Thursday, February 23, 2012

NY Jets #8 - Part 2

We are in the process of updating all previously discussed numbers up to 61, wherever necessary. We are also revising some of the previous entries themselves, making them, we hope, more palatable. More readable. Less unreadable.

Mark Brunell? (circa 1966)
Craig Morton? (circa 2011)
Apropos of absolutely nothing, has anyone ever seen Craig Morton and Mark Brunell #8 together? If so, are they ever embarrassed? Although Brunell is three inches shorter than Morton, I have an otherwise plausible theory that Mark Brunell is actually Craig Morton having traveled back in time and reestablished a younger clone of himself as a starting quarterback, as he was for Jacksonville in the 90's. The only trouble is that now Brunell (in his present form, as a Morton clone) is about a year younger than I am. So the time jumping Morton has to come up with a new plan.

Maybe it's the other way round. Maybe Craig Morton is actually Mark Brunell who traveled back in time and replaced Don Meredith for the Dallas Cowboys in the mid to late 1960's. In any event, Morton/Brunell played so well against the Bills at the end of the 2010 season in place of Mark Sanchez that I almost hoped he might be able to do something in relief of our starting quarterback toward the end of this past season. But then the statistics show he merely went 6 for 12 for 110 yards in that game. Maybe I'm just hoping that a man born the year after I was born (and the year that his earlier/later self brought the Cowboys to a loss in Super Bowl V) can still lead a team to victory in football. So, now that Brunell nears the age at which Elvis died, where will he go? Mark Sanchez needs more than just fraternal advice; he needs an intervention, which a time traveler may not have time for, figuratively or literally. So whither will the time traveler go?


There is a famous photograph taken along the sidelines of a 1974 game against the Buffalo Bills at Shea, where Joe Namath is speaking with his coaches, or maybe his agent. He is caked with mud, and he is about to lead the Jets to a 20-10 win with a touchdown pass to Jerome Barkum. It is one of the most commonly signed of Namath shots, and it depicts one of the last moments of Namath glory (such as it was) complete with the gladiator's parka. It's merely a moment caught, but I've always been alert to the fact that walking behind Joe is #8, the rookie punter, Greg Gantt.

Greg Gantt
I remember going through the PRO magazine at my first Jets game, the 1975 home game against the Colts, and looking through the faces of all the players who listed as starters that day. And there, between Eddie Bell #7 and JJ Jones #11, was the photo you see to the right - of a gap-toothed, mop-topped guy with a mustache, looking more like a Lynard Skynard roadie or a sheriff's deputy than a football player. I don't remember him, but he punted relatively well, five times averaging 42 yards. By comparison, the Colts' David Lee punted six times, though the Colts won 45-28.

But Greg Gantt was a well-known punter in the world of the Iron Bowl, the world of Alabama football. In the early 1970's, Gantt was the Crimson Tide's punter. With under a minute to play against Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, his last game with Alabama, and trailing 24-23, Gantt launched an excellent punt that went over the head of the returner, and Alabama downed it at the Irish 2. In all, Gantt's punt went 69 yards. At 6:19 you see him launch it, but he's also roughed up by Ross Browner, and rather than take a fourth and five for the penalty, Bear Bryant gave the ball to Notre Dame, hoping for his defense to come through. Yet no one would have remembered Gantt's great punt, whether the Bear accepted the penalty or not, for Notre Dame's Tom Clements then made a brilliant pass to Robin Weber along the sideline at the 36, giving the Irish the first down and enough room to run out the clock.

The piece of Alabama lore for which Greg Gantt was actually better known is referred to "Punt, Bama, Punt," a 1972 Iron Bowl game where Bill Newton of Auburn blocked two of Gantt's punts and the Tigers' David Langer scored touchdowns off the blocks each time, helping Auburn to a 17-16 win over the Tide. Afterwards, Bear Bryant apparently said that he would never again have a "3 step punter," which I suppose is what Gantt was. It's difficult to think about Gantt playing another full year under Bryant knowing that he was the last of a kind of punter that the Bear didn't want anymore.

Or was it that he lived the rest of his life in the shadow of the moment from the state's most important game? Let me say first that Gantt actually passed away last October 2011 from heart disease after battling diabetes for many years. (A fine online dedication to him is available at the Southern Heritage Funeral Home web site.) He seems to have lead a good life, a full life. According to the Times obituary, Gantt's sister says that her brother worried for many years that the blocked punts would be what people would know him for most of all. Almost as if to guarantee it, the obituary actually begins with the following:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Greg Gantt, a former punter for the University of Alabama and the Jets, who might be best known for having two punts blocked in a 17-16 loss to Auburn in 1972, died on Wednesday. He was 59. 

Well, there you have it, New York Times. You made Greg Gantt's worry come true. The obituary fails to mention that Gantt also led the Southeastern Conference in punting three seasons in a row and held records for punting at Alabama for many years. Gantt returned back to Birmingham after his last season with the Jets in 1975, to his home, to a world where the past is the most important time frame. Past resentments, past slights and memories held in place determine the present in Alabama, and the past repeats again and again with a melancholy redolence. I've often said that I haven't got much appreciation for college football, even if it is the feeding line for the pros. Everything I've seen here in Pennsylvania in reaction to the decline and death of Joe Paterno suggests that, in general, the game fosters sentimentalities in people that defy common sense. And in Alabama, where the state flag features the bars of the St. George's Cross in blood red, the Iron War are very likely deeper than just the sides of a football game. It's awful to feel as though you are the reason why your team lost, but remember that Gantt's blocked punts were also a failure of the offensive line. Right? Doesn't that make sense? Yet Bear Bryant said he didn't need a three-step punter anymore.

The moment in memory has also come down to three men - Gantt, Newton and Langer - the punter, the blocker, and the recoverer. As late as 2004, the moment was being discussed. Newton says at the link that people still approach him with pictures of one of the blocked punts for him to autograph, with the players carefully labeled on the picture. They tell him of how "they'd passed down the story of the game to their kids." Mike DuBose, former head coach and Bryant player is quoted as saying of the Iron Bowl in A War in Dixie: "It's the kind of game I didn't enjoy playing in. The game is never over. You kept repeating it and repeating it and repeating it. ... It's never over until you play it again next year."

We imagine that by being a fan we are encouraging our heroes to mark their time on the field as the time of their lives, as if we are doing them a favor. You get the sense that Newton is "humbled," as he says at the link above, when fans approach him with a picture to sign from a game played in 1972, but he also seems beguiled. DuBose speaks of the game as not at all enjoyable, and why would you enjoy something that actually has the potential to mark itself not just in your memory forever but also in the consciousness of the entire people who occupy the only place you can ever be able to return to and call home. Was it a relief for Greg Gantt to live in New York, where probably no one mentioned "Punt, Bama, Punt?" He came home to Alabama when all was done, regardless, had two daughters, and worked in the recycling business. He was beset by illness, and apparently had his left leg amputated (though not his kicking leg) within a few years of his death as a result of his struggles with diabetes. He came home to a place where people don't appear to forget anything.

At the end of the obituary, there is a piece of Modernist poetry. Of the '72 game, Gantt's sister is quoted as saying, "He got over it; that’s what most people remembered most." That Faulknerian semi-colon sits in the middle of two truths, one about the efforts of the individual and the other about the insatiable collective memory of home.

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