I've been leery of late to dig too deeply into the background information on each Infinite Jet. I've begun to feel like I'm peering into people's dining room windows, hoping to catch a glance of their most private and telling interactions with one another, all in order to find clues to the hidden mystery of their nature. Then I remember that I'm staring at a machine that offers mostly the prepared and edited versions of people's lives on the web. You're not looking at something into which have sneakily peep; you see is what people are putting on their front yard. Still, you shouldn't linger, staring at someone's yard from the sidewalk.
After a little bit of digging, I discovered that Eric Coss #62 played center for the Jets for three games in 1987, which I presume means (let's say it all together) he was very likely a replacement player that season. He graduated from Temple University, though I don't know how many years before. The stories of the replacement player always intrigue me. It's a dream lost and found and lost again, one suspects. A little bit more digging finds Coss living in Arizona, working for the state in some capacity, possibly as a teacher, possibly as a state trooper. That's all that appears on his lawn, and I feel reluctant to look further. So that's where I stop and move down the block.
What are we leaving behind for people to find on our lawn? This has also been on my mind lately. This summer I've gotten a new job, one that's closer to home and pays a little bit better. Until now I've been teaching for 13 years at a large high school outside Philadelphia and have been very happy doing a job that is honestly the only thing I'm really good at. I teach English, and I love it. "It's hard, but the kids are great." It's such a cliche thing for teachers to say, but it's true all the same, as so many cliches are. But it was time for a change, and though they they treated me very well there, I'm leaving. I'm moving on. It's time to go.
This past winter I had an inkling it was going to eventually happen, and during the rest of the year, it would occasionally strike me that in its long history, the high school where I worked had seen countless numbers of teachers. Its turnover during the past decade alone has been staggering, and I've had to be reminded of the many teachers who came and went in our English Department. Who was the guy with the initials? T.J.? No, I'm thinking of D.J. There was a Kristi, a Christa, a Christine and a Kristine, a Christin, and a Kristen. And Christina. People came and went like it was bus terminal.
And then when you look into the old yearbooks, you see so many teachers who must have mattered to someone somewhere in time, but they have now been reduced to a series of black and white images. A woman in an outdated bouffant hairdo and cat's eye glasses. A grim-looking man in pleated slacks, a nicely tailored white shirt and thick lenses, leaning with an quiet impatience with his back against the blackboard, waiting for an answer from the class that he already knows is not going to come. Those are pictures from the 1973 yearbook.
The pictures at least document a person doing his or her job. I discovered pictures of the woman who taught in my room that year. She seems to have taught for several years through the 70's, though I can't find her any later than that. She was an English teacher, too - pretty, with a very tight smile, made more uncomfortable by the tightness of her hair pulled back. In the pictures she dresses as my mother did back then, in pretty blouses and jackets, ribbon in her hair, in turtlenecks or with patterned scarves around her neck. Maybe she eventually got married and left for good as so many women did when I was a student.
It occurred to me that I was just another faceless person who had worked there. One year as a gag I grew a mustache for my little teacher portrait in the yearbook, but no one remembers that. The mustache didn't last any longer than the picture; my wife insisted that I shave it off before she came home from work that day, and I obliged. I've never met a woman who liked to kiss a mustachioed man. This year, when the yearbook director sent out a call asking if anyone wanted to have their class photographed for the upcoming issue, I volunteered mine because I wanted someone someday to know that I was there once, that I existed there, that I worked in that room, and that I did something poorly or well. I was there.
Which brings me to Ed Cummings #62, who played linebacker for the Jets in 1964 and then for the Broncos in 1965. As the Broncos "By the Numbers" site puts it, Cummings had no discernible statistics over 14 games with Denver. He appears as a faceless number from an era where players were paid little, in a league still perceived to be the lesser. He came and went. By all accounts, he was there.
But looking more closely at what's arrayed on his lawn, you see that Cummings was inducted into Stanford University's Hall of Fame in 2005. Today he is a rancher in his native Montana, but Cummings chose to go to Stanford over the University of Montana when he was 18 because of a quick judgment made by his high school coach:
"He called me into his office and said, 'If you go play football at Stanford, you will sit on the bench for the next four years,''' Cummings recalled. "That made me so damn mad, I decided, right there, I was going to Stanford."
Cummings became a valued player at Stanford, playing both sides of the ball, most notably at running back, where he was an All-American, and at linebacker, leading the team in tackles from 1961-62. That doesn't even seem possible, yet it is. The article hints that his AFL career was cut short by the "penury" of ownership. He says, "cattle get more respect than we did." It seems a strange American paradox that the more you work, the less you are paid, and vice versa. Perhaps that is not true in sports anymore, but maybe that's just another example of how sports are not all like life.
Cummings mentions about his education at Stanford, a place that was a far cry from the quieter, rural world of Montana:
"I went from reading Outdoor Life and Ring Life in Anaconda, to reading the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and the Egyptian Book of the Dead."
He returned to Montana; there he resided in 2005, and perhaps he resides there today. The contrast of the two worlds, the worlds of both the ranch and the ancient Book of Dead, seems even clear when he says that his Montana friends threaten to "stuff him into a snow tire" if he brags too much about his Stanford induction. He is that rare person who has lived in distinct, polarized worlds - the Great Plains and the Redwoods, the offense and defense, Ring Life and the mythic afterlife. After his coach made that passing, smug assessment of his chances at Stanford, Cummings responded by successfully straddling all of those worlds. In that sense, he is more than just existing in the distant past as cattle; he comes across as a rare renaissance man. Whether he really is or not matters little to me. It's what we see on his lawn.
Plus I can't stop thinking about Cummings' indignation. It's the kind Jets fans understand. The Jets are a listing organization on the field, burdened by their own poor choices, lead by a coach who is increasingly a cartoon version of himself, owned by a billionaire who supports an equally rich Presidential candidate who refers to corporations as "people, too." There's no reason to feel sympathy for their plight, but it's we, their fans, the consumers, the ones who are actually the people, who are treated like cattle. And Jets fans come from beneath the underdog. I'm finding myself unpleasantly in two minds of my own - one of nagging self-doubt about this corporation and the other my own bloated pride in being their loyal fan. Our team, this corporation, has wronged us by fielding a squad (a "product," as Woody calls it) that pretends to be great; it plays to the press, taunting opponents without even improving the offensive line. Yet I would love them to stuff this season's smug and cheesy prognosticators into the proverbial snow tire.