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Saturday, October 22, 2011

NY Jets #58 - Part 1

There are names that scream out for a caricature, especially names that sound like the stuffy rich guys in a Marx Brothers film - a millionaire of self-important privilege whose wife Groucho is going to insult or whose drawing room will be used by Harpo as a stable. Names like Lynwood Alford and Aubrey Beavers.

But then these guys are also actual human beings, with lives, feelings, thoughts, and most importantly histories. Aubrey Beavers #58 ended his career with the Jets in 1996, after playing two seasons with the Dolphins. He had two interceptions in his first season, but then he started only one game in 1995. Promise, then silence. In the epics of antiquity, only men who have been cursed by the gods or who have to be punished for a wrongdoing against nature are sentenced to places where no man can happily survive. Napoleon was eventually banished to a place as inhospitable as St. Helena. And with stomach cancer. But nothing Aubrey Beavers did in his life could have earned him a fate just worse of not playing at all - that is, playing linebacker for the 1996 New York Jets. Real life is much less fair than history or in myth would lead us to believe.

But then consider Lynwood Alford #58, who played linebacker for one game in 1987. That's right. Alford was a replacement player for the 1987 replacement New York Jets. In a poignant article in the Times on October 5, 1987, Alford talks about what it meant to be in uniform and living out a dream he thought had long ago passed him by after graduating from Syracuse in 1985:

''It was a dream come true,'' Alford said about playing in an N.F.L. game. ''It was something that I'll never forget, something that I'll tell my grandchildren. I don't care if I was just on the kickoff return unit. I was in the game.'' 

Alford played in only one game in 1987, and it was the only game in his whole pro career. He was not even a starter in a loss to the replacement Cowboys.

I was in the game...something that I'll tell my grandchildren.

A paycheck is a paycheck, but I confess I felt slightly humbled by Alford's words, if only because being "in the game" is where so few of us end up. I once had a literary agent for four months, but like a girlfriend who is trying to let you down, she stopped returning my calls. The dream was over. The game was over.

But they will never be able to take that away, any more than they can take the replacement game away from Lynwood Alford.  His experience of covering a kickoff, technically, took place in an NFL game. You can look him up on the NFL's website. He's there. No one is taking that away. Replacement or not, he played in what the League construes as an actual game. His one distinction is simply putting on #58, going onto the field, and making a brief contribution. That would be enough for any of us who've never been anywhere that we always wished we were.

The article above about the 1987 strike talks about "Integrity and Dreams" being the replacement players' inspiration during the strike. But there were two particular regular players on the Jets who were scabs that year: Marty Lyons and Mark Gastineau.

"Dreams" belonged to guys like Lynwood Alford. But when he was asked why he was playing during the strike, Marty Lyons invoked the "integrity of the game." That will never sit particularly well with me. Lyons is and always will be a legendary Jet, but I'm a union man, too, and if there was one thing my mother told me when I left home and went off into the world in 1987, when I was 18, it was "to never cross a picket line."

Alford talks about his otherwise impossible dream as something he will be able to talk about to his grandchildren. In the Times article, Lyons invoked something of the same when he said that crossing the picket line was about creating a future for his "little boy." He said that his decision was one that "he will live with for the rest of my life." At least he understood there was a legacy for every decision and action. Both men left a legacy that season, and it's best to say nothing more.

But then remember that Lyons and Gastineau were both drafted for the 1979 season, and they were members of the Sack Exchange. They represented a period of hope of the the team after years of terrible play in the 70's, and that finally came to an end in '87, a year when the Jets played in a division so bad that they might very well have won it had they just one a few more games. But they didn't. Gastineau was a clown, a rube. He says in the article above that playing during the strike made him "uncomfortable," as if that would explain away his decision while Bridgitte Nielsen blew kisses at him from the stands. Lyons was still an anchor (just as he is the Jets' commentating voice on the radio each Sunday) and when he crossed the line that year, he made all my unambiguous devotion to the team change into something else, to be defined later. Being a fan would never really be the same after he did that, and it's probably just as well.

Recently, Lyons talked about his 1987 decision in light of the most recent lockout, contextualizing it as a matter of how Gene Upshaw and the NFLPA did not take into account the money needed for players down the road, past retirement. After this year's lockout, we have still a long way to go before players start thinking about the money they won't have later, as opposed to the money they get now, so it's at least good to see Lyons speaking up for retired players and the pension fund. Lyons is also the head of the Marty Lyons Foundation and has a long track record of philanthropy.

Bobby Bell #58 was a replacement player in 1987, too, although for the Chicago Bears. Prior to that, he started a handful of games for the Jets in 1984 at linebacker. He came from the University of Missouri and was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, which makes sense because his father was also Bobby Bell, the Hall of Famer who played for the Kansas City Chiefs and went to the University of Minnesota. Bell the younger must have played with heavy expectations, though if you're going to have a father who leaves a legacy, let it be Bobby Bell, the elder.

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