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Saturday, December 31, 2011

NY Jets #60 - Part 2

Dennis O'Sullivan #60 played at center for the Jets in 2002, though he was technically in the NFL for about five years, including years on the Jets' bench and with the 49ers. In 2003, he was compelled to testify about an assault on a limo driver that may have also included him, Jason Fabini, Todd Husak, and Jumbo Elliott. Of all the players, Elliott seemed the one most implicated, with the suggestion that "one of the players was drunk and rowdy." Elliott himself was previously involved in a legal case after he apparently injured people in a bar brawl in 2000. Perhaps these and other things O'Sullivan witnessed influenced his retirement decision to become a speaker on the subject of alcohol and drug abuse among athletes.

Apparently he is a vice president for development for the American Athletic Institute, which sounds like a pretty broad name for a group focused primarily on "proactive" issues addressing behavior, sportsmanship, and health among student-athletes. O'Sullivan has spoken at schools and community centers on the subject of drug and alcohol abuse. As a high school teacher, it's almost commonplace for me to have to tell the football players in my class not to talk aloud about the details of their weekends where, no doubt, they were probably hammered. We write referrals to the substance abuse program at the school, but there's no proactive initiative to deal with drinking among athletes, specifically. In this community, it seems that every other year a young person dies from an overdose, though it's rarely an athlete. But our athletes are drunk or high often, sometimes even at school.

That wasn't exactly weird at my high school growing up, either. Every weekend, football players held hibachi parties where everyone knew they were drinking. When I was a junior, I inherited a copy of the Best American Short Stories in my English class from the kid who had it before me, a huge, belching defensive lineman who had scrawled the word "ALCOHOL" on the side of the book. It was no big deal.

My upbringing was sufficiently strict to keep me from drinking in high school. I was also a band kid, a theater kid, a geek about music, old movies and statistics in sports. I was a blogger before there were blogs - someone with only a few friends, all of whom drank cola and ate Doritos while listening to the Big Chill soundtrack at Friday night parties. That's how crazy it got. I didn't start drinking until college. Once there, I was surrounded by Irish-American kids and kegs of beer, and so I joined in. But I will never forget the first high I got from beer. "Where have you been all my life?" it made me wonder. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.


There are plenty of things I remember faintly and unhappily from my drinking life - things like trashing a room, putting my fist through a wall, visiting bars I didn't want to go to just for a drink, dancing with women I didn't want to talk to, laughing at jokes that weren't funny, saying unfunny things just to say anything. I remember blackouts, though obviously not well. I remember lashing out at people for no reason. I remember not doing well at my job and trying to disappear behind my cubicle. I remember only feeling comfortable talking with people socially if I were liquored up enough to chat, and I remember running out of things to say. I remember saying I didn't want to drink anymore and then drinking more. I remember folding myself up in the shower, trying to imagine the hot water washing away the hard wall of misery that came with the morning. I remember wishing I were dead. I remember the planning, the endless planning that came with a night's drinking, and planning it out so that it could be just the right kind of high without going too far, and being despondent the next morning because I always drank myself to sleep, often on a floor.

Drinking was great, though. I've always known it was from the very first drunk. It would be pointless of me to say otherwise. I can't drink anymore, I won't tonight, but after I got sober it always felt false to testify that I hated drinking. I always loved it. It made me happy in the moment when so few things do. The very idea of it made me happy; it still does. Knowing that there's alcohol in the house was a kind of security that comes from believing implicitly there is only one thing that can make you content. Tonight is New Year's Eve. If I were drinking, I wouldn't want champagne, or the champagne of beers. I would want whiskey, and if it were in the house, I would normally want to drink the better part of a quart before bed, before sleep, or whatever it would be called. Then I'd go out the next day and buy another quart.


Larry Grantham #60 shares a distinction with only three other men we've discussed; along with Curley Johnson, Don Maynard, and Bill Mathis, he is a Super Bowl III starter who also played for the New York Titans. When he retired in 1973, he had been a five-time All Star in the AFL at linebacker and a longtime leader of the Jets' defenses. His deep, dour face, lined with the expression of a herd driver in John Wayne's crew in Red River, reveals a pathos that I always found impressive. He seemed the diametric opposite of the people in Namath's buoyant jock world. Grantham came from Mississippi, which made sense in a way. When I read Best American Short Stories, I imagined that Faulkner's Wash of Yoknapatawpha County looked a lot like Larry Grantham. Or maybe he looked like one of the endless numbers of knuckle-cracking bad guy henchmen that Jim Rockford had to fight off in slacks. He looked quiet and hard.

He re-emerged in the news over the past few years because an ongoing battle with cancer had drained his finances, and in 2009, he was thinking about pawning his Super Bowl ring to pay some of his bills. Bassett writes eloquently about Grantham's importance in Jets history, but he also mentions how a Star-Ledger article about Grantham's financial plight brought thousands donations in so that he could keep the ring. Bassett suggests that this was karma. Dave Anderson wrote a year before that Grantham is known for his generosity, in being the regular coordinator of '68 alumni events, but most of all because he has been the key fundraiser for a New Jersey drug and alcohol recovery center called Freedom House.

According to Anderson in 2008, Grantham had been sober for decades, and Freedom House has become the main focus of his interest. One of his good friends from the defensive front line in 1968 was Paul Rochester, who hadn't had a drink in 37 years at the time of the article. Rochester describes the struggles in retirement of his other teammates from that famous squad, like Verlon Biggs #86 and Sam Walton #72, and the role Grantham had in trying to help:

“Larry and I spoke at Verlon’s funeral in Mississippi,” Rochester said. “Sam was a sad situation. Larry heard that Sam was living on the streets in Memphis and tried to find him to help him. One time, Larry even spotted him, but Sam took off; I guess he was too embarrassed. When Larry heard that Sam died in an abandoned house, he arranged for a proper burial for him. That’s Larry.”

Grantham is the player who grabbed the ball at the very end of Super Bowl III and ran off the field with it. He runs off like a fan who has invaded the pitch, stolen the ball, and needs to be chased down by security. Grantham looks not at all like the stoic leatherface I once imagined him to be. He leaps into the air with the joy of a kid; he is carrying the ball that Johnny Unitas has just thrown on the very last play. He is ecstatic in a way that a football player is not supposed to be, or maybe he looks like a young high schooler whose team has just beaten the state champ. Braylon Edwards' end-over-end leap at the end of the playoff game against the Pats last year was like that too, and as I've said before, that was one of those moments where, for a fan, anything seemed possible.

When I watch the Super Bowl III game tape - which I do more often than I'd like to admit - I see Larry Grantham standing alongside his other defensive players and looking considerably smaller. He was light and short for a defensive player at any position, even back then. He is as tall as I am. As a recovered alcoholic, he knows what it is to be his own enemy. Dave Anderson says that in truth, Grantham's "greatest asset really was and is himself."

Obviously, it was beautiful that others were there for Grantham when he needed them and that he was able to hold onto his ring. The ring has meant more to other people than perhaps it even meant to him. It signified that an unlikely win against an indomitable foe was not out of the question. It suggested that an effervescent childhood innocence could be conjured out of a grown man such that he would leapfrog jump across a football field. It meant that a hopeless drunk or junkie could experience freedom from the sole obsession that occupies the addicted mind. In more than one article about Grantham's quandary, a Freedom House resident is quoted as saying that Grantham would regularly take the ring off his finger and place it into the resident's hand, suggesting that if Larry Grantham could get clean, then the resident could too, and that anything is possible.


Slimbo said...

Beautifully weaved together, my friend. Tremendous.

Martin Roche said...

Thanks, pal.