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Sunday, August 21, 2011

NY Jets #56 - Part 1

Roger Ellis: linebacker,
Secret Service Agent
This is what a linebacker looked like in 1960.

Well, Ray Nitschke didn't look like this, though one could argue that Larry Grantham did. We are talking about the New York Titans, and we are talking about Roger Ellis #56, the overachiever who always impressed coaches and kept his place in a uniform in the AFL. After him, there was Ted Bates #56, who had played at linebacker for the Chicago Cardinals and then for the Jets in 1963. This was a time when players were smaller, and football Cardinals played in Comiskey Park, but that time was changing rapidly right before everyone's eyes. It was a strange epoch by any measurement. It was the early 60's. There were Soviet satellites orbiting the Earth. There were Catholics in the White House. Things were shifting. Suddenly there were two different Cardinals in the St. Louis. Suddenly a man could run a football team out of a hotel room. Anything was possible. Ted Bates and Roger Ellis were just passengers in time.

After showing up to the Jets training camp in 1963 for one last tryout, Roger Ellis managed to gain a spot as an "understudy" to Sherman Plunkett who, by God, was what football players were going to look like more and more in the wide open future of what would become a national game better suited to an increasingly corpulent people. Perhaps it was not that players weren't large enough; it was that our appetites had grown to Sherman Plunkett's supersize. Still, you can't help but look at Roger Ellis and see someone who has an honest appraisal of his chances and yet believes in himself all the same - a combination that any sane person would envy if he felt it lacking.

After leaving the Jets that year, Roger Ellis pops up again later on in the annals of time as a Secret Service Agent following the detail of then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, which I have to tell you, makes me jealous. I don't know why. Traveling with Agnew (codename: Pathfinder) must have been a hoot for anyone having to transcribe the English language, as rendered by Messrs. Safire and Buchanan. Here's a great deal more from William Ryczek's fine book Crash of the Titans. In his credits, Ryczek says Ellis was of enormous help to him but also a little defensive when first approached with questions about Titans history. He didn't just want to be made fun of the way he felt that former Titans always were. No one wants to be made fun of, and Ryczek does them all a service. Sadly, Ellis passed away in 2008. Bates is probably still alive and somewhere in Texas. As always, folks, remember your Titans.

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Sam Cowart #56 joined the Jets in 2002 after playing with Buffalo for five seasons and then played regularly at linebacker for us until he became injured in 2004. He played the equivalent of half that season. His injury was Jonathan Vilma's opportunity, and Vilma then became the starter. Cowart asked for a trade, and what happened next is triangulated confusion to me. Randy Moss went from the Vikings to Oakland for the Raiders' seventh pick in the first round and the Raiders' overall seventh round pick. Cowart went to Minnesota, and in n exchange for him, the Jets wanted that seventh round pick from Oakland via Minnesota. This seems like a plan thematically assembled from Norse mythology, with language from the Old Testament. I saw Odin bring unto the Viking nation the seventh from the first and the first from the seventh, yet the Raiding men clothed in darkness were handed only the gift of moss in exchange, and in time they came to curse themselves for it, with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, for the moss yielded nothing unto them.

Phantom reader, do you know who that seventh round Raiders pick was?

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Paul Crane, C/LB
The man who passed the ball between his legs to Joe Namath and Steve Sloan at the University of Alabama in the mid-1960's was Paul Crane #56, an All-American center whom the Jets converted into a linebacker from 1966-72, earning him a Super Bowl ring. He netted three interceptions in 1969. In 1994, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, an entity whose existence appears to rely on a careful balance between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn. For every Tide player inducted, there is a Tiger inducted. In 1978, Alabama's Joe Namath was inducted the same year as Auburn's Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan. But nothing will ever really keep the peace in the Middle East or the Deep South when both regions are peopled by fanatics. The recent poisoning of Toomer's trees in Auburn is an indication of how perverse this rivalry is.

The alleged tree assailant Harvey Updyke, Jr. is described as having mental health issues, manifesting themselves here in his attachment to a school he did not attend. But how many of us really are this close to the boundary between earnest fanaticism and full-blown mental illness masking itself as fandom? In such cases, it isn't the face-painter that people should worry about but the middle-aged man who sits alone in his room and thinks more about the football games he's watched than all the things in the world he could be doing with his life, aside from thinking about football. I got into a shouting match last night with some young suburban guy and his date over a parking spot in the city; is it really "just a coincidence" that I'm also worried about the Jets' offensive line? I mean, my God. It was just a parking spot.

I've done plenty of dumb things in my time, including stealing a large sign from a Shell station in Rhode Island, but I don't think I would kill anyone's trees. I suppose the dumbest thing I do as a fan is that I hold it against my old Massachusetts friends from college that the Patriots have been so successful. It isn't their fault that a team that was in fourth place in the hearts of most New Englanders not so long ago is now one of the most successful franchises in professional sports.

But I do hold it against them, and they hold it against me that the Jets are even in the same division as the Patriots. Now we exist on disparate shores of an abyss, filled with resentment. We've tried to exchange occasional pleasantries while secretly plotting each other's demise. For a brief period of time, Facebook gave us an opportunity to chat about the good old days of stealing signs from gas stations, and we laughed about how none of us are in the physical shape we apparently believed we were in at college. But the football season renders everything silent, and like two groups forced to exist on either side of a concrete wall, we find it more convenient to refrain from speaking to one another. Since the Jets' defeat of the Patriots in the playoffs last year, I have heard nothing from New England, nor do I expect to any time soon.

Paul Crane still lives in Mobile, Alabama. He was also an assistant coach for the Crimson Tide and for the University of Tennessee for a time. Alabama (the school) gives out awards in the springtime for "A-Day," which are for players who performed best in spring practices. According to the Alabama HOF site above, the "I Like to Practice Award" given on A-Day was initially named for Paul Crane. It's an award that sounds like a nice parting gift for a game show contestant. Having recently visited the Jets training camp at Florham Park, I can tell you that the man who likes to practice most is the man who is desperately trying to find a place on the roster. But according to the A-Day story above, the award named for Paul Crane is now now the "Offensive Lineman Award," which this year was given to William Vlachos.

The "I Like to Practice Award" is currently named for Jerry Duncan, a small tackle sometimes used by Bear Bryant as a receiver in the 60's. According to an equipment manager at the time, Duncan liked to practice so much that he once wept when he was too injured to do so. I don't know if Paul Crane could possibly have competed with that, or that he'd have wanted to.

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