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Monday, August 27, 2012

NY Jets #62 - Part 4

Bob O'Neill #62 played as a lineman for the New York Titans in 1961 and was a Notre Dame alum. The question, "What happened to Bob O'Neill of Notre Dame football?" goes unanswered at Lost Lettermen. We mentioned him previously when we catalogued the few number of Irish players who've been Jets, but no other detail can be found online. While you're at it, at the Lettermen link you can also click on the self-described "Best of the Web," which, when I saw it, featured things like the "Top 15 Hottest Women in Conservative Media," or "Constipated Olympic Diving Faces," which only serves to further our understanding that the adult American mindset is essentially white, male, and between the ages of 11-13.

similar search on Lost Letterman produces information about guard Bill Bain #62, who retired with the Jets in 1986 after playing 11 seasons in the NFL. He played well for USC during their championship seasons of 1972 and '74. He lives in California still and has four daughters. At the link you can also find out which are the "Most Cliche'd Facebook Profile Pictures." I'm guilty of the Facebook "Fanboy" profile picture, making me an internet cliche - probably not for the first time - and it's a reminder that the Interwebs reveal us to be nothing more than hopelessly narcissistic and vainly self-conscious 13 year-old girls.

Al Atkinson #62 (image Presswire)
The most famous of NY Jets #62's is Al Atkinson. Between 1965 and 1974, Atkinson played linebacker for the Jets, his only professional team. He played alongside Larry Grantham, Gerry Philbin, Verlon Biggs, and Ralph Baker on defense. Born in Philadelphia, Atkinson attended Cardinal Bonner High School for boys in Drexel Hill, which is an arrow's shot from where I used to teach, and then he went to nearby Villanova. Today, I think he works in Springfield, Pennsylvania, not far from there.

I suppose he must have been happy to see that Bonner was recently saved from being closed through the petitioning and donations of many alumni, and maybe he participated in that. Of all the Catholic high schools in the region, I feel that Bonner has a quality of toughness about it that the others in the area do not much have. It is a stern and resolute place, much more like the movie version of a Catholic school, where the ubiquitous detention period known as JUD ("justice under God") is no formality; it is a sentence. Their school colors are green and white.

I had hoped to ask Atkinson for an interview since I'm so close by, but I wasn't able to contact him. I would have asked him about being on a Villanova squad that went to the Liberty Bowl in 1962 (the Wildcats fell to Terry Baker's Oregon State). I would have asked him about playing at Bonner and about how Bonner has changed. I would have asked about football in the 60's, about the mystique of the AFL. What was it like to play alongside Grantham, Rochester, Baker, et al, and to play for Buddy Ryan on defense? What was his most memorable game? How has football affected him physically now that it's long done?

And how on Earth did he play the second half of Super Bowl III with a dislocated shoulder? Between John Schmitt's pneumonia and Atkinson's shoulder, how on Earth did the Colts lose?

But I would also have asked him about his brief decision to announce his retirement in 1970, as a reaction to Joe Namath's reluctance to report to training camp on time.

In the first year of the merger's application, the NFLPA talked of a strike, and Pete Rozelle and the owners swiftly responded by locking players out of training camp. The players just as quickly backed down. But times had been changing quickly; this was a hallmark of the struggles to come, much of it coming out of a revolution that Namath had helped herald - one where individual players had the capacity to be much bigger than the game.

These shifts in how athletes saw themselves were reflected in each man's attitude toward the strike. According to Mark Kriegel in his Namath biography, Atkinson was one of two teams member not to attend its labor meeting because he disagreed with the intention to strike. The other player who wasn't there was Namath. He didn't disagree with a strike; he just didn't show up. He was busy doing Joe Namath things.

Kriegel writes that there was nothing new about Namath not showing up for training camp; he had "quit" the year before over Bachelors III. The new wrinkle in 1970 were his noises in the offseason about not being as interested in football as he used to be, especially in the face of the new commercial opportunities open to him, ones that were mostly unprecedented for any athlete. He appeared to be on strike altogether, from the team, from the game, and busy instead with just being Joe Namath - a talk show, TV commercials, movies, appearances. He also probably didn't relish another year of horrible pain.

In response to his attitude, the defensive captain Al Atkinson went on strike himself. He "retired" as a protest against Namath's lack of commitment. Kriegel writes:

Like Namath, Atkinson was a twenty-seven year old bachelor who had played through painful injuries... but all similarity ended there; for Atkinson, a Philadelphian who once considered a career in the priesthood, belonged to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

I love the fact that Atkinson is immediately distinguished as a "Philadelphian," as if it were a notable mark of sternness. I also found out from a Bonner grad that Atkinson's brother was a longtime respected priest and teacher at Bonner. Drexel Hill, a town over from West Philadelphia, is a traditionally conservative area, generally Catholic even as neighborhoods change, and highly cloistered from the surrounding areas along the Main Line. Kriegel points out that Atkinson was tired of laboring away in spite of an offensive leader who was not expected to adhere to principles of team unity. Kriegel says that Atkinson actually believed Namath's lack of focus cost the Jets the December 1969 playoff game against the eventual champion Chiefs.

I've written before that Namath was a team player, but in this respect this was obviously not so. But Atkinson's objection to Namath's behavior goes beyond that, to critiquing Namath's self-centered, relativistic world view:

As far as (Atkinson) was concerned, Namath's newfangled credo masked old fashioned selfishness. "It used to kill me," said the linebacker, "to see this guy sit back on his TV show and think everything he does and stands for is justified so long as he comes right out and says it. He thinks it makes indiscretion correct if you admit to it." 

It might seem strange for a player to question the philosophical basis for a teammate's actions, but this was a new time. If the player makes himself bigger than the team then maybe he needs to be assessed on a different scale, with new dimensions. Namath's indiscretions pale in comparison to Brandon Marshall's, but whether he intended to or not, Atkinson was also pointing out something we take for granted about American popular culture - that if you are famous, you are held to a lower standard of behavior, or maybe you are held to a level that suspends the fans' judgment, the way the gods were free to deceive and manipulate the Greeks who worshiped them.

And Namath was no immortal. The 1970 season proved it. According to Richard Sandomir, at the beginning of the first Monday Night Football telecast between the Jets and the Browns in 1970, Howard Cosell - "his hand trembling" - interviews the two team captains, Namath and Atkinson. Side by side, their respective retirements now over, the two then went on to play to a 31-21 defeat, brought on by an interception of Namath's final pass of the game. It is an iconic moment for Jets fans, one that makes me consider the upcoming season all the more; it was the start of an era Namath had helped usher in, but it was also the beginning of ten straight losing seasons.

***

Kriegel writes that after practices in the 1970 training camp, Namath and rookie cornerback Steve Tannen would get in Tannen's VW bus and drive up and down the Hempstead Turnpike, smoking dope. As Tannen says, smoking pot "was like being a murderer" back then, but it worked as much for pain then as now. For anyone who's driven it, the turnpike is flat, punctuated by strip malls, parking lots and fast food restaurants. Tannen says that they would drive an hour in either direction and finally stop at Jack in the Box for the munchies. What might be a high school kid's ideal Friday night out sounds like a purgatorial sentence for the biggest football player in the United States. In either direction, the open road presented no more than the same thing, over and over. It seemed to stretch on forever, but it was the beginning of the end.

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