Monday, August 26, 2013

NY Jets #66 - Randy Rasmussen

It's a little cliche to speak ill of the world of Millenial children, but in the mid 1970's, I had simpler toys. It didn't take a great deal of technology to entertain any of us. I can enumerate what we did not have. We did not have the Internet, nor video games. We did not have simulated virtual experiences with avatars. We did not have cable. It did not mean that life was simpler, nor was it particularly enjoyable for a neurotic little boy. I recall feeling bored, lonely and anxious through most of my childhood. During summers, I went on long, solitary bike rides through the neighborhoods of my flat South Shore Long Island town, looking for nothing in particular. When I came home, I took pride and comfort from the sight of the Mego action figures of superheroes that I had lined up on the windowsill of my bedroom, welcoming me home. I could see their cheaply manufactured outfits and capes in primary colors from a half a block away.

Batman, Green Lantern, Shazaam, Superman, and Aqua Man. What a superhero wears can sometimes be as important as his powers. One day I decided to start switching up their outfits, just to see how strange each one would look. What about a Batman head with a Superman logo? What if Green Lantern and Shazaam switched up? Who would get the power ring? Dad came back from work one day, a little distressed to see what I'd done. I'm not sure of it was that I wasn't treating my toys with respect and care or that a boy was paying a little too much attention to the prêt-à-porter of the Justice League.


Mom called me downstairs. It might have been the spring, when school was still going on, or maybe it was earlier in the year, whenever it was in 1978 that the Jets gave us the big Reveal. 

"Did you know the Jets were changing their uniforms?" I heard her call. 

No. Hearing that was like someone saying that the sun would be changing positions in the galaxy, or like we were moving to India. How could I have not heard this before? Why didn't they tell me? 

"You'd better hurry up," she said. "Here they are."

I tore into the room, and I saw it all on the local news. Mom had been watching it in a director's chair in our den, with a scotch and potato chips, waiting for dad to come home for dinner. 

New uniforms, 1978
Gone from the helmet were the football shape containing the logo, the white with two stripes down the middle helmet and the kelly jersey. Their new helmet was now a solid forest green with an italicized logo, and, in case anyone was unclear, a jet shape moving forward on the right side, backward on the left. I loved it. It was exciting and clear and direct. Just the way a nine year-old would want it. Does what a hero wear affect his power? 

The player the Jets chose to display their new choice for attire on TV was Randy Rasmussen #66, left guard. The news didn't feature it as you can see in the photo above, but the away garb was modeled by Bruce Harper, who today seems like a great choice, a loved player, an overachiever, a Jet.

But Randy Rasmussen was himself known as "Mr. Jet," the longest-playing starter at the time and for several seasons still to come. He was a product of the mid-60's, coming out of Nebraska-Kearney, playing (however briefly) in the Super Bowl, and then playing well into the Disco era. (These days, when the word "Jetsiest" has become an adjective, "Mr. Jet" seems like an epithet for the type of guy who walks into a tree. The combination of the Jets' general personnel and coaching confusions this summer with the national media's delightful fascination would make the term satirical. We have become the nation's blooper show.)

What made Randy Rasmussen Mr. Jet was the super power of simple, basic consistency; there just didn't seem to be a time when Randy Rasmussen wouldn't be there. But that power does not usually earn a special place in the heart of child in any generation - no superhuman cape, no place on the windowsill, no Facebook credit. It's not until you are older that you realize that it is half of life.


Here's another picture - one extremely telling about the world of childhood versus the world of grown ups. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this picture below was taken during the Jets' 1975 home win over the New England Patriots, 36-7. Dad went to this game, and I remember watching it on TV with Mom at home. It was the last home game we would be able to watch in the TV blackout zone for three years. Emperor Hirohito of Japan was at the game, being given an opportunity to watch American football. The Jets did not disappoint the former deity of the sun, though they would not win another game for 10 weeks.

Randy Rasmussen #66, leading the way
This is the game that made me a devoted lifetime fan of John Riggins. He only gained 36 yards, but he looked bigger than your average running back. If I could have had a Riggins Mego figure on my windowsill, it would have been there. This is the Diesel in the prime of his youth, a human battering machine just learning the true measure of his own greatness. He was a running back who wore a collar guard, with a bandage on his nose. I think Mom had a thing for him. She kept mentioning him to me as we watched the game, and because it was impossible for a six year-old to imagine that his mother could have feelings for another man other than, well, himself, I took it to be high praise for him. 

"Look at the way he sits on his helmet on the sideline," she said.

It was an odd thing to find interesting. Maybe it spoke to Riggins' nature, to his love of flaunting the basic decorum, his ever so slightly counter-cultural manner, or at least peculiar and unique way he did everything. He always stood out.

But we've talked more than enough about a running back who played only five seasons for us. I'm 44 years-old now, as old as the number worn by the hero of my youth. The plain truth is, as I sit here, slightly overweight, graying more rapidly than expected, hairline receding, unable to stop the cracking that my body does when it gets out of bed, I know now that children should pay more attention to the men whom their idols run behind. In this case, as in many cases from 1967-81, that man at left guard was often Randy Rasmussen, whose regularity through some of the best and worst seasons ever for a franchise remains a great example to grown people like me who wonder if anything they're trying to do with the same consistency is having a single good effect. 

Randy Rasmussen started in a total of 198 games, all with the Jets. As the excellent JetsBlog points out in its Hall of Fame salute to Rasmussen, his season with the least starts was ironically the year the Jets scored the Super Bowl title, and this is because Bob Talamini was brought out of retirement to take the position. Rasmussen then took it back afterward and had an unbroken streak of regular starts that ran from 1971 to 1977.

Playing over the years with a Jets team that would get progressively worse makes him somehow just as special in my mind as the legendary offensive linemen who today occupy their place in Canton. Rasmussen's consistency was rewarded with not a single All-Pro or Pro Bowl honor, but he maintained a presence on the team that meant something else entirely to different generations of players who came and went through the franchise. Weeb Ewbank referred to him as the most coachable player he had ever known, but there are no posters advertised in Sports Illustrated for such things, no action figures, no awards for such things except for the promise of a consistent spot week after week.

Actually, in August 1978, Sports Illustrated did briefly feature Randy Rasmussen in an article about the relationship between performance and the promise of greater and greater money. We see him reclining in an Adirondack chair in the backyard deck of a house that looks like so many suburban decks I knew as a kid growing up, with his legs stretched out, his hands behind his head. A beautiful golden retriever sits at his feet, and he is wearing a pair of leather sandals that my father also wore throughout his summer weekends when I was young. Randy's is a round smiling face, one of the most recognizable faces of my entire childhood, one that was there in every program of every home game I attended as a boy.

"I just love to play," he says. "I don't know anybody that really produces who doesn't think that way. Guys who play just for the money aren't around long."

Maybe he looked so midwestern, so unlike the world of Namath's blown dry appearances and the long nights of Manhattan. He looked like a football player, sure, but also like a guy who lived a world of backyard decks and barbecues of my neighborhood. Like a neighbor who's borrowing your lawnmower, or one who's relaxing after an afternoon clipping the hedges in the front of his house. He looked like someone's Dad. There are no Mego superhero figures like that, either.

In 1979, at Hofstra training camp, at the end of a scrimmage, I got Randy Rasmussen's autograph. It's impossible to recall that night as vividly as I would like. The passage of time and the hyperbole of memory hijack the whole thing. All of the sudden a startlingly familiar, friendly face, one I recognized from my earliest memories - a member of the long list of "Daddy's friends" as my grandmother referred to the Jets - was standing in front of me, haggard, sweaty, tired and determined for sleep. I handed my training camp program to Randy Rasmussen and he scribbled his name wordlessly, and moved on. 

With no place on my windowsill, no room on my wall for him, I still kept his autograph for years. It may have seemed less cherished than the others I got that night because I just assumed that next year I would be able to get Randy Rasmussen's autograph again, and maybe the year after that too. He was that reliable, that predictable. And now, as I'm poised to go back to work tomorrow and begin it all again - the long struggle, the futility, the small victories, and the day in and out - Randy Rasmussen's scribbled name seems to me all too valuable.


Slimbo said...

I was such an incurable dope as a child. I saw them reveal those uni's on TV. A black and white TV. When my dad came home I told him the Jets new colors were black and white. It's a miracle my parents didn't send me away.

Martin Roche said...

Knowing your Dad to be as thoughtful a guy as he is, he might have half-believed you.