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Saturday, September 3, 2011

NY Jets #56 - Part 4

John Abraham in 2005

Am I wrong, or does John Abraham have really long arms? I keep staring at this picture, amazed at what I'm seeing. When I stand up straight, my full palm goes past my waist. His elbow almost meets his waist. When I was a little boy I drew pictures of football players with one physical aspect usually out of proportion with the whole - a giant head, giant feet, or arms as inordinately long as John Abraham's. So we can think of this not as a deformity but as an abstraction of the human form, an aesthetic improvement over the norm, certainly for a linebacker.

This Life photo is, as Jets fans know, taken from 2005, the one season Abraham wore #56, a gesture that always seemed derivative of another famous player with that number from another New York-based team. Normally, Abraham wore #94 for the Jets, and he now wears #55 with Atlanta. That he could not be kept on the Jets is one of the greatest frustrations of my recent fandom, alongside the departure of James Farrior and Jonathan Vilma. The Jets never really made good draft choices before the first decade of the 21st century, so I guess it would have been too much to expect them to keep all the great ones they made afterwards.

His #56 in 2005 was a tribute to Lawrence Taylor, I think. I guess for a Jets fan that's a bit like seeing the Mets wear black hats, which still smacks too much of trying to be like the Yankees. You have colors already, I keep saying every time I see David Knight in those black shirts that make them look like they're Auto Zone attendants. Be who you are, not who they are. But even more, by wearing #56, John Abraham seemed like he was expressing a need to appear like something that he couldn't be, that no one could be. To offer a tribute to LT is as understandable as it was for the Greeks to make alms to the gods of Olympus, but it's kind of obvious, too, isn't it? Don't all men want to be gods? All linebackers in some sense want to be like the man who redefined their position, so wearing his number is just being redundant. Of course you want to be LT, I wanted to say. Just be grateful you're not a criminal offender the way he is. Be yourself. You have a number. Be that number. You don't have to be anyone but yourself. So John Abraham became a Falcon and then gave up #56. I should have been more specific.

Linebacker Godwin Turk #56 does not have arms as long as John Abraham's, but I'm certain most people don't, not even Lawrence Taylor. Turk was drafted by the Jets in 1974, and I probably saw him play the following season when he started every game. He then went on to play mostly special teams for the Denver Broncos for three seasons (1976-78) and like John Abraham, he traded #56 for #55. He played for the AFC Champion Broncos of 1977, the Orange Crush. Turk is also apparently "infamous" for separating his shoulder after spiking the football in celebration of a fumble recovery. I don't know for whom he played at the time it happened. According to his database record, he suited for almost every game in each of his seasons of play, save for one or two. He recovered fumbles in 1975 and 1978, so did he do it at the end of one of those seasons? It would be horrible to think of him doing it at the end of his career. Maybe it happened in the 1974 preseason? The card below lists him as "injured" that year.

Your mystery Jet? Jerome Barkum or Winston Hill
As has been pointed out before, it's unfair to identify a player's career with a single foible in the field, and considering how popular it was to spike the ball in the 1970's, you could hardly blame him. It was a sign of the new, exuberant football of Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. It seems innocuous compared with hiding a cell phone in the padding of a goal post. Godwin Turk was celebrating what a defensive man always wants for himself - to be in on the play that will turn the game around. A Denver Post laundry list of worse "freak injuries" is here, and Turk's spike is on it. Some of these are acts of God, others are acts of ignorance, and others are just a matter of someone being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I can't attribute any of that to Godwin Turk. All he hurt was himself, and his sin was one of exuberance. The back of his card is all we really have to go on. It calls him a "lusty hitter," which also sounds exuberant, though I don't think anyone would call a player that today, probably because it sounds like something Don Meredith would have made fun of Howard Cosell for saying.

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Craig Powell #56 played linebacker at Ohio State and then in a pro career that originally saw him as one of the players who moved with the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. He returned from knee injury briefly to play in 1998 with the Jets, but he wrecked his knee again and was finished in the NFL. He returned in 2001 to play for the San Francisco Demons of the XFL. His write-up on the Demons' page says that at Ohio State, he was "touted as one of the fastest linebackers in college football, always arrived at the ball in a hurry and in a nasty frame of mind."

It seemed that one of the failures of the XFL was its insistence that what Americans wanted was not a better game, but a nastier game, a game played with a manufactured sense of violence. I suppose you could say that all of this began with the spike, which suggested that the game was also a spectacle of a player's attitude, his sense of himself. The spike was a threat to the game's traditionalists; as late as the 1980's Tom Landry didn't want his players to spike the football. The NFL is named the No Fun League for a reason, but part of its conservatism is legitimate - too much exuberance in a violent game can sometimes lead to uncontrollable violence. Consider the brawl in 1983 that started with Jackie Slater attacking Mark Gastineau for his sack dance and that eventually lead to the NFL banning the dance.

The XFL struggled because it wanted to cast real people in a narrative that had the nature of fiction but was also an actual game. Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo would never have made it in the XFL, probably because they were friends in real life as well as teammates in an unscripted drama. They were also real people played by Billy Dee Williams and James Caan in a motion picture film based on a real story, the polar opposite of the kind of drama Vince McMahon wanted. Brian's Song would have been deemed "pantywaist" entertainment by McMahon (one of his favorite words), probably because it transcended notions of what football was all about and attributed a sensitive nature to men.

Excessive celebration is also an element of professional wrestling, but you can feign the bluster of a professional wrestler because the professional wrestling is not real. Most importantly, wrestling's violence is controlled and scripted. I remember feeling true unease when the XFL was first planned because Vince McMahon seemed to want to compound the level of violence in a game with enough unscripted violence as it was. Perhaps because it was such uncharted territory for him, he failed. I just kept seeing the excesses of a growing fascistic state being stirred by the nearly mortal violence of its favorite sport. What I was really seeing in my mind was Rollerball, another good James Caan film that, like Brian's Song, was made into a terrible remake.

Anthony Schlegel #56 came from Ohio State a decade later and was drafted by the Jets in 2006. He is out of the NFL today and is apparently a strength coach for Ohio State. His web site is an advertisement of sorts for his services in building strength in the weight room. On the other hand, it is also laced with references to Biblical scripture, offering what seems to be his philosophy behind "strength building." It's also a window into a part of the United States that I don't really think I understand, offering a conflation of things like football, guns, God, and hunting that could only come out of Texas. My sausages for tonight's grilling came from the market. Schlegel started hog hunting when he was 16.

He says that today when he hunts he comes back with meat that he will then clean and offer to homeless shelters, an altruistic gesture that most hunters probably don't even think of. So there's that. But sometimes when I look at the Red States I see another country, one that is also the core inspiration for the game I love, so it's disorienting. I feel like I'm unable to communicate with that part of the world. A queasiness comes over me, I shake it off, I move on. The games must be played and watched. The German poet Friedrich von Schlegel (no relation to Anthony that anyone knows of) once said that it was "peculiar of mankind to transcend mankind," which I think is especially true in reference to football. Whatever Brian's Song might have suggested.

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Chris Wing #56 came out of Boise State and suited up for two wholly non-statistical games at linebacker for the Jets in 2007 and that was that. Vernon Gholston came out of Ohio State, was drafted #1 in 2008, he briefly wore #56, suited up for three seasons with the Jets, producing virtually the same results. Who could have seen it coming? "The historian, says von Schlegel, "is a prophet looking backwards." So, no one.

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