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Monday, August 1, 2011

NY Jets #55 - Part 1

I foolishly assumed that the Jets would win the bidding war for Nnmadi Asomugha, and while I'm glad he didn't go to Dallas, it surprised me that the hometown Philadelphia Eagles got him instead. A loyal fan of any NFL team should know to assume nothing, though the safest of all assumptions was that, at the very least, Asomugha was leaving Oakland.

But this is also an assumption that illustrates a strange paradox about my football fan life. When I was a kid, there were nine planets, 12 apostles, seven continents, fifty states, and three counties to the self-descriptive piece of land known as Long Island. There was the Soviet Union. Cable TV was for rich people. There was no water on the moon. Today I'm more inclined to believe simple geographical truths over astronomical, geopolitical or theological assertions. But when I was a kid, one assumption remained true no matter what scientists said. The Oakland Raiders would go to the playoffs, and the New York Jets would stay home.


This 1969 picture goes to illustrate a moment when these two forces in American football were first sent into opposite orbits. More to the point, it helps highlight Jim Carroll #55, who played his last season in football in 1969 with the Jets, at linebacker. The 1969 season ended with the Jets' senseless playoff loss to the eventual AFL and Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. In this picture, though, Carroll is shown defending in the Jets' 27-14 home loss to the Oakland Raiders. This game signals a cosmic shift between the Raiders and the Jets, equal AFL rivals in every sense up until that point. From here, only one of the two teams would go on to have winning seasons year after year. Only one would go on to cement an outlaw status that was itself simultaneously a violation and a vindication of the American way of life, further emphasizing this point by winning the Super Bowl in the year of the Bicentennial. The other team was the New York Jets.

To me it's poignant that the 1969 season was the last of Jim Carroll's football career, for it was an ending of a kind for the Jets, too; it represented their last postseason appearance until 1981. Conversely, in 1981 the Raiders posted their very first losing season in 17 years. Since 1969, the Jets and the Raiders, who will be meeting in Alameda once again this season, have existed in direct oppositional orbits circling around the same binary point. Take a look at the win-loss totals for the Raiders and Jets, and an eerily perfect inverse manifests itself. The Jets, one of the teams we assume will be a competitor for the playoffs this coming season (and may the gods not smite my team for this assumption) have a franchise record of 351-418-8. The Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders have an overall record of 418-343-11. When I was a kid, the tradition of excellence in Al Davis' Raiders was as predictable as the planetary list of the Solar System that ended with the name of Mickey Mouse's dog. Now, like Al Davis' Raiders, "Pluto's not a planet anymore, either." Like Charon, the Jets are locked into an eternal orbit with the Raiders' Pluto, their eyes fixed forever on each other in their respective fortunes, destined never again to meet in on equal ground.

And what of Jim Carroll? It's hard to hear his name and not think of the late author of The Basketball Diaries, who died nearly two years ago. I saw that Jim Carroll interviewed a few times over the last ten years of his life and was horrified by how he aged so profoundly in his last four. At 60, he looked like a spectral version of himself. I can't help but read him and think of another dead author and addict, Frederick Exley, who wrote about his obsessions in and around sports. Like Walter Kirn, I met people in literature classes who thought both men were like self-sacrificial literary saints. Frankly, Jim Carroll #55 who played linebacker for the Jets fared better. Though perhaps not an artist, he is at least still alive.

****

We were recently talking about football players-turned-artists, and offensive guard Ernie Barnes #55 is probably the most famous associated with the franchise, although he often took pains to mention how unhappy he was with playing in New York, specifically for the Titans in 1960. In his online biography, we learn that

Barnes loathed being on the Titans. He said, “(New York) was a circus of ineptitude. The equipment was poor, the coaches not as knowledgeable as the ones in Baltimore. We were like a group of guys in the neighborhood who said let’s pretend we’re pros.”

If the AFL was the Mickey Mouse League that NFLers claimed it was, then the Titans were its Goofy. We know that the real culprit was Harry Wismer, the sportscaster turned entrepreneur who ran the team out of a New York City hotel room. But Barnes maintains that the club's lack of character was represented in the death of his friend Howard Glenn #66, whom we will talk about later. Barnes believes that the organization - such as it was - never really told the truth about Glenn's death. He thought that Glenn didn't die of a broken neck sustained in a game against the Los Angeles Chargers, as the team maintained, but of heat exhaustion, a cause of death that would have cast Head Coach Sammy Baugh in an even poorer light.

In 1959, Ernie Barnes was drafted out of North Carolina College by the Washington Redskins, a team that didn't hire black players. His name was "Ernest Barnes" officially, and it would seem that a player named "Ernest" wasn't someone of color to George Preston Marshall's racist organization. Once they realized it, the Redskins disavowed him. After playing for the Colts that season, Barnes was labeled "Ernie" in the Baltimore press, and the name stuck. After the Titans, he would play in the AFL for San Diego and Denver before retiring from football entirely in 1965. But even when he quit the Titans after their game against the Chargers, Barnes was already an artist. According to his biography link above, he studied art at college and frequently painted scenes from football and elsewhere, honing a craft that would ultimately sustain him in a way that very few artists could ever hope to imagine.

His work ultimately enabled him to be picked as the official artist of the 1984 Olympics, but you also recognize Barnes' painting if you watched Norman Lear's 1970's sitcom Good Times. Early productions of the show featured Barnes' painting of the Evans family in the closing credits. Later episodes, though, featured one of Barnes' most famous works, "Sugar Shack," which was also used on the cover of Marvin Gaye's 1976 album, I Want You. The Evans family was one of the very few black families on American TV at the time, other than Lear's Jeffersons. I watched the famous episode where James Evans dies, suddenly struck with the same kind of horror I felt when Jake Walsh brought me into the laundry room in our basement to show me where my parents hid my Christmas presents. To a cloistered white boy from Long Island, Good Times provided a view of African-American life that wasn't exactly accurate, but it was vivid and alive, like Barnes' shack.

Ernie Barnes' "Sugar Shack" (1976)
Barnes' final revelation that he wanted to quit his day job for good and paint for a living apparently came to him late in his football career while playing for the Broncos, when he says, "The sun hitting the unmuddied parts of the uniforms created a yellowish white, it was just gorgeous. I knew then it was time for me to get out of the game." In his 2009 obituary, he is described by friends as believing that art could educate. In this sense, the game was merely a vehicle through which he could find new meanings in a world that defined him narrowly by his race and by his job.

As a fan, I can understand at least the bit about finding out something valuable about human life by accident in sports. At a certain point, even when we go number by number, the love of it has nothing to do with football. Even then I don't always expect to learn something as broad and profound as I did reading about Ernie Barnes. Football was a paycheck that enabled him to explore his designs on painting, but I still feel his unhappy time with the Titans is as revelatory about him as anything he painted. Whatever our assumptions about football players, the man who quits a team in disgust over the death of a friend is perhaps an artist at heart.

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