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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

NY Jets #64 - Part 2

I was very grateful to get news that my New England friends were all at home and not anywhere near the terrible scene on Patriots' Day, April 15. I malign those guys often, for reasons that seem very petty and stupid right now - just because of their football team. I love them and am happy they're safe.

I figured that I would have to soothe the worries of my young 14 and 15 year-old students these last few days, but they seem curiously inert to the kind of uneasiness that permeated my entire adolescence in the Cold War. I don't understand how or why they think that what took place in Boston is a part of our national and cultural reality, but they do seem to accept it. They're a generation surrounded with the constant news of innocent civilians all around the world who are targeted by people who seem to think they are called upon to play with history as if it were a toy. My students are not blase about terror. They feel it's unspeakable for people to be maimed as they were in Boston, but they also seem to expect that such things can happen and will continue to happen here and all around the world. Maybe that's what's most depressing.

So what did I decide to do? I came here, hoping to distract myself with the ridiculous, if not the sublime:

***

I've always wondered if players take it as an insult when they are unceremoniously traded from one team to another and given an entirely different jersey number from the one they've been wearing for several years. As a regular starting guard for the Miami Dolphins for five seasons, Harry Galbreath wore #62, which he then had to trade for #76 when he went to the Green Bay Packers in 1993. Which number did he prefer? Did it matter?

To me, every ten sets of numbers represent different set of characteristics in football players. Those who wear numbers in the 20's tend to confuse fans as to whether they belong on offense or defense, but they spend a great deal of time staring at their teammates' backsides, regardless. Players who wear the 30's are defensive backs with a lean, hard expression of contempt. Players wearing the 50's are linebackers, shifting and changing as needed; sometimes a lineman, sometimes a player in the secondary, they are never quite they seem. Players who wear the 60's are world-weary, silent witnesses to the endless struggles of the offensive line. Players in the 70's seem less interested in keeping their miseries to themselves and are more intense and violent. I have no idea what statistical evidence I can use to prove any of this, but I've never been the kind of fan to pay attention to such things.

By the end of his career, Harry Galbreath became one of many, many New York Jets in 1995 or 1996 who arrived a bit too worse for wear to fill in gaps left open by the injuries and ineptitude of Rich Kotite's two terrible seasons as our professional football coach. When Galbreath did arrive, the Jets gave him #64, sending him back to the world-weary numbers. He retired at the end of that season.

There are two things that stand out about Harry Galbreath that expand beyond the ordinary career of a recent New York Jet. One is that he passed away in 2010 of a heart attack at the age of 45. He is mostly known for his collegiate career in football; in the link above Coach Johnny Major said that Galbreath was the best run blocker that he had ever seen. But he also majored in human services, which might be some sort of equivalent to social work. A search for him pulls up multiple obituaries from different directions, most of which seem to point to his humanity and sense of serving others. Perhaps his early death made his life more notable to people, but I'd like to believe it's because he was a good person.

Chuck Hinton #64 played defensive tackle for the Jets in a similar way, near the end of his career, and he also died relatively young. For seven seasons he played guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in 1971 (Chuck Noll's second season in Pittsburgh) he signed with us. Afterwards, Hinton played the 1972 season with the Baltimore Colts.

I can't help but wonder if some players feel regretful about being born to play for the wrong era of certain teams - 49ers, Steelers, Patriots, or Packers. If Chuck Hinton had been ten years younger, he might have been a part of Pittsburgh's dynasty in the 1970's, rather than the 1960's, when the team consistently failed to break even. These were the Steelers everyone wanted to play. Yet here is a 1967 Steelers Yearbook article on Hinton that suggests that good fortune is an absolutely relative, subjective notion.

"Three's the charm" is an age-old axiom related to the trials and tribulations of luck and superstition. Many people will scoff at such believer (sic). Chuck has to believe in it. Chuck Hinton, defensive tackle for the Steelers, is one such believer. Chuck has to because for him it's the story of his professional football career. 

We might feel he was unlucky to land on Buddy Parker's Steelers and in an age where a player would also have to work offseason at Sears or, as Hinton did, as an "interviewer for the Youth Corps." The truth is, Hinton was just happy to work as a football player. Drafted by Cleveland, the Browns immediately cut him, as did the Colts. "The story, however," as the above link says "was the same: "'I wasn't scared,' (Hinton) relates, 'just so nervous that I botched things all up. I knew I had no experience, but no one really tried to help me get it.' Baltimore made the same decision as Cleveland and Chuck was released."

It's rare to hear someone admit that he was so nervous that he failed at something he loved. And since he comes across in the above link as self-effacing and modest to the point of shy, Chuck Hinton reminds me of students I've taught whose own absorbing sense of fear and anxiety made the very thing they feared most come true. In a haze of constant anxiety, I see their minds fixed to a dreaded place where nothing can be seen, nothing can be heard, except the sound of their own heartbeat. Or maybe I think of myself. I think of working at a desk job years ago and being given an assignment by a supervisor who was often entertained by my mishaps, and so would offer me very little guidance when I needed just a little more.

Just a fuckup, aren't you? I'd hear.   

Did I hear it from my boss? Did I hear it in my head? It's almost as if my anxiety took me out of myself, so I was watching me, moving in slow motion, unable to finish a project on time, unable to to figure a solution to a simple problem, unable to answer the phone without stammering. Now I can digest food and not feel my heart racing when I lay down to sleep at night, mostly because of good medication. I don't know if Chuck Hinton felt any of those things, or whether he was just like everyone else, striving to become something, and struggling.

Chuck Hinton died in 1999 at the age of 60, and I'm curious, in the morbid way I've been conditioned to think about the Infinites, what toll the game, or maybe life itself, took on him. Maybe the end came quickly in a fleeting accident. There's nothing else I can find online about the football Chuck Hinton, other than the fact that he won the 1981 NFL Alumni Golf Tournament - the paperweight-sized ring for which he was awarded pawned online in 2005 - and the fact that he is frequently confused with the Washington Senators' Chuck Hinton (who, in 1964, was the last Senator to ever hit .300. How is that even possible?).

Morris Berman's famous photo of YA Tittle, 1964
But there's one interesting footnote to photographic history to which Chuck Hinton belonged. At left you see one of the most iconic images in all of professional football, one of the last dramatic moments of YA Tittle's career. It's the beginning of the 1964 season, and the Giants are playing in Pitt Stadium against the Steelers. Having been beaten soundly across the head by Pittsburgh defender John Baker, YA Tittle now kneels in his own end zone, bleeding from his head. The hit apparently "cracked (Tittle's) sternum, pulled his rib cage muscles and caused a concussion." The pass Tittle was throwing when he was hit was then intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Chuck Hinton, producing the only score of Hinton's career. Consider the alphas and omegas at work here. Because of these injuries, Tittle would play sparingly for the rest of '64 and then retire, while the interception for a touchdown came in only the second game of Hinton's entire NFL career. The photo was taken by Morris Berman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and as the above link makes clear, Berman lost out on what should have been a Pulitzer for the picture because an editor did not see it fit to include the picture in the next day's edition, and yet the image has lingered for so long in the sports imagination that prints of it are commonly signed by Tittle himself in old age.

When I was a boy, I saw this picture in a book somewhere, and I asked my father what had happened to YA Tittle such that he looked this way. Tittle kneels, almost supplicating, yet amazed all the same by the enormity of what's happened to him. His face registers an awe that transcends his pain. Parts of him are now completely broken. Only moments before he had been fine, but  now everything has changed, and he is caught here in these vivid moments afterward, just taking it all in. It seems that in the background, along the sidelines, a group of men casually watch what's happening. They may be reporters, photographers or maybe disabled guys with a seat close-up. One of them seems to be pointing to the quarterback and seeing with their eyes what Berman has captured in his lens. What we see here lasted no more than a second, but Tittle's stunned gaze is something that we wear in those unexpected moments when we are suddenly faced with a gruesome truth. It's a brief sensation that marks us for a lifetime. We didn't know it could be this bad. And now it really is this bad.

What happened to him, Dad?

Dad smiled. Was he trying to protect me? Was he just messing with me?

"Tittle used to do that," he said. "If something bad happened to him, if he didn't like a play or a call against him, he got down on his knees and rolled his head around in the grass. And, if he was playing in mud," he said, making a funny face, "then he did it even more."

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