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Thursday, October 13, 2011

NY Jets #57 - Part 4

This was originally written as we approached the Jets' week five trip in 2011 to Foxboro. They lost 27-21 - not a bad showing for a team that got flatly outplayed two weeks beforehand. The circumstances of this game are starkly different from the last time the Jets were there, back in January 2011, when they took the field as underdogs in the Divisional Playoffs and upended a Patriots team that everyone took for granted would win the Super Bowl.

For a brief moment, when it was all over, everything in the world seemed possible. I was grateful, joyous. My wife took this picture of me and my dog Harry when the game was over. Harry even has eyes to match his dear friend's beloved team. He's not happy about the scarf; he does not appreciate human clothing at all. He does not value its aesthetics, and frankly, he doesn't know why we can't go without, particularly in the morning, when he needs his walk and his human friends are picking out their outfits for the day.

Our enthusiasm after the playoff win could not stave off the inevitable title game loss the following week. Still, he looks ebullient in the photo, throwing his muzzle in their air with total pride, as if he knew all along it would work out. This was taken not long after Bart Scott #57 expressed his own pride at the playoff win over the Patriots. He did it to Sal Paolantonio, who must have known Scott was going to give him something good, and he did. Bart Scott was neither grateful, nor joyous. He was indignant. Why did so many people doubt us? What were they thinking? Or as he says, "Anyone can be beat."


The fact that it begins with his rendition of the flying jet is terrific. Bart Scott dances around the background, and Paolantonio waits patiently for him to pull into the terminal, and as he lands, Scott pauses to signify that the flight is over and that passengers may disembark when the seat belt sign is turned off. Thank you for flying. It is a complete performance piece. How did it feel to win? It felt great. Tom Jackson and Keyshawn were wrong. Are you looking forward to the title game? "Can't wait." Jets fans are a struggling people who don't look to championship seasons or MVP awards to find validation. They go to YouTube to find brief videos like the one above, where the necessary gave way to the possible.

We know the rest of the story, but things change so quickly. Two weeks ago, the Phillies were the best team in baseball and about to embark on a championship run. Last night, they were a team that couldn't score more than two runs a game against a St. Louis Cardinals team that seemed another makeshift creation of an allegedly "genius" manager with Gene Simmons hair treatment and a penchant for guest appearances with Albert Pujols at Tea Party rallies. To make matters worse, the gods chose the Phillies' last out for Ryan Howard to tear his Achilles tendon. Wanting so badly to make up for watching the last strike go by him in his last World Series, Howard ran with all his hefty might down the first base line and blew out his ankle. As the stunned Cardinals celebrated the end of the game, Ryan Howard lay a crumpled heap in front of his dugout. How did it happen? To all the unbelievers, anyone can be beat.

And now the Raiders and the Ravens have outplayed us this season, and I find myself thinking about how quickly things change. Will Jets fans have to wait years and years for another moment like the one above? Will we ever know what it will be like to permanently outdo the doubters, the haters? Although I never felt this way, many of the NFL's TV people were willing to eat crow, and they admitted that the Jets' 28-21 victory over the Patriots in the playoffs was a sign of the changing of the guard, the beginning of a different team's preeminence over their most detested rival, at long last. Admit it, they said, Bart Scott is right.

And now it all seems like a sad replay of the near and distant past. Anyone can be beat, but mostly the Jets. "There is no present or future," Eugene O'Neill wrote, "only the past, happening over and over again, now." At least for one night, Bart Scott stood up to all the prognosticating unbelievers who put their trust exclusively in the power of the past. And it felt very good at the time.

***

This is a tale of Mac Stephens and Blake Whitlatch both #57. Between them, they suited up for 11 games in the pros. From LSU, Whitlatch was in a Jets uniform for four games in 1978 and then no more. Stephens appeared in four games for the Jets in 1990 and then three games for the Vikings the following season. As professionals this is all I have to report. Whitlatch might be the same guy who today is a business owner in Baton Rouge. Stephens might be a recreation program and activities manager in Euclid, Ohio. We know that there is life after football.

John Woodring, LB
Or consider John Woodring #57. He played five seasons on and off as a linebacker for the Jets, from 1981-85. You see him at right in one of the two last seasons, obviously at the Meadowlands. Perhaps he might not have been the focus of an article had he not played for the Jets. Apparently he worked on Wall Street until he chose to become a teacher for 15 years. A year ago this article in the Norwalk Times appeared about his work as a football coach for third graders, which was the one year I played football. My football coach was an alcoholic, abusive, and plainly crazy man who forfeited our final game when the referee finally penalized him for forcing his players to fake injuries to stop the clock. It seems like John Woodring is a better guy than that, and he mentions loving to teach players who are too young to know that they are doing anything other than playing for love. As for his playing days, Woodring says, "My wife knows that easiest way to embarrass me is to talk about that...It happened a long time ago. It was 25 years ago, and that's where I'd like to keep it."

So be it. Another coach is John Yohn #57, also known as "David Yohn," which might be preferable to a name that rhymes. Life after football enabled him to become a legend as a high school football coach. In rural places like Ohio and Texas, high school football has an enormous cultural importance. So too in Pennsylvania, a state that some people think of in terms of the Amish, the Continental Congress, cheese steaks, empty steel mills, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but it is also, as James Carville once wrote, "Alabama in between." Most of Pennsylvania is a cloistered world, two spots of urban progressivism on either side of a rigid, traditional plurality. Barack Obama described Pennsylvania and other rural areas running for President in 2008 as places where people "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Harsh, maybe, but Rick Santorum didn't come from Texas or Alabama. He came from Pennsylvania. It is a largely conservative state, and in such places people gather at high school football games as a means for being in community, and there the high school coach is a lightening rod personality (note: I have never watched a single episode of Friday Night Lights, much to the chagrin of many of my friends).

John "David" Yohn was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the late 50's, and he then played for the Jets in 1963 until he had to retire due to his back troubles. He briefly replaced Hubert Bobo in number and position in that first Jets training camp. He was born in 1937, the same year as my mother, in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, a quiet town within an olfactory-pleasing distance from Hershey. Yohn became a high school football coach of the Middletown Area High School football team in 1968. If you are a resident of the Commonwealth, as I have been for the past 19 years, you know how typically Pennsylvanian a name like "Middletown" really is. Tucked into the anonymity of a very long state from east to west, a place like Middletown never needs to be thought of as the extreme of anything, and so it builds its own mythology out of the world between worlds, between the Yohn and the John.

Yohn died of cancer in 2002, yet even in 2008 he was remembered fondly as an "iconic" coach. He accumulated an impressive win-loss record such that one wonders why he retired after only nine seasons of coaching (1968-75) when a high school coach can often stay in his job when he's losing. One description of his prolific 1971 offense in the above link suggests that his team scored "a point every minute," which seems like something mythological, or true, or both. When he was dying, apparently a former player traveled all the way from Idaho to say goodbye to him. Long journies, victories on the gigantic scale - these describe the kind of myth still allowed in the middle places of the Earth, the places where the legends of men like John Yohn live on forever without being dashed by the cynical, professional world, where life is cheap.


***

After the Jets defeated the Patriots in the January 2011 playoffs, Shaun Ellis #92 was given a chance in Greg Bishop's article to reflect on how much had changed in his tenure with the team (2000-11). He was at that point the active player with the most experience on the Jets. Originally he was a part of the complicated transaction that allowed Bill Belichick to leave the Jets for the Patriots. Ellis was one of two linebackers drafted in 2000 as a result, and he will always be among my favorite Jets.

But first we're here to talk about Ryan Riddle #57, linebacker for the Jets for 12 games in 2006. Riddle was released amid that confusion at the end of Mangini's first season as coach. His story is an object example of Mangini's communication skills, for a team spokesman simply insists that the move was "Coach's decision." Such was Mangini's way, a kind of patronizing restatement of the action in order to explain it. I don't miss that.

But we also mention Shaun Ellis because last January, in Bishop's article above, Ellis used the Jets' #57's over the years to show how much (or how little) changed. In his years with the Jets - among Al Groh, Herman Edwards, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan - #57 on the Jets was worn by Mo Lewis, Darrell McClover, Ryan Riddle and now Bart Scott. Ellis had seen it all. Bishop suggests in his article that in January 2011 things to come would be better, that the long climb was reaching somewhere, and where there had been turnover in the past, stability in the future was bound to come.

And now I miss Shaun Ellis. He is a New England Patriot now, playing across the field from the Jets as they go off to Foxboro. Bill Belichick picked him up late in the summer, perhaps as a symbolic trophy of his complete victory over the team that dared claimed Belichick as their own. Number 92 on the Jets, long worn by one guy, will now be offered the same revolving door that's been used by men in #57 as they entered and left.

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