Thursday, October 6, 2011

NY Jets #57 - Part 3

When I walked out to do some errands last Sunday morning, I saw my next door neighbor sitting on his front porch, smoking, and in his Ravens jersey, about nine hours early for kickoff. I smiled. He smiled back, somewhat wanly.

"We're not neighbors today," he said.

I sensed that he was only partly kidding. But there are plenty of things in this world that he probably wouldn't half-kid about in the same way. Some things in life are just not that important, and some are just that important. He was kind enough to say he thought the Jets would win, and I said the opposite. The only difference was he was just trying to be polite, whereas I believed I was right. And, of course, I was. Last Sunday night the Jets played the kind of game that's too painful to watch. Their defense is not the immovable force that we, with smoke and mirrors, have imagined that they are. Their running game is officially in need of magic. Their offensive line, missing only one crucial part, is now a catastrophe. Nothing is working properly, except for Joe McKnight.

The Jets were completely over-matched by the Ravens, and one sensed from the beginning that while the Jets are a team pretending to be as good as the Ravens, the Ravens themselves might be as good as they pretend, even with all of the stupid mistakes they made throughout the Jets game. They may still develop into the team that plays the Patriots in the title game. The Jets are not.

The following morning I greeted my class, knowing that they would be upset about the Phillies' loss in game two of their series against the Cardinals, but they were even more furious that the Eagles blew a 20-point lead against the 49ers, a team that, on paper, is simply not as good. Their defense failed miserably in the second half, and their offensive line has become the subject of speculation about Michael Vick's meeting with karma. The Eagles' running game still resides squarely behind the passing game in importance. My students are at the edge of despair. One of them said he had been rooting since he was little, but he now asserted that he was "done."

One thing all throughout my fandom to which I have become accustomed is seeing the Jets play beneath the lowliest of expectations, and I feel sad for the newer, smaller fans who haven't gotten the chance yet to adjust their expectations. They never saw Bill Simpson or AJ Duhe intercept Richard Todd in the postseason, nor did they see the New York Jets suddenly fall to 7-9 in 1983. Nor have they known what it was like to deal with an entire decade (1990's) spent watching their team vainly compete with infinitely better teams week after week. Abandon hope all ye who enter. If you don't like it, leave now. You might be grateful you did.

But many don't. Particularly if they decide to become a fan on the basis of even the most innocuous thing. Sometimes the tinier the inspiration, the greater fire that burns. Take johnjet on a Jets forum who describes the following about John Matlock #57, former center of the Jets in 1967:

When I was about 9 years old I was given a couple dollars to spend at a book fair at school. I didnt know what book to buy, but for some reason I decided to buy a Joe Namath book. My father introduced me to his friends son in law. His name was John Matlock, he played for the Jets and he was a center. He came to my house knowing I liked the Jets.
I am the only Jets fan In my family. Everyone else are Eagles fans.
I just never looked back. I seem to become more obsessed with the Jets every year.

More obsessed every year. Why is that? Do you Patriots fans feel that way? Maybe the little ones do when they first learn that they root for a team that has Tom Brady on it, but the older you Pats fans get, the more you probably take for granted that your team will win. The Patriots' situation stands in grand incongruity to yours after a while. Your life is filled with painful ups and downs. Not so your Patriots on most days. You begin to realize the simple truth that, of all the things they need to keep winning, the Patriots certainly don't need you.

You. The guy living in Swansea or Pawtucket or Chelmsford or Natick. Is it really the same as it used to be? Admit it. The thrill and flavor of your fandom are gone. How many times can you feel anxious for the Patriots and believe it's an authentic feeling? Your will to live is no less horrible after that loss to Buffalo. You don't need to know the score of this week's game at this precise moment, do you? Check it later. You don't check it in on your iPhone.

You don't live Sunday on the edge anymore. Somehow you know the ship will be righted if they fall behind, so why not do some yard work, or work your errands instead? Go to your kid's soccer game, all the while wondering about Monday at work. You don't have to worry about how the Pats are doing. They've got it under control. And if they don't, you feel even less satisfied because you know they're the best team in football. What excuses could they possibly have for losing? You're going to be resentful and maybe even dismissive if they do. And when they win, you feel unmoved because that's what's supposed to happen. In fact, you follow the Patriots less and less each Sunday.  

Don't you?

It's the very fact that the Jets are always perilously close to disappointing even my small, fragile expectations that I too am as obsessed as ever. Life on the margin is more interesting, more compelling than a life with a perennial winner. It's a gambler's life, and no gambler would ever honestly deny that the house doesn't always win in the end, any more than a drunk honestly believes that this next bender is going to different this time. But they keep coming back.


Sometimes a football player's life is just like yours. Like Richard Lewis #57, you were on a journey that lead you to a place where you are today, and no one might have guessed - certainly not you - that this is where you would lay down roots, find a home, a family, a life. Lewis did this after he played linebacker for the New York Jets. He then played four seasons with the Toronto Argonauts and then never left. He became a rather active member of organizations linked to parks, recreation and churches in Toronto. According to his write-up with Twisted Sports International, which is a "hybrid organization" that seems to want to encourage children to be more active, he has been a part of Toronto life since he retired. A moment from his pro career that he recollects with greatest pride at the link above came in 1974 while playing for the Buffalo Bills, when he intercepted a Joe Namath pass (this also happened to Namath 21 other times throughout that season, but Lewis is entitled to feel it was special to him). He also recollects the day in 1973 when OJ Simpson ran over the Jets to gain the mark beyond 2,000 yards for the season and says, as carefully as a member of Toronto's Board of Trade possibly can, that Simpson's infamous life over the past 20 years is, simply, "sad."


Darrell McClover #57 was drafted by the Jets out of the University of Miami in 2004, and in 2009 he finished his career after four seasons with the Bears. He was injured in his rookie year, and might well have felt strange playing in the metaphorical shadow of his good friend, the other player drafted out of Miami that year, Jonathan Vilma. As is often the case with linebackers that teams don't know quite what do with, McClover played with the Bears mostly on special teams. 

Kevin Macarthur, LB
Such are the journeymen's lives. They are the rule more than the exception. Kevin Macarthur #57 has a story that gives some insight into how to engage in the struggle of your life. It helps to believe in God. Macarthur was cut three times by the Jets before he was brought back to play in the 1986 playoffs, where he intercepted a pass for a touchdown in the Wild Card victory over the Chiefs, giving the Jets a 28-6 lead in the third quarter. That's a good memory.

His story, written in 1987 by Gerald Eskanazi for the Times, reveals a portrait of a man whose belief that he would be back on the team the following season appears to be part of a cosmic struggle. There is a quote he gives Eskanazi about his mother that comes across as an eerie prophecy:

''I knew I'd be back with the Jets, and I was very proud of that,'' he said. ''I went to see my mother back home in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I told her about the coming season. She said something strange to me. She said, 'I won't take a train, and I won't take a boat, and I won't take a plane, but I'm going to be watching you play next season.' ''

Her words come across as a riddle, but apparently she died of a stroke soon afterward. Macarthur says she lead a hard life, an unforgiving one that saw her become a mother for the first time when she was only 16. Such stories sound cliche-ish, though it's not surprising that the most resilient players who at cutting time endure the constant rejection and acceptance and rejection again are the ones with the toughest mothers, and most especially religious mothers. He says that therefore each time the Jets cut him (and not when they brought him back) he fell on his knees and prayed.

And this is what stays with me as we enter into the weekend where the Jets will travel to Foxboro, to once again play the role of underdog, the less and less likely team to vanquish the perennial division champion. I was also raised by a religious mother, and though I haven't fallen on my knees the last two weeks after consecutive losses, maybe it's time to try. I've always felt that unconditionally loyal fandom is a creature born under the same sign as unconditional faith. A Patriots fan may make his trip to Home Depot this weekend while the Jets are being pounded into paste. Whether he realizes it or not, he has become disaffected with the existential experience of being a fan. And if he wants to watch it later in the week he's got it on Tivo. But then who has the time to follow football these days? He won't be on his knees when it's over. He's already lost his faith.

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