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Sunday, June 30, 2013

NY Jets #65 - Part 1 (and a #22)

A kid can pick up on the dynamics at play in his parents' marriage. You learn what your parents choose to not talk about. You observe what single word or phrase from one sets the other off. You learn what makes marriages happy or not. I guess we learn these things because someday we're going to be living a life that resembles the one we started observing from a very early age. I learned a great deal about my parents from the backseat of our car, as I watched the sides of their faces for their reactions to one another.

We did a lot of errands together. I may not have appreciated it as much as I should have, being hauled off to hardware stores, furniture stores, appliance stores, paint stores, to Sears, to the liquor store, to the supermarket. My parents would disagree about which supermarket was best. Mom said A&P; Dad preferred Shop Rite. They would dispute these things as if they were fighting over different faiths or political views. When I went with Dad, he went to Shop Rite and told me to "tell Mom we went to A&P."

Consequently we didn't watch a lot of Jets games during the football season; we listened to them on the car radio. And until the time I was old enough to mind my brother, or probably felt it wasn't cool to go anywhere with my parents, this meant we tuned the car radio to WCBS for Jets games on Sunday and heard Spencer Ross and Sam DeLuca #65. Among the various issues both small and smaller about which my parents would assent or demur, they both agreed that Sam DeLuca drove them crazy.

Sam DeLuca passed away in 2011. He played offensive line for the Jets after playing seasons with the Giants, the Toronto Argonauts and San Diego Chargers. He was a New York boy with a Brooklyn accent who went to high school with Sandy Koufax and Larry King. He was on the first front lines that protected Joe Namath on the Jets, and he recalled in a WABC profile that after a game, the team would assemble on the bus and then pick Namath up out of another stadium exit so as to avoid being delayed by hundreds of people waiting to get a view of the golden boy. An injury in the 1967 preseason ended DeLuca's career, but no sooner did he finish with that than he picked up work in the announcer's booth, first with pre- and postgame interviews with the Mets, and then with the Jets. He did what used to be called the "color" for Jets games on WABC with Merle Harmon in the early 70's and then with the longer gig with Spencer Ross from 1979 to 1983.

I couldn't quite gauge at first what made my parents so equally mad about Sam DeLuca. Did he sound like a lot of know-it-all guys my Mom grew up with in Greenpoint - guys that pretended to know more than they actually did? (Mom always took issue with guys who talked too much during a broadcast. She once called the NBC network and demanded to talk to someone about a young Bob Costas who was venting opinions when he was supposed to be calling a baseball game.) As I piece it together today, I realize that what made them both so angry about DeLuca was his need to drive home a particular point he felt to be relevant through several plays and even through quarters of a game.

"Why doesn't he just call the game or be quiet?" Mom would say as we drove around, looking for parking at the Hempstead Pergament.

"And going back to what I was trying to say before about Richard Todd's habits in the pocket..."

"Again with Todd in the pocket!" Dad said. "Wasn't he talking about that ten minutes ago?"

"...it's a point I can't emphasize enough that if a quarterback doesn't see the entire field, it's going to be very difficult to be successful in the NFL."

"I feel like a prisoner in my own car!" Mom said.

I don't remember if these are any of the actual things Sam DeLuca said, but I do remember how my parents responded. They could very well have been talking to one another through Sam DeLuca, telling the truth of their frustrations and feelings the way couples do when they find something upon which they can finally agree.

The truth is that Sam DeLuca was ahead of his time. He provided not just the "color" but a  commentary of expertise well beyond the monosyllabic bits of thought that less successful commentators gave. His kind of talk is now industry standard. Ask Tim McCarver about the "right kind of outs to make." Think of Joe Morgan's discussion of the lack of validity in Moneyball. Ask Jon Gruden about the absence of competitive spirit among football players. But when I call Mom and Dad and ask whether they caught the games on Sunday, or the last Mets game on TV, they often talk about - on different ends of the phone line and in different parts of the house - how the announcers are appalling. It is now the rule rather than the exception. Whether they realize it or not, they are still talking about Sam DeLuca.

"Just call the game," Mom says. "I turn the sound down."

"I don't even bother with it," Dad says, "It's why I watch golf."

***

John Hudson #65 played center for the Jets from 1996-99. His career spanned eleven seasons, starting with Philadelphia in 1990 and ending with Baltimore and, presumably, the Super Bowl victory their team enjoyed against the Giants. Today, according to his Wikipedia page, Hudson is a football coach for Henry County High School in Paris, Tennessee.

But in my search for information on him, Google assumed I was making a mistake. Did I not mean former '68 veteran safety Jim Hudson #22, who died last Tuesday in Austin, Texas?

We looked at Jim Hudson rather simplistically a couple of years ago. I should have included a 1997 Times article on his work as a successful trainer and owner of thoroughbreds in Texas. This part of the article stood out:

So far, (Hudson) has saddled seven winners and earned $140,050 in purses here since April 28. He has got the multiple stakes-winning filly Icy Morn, a monster who has won 20 of her 38 starts, ready for the $50,000 Mockingbird Stakes race on Sunday. He torments his barn mates with incessant needling -- even once barricading his rival trainer Bill Leach into a restroom with a golf cart.

At first I was not able to tell from this whether it was the "monster" Icy Morn or Hudson himself doing the needling. Dad always talked about Hudson's reputation for being a tough safety who'd hassle players he was covering, and I think much of it might have been based on the fact that Hudson was thrown out of the Heidi Game. One thing about Jim Hudson that I did mention was his interception in Super Bowl III: "Jim Hudson got in front of the pass that should have gone to Jimmy Orr but went instead to Jerry Hill in Super Bowl III. This was, perhaps, the most important defensive play of the most important game in New York Jets history."

Jim Hudson #22 robbing Jerry Hill
(cribbed and cropped Walter Iooss 
photo from Getty Images)
I should have added that had Hill caught the pass for a touchdown (never mind if Earl Morrall has been able to see Jimmy Orr from the halftime band dressed in Baltimore blue that was lining the end zone) then the Colts would have tied up the game and entered halftime with some needed momentum that might have made the difference, and the history of football itself might have been different. In America's Game, Michael MacCambridge writes that the AFL was seen as so inferior that in the days leading up to Super Bowl III that Pete Rozelle casually mentioned to reporters the possibility that future Super Bowls might match up the two best professional teams overall, even if that meant two NFL teams. In light of this, Jim Hudson changed history by keeping the Jets ahead, where they - and the teams of his league - would remain.

At first the news that came out about Hudson's passing did not include the cause of death. He was 70. However, this weekend Wikipedia was updated with information from The Daily Texan that Hudson died from traumatic dementia encephalopathy. Later the Times published news more specific and telling:

The cause was Parkinson’s dementia, his wife, Lise, said, adding that doctors believed that it had been caused by football-related trauma. At her husband’s request, she said, his brain and spine would be given to researchers at Boston University who are studying the relationship between head trauma and neurological disease.
“He was a hard-hitting, tough football player,” she said. “What he wanted to do was help researchers come up with alternatives to protect players better, especially kids coming up.”
This is the second death in as many months of a Longhorn and former '68 Jet from a brain disorder - first, George Sauer of complications related to Alzheimer's and now Hudson by trauma-related Parkinson's dementia. Sauer's disease may or may not have been related to the violence of the game, but Hudson's career, which ended only a season after Sauer's, was responsible for his. They were very different men - Sauer the soft-spoken poet, Hudson the fiery gambler and businessman. 
Aside from ending up on the same professional club (along with Pete Lammons who was also on that Texas team) Sauer and Hudson were both linked by an extraordinary moment in the 1965 Orange Bowl, which was probably the game of their lives that up to that point. 
Put into the role of quarterback, Jim Hudson threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to George Sauer in the first half that eventually helped make the difference in the Longhorns' 21-17 victory over Joe Namath and top-ranked Alabama.

The next time all three Longhorns would meet again on a professional field it would be with the same team, led by Joe Namath. But now the pass to Sauer from Hudson takes on a different quality. Their deaths were so close in time together and were likely brought on by football careers that took up only a brief part of their lives. It's almost as if their touchdown that night is a part of the secret language of life, reminding us of how, as Shakespeare says, time's passage brings about "store with loss and loss with store." This brief, bright moment in their lives came and went without much existential content, but time eventually turns it into something oddly poetic.

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