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Sunday, February 5, 2012

NY Jets #4 - Part 2

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

TJ Conley: a busy man
On the last day of August last year, TJ Conley #4 was named the starting punter for the Jets, replacing Steve Weatherford, which made him a busy man in 2011. He ranked in the top three for punts attempted, which is not a particularly inspiring statistic for a team, though it shows that Conley had plenty of experience. His punts were mostly on average with other punters in the league, so it will be interesting to see whether or not the Jets will start him again in 2012. Punters tend to stay. Or someone picks them up pretty soon after they're cut.

Take Steve Weatherford, for example. After we foolishly chose not to re-sign him, Weatherford, the man Conley replaced, signed with the Giants, and in the Super Bowl proved how valuable a great punter can be. Weatherford pinned the Patriots a few yards in front of their own end zone twice and nearly did it a third time. He was the closest I've ever seen in my feeble memory of a punter who deserved the Super Bowl MVP. 

Quarterbacks don't stay quarterbacks for long unless there's something special about them. Witness Kellen Clemens. What's interesting about Conley is that he was a starting quarterback in high school and transitioned to punter at the University of Idaho after he broke his leg. Unlike the starting quarterback, the punter or kicker appears befriended by no one on the sideline because he participates in another sport entirely, one made for smaller, skinnier men; it must have been a strange transition for TJ Conley.

In a way, as it was suggested at camp, Conley is still learning on the job. In the link, Mike Westhoff suggests that a good punt is about the drop, just as the serve in tennis is about the toss. In football as in life there are plenty of chances to do a better job to make up for the last mistake you made. But punters and kickers rely on the best decisions of a single moment. That moment embodies the precarious nature of their work. The only men to use their feet in football are only as good as their last attempt. Other players will always have another shot on the next play, but so many factors - the wind, the oncoming rush - can unsettle the precision of the drop or the snap. Perhaps kicking is like heart surgery, as Nick Folk suggested.

Kickers and punters aren't drafted high up (Mike Nugent excepted) and they usually come to the club by word of mouth or as vagabonds just strolling onto camp, looking for someone to snap the ball to them or offer to hold. At Florham Park, you can see the placekicker and punter stand to the side, mostly keeping each other company, mostly snapping to one another and sharing in the peculiar solitude of their professions, whether they like it or not. They look like the kids whom no one wants to play with.

So where do these men go when there's no other place to turn, when they need someone to teach them to become better at their job? One person he can turn to is Louie Aguiar #4, who punted for the Jets from 1990-93. If you want to be a better kicker, you can attend his Aguiar Kicking Academy in Missouri. Aguiar played well for the Shottenheimer Chiefs after playing reasonably well as a Jet in the early 90's. Like a lot of punters, Aguiar looks less like a football player than a public school principal.

***

Glenn Foley, QB
In the dark days of the mid-1990's Glenn Foley #4 was a very distant hope for the future. A New Jersey native, Foley was the Jets fan's ideal underdog. During the miserable 1995 season, the Jets got their second of three wins when they played the Dolphins at home. Bubby Brister threw two short touchdown passes to Johnny Mitchell and Wayne Chrebet. The final was 17-16, and it might have felt good since the Jets had lost to Miami at home the year before in the Faked Spike game. I don't remember. Through the crackling AM broadcast of the game that I was barely able to pick up in my little apartment in Philadelphia, I do recall that the crowd was chanting the last name of their recently drafted quarterback from Boston College: Fo-ley, Fo-ley.

A drafted quarterback is always a piece of mythical promise, and Jets fans can sometimes be the most gullible people on Earth. We are, by definition, believers in ridiculous promises: Lam Jones, Blair Thomas, Browning Nagle; Leon Hess believed he could win the Super Bowl with Richie Kotite. The most important bet in sports history cost $427,000 in the person of Joe Namath, and it might not have paid off anywhere other than the gate had he not beaten the Colts in Super Bowl III. This gamble is the Jets' legacy to organized sports, but it has cursed Jets fans into believing that it will magically happen again, and for a little while, we believed Glenn Foley could make it happen. The good day came for Glenn Foley when the Jets played the Patriots at home in 1997. Neil O'Donnell was taken out of the game by an unhappy Bill Parcells, and Foley was put in.

An old friend of mine, Johnny, had come back into Philly for a visit that day. He and I had been in grad school together, and he had gotten his PhD and moved with his newlywed wife to the Midwest where they had both gotten jobs teaching at a cloistered liberal arts college.

My wife has always asserted that I had a "man crush" on Johnny, and I realize she is essentially correct. Tall, striking, resembling a cowboy version of a 1985 Michael Stipe, Johnny was a constant source of attention from passersby whenever we went out for a night of bar hopping. By comparison, I looked like his food taster, his manservant, the guy who carried his saddle around from rodeo to rodeo. I realize now that we bore an uncanny resemblance to Joe and Ratso walking down the street in Midnight Cowboy. When we were at the bar together, strange women would come up to him and ask if they had ever met before. I basked in the glow of his company; I never knew what it felt like to make people feel this way.

If he was a cowboy, then he was an intellectual cowboy. He could sing a few Hank Williams songs with a warble and then talk about Jacques Derrida, whom no one understands. Not even Derrida. Probably not even Johnny. Now a full-time professor, he nevertheless decided to come back to Philly for a visit. I gleaned that things weren't going well for him at the college, and I was worried. Maybe he was looking for some consolation, some kind of reminder of a more innocent time, when we were both graduate students, when he didn't have a mortgage, a marriage and, likely soon, a baby on the way.

My concerns were a little less material. The Jets were playing Parcells' old team, the defending AFC Champion Patriots, and although we're talking about 1997, we might as well imagine ourselves speaking about a earlier age of communication. Today I can check the score on my computer, on an iPhone, or I'll tune in to the score of the game through online radio. Back then, the Jets had rarely been considered good enough to be shown on the local NBC affiliate, and the only way of following them was to try, like some Soviet listener of Radio Free Europe, and carefully tune in the New York WFAN AM station, turning the dial ever so carefully until I heard Dave Jennings' voice, or maybe I would find some sports bar that showed the game on one of dozens of TV's. The Jets were that bad. I might as well have been a guy with a broken radio in 1947 looking for news about the World Series.

Johnny refused to go to a sports bar. I asked him if he would, but he gave me a look as if I had asked if he wanted a punch in the face. He and I hadn't sat down together in months; the Jets were on every week. I got it. But they were also 4-3. They hadn't been over .500 since the Faked Spike game. We went to a wine bar.

Glenn Foley, 10/19/97
It was not a game to miss. This was one of Glenn Foley's two great performances as a Jets quarterback. He threw 17 for 23, 200 yards and two touchdowns. The Jets won, 24-19. The Jets were 5-3, decisively over .500. To me, this game represents  the beginning of the new, contemporary era of the Jets franchise - a time when we were allowed to have higher expectations for the team, year after year. Though we have frequently seen the Jets disappoint, I have seen them on the local NBC often enough without having to resort to buying into the NFL Network. They have been in more playoff games in the past 14 years than they were in all their 37 years of history previous to that day in October 1997. So there's some consolation.

It was also the last day of my friendship with Johnny. Maybe, now that I think of it, Johnny wanted me to act like a grownup and forgo the juvenile compulsion to be a fan because he wanted me to to be more adult. But it didn't even work for him. With a few glasses of merlot in him, he suddenly insisted we drive to his old neighborhood and take a look at the loft where he first met his wife. We drove to Northern Liberties, a part of the city going through regentrification, which he tsk-tsked. He liked it better when it was poor, more dangerous, a real neighborhood to him. When we got there, he stared up at an old biscuit factory that had been turned into cold water apartments when he lived there. He stared at its red brick exterior, maybe wondering how it all happened, or rather what had happened him. I asked him if everything was OK. Sure, he said, with a twang. Everything's fahn.

We sat in the car as the overcast day ended. We tuned in the news radio sports report, and I caught the score of the game after it was over. He must have seen a little of my disappointment about missing the game. Maybe I should have hidden it; this was an old friend, and I should have been paying more attention to him. That's true. But that's not what bothered him.

"You need to give up on this damn team," he said.

Not even thinking him serious, I said, "Oh?"

"It's Parcells," he said.

I shrugged.

"He's a fascist, a bully," Johnny said. "How could you be so careless as to root for a team he coaches? Honestly."

"You're joking," I said. "Careless."

He shook his head. He was sincere. "He'll just swing his purse somewhere else when he's done with the Jets. Come on, Marty. Be smart for second."

The scales fell from my eyes. What had I been doing in a wine bar? Johnny had been friends with me through Coslet and Carroll and, most of all, Kotite. He had always admired me as a loyalist to a losing cause. But Glenn Foley had pushed the Jets two games over the winning mark that day.

Johnny was right about Parcells, of course. This year Parcells is being inducted into Canton, and he deserves it. He was and is an aggressive, corporate winner, but he also resembles an abusive father who tells his son on the way back to the car how disappointed he is in him, and he would indeed dump us after three seasons, just as Johnny predicted. Part of me knew that, but it didn't matter, for there were no conditions in my loyalty to the team, ever. There weren't any at 1-15; how could there be at 5-3?

"You need to root for a publicly-owned franchise like Green Bay," he said. "Try being a more progressive fan."

Need to? I could see he was serious. He was suggesting that I abandon my team out of principle.

"Well," I laughed awkwardly, "I don't think that's going to happen."

He shook his head. "That's disappointing, Marty."

I have a good memory of Glenn Foley, even if that was also the last time I saw Johnny. Afterwards there were a few e-mails back and forth to him, and then there were none. I think of this conversation now, and I wonder what Johnny really wanted. He must have been torn about what he wanted for himself; did he want to be the loyalist to a losing cause, left to make his own hot water in his own home, or did he want to accept the new realities, to forget the past and move on? I suppose it doesn't matter now, and that I'll never know. It had nothing to do with my team.

A year later, when the Niners played the Jets in the opener, Foley threw for 415 yards in an overtime loss. Steve Young made sure to give Foley extra words of encouragement when the two men met at midfield at the end of the game. But by week three of the 1998 season, Glenn was replaced by Vinny Testeverde for good. He went to Seattle before retiring. But his victory over the Patriots in 1997 made me realize how hungry I had been as a Jets fan, having endured three seasons previous over which the Jets had won a total of ten games. Now I was no longer a fan of a perennial loser, nor a victim of the circumstances of the times. I was the fan of a team that went to the playoffs half the time, more often than not being lead by a cartoonish coach. I was a Jets fan. Some things were just too important for friendship to spoil.

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