Tuesday, August 30, 2011

NY Jets #56 - Part 3

A colleague of mine came into the copier room this morning with a radiant expression, which is not the manner of anyone entering the copier room of a public high school. At least one or two copiers are always out of order, and the line for the one still working is usually populated with teachers who've now been given some unsolicited time to consider their own blundering careers. As for my colleague, he's just recently been hired for a full-time college coaching job at a nearby university and will be leaving us in January.

He slapped me on the shoulder, as if my wife had just had a baby. "This is it, Roche," he said. "This is our year."

I knew what he was talking about. He's one of the few people in the Philadelphia-area school where I work who, like me, was born on Long Island. He's a Jets fan, and although he once insisted that The Great Gatsby was the dullest book he was ever forced to read in high school (he's in the Social Studies Department) at least he knows who Lance Mehl #56 is, and why he's important. He too can recall the moment that Lance Mehl made the Impossible seem briefly possible.

"I can't believe you'd say that," I said. "I'm impressed."

"It's true," he said, shaking his head at his own disbelief. "I feel it. I really do."

Like any good Jets fan, he's usually skeptical, almost to the point of gallows humor, for why would anyone call any Jets season "our year," a phrase that can mean only one thing? Normally Jets fans look at life much the way teachers on the copier line do - with low expectations, with a manner of being already defeated. I know I've been harping on it of late, but the average public educator in a down-and-out school feels a bit like a fan who knows that his team is not going to have a winning season. It's a "rebuilding year" among many to come, at least until public education becomes a less popular target in the age of recession. It doesn't mean that you're giving up the ghost; you're just waiting for things to get better. You're waiting and waiting.

But my colleague is no longer waiting. It doesn't mean that he's impatient. He just believes that it's here. He believes the time we have been waiting for all of our lives has finally come. He's entitled to believe in the Impossible, in a championship season, even if I think he's been affected by his own recent good fortune. For the rabid fan, the spectator's life is intertwined with his own personal hopes and ambitions. For some reason, the fate of people who don't even know or care about you means as much to you as a new job, a love affair or a bigger house. For some bizarre reason that makes sense.


I was 13 the first time I ever thought that the time I had been waiting for all of my life had come. It's not an age I would ever want to return to, personally. I was repellent to girls back then and not likely to attract them any time soon. School was filled with moments of personal mediocrity. The one thing that could make everything OK was the Jets winning the Super Bowl. And in January 1983, it became possible because of Lance Mehl. In the fourth quarter of the 1983 AFC Divisional Playoffs, as the Jets edged past the heavily favored Raiders at the LA Coliseum, Lance Mehl intercepted two passes and kept the Jets from blowing the game, as they had in the previous year's Wild Card Game.

The Jets and the Raiders were two teams that had followed different paths since the year I was born. For the Jets, the once visible path to greatness had been made invisible, and whatever good things fate had granted me by the time I was 13, it had also made me a Jets fan, and that was only thing I cared about.

Lance Mehl, making the Impossible possible.
The Jets led at halftime 10-0. They barely held onto a 17-14 fourth quarter lead, and I can still see Freeman McNeil fumble in Raiders territory with just under a minute left, and Jim Plunkett being given one last chance to come back and move the Raiders downfield. Plunkett hit Cliff Branch, then Todd Christensen, and my feelings of desperation crept in. I gripped my aching stomach. Don't blow the lead. Please. Please, not again.

I remember Lyle Alzado from that Divisional Game. He would suffer years later from a cancer that he claimed, before he died, was related to his steroid use. He reacted to being held by the Jets' Chris Ward by tearing off Ward's helmet and throwing it at him. These were Al Davis' Raiders of a different time, back when Davis didn't look like his own skeletal remains. The Raiders were relentless, opportunistic sociopaths, the kind of men who didn't so much join drug-dealing, chain-wielding gangs in prison as organize them. In order to feel comfortable about being anywhere near the game on TV, I fantasized that I was a traveler from a future age who already knew the end result and that the Jets had lost. I was visiting the residents of this sad, powerless time who had pinned their hopes on the Jets. Poor fools, I thought. It was best to accept only the existence of the possible, and nothing more. All else was impossible.

In truth, I was learning the manly art of repression. Just as I saw that crying was something that real men didn't do, so too was I learning how to resist even the slightest hint of emotion or the expectation of happiness. (My wife often comments on how even now I watch Jets games in a state of tense silence, perched on my chair, like an owl.) Nauseous, filled with quiet stress, I was becoming a man. Don’t kid yourself. The Raiders are going to win, I thought. Don’t get hopeful. Just accept whatever happens.

You can watch the fourth quarter of the 1983 Divisional Playoff here. Ex-Jet Burgess Owens intercepts at 9:20, and the Jets seem doomed, as they usually do. But at 16:44, with the game clock at 4:52, Todd throws through double coverage to Wesley Walker for a great catch down to the Raider 1. Scott Dierking scores to put the Jets ahead, 17-14. Dick Enberg mentions Walker's partial blindness, something that still makes him the ultimate Jet, and one of my favorite players in all of football.

I will watch this game on my computer from time to time, whenever a bad day forces me to seek out the kind of consolation that others might find in a kind word from a friend or in a glass of scotch. You can see that the Coliseum's air that day is colored the grayish yellow of Los Angeles' persistent smog, and the turf is a scrabbled green and brown from all the dry months of the autumn and winter. If it rained during the playoffs in the Coliseum, the ground would turn into an sodden pit of mud. When Mehl comes down with his first interception at 21:16, he lands on desert grass.

Then Burgess Owens dislodges a fumble from Freeman McNeil, but yet again, on what appears to be an identical play, Lance Mehl intercepts Plunkett on the ensuing drive. The game is done. The Jets will move on.

But it's only now that I notice that the images of the two interceptions are identical in the video. Whoever edited the footage actually looped Lance Mehl's first interception twice. Why hadn't I noticed it before? His two interceptions, coming over the middle, seemed identical in my memory anyway, so I suppose it's appropriate that the second catch is exactly the same as the first. It's as if to prove the point that what we see on film is actually a trick of the eye, as unreliable as our own memory. We replay these moments on film and in our memory because they mean so much to us, but aren't they also altered somewhat by the emotions that accompanied them then and that accompany them now? Why shouldn't they be simply one frame looped over another? What difference does it make?

The following week, the Jets would lose in the Mud Bowl, a misnomer for a game actually played in a vast, clear puddle in the Orange Bowl. Miami's AJ Duhe sealed the win with an interception, and my brief hopes splashed away. For years since, the possible has been mostly impossible, reappearing only of late, and teasing us all into believing once more in bigger things to come some other day.


At some point my wife became enamored of Arena Football. I confess I look at Arena Football as a sideshow act, suitable for viewing alongside the bearded woman and the Turtle Man. For her, it may have been the irresistible lure that Jon Bon Jovi has for all white women between the ages of 35-50; he was the primary owner of the local Philadelphia team that won the Arena Bowl in 2008 (I had to look that up). It's like watching lacrosse, played with an enthusiasm that seems manufactured. She picked up on the hyperbole of NBC's coverage of the Arena Football League a few years ago when a commentator intoned, "This is Arena Football, Bob. There's nowhere to hide."

Nowhere to hide. Arena Football has lived out its life, and though it has been reincarnated somewhat, it had nowhere to hide in the geography created by America's Game. The American Football League endured from 1960-69 because it offered a more colorful - though only slightly modified - version of the game that already existed, not a re-imagined alternative. Arena Football will endure for the same reason that the circus has; because men and women need things to do on a date; because divorced men need to do something with their children when they have them for the weekend.

Which brings us to Rick Hamilton #56. To end your career with the New York Jets in 1996 (1-15) was when you were ready for Arena Football. And yet, to read the Orlando Predators' tribute page for Rick Hamilton (the more desperate a league, the more violent its mascot) is to discover something you'd never find for a contemporary NFL player. In a league so overladen with an emphasis on measurable performance, where a player's worth is gauged in his fantasy statistics and not in the incalculable drive of his desire, the NFL has lost the mythologies that once made the game what it is in our memories. No wonder NFL Films is nowhere near as important as it once was - it can no longer help us in the fantasy draft. Its narratives were themselves fantasies full of hyperbole, the original language of sports.

Was Odysseus not as great as Homer would have us believe? Does it matter? Perhaps he was like Rick Hamilton - a player who survived his destinations and returned home. Who knows? If the past can be as unreliable as our memories of Lance Mehl's interceptions in 1983, then why can't Arena Football someday be compared with The Odyssey? When the fall of NFL comes along with the fall of our civilization (or which ever comes first) people will have forgotten the short-sighted ambitions of Fantasy Football and will want to bring back the language of the mythical, back to the story of Rick Hamilton's struggle for survival.

Meantime, we must come back to reality; sports is a crass and cold business. The smaller the league, the greater the language that's used to describe its players. The smaller the life, the greater the hyperbole. That's the secret of myth. But before we draw the veil away, look at Rick Hamilton's tribute link above, and you'll find something Jon Facenda would have said about Unitas. Would that we might inspire such descriptions for ourselves in the smallest of our endeavors, as teachers, business people, artists, servants, laborers, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters:

"From today on, any player who straps up in the red and black and plays FB/LB will be compared to Rick Hamilton, the best ever!"


davidvill said...

Are you back to stay? It's not easy being green but I hope so.

Martin Roche said...

Sure. It's hard to keep these going the way I'd like, but I've got 44 numbers still to go. At this rate, I should finish this by the end of middle age.