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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

NY Jets #56 - Part 2

his 1978 card
I'm getting started with a new school year at work, and as we were sitting in our introductory meeting, the ground began to shake. Literally. We had a tremor that derived from a 5.8 earthquake centered in Northern Virginia. It's appropriate to our time. I feel like everything that we have taken for granted as a culture has to started to shift dramatically because of our economic ills. Especially in education. No teacher is safe anymore in a universe where a standardized test grade can determine your future. I feel like Larry Keller looks.

I'm probably reading into it, but linebacker Larry Keller #56 doesn't look too excited in this 1978 card. The best that I can tell, he's doing warmups before a Jets' exhibition game at the old Meadowlands, probably summer 1977. I think the Jets won 10-0, which will tell you what kind of game it was.

Living in Orange, Texas, a town close to the border of Louisiana and near the Gulf of Mexico, Keller is probably wondering about how luck put him in America's biggest city at its worst time. Crime is a scourge, there's been a mass killer on the loose, and the city recently had a blackout that brought out anarchic looting. The Jets and Giants elicited about as much excitement back then as a pair of Peewee teams on an autumn afternoon. Maybe less than that. It would be a long season for both teams, and another long one in New York for Larry Keller. He seems to know it.

his 1979 card
Or maybe he looks determined. Maybe he's looking squarely into the camera and thinking to himself, "I'm giving it what I got. I'm getting a paycheck. I know what I have to do. People will know that I've been here." Who knows? Larry Keller had been a veteran of three leagues by the beginning of 1977. He played well for the University of Houston in the early 70's, was drafted by the Chargers but spent his first pro year in 1974 in Canada with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Then he played with Csonka, Kiick and Warfield in the WFL's Memphis club in 1975. Then he went to the Jets in 1976, a tough place to start in the NFL. You'll see it all laid out on the back of his 1979 card, one which I also have in my collection. His last season in any league was 1978. The information on the back of the card tells us all we need to know: he played "specialty teams" and was "good against the run." Most of all, back home in Orange, he was a volunteer fireman, and for all we know, he may still be one. A Texas boy, he had traveled around quite a bit by the end of a decade when everything seemed to have been shifting under the feet of ordinary people. Leagues came and went. Fads arose and vanished. Kids smoked weed. Perhaps we're just like Larry Keller in odd times of our own, the ground shifting under us.

****

For some, you can find #56 Jeff Lageman's bronze likeness in a wing of our Hall of Infamy devoted to Jets draft busts (no pun intended). Listing him as a least disastrous draft bust can hardly be flattering, or even fair. He played well early in his career. The Jets were simply guilty for many years of a crime that all teams perpetrate at one time or another - they failed to pick up the real gem from the pile. As the Bleacher Report mentions in the above link, Carnell Lake, Daryl Johnston and Steve Atwater were all available when the Jets picked Lageman.

This is another what-if obsession of mine, and I would like to someday assemble the teams that might have been had the Jets made what might be deemed the "right" choices, beginning, obviously, with Dan Marino in 1983. Since I'm middle aged and in a reflective mood these days, I find myself doing the same for my own life, yet finding I probably am fine with everything I've already done, relatively speaking. But "relatively speaking" doesn't exist for a football fan; his team either makes the right decision or the wrong one. Such judgments are ultimately subjective, though. Who's the biggest bust? Vernon Gholsten? Lam Jones? Blair Thomas? Certainly not Jeff Lageman; that's clear. But who you think is the biggest will probably vary according to the era in which you rooted. Lee White was a bust in 1969. Carl Barzilauskas in 1974.

Considering that Lageman played fairly well in his seasons with us (1989-94), and suffered injuries, you can't really call him the "wrong" choice. Every team makes a "wrong" choice in the draft, but the volume of mistakes that one organization makes consecutively or over time can convince a fan that everyone the team picks is a bust. This has been historically true for the Jets and for other teams like the Bengals. Suddenly Lageman goes from a less appropriate choice to a "bust." Because we Jets fans are prone to sensational collapses, the odd draft choice here or there can be thrown into a bridge abutment of poured concrete ineptitude (that metaphor might be a bust). It's all part of the insurmountable network of failure that we wear like a hairshirt (that's better).

The issue ultimately is whether or not the team can change the pattern. You have to agree that their choices of late have been getting better (excepting Gholsten), so the pattern has changed, and it's what we've done with them that made the difference one way or another.

Lageman got to play later on for the Jacksonville club that went to the AFC Title Game, while his old teammates were losing by four or five touchdowns during the Kotite era ('95-'96). His Wikipedia page mentions that he and other players questioned the disciplinary approach of Tom Couglin. Today he is a Jacksonville area sports guy and an avid hunter and fishermen who will sometimes offer guest appearances to experts in turkey calls on his program, starting with Dave Holloran and the "Crystal Mistress."

Another wing in the Hall of Infamy goes to players lost during the Belichick era to the New England Patriots, and you will find the bronze likeness of Roman Phifer #56 there. When he went to the Jets in 1999, the Rams took Patriot Todd Collins to fill his space, but then the Patriots took Phifer when the Jets let him go. Was it a good idea? The only thing by which I can gauge it all is the 100-plus tackles Phifer made in two of the four seasons he was with the Patriots, and with them he earned three Super Bowl rings. At the end of his first year with the Pats, teammate and future Jet Terrell Buckley called Phifer the silent MVP of the team. The Pats' first Super Bowl win was something to admire, a victory of David over Goliath, and back then I had no sense of that moment being the start of a new Goliath's tyranny. I remember that letting Phifer go bothered me back then, just as letting Shaun Ellis get away bothers me now. You begin to see the patterns that bind one team to mediocrity and another to success. It was good for Roman Phifer to leave us, and his bronze bust in the Belichick Wing is well earned. But will Ellis have one too, now? We are already heating up the bronze.

But I didn't know until I began looking into his background that Phifer was a producer of Blood Equity, the HBO show that two years ago dealt directly with the issue of the inadequate pension for retired players. The target of the film isn't management but the Players Association and its inability to deal with long-term issues of retired player disability, both mental and physical. The show is poignant because a recent suit fronted by players like Jim McMahon alleges that the NFL has hidden the effects of player concussions for decades. The Players Association has yet to deal with what its present membership will have to face in the many years to come. At the end of the above clip, Bob Costas says that, "If a handful of active superstar players stepped up and said, 'Hey, we understand. We're concerned. We're behind this,' that'd help a lot too."

Of course, if you listened to Drew Brees, that doesn't seem very likely. Brees has always taken advantage of the opportunity to generalize wildly where he has zero expertise. And the matter of whether or not the recent agreement is any good for NFL's Legacy Club remains a mystery, certainly to someone as ill-equipped to understand it as I. The only thing I'd like to know right now is exactly how many older NFL retirees Drew Brees has actually met in his lifetime.

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