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Saturday, December 10, 2011

NY Jets #59

For Jets fans, this season has been a little disappointing. For old fans like me, this has been a trip down a memory lane that's about as enjoyable as a hangover to a drunk. For young fans, it's like showing up at the popular hamburger joint you've enjoyed every weekend that's suddenly run out of beef and shutting down for good in a few weeks. I'm not sure if that makes sense. When you know that this season won't be as well off as the last, nothing feels as good, and the words come slowly, meaninglessly. The Jets lost a month ago on a Sunday night when our biggest rival suddenly found their passing game. Then they lost the following Thursday night to a team that literally doesn't have a passing game. This seems like old times.

But I also live in Philadelphia, and for once the Eagles are failing even more impossibly than the Jets, despite all their apparent talent. Here it is a time for self-recrimination, regret, the placing of blame, cynicism, and general bitterness - the business of the soul's dark night, the hour best suited to the people of this fair city. Unreasonably euphoric when the Birds when four in a row, Philadelphians find a groove of misery when the Iggs disappoint, and they will stay there with a masochistic relish for as a long as possible. Losing, I find, brings out metaphors and similies in this town.

"Disappointment is a dish best served with Cheese Whiz on a soft roll," one of my co-workers said to me when I told him I was sorry to see the Eagles lose to the Pats the way they did. "Slather it," he said.

"It was like watching a chicken getting eaten by a snake," another fan, my next door neighbor said after the Eagles lost so entirely to an inferior Seahawks team, "you keep watching, thinking that the chicken's got to be able to get away. But he doesn't."

Sometimes failure, so common to people in hard times, so omnipresent to most football fans is familiar and warm. "As familiar as your father's plaid Christmas pants," another Eagles fan said to me when I extended my condolences toward after their bizarre. "You wish it weren't there, but you remember it, you got through the sight of it before, so you know you can survive it." Perhaps that's why I feel so comfortable here. Losing brings out the wordsmith in the denizens of this place, and it's consoling to me too. It may even last through the game the Jets and Eagles will play in a few weeks.

****

What makes a man a "good guy?" Is he a mensch, someone who's there when you need him? Is he someone who is actively good, going above and beyond what people expect of him? Or is he just a guy that doesn't give you trouble? He does his homework, he doesn't give the teacher problems in class, he nods at his jokes. In high school, I recall that girls didn't date good guys. They dated bad guys. When you ask a woman about the man her friend is marrying and she says, "He's a good guy," you somehow know that there's something disappointing in what she's saying, though you don't know what it is.

The Jets' yearly "Good Guy Award" is named for linebacker Kyle Clifton #59, who might recall some familiar losing seasons with the Jets. To anyone who has followed the Jets for the past 30 years, you might recognize his name as longtime veteran of an absurd era (1984-96). Thirteen seasons, four coaches, two winning campaigns. Through most of it, Clifton was a good player on some poorly performing teams. His best year was 1990, when he caught three interceptions and made 199 tackles, an extraordinary statistic in and of itself. He led the NFL that year, but that number of tackles would correspond with the top number in several of the past seasons in the current NFL. Whether or not this meant that no one else was making tackles on the Jets in 1990 is irrelevant; someone had to do it, and in almost 200 instances, Kyle Clifton did.

The Kyle Clifton Good Guy Award is explained in German here. Brad Smith received it in 2007, and on his Wikipedia page, it's described as recognizing a player with "consistent willingness, cooperation and professionalism in everyday dealings with various departments in organization." And I wonder about this. Was this Eric Mangini's description of the award that year? He cooperated, he didn't give us problems, he didn't ask us for anything big. Sounds like the kind of thing Mangini valued in his players. And indeed this year Brad Smith went out the door like a good guy when the Jets picked up Plaxico Burress and made a contract with Santonio Holmes.

"Good guy." It sounds corporate. When Kyle Clifton made 199 tackles in 1990, he was not so much valuable in his everyday dealings with the organization but valuable where it counts, as a player in the field doing his job above and beyond expectations (and he should have gone to the Pro Bowl). The award was first given out in 1996, and to him, and it may have been a way for the organization, as it were, to say goodbye, especially after he had been slotted to be replaced by Marvin Jones for so long. But still, it feels clinical, flat, a kind gesture toward the door, with nice parting gifts. He may not have taken it that way; I certainly hope he didn't. But sometimes "good guy" doesn't feel like a compliment.

***

In 1974, Howard Kindig #59 was brought in to play his last year with the Jets after being a longtime AFL guy with the Chargers and Bills. He played in 1972 for the perfect Dolphins. His career ended with the Jets, which may have been exactly as it should have been. Had he played with the Jets the following year, he might well have given up on the integrity of the game altogether. The Bills have a more thorough background on its "alumni," and here is Kindig's story, including his sense that the AFL had two distinct times - the early era, when teams were playing for financial survival, and the period after the merger, when bonus babies like Joe Namath and OJ Simpson redefined the AFL player. Kindig, on the other hand, seems a relic of the older version. As the link makes clear, Kindig even forsook balmy San Diego to play with his buddies in Buffalo, which to me is an almost unthinkable transition. I don't have anything interesting on his year with the Jets, but here are the details of the case the United States made against him in 1988. I presume he weathered it. 

Linebacker Bob Martin #59 replaced Kindig in number for the Jets. He played from 1976-78 before playing briefly with the 49ers. He started all of 1978, netting two interceptions that season and today he works for a Nebraska-based corporation that sells industrial-based equipment. The company's name is, curiously enough, Valmont. I'm certain that they didn't intend to name their company after one of literature's greatest rogues, but who knows? Aren't there Lotharios in Lincoln and Omaha? Aren't there aimless young aristocrats hanging around the halls of prairie mammon, hoping to corrupt a guileless young debutante? Perhaps there is a correlation between the sale of industrial equipment and sexual seduction. What do I know?

****

Rob Spicer #59, linebacker for the Jets in 1973, may have been a junior in high school the year the Indiana Hoosiers went to the 1968 Rose Bowl. He may have thought that they would return again when he enrolled there as a freshman in 1969, but they haven't been back since. I don't need to tell you that's a little bit longer than we've been waiting for a conference championship. I remember how my college's basketball team went to the Final Four the year before I enrolled there, and they haven't been there since, either. We're all waiting for something, though most of us don't really know what it is half the time. But at least, as fans, we have discernible needs, wishes and wants. We know what we want. We're just waiting for it to happen.

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