Saturday, September 17, 2011

NY Jets #57 - 9/23/01

The weekend came and went. When we were not in praise and remembrance for the fallen, we were thinking about how much the country has tilted toward oblivion in the past ten years. We are a more divided country, a poorer one, an angrier one, a less important one in the eyes of the world, and yet the terrorists did not win, nor will they ever. Generations to come will wonder what we were thinking during this time, and I suppose we'll wear the same look of bemused frustration that my parents had when I asked them about living through the 60's. It was a strange time, we'll say. Stranger than usual, and it became difficult to see the difference between what was real and what was just our imagination.

I had an argument with a colleague of mine this week about whether or not it would have been better to make the memorials for the fallen in Schwenksville Shanksville and New York more of an affirmation. Why do we need to build holes in the ground to show where the towers were? he asked. Why can't we have something that reaches for the sky? I think sometimes he just enjoys a good argument. My brother narrowly escaped the World Trade Center that day and ran for his life uptown until he reached my cousin's office at Park Avenue. A colleague of mine once dated a fireman from Queens who was lost in the towers' destruction. The stepsister of a friend of mine was a flight attendant on one of the planes that hit the towers. Everyone on the east coast seemed no more than three degrees separated from someone who was witness or victim that day. Ten years later, given what little comfort we can take from our country's present state, it's appropriate that a void be the main symbol of our remembrance.


Two days after JFK was assassinated in 1963, my mother went out on a date with a guy to watch the football Giants play the football Cardinals at Yankee Stadium. She met him at his apartment, arriving just in time to see Lee Harvey Oswald murdered on live TV. She remembers being unable to take herself away from the networks showing it over and over, like instant replay. Her boyfriend wanted to get to the game, but she couldn't stop watching it. All the while in her mind she kept wondering, What's going on? What's happening?

Still, the game was played, and she went. So did approximately 63,000 other fans. Richard Rothschild wrote in the Chicago Tribune that he attended the game and remembers no music, no extra sound effects, no halftime bands, nothing extraneous being done and that the crowd in attendance was solemnly focused on the game, with cigarette and cigar smoke wafting everywhere in the late autumn sun. There are legendary (and possibly inaccurate stories) of the tomb-like silence of the big stadium that day, so much so that people claim they could hear the whistles clearly from the upper seats. Bob Shepperd Sheppard called for a moment of silence at the game's start.

The news of Oswald's death buzzed around the stadium. Most people who were at the game got there too early to see it happen on TV as Mom did. They missed an event that would shape their country to come - a man's murder, caught live, witnessed by millions of people who had already been stitched to their TVs in a effort to comprehend the incomprehensible. As for the Giants, they were upset by the Cardinals 24-17, playing poorly throughout. Pete Rozelle later said the Sunday games should never have been allowed to go on, though apparently he had been given permission from the Kennedy family to let them play.

In his article above, Rothschild gives the sense that for the Giants' fans the game was entirely separate from the events of the weekend. They all comprehended that something terrible had happened, but the game itself was an honest distraction in the meantime. Football was a game. Kennedy and Oswald were real life. What separated those two worlds of reality was a void of knowledge, an absence of the intrusive media that we have today, though it could be said that the events of that weekend in 1963 ensured that such a void would not remain for long.

But even today, the world may change, but the games stay the same. You might have voted for one candidate three years ago and are now already following a fashionable wave of indifference toward him today, but three bad seasons for your football team mean nothing to you. If they do, then you're not really a loyal fan, you're an enthusiast. And that's fine; you might be healthier that way. Once the commemorative ceremonies ended, there was still the Jets-Cowboys season opener to play, a game very like one played ten years ago or even forty-nine years ago, and Tony Romo still gave the game away with turnovers, just as Tony Romo often does.


Rothschild's article was written exactly ten years ago today, perhaps to give some perspective on why the NFL was reluctant to repeat Rozelle's mistake; they skipped a week after 9/11 and returned to action on September 23, 2001. The Jets played the Patriots at Foxboro in a game intended to unite the two teams, their fanbases, and the entire football community in one knitted brow of sorrow and determination. One sign in the Foxboro stands read, "GO PATS. GO JETS." Both the Jets and Patriots played listlessly, just the Giants did back in the day, just as one imagines two teams would at a time of massive grief.

But this Jets-Patriots game represents a different ten-year milestone - a pivotal moment that signaled a radical change in the history of the two clubs. This was the night that Mo Lewis #57 knocked out Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. There were little more than five minutes left, and the Jets were ahead 10-3. Bledsoe scrambled for the sidelines and was nearly there when he was blindsided by Lewis and hurled to the ground. You may be able to hear the hit in the video below; many people on the field claimed it was the hardest hit anyone had ever heard. A blood vessel burst in Bledsoe's chest, and he was unable to get up. Backup quarterback Tom Brady went in for him, and the rest is, as they say....

In order for a truly great rivalry to develop, one team has to be preeminent and the other the spoiler, the underdog. Since that night, the Patriots and the Jets have been repeating a pattern built by the consequences of that hit. They were already trading coaches and players, but as soon as one of them became a Super Bowl champion later that year, the war of words and gestures that followed developed into one of the great spitting rivalries in the game. Until September 23, 2001, the Jets and the Patriots shared similar spaces near the bottom floors of the five-team AFC East, occasionally seeing one another take a trip to the penthouse, only then to end up in the same space again. After 2001, the format changed, and both teams have been consistently more competitive than Buffalo and Miami, but in the end we all know who's really better, and we all know why.

So the question begs: what if Lewis had pulled up? It's hardly right to blame him for not doing so. Though an excessive hit, it was a legitimate one, and the quarterback is fair game. In a quiet, defensive struggle, Lewis was simply doing his job; he had a fine career with several poor to underachieving Jet clubs, and it is unfair to spend this entire entry talking about him solely in the context of this one moment. But it did make a difference. It's a moment that haunts Jets fans because they're always inclined to believe that Fate works directly against them and in favor of the Patriots, and in this case Fate made a visit on the night football was supposed to return to normalcy.

Let's say Bledsoe stays as starter, and Brady goes somewhere else in the NFL. It's difficult to imagine a Belichick team excelling without Tom Brady, though you could say that 2008 was as close as an example of that as we will find. Where would Brady have played, if not for the Patriots? Would he have ended up a good quarterback on struggling teams, as Matt Cassel, Kevin Kolb or Matt Shaub have? Was he special all along, with or without Belichick?

Drew Bledsoe can be forgiven for not anticipating any of this. As he lay in pain on the Patriots' sideline, he certainly knew his night was done, but he probably never entertained the possibility that his career with the Patriots was over, too. Nor could he have known he would be replaced by the greatest quarterback in football history. We can all be forgiven for being unable to see the Hand of Fate in the form of Mo Lewis.


Anonymous said...

Schwenksville??? Are you out of your mind???

Who doesn't know SHANKSVILLE is where Flight 93 went down on 9/11?

Jesus Christ, the places are over 200 miles apart. Besides, who on earth except the few people who live in and around Schwenksville have ever even freakin' heard of it???

The person you call "Bob Shepperd" was really Bob Sheppard. He died last July at the age of 99.

This is the kind of stuff you don't even need to research if you indeed have memories of it.

"After the ceremonies that presaged last week's Jets-Cowboys season opener...???" The game wasn't a prediction that the ceremonies made; you mean to say "preceded."

That's about where I clicked off -- I couldn't take your assault on the English language any longer.

Lots of luck, dude.

Martin Roche said...

Thanks so much for writing!

As you can see, this isn't exactly my day job, and while I am glad you made it about three-quarters of the way through the entry, I agree that you should've been spared the agony of my crappy proofreading; there's no excuse for mistaking the name of a town visited by such a well-known tragedy. I also appreciate that you value the English language and feel personally affronted when it’s being absently misused even in an unread blog. I’ve made your changes and left them exposed for the world to see, all with a sense of personal shame. However, I rewrote one of the offensive sentences in question because it was just too painful even for me to leave in cross-out.

Honestly, though, I’m grateful to see you wish me good luck. I haven’t felt this validated since you called my sixth grade choir recital “a first-rate impersonation of a dying mule.” Thanks, Mom!