Friday, July 5, 2013

NY Jets #65 - Joe Fields

The reason why we only have three entries for #65 is because of Joe Fields. Growing up in New Jersey, drafted out of Widener University in the 14th round, Joe Fields is often described as the best deal the New York Jets ever got out of the draft. He ended up playing 13 seasons for us at center, and then one more for the New York Giants. The JetsBlog has a great profile of him which quotes from their regular commenters about Fields' ranking among the great centers of his time - men like Mike Webster, Jim Langer, and Dwight Stephenson. 

SackDance99 says that "Fields was great at every part of being a center and did it without snapping to a Hall of Fame quarterback or blocking for a Hall of Fame running back." In spirit, this kind of thing also has to be said about Wesley Walker and Winston Hill. Players are routinely kept out of the Hall for their teams' lack of presence in the postseason, and yet it's the consistency and high performance under adversity, and in the shadow of being lesser known, that makes a player particularly admirable. Maybe I've just been a Jets fan for too long, but that's how I've come to feel. 

The JetsBlog's piece says everything that I need say about Fields. He went to the Pro Bowl, he was Jets' co-captain for many years. Charley Winner recruited him directly to the team, talking to him by phone while Fields was finishing up at Widener. Wayne Mulligan had been at center for two seasons up until Fields started in 1976. Before then, John Schmitt had been the starter at the position since 1966. If football teams could be said to have periods could be more broadly understood, then why not know them by centers? The 60's and early 70's are then the Schmitt era, while the mid-70's and most of the 80's are the Fields era. When Fields began starting regularly at center, I was seven. When he had finished with the team, I was a freshman in college. Those formative years for a young person are filled with such change that all of time seems to take forever just because everything in life is so new. Time was slow in the Fields Era, so it just didn't seem possible that anyone but Joe Fields would ever play center for my football team.


I remember in the 1980's seeing a New York Times article on the friendship between Fields and Joe Klecko. "The two Joes," I remember it mentioning. They were somewhat unlikely as friends apparently, at least by size. More than one player has pointed out that Fields did not resemble a behemoth in or out of uniform and that Klecko was a monster by comparison. 

But friends they were, and after their careers were done, they co-wrote a book published in the 90's called Nose to Nose: Survival in the Trenches of the NFL. I never did read it, but I recall when it came out. Much of the discussion surrounding the book initially centered around its criticism of Joe Walton, who coached the bulk of the 80's years. The authors said that Walton was paranoid, insecure and coached with a corrosive negativity that affected the team. According to a discussion forum at the Landing Strip, the book's also surprisingly critical of Dr. James Nicholas, who is normally cast as team physician who lengthened rather than shortened players' careers. But again, I never read the book, so I don't know anything more about it.

Several commenters on the Landing Strip forum link above mentioned that Klecko and Fields both admit to steroid use in the book, though apparently Fields asserted that a very brief period of steroid use helped him bounce back from an injury. It would be very difficult to imagine that the great linemen of the 80's were not all taking steroids at some level. It's impossible to imagine that its use is not continuing today in a league that is so thirsty for greater corporate profit that it's likely putting off dealing with steroids in any real way, other than punishing isolated cases. Someone on the forum also suggests that after the book was published, Fields and Klecko had a falling out. I can't imagine how two authors of a book could do otherwise.

Now that the era of good feeling for the present-day Jets is over, more and more fans are beginning to remember the 80's fondly. I wouldn't be surprised if, at some point, the organization brought back the uniforms as a throwback gesture every once in a while (though, please God, make it the '78-'89 uniforms, not the '90-'97 ones). Greg Prato's 2011 book Sack Exchange: The Definitive Oral History of the 1980's New York Jets is enjoyable for allowing many of the players to speak about that time themselves, and there are several great comments about Joe Fields there. What stays with me is how Fields is not just represented as the consistent center but as a fundamentally smart strategist who saw the game unfolding better than anyone else.

In Prato's book, Bruce Harper is quoted as saying that "Joe Fields was like the quarterback on the field." If you read it literally this just takes a moment to digest as funny because an offense by definition has a quarterback, but you get the idea. How would Richard Todd have taken that? But the idea is that he had to think like one. Fields' nickname was "The General," which is also a common term for the quarterback. "He was the director of the line," Harper says, " -- he was the one who called the plays." 

Wesley Walker says that Fields was "one of the those blue collar workers - can play, knows the game, smart, very impressive. I love guys like that." Marion Barber adds that indeed "the center is almost the quarterback," and that "Joe was well respected by his peers." He "played hurt - as so many players do," Barber says. "He was good to his peers and he kept everybody in check...without being a prick about it." 

I like that last one. It's difficult to lead and not be a prick. The simple truth is that leadership is easy for people willing to lead, but very few people can balance the elements of charisma, discipline and respect and not look like a prick, a person who might lead competently but is roundly disliked for being haughty, narcissistic and sometimes cruel for the fun of it. While American slang allows that the two mean the same thing, a dick is someone who won't let something go to the point of getting in everyone's way, while a prick is someone who just seems to enjoy making your life difficult because he can.  Football has lots of each. 

Joe Fields is a good example of a beloved teammate who earned his respect from the many players who came in and out of the organization during the Fields Era. He played consistently - longer than Dermontti Dawson or Jim Langer or Dwight Stephenson for a franchise with considerably greater ups and downs, which perhaps should be just as much a measure as high for a Hall of Famer as are multiple playoff appearances, but we know that won't change. The Hall is for guys who play for winners, and in the world of the Jets, our greatest players have little advantage in the running. Winston Hill, Marvin Powell, and Wesley Walker can take little consolation in this. That's why JetsBlog put Fields in their Hall of Fame, and it's why we give him his own entry as an Infinite Jet. Assign what worth to the player you feel you should. Even if the fan has little say in the world of American sports, we will remember our favorites long after a league that treats its veterans like strangers will.

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