Wednesday, September 21, 2011

NY Jets #52 (Redux) - John Schmitt

During the spring and summer of 1972, while my Mom and Dad were expecting my little brother, they began looking for a house. At the time we were living in a rented apartment in Flushing, a mere long walk from Shea Stadium in the autumn, a subway stop in winter. Up until this time, they had never owned anything except their clothing, their cutlery, their furniture, their books, a TV and a 1967 Volvo. Now we were moving to suburbia, to Long Island, a logical step along the narrow strip of land to Nassau County from Queens. 

Now they were diving for more. Dad had known a little of the town and country life growing up as a small child in Braintree, Massachusetts, but his family soon hit very hard times, and he became a city child. Mom had never known anything but the city, in a railroad apartment where she and her siblings slept in the same bed. She wanted my little brother and me to have our own rooms.

I have vague memories of being driven around in the backseat of a Saab by a realtor, looking at houses. I was three and a half, and I recall very few details of the trip around the South Shore neighborhoods. I remember seeing more tall trees than ever before. I saw a car that advertised a product with a plastic German shepherd dog attached to the roof. I wish I could remember what that company sold. It's killing me. What I don't remember is what my parents told me many years later after I became a Jets fan. Among the many houses we saw, we also looked at #52 John Schmitt's house in Hempstead.

Apparently he was moving out. He was Joe Namath's starting center from about 1966-73. Like my Mom, Schmitt was born in Brooklyn. He had already made the move out of New York City to the Island, settling near where he went to college at Hofstra. I always assumed that we were looking at his house back then because he wasn't playing for the Jets anymore, but I see now that he still had another year to play for the Jets when we were there. So where was John Schmitt moving?

I just know that as a boy each time I read about the Jets in Super Bowl III and saw a passing imagine of John Schmitt - his white towel attached to his back belt so Namath could wipe his hands before the snap, the peculiar cleats the offensive line wore with the circle on the heel - I always felt like he had been rendered a little less magical by virtue of knowing him to be a regular person, with a home, cutlery and china, a TV, books, and a car in his garage. Suddenly he was like a member of my extended family, or at least a family friend, for why else would a person allow me into his home? No matter how distant these people were from my devotion, I had to realize too that they had lives, sometimes decorating them with vestiges of the lives of the city they left behind. There was no mass-produced, fixed accounting of personal taste in the 1970's; things were pretty loose, and there was no IKEA. All the accoutrements of real life only served to make the paradox that much more incomprehensible to a little boy: the Jets of the mythical time of 1968 were immortal, but all the same merely human. John Schmitt was the first to be filed in my understanding of the world in just this way.

John Schmitt #52, playing with pneumonia
In When Pride Still Mattered, David Marraniss' excellent book on Vince Lombardi, one of the coach's primary lessons was that to be a successful in the game, a player had to live with and accept constant pain. Running back Jim Taylor specifically said that Lombardi taught him the lessons of how to recognize his own limits for pain and to then push through that limit to a new place where the player gave that much more than his opponent. It made the Packers of the 60's fearful from more than a strategic point of view; it made them psychologically impenetrable.

Yet Marraniss also points out that Lombardi's own ability to face pain was constantly at odds with what he demanded from his players. In his own private experience, Lombardi was apparently greatly afraid of physical pain, perhaps as any normal person is. But football is not normal, not the real world, and while Lombardi became the first professional coach to embody lessons that could be apparently applied to the real world, his insistence on his players being intolerant of pain is not part of the normal world. It belongs in the fantasies of football heroism, where it erodes the mind and spirit of many of its players.

In North Dallas Forty, a violent mid-day practice before a key divisional game against a fictional Chicago team ends with a receiver going down with a pulled hamstring. From high above the field in a tower overlooking the whole practice, Head Coach B.A. Strother speaks evenly through a megaphone to the trainer below. Is the player ready? he asks. The trainer admits he can't tell but he doesn't think so. Wide receiver Phil Elliott, a sometimes sour veteran, a free spirit, not at all to Strother's taste, is the next man up. Strother doesn't like Elliott's independence, his "lack of maturity,"  and Elliott doesn't like how the coach stokes the racial tensions on the team to create a greater hunger on the squad for violence. But they need one another. He calls out from the megaphone for Elliott, and he takes a walk with the receiver. Can you be ready for a whole game? he asks, knowing that Elliott will have to be shot with pain killers to play.

Of course, says Elliott. "Hell, I ain't afraid of needles," he says, walking away, but not before adding to Strother, "I guess that's what's called maturity."

Where's the fine between a distorted maturity and pride? When I consider John Schmitt on the day of Super Bowl III, I admit find something admirable in his masochistic determination to compete. Apparently in the New York Daily News back in 2008, John Schmitt admitted that he had played the Super Bowl while seriously ill. Rich Cimini of the Daily News writes: 

"Schmitt...said he played Super Bowl III with pneumonia. By the fourth quarter, he was on the verge of exhaustion. He was so ill that, during the postgame prayer in the locker room, he vomited. Namath, kneeling beside Schmitt, scooted away in a hurry." 

There is Schmitt, hulking over in pain and puking during a solemn moment, and there is Namath, kneeling at his greatest moment of professional pride and very nearly hit with something that would have been difficult to explain to the reporters amassed around his locker without first trying to use the towel tucked into the posterior end of his center's pants. 


Someone mentioned to me today that he was taking comfort at work from remembering to see things as they are, not as he hopes they will be. It's strange because I've been doing the same lately, and finding myself mostly reassured by the results. Keeping your expectations low can wedge you through lean days when it seems as though that what you planned to accomplish in the most rudimentary way will simply not get done. Some people complain endlessly at my job, and it might be because their high expectations are always dashed. It's human for us to hope, to aspire. But should we see things as they are? As a Jets fan, I have been given the unique privilege of practicing a life of low expectations but found myself still bitterly humbled in 1983, in 1999 by things as they truly were.

But consider Rich Cimini's recent article on the miraculous reappearance of John Schmitt's Super Bowl ring. According to the story, in 1971, not long before my parents began following their hopes for a new house, John Schmitt was surfing in Hawaii when the ring that signified his heroic part in one of the most important games in professional football history vanished into the Pacific Ocean. It slipped off his finger and disappeared into the blue. The entire story is circuitous. A lifeguard found it some time later and gave it to his wife, but it became part of a niece's estate. The niece then had it appraised and contacted Schmitt recently to let him know that it still survives, saved from the waters of Waikiki. 

What do you believe you have lost that you still wonder about after all these years? Are you diving beneath the surface, despite your own exhaustion, hoping to find what disappeared into the abyss? Is it recoverable? A perfect love lost to your years of selfishness and dissolution? A friend whom you suspect might wonder about you too? Is it a book you loaned? Words of consolation that you know might have made someone smile, helped remind someone that she was loved, that he was important? As the song goes, you must come to the surface and come to your senses, though it's a very deep sea around your own devices.

But there are times when it seems as though that what we have lost, what we have missed all these years, is retrievable, after all. The remnant of our beautiful, innocent hopes are suddenly glimmering through waves and sand, and someone discerns them, recognizing instantly something of value. Suddenly it seems that nothing is lost, everything is recoverable. Perhaps that's why Cimini felt it worthwhile to add that Schmitt's ring is the stuff of larger legend, a sign for others to begin to imagine hopes just as impossible and miraculous:

When Jets fans read about Schmitt's ring discovery Friday night on the Internet, some began tweeting it's a sign of luck and that the current team is destined for the Super Bowl. They haven't been back since 1969.

When the words "luck" and "destined" are found in the same sentence, you realize that you should come to the surface, you should come to your senses. But it's a very deep sea. It could be down there anywhere.

1 comment:

Slimbo said...

This was really great.