal in the NFL and the coolest uniforms: bright red with yellow, a fire engine red you'd also find on the Flash or on Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.

Charles Jackson #55 played his last two seasons at linebacker for the Jets. Before then, he played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1978-84. Out in the other universes, where they also care about who played in what number on what franchise, Arrowhead Pride asks who the greatest Kansas City Chiefs are, in this case for #51, which was Jackson's number when he played linebacker for them. Being a Chiefs fan was not always easy. Discounting any residual happiness around Super Bowl IV, I imagine that the 1971 Christmas Day double-overtime playoff loss to the Dolphins was a game from which no Chiefs fan could possibly have recovered. Consider how the team declined throughout the 70's and 80's, having to play in a division with some of the AFC's best teams: the Raiders (three Super Bowl wins), the Broncos (four Super Bowl appearances from 1977-89), and the Chargers of Air Coryell. During the years that Charles Jackson played for Chiefs in #51, the team played above .500 just once, in 1981.

About him, Pride adds:

Charles "Melvin" Jackson played seven of his nine NFL seasons in KC. He started 42 of 86 games; had five sacks; and get this -
ten fumble recoveries for the Chiefs.

Why is Melvin in quotes? It's his middle name, but did his teammates actually call him "Melvin?" Why? Anyway, I like the format of Chris Thorman's countdown for the Chiefs because he asks who's best in each number, something which I have neither the inclination nor the readership to answer for the Jets. For #51 on the Chiefs, the winner is Jim Lynch, who wore it right before Jackson did, from 1967-77. Jackson places a distant fourth.


As for his being a Jet, at least he enjoyed two winning seasons with us at the end of the career (1985-86). Consider the supernatural possibility that he might have been a good luck charm because the Jets didn't get above .500 for 11 years after he retired. This seems unlikely all the same, for the infamous double overtime Divisional Playoff loss to Cleveland, a game from which this Jets fan has never recovered, was technically the last game of his career.

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