Monday, October 14, 2013

'68 - Our Year

I was born in St. John's Hospital in Woodside, Queens, a week later than my due date. It took 12 hours to deliver me. This is not a source of confusion or a surprise for people who know me. I knew how much I loved my wife when I wanted to be on time for our first few dates. Otherwise, I have a constitutional need to be late for everything. I'm late for work often, late for meetings, even late for doctor appointments - for lots of things. It's an inconsiderate way of being, and what precious time I earn from not being on time is not effectively used at all. 

It's a failure of character. Maybe from the very start I was reluctant to come into this ridiculous world. It was early 1969. So many things had transpired in the country since my parents first realized they were having a baby. I have always believed in some way that I was a consolation child, conceived a week after Robert Kennedy was murdered. And if you believe that the child you're carrying can sense the melodies and intonation of Bach, then the imagination can gather a sense of how my world might have been formed amid the chaos and mayhem of 1968.

My mother was an opponent of the war in Vietnam. She loved Dr. King and RFK. It had been a bad first six months of the year. The latter half spent carrying me weren't much better. She watched the Chicago riots around the Democratic Convention, watched Nixon get nominated with equal horror, and felt defeated when he got elected. I wasn't surprised when she told me that she and Dad went to see Bullitt the night Nixon won as a sort of consolation. It's one of my favorite movies.

But then the football season of 1968 coincided with the national election, and by the first week of November, the Jets were headed toward beating the Houston Oilers at home 26-7, a dramatic win for the club as they began a 5-1 run for the rest of the season. This too must have had an impact on my formation, isolated though I was from human contact, but cognizant all the same of voices raised, cheering about something. The day I was born, the New York Jets had been the champions of professional football for a month and a half. 

Nineteen sixty-eight is a magical year for Jets fans. It's our year, the year of both our only championships – the AFL Title and the Super Bowl. If you love the Jets, then you’ve probably seen so many photographs of the action of Super Bowl III that you can probably identify the quarter in which a photo from the game was taken and, if you’re like me, you can name the play that’s transpiring. Before 2004, the Red Sox had 1918. Before Mark Messier, the New York Rangers had 1940. The Cubs, apparently, will always have 1908. England has 1966. The New York Jets haven’t won a championship since 1968. One of the most tumultuous years in American history is therefore also our most important.

There are worse cases, I suppose. The Lions have never won a Super Bowl, or anything since their league championships in the 50’s. It's since 1964 for Cleveland. There are exactly two NFL teams that have never won a conference or Super Bowl championship – the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans – franchises much younger than the Jets. The Chargers went once to the Super Bowl in 1995, as did the Falcons in 1999, the Oilers/Titans in 2000, and the Seahawks went in 2006. They all lost. The Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings have never won a Super Bowl, despite multiple appearances.

The Kansas City Chiefs have never repeated as Super Bowl champions in almost the same span as the Jets - nor has Miami, though not for a lack of trying throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Even the Cardinals have won a recent conference championship. Teams like the Saints, recent winners for the first time, may very likely win another one again before the Jets will. Winning replicates itself over and over for franchises that see themselves as winners. Referred to as clowns, with only four divisional titles in our history, we Jets fans - further and further away from 1968 - struggle to imagine ourselves in this same way. 

It’s not easy. This is a team whose chant is the simple four-letter spelling of its own name - one that was led by a Long Island fireman who himself was eventually booed out of the stadium by his fellow fans. Only a base mired in its own bellicose self-hatred could do something like that. We are a people with a serious image problem. 

During the recorded broadcast of Super Bowl III – which I’ve watched countless times –somewhere midway through the third quarter, Curt Gowdy says that the Jets team he is watching is young enough to be dominant in the NFL for years to come. It’s hard to tell how true that was at the time, but it was very soon most certainly not to be. Matt Snell’s knee would not last much longer past the big game of his life. Namath would go injured in 1971 and ‘73. The offensive line would not be able to support him forever as he continued to lose mobility. Wide receiver George Sauer would leave at the end of 1970. Verlon Biggs would leave for Washington. Johnny Sample would retire. Randy Beverly would go off to New England. The team would change. It would get worse and then get worse some more.

Yet, ironically, the New York Jets - a franchise that remains a pinata for mockery even while the Giants remain winless - are historically pinned to a year of historical transformation. It doesn’t matter how many Super Bowls the Giants have won with sturdy, poised quarterbacks like Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler or Eli Manning. The quarterback whose image is always the last in Super Bowl retrospectives is the MVP of Super Bowl III, #12, with his index finger aloft, setting the new standard for how athletes - and everyone, come to think of it - declared themselves a winner. Somehow, Jets fans like Bernie from Hackensack, Armando from North Bergen, and me - people portrayed by the media as knuckle-dragging subhumans - are all attached to this extraordinary legacy, and it dogs us as much as it keeps us buoyant.

By the time I went to my first Jets game, I carried a perennial sense that Something Had Happened just before I was born, and I had missed it. Everything now seemed to be in the wake of a record amount of change. Nobody wore hats the way they had only years before. Men didn't wear suits on the weekends. Boys and girls were a little hard to tell apart. I see now that what followed was merely a part of that enormous Something, too, the aftermath of a massive transformation never to be repeated. I had no choice but to be handed this peculiarly altered world, without any hope of reward for my faith.

Everything since 1968 has been about trying to make sense of it all while waiting for it to happen again, like a Second Coming always in vain. We have only one year. Perhaps, as they all watch hopefully in their middle age, from the vantage of their PSL’s at the Meadowlands or on NFL Network or (like me) online - Colleen from Hempstead, Diego of Haverstraw, and Rick from Bayonne are all feeling the same way, too.

1 comment:

Slimbo said...

I love that one can truly cope with a Nixon re-election by going to see Bullit...which is an effin masterpiece...