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Sunday, December 29, 2013

NY Jets #68 - Part 5

Kevin Mawae #68
There are players that you never really let go of, and considering the number of great ones who've been let go by the Jets, the dropping of Kevin Mawae #68 in favor of Nick Mangold has always seemed like the kind of bargain football demands of its fans. Mawae was the victim of a sport that fashions a player into a machine's specific part that can be easily replaced.

You are not versatile in football; you are the position you play, and aside from football's era of the titans and giants (mythologically speaking) when men played 60 minutes, the only player in the modern era I can think of who was radically changed from one position to another was Marlin Briscoe, and I wonder if it was because of his race. Baseball engenders versatility in the great ones who are still wanted on the team. When Jim Rice was put in left field, Carl Yazstremski was put at first base. In football, there are no second acts. Kevin Mawae was released after going to the Pro Bowl six times with the Jets, perhaps with the idea that he was going out to pasture. Instead he would go the Pro Bowl three more times with the Tennessee Titans.

I have a fellow fan who only keeps a Mawae jersey in his closet and no one else's. My friend Nate has never lost the image of Mawae hiking for Testaverde and Pennington at the end of the last century and at the start of this one. Since Nate's a little younger than I, those are his Jets, the ones that sealed his ferocious fandom. For me, it's the Jets of the early 80's which took my childhood loyalty and shaped into it a volatile love affair that will last a lifetime.

Nate comes by his love honestly. By right, 1999 - Mawae's second season with us - was absolutely a Super Bowl season in the making, and just as I was once filled with flimsy dreams that were ruined by AJ Duhe and Dade County, Nate remembers how opening day 1999 crushed those dreams entirely. Vinny's front line was formidable (it allowed him the touchdown that never was against Seattle at home in 1998), but it couldn't save his Achilles' tendon. (Being a Jets fan is knowing that both moments were defined by a bad decision over field conditions. Miami neglected to put the tarp down before the Mud Bowl; the Meadowlands had a new turf that caught Vinny's foot. It was put down just prior to the opener to replace the grass they used in exhibition.)

The 1999 season was the quintessential one of the Parcells era, with promise, bombast, and terrible disappointment, followed by a quick exit from the Tuna himself when he became bored with the whole thing, as he was wont to be. Everything after 1999 is the current era, with its three coaches - Edwards, Mangini and Ryan (never mind, Al Groh) - bobbing us up and down, in and out of the playoffs, as we kept waiting for something like Parcells' overpowering team of 1998-99 to return. To me, Kevin Mawae is the star of that team, opening up the way for Curtis Martin.

"It's Meh-why," Nate reminds me. "Not Ma-way. You're embarrassing yourself."

Nate's in his early thirties, shortish, nattily dressed to teach science each day. But he is among the surprising number of Jets fans at the school outside Philly where I teach. He's prematurely gray at the temples and in his goatee.

"Can you spell Augustyniak?" I ask him in the school cafeteria. We have lunch duty that day. It's not unlike sitting as a teenager back in my old high school in New York, as we needle one another about sports. My old high school friend Doughy was a Giants fan, and we used to have borderline hostile conversations in the cafeteria that shifted back to a kind of neutrality when one of us needed the other for the Math homework.

"Auga-what? Who's that?"

"Never mind," I say. "Meh-why."

Kevin Mawae was also the NFLPA Leader during the 2010 Lockout. An article from USA Today talks about his role in the process and how he felt in some ways that the end of his career, one way or another, was hastened by it. He speaks about the players he has met over the years who suffered irreparable damage playing the game. To Sports Illustrated last summer he was adamant about something I know bothered me as well about the NFL's settlement with veteran players. Although the $765 million deal allowed suffering players to receive compensation, Mawae said it also drains future bargaining power for current players. He says, "the rest of us have lost the ability to take the bully behind the shed."

I love that metaphor. The league doesn't do anything without calculating how it can win the battle in the long run. Like any corporate entity, it knows what it can do to its workers, and the money that its players are given is always the devil's argument for the league to use and dispose of its workers any way it wants to. Did this deal make future bargaining with the league more difficult? After all, what players need is compensation beyond a pension, but as the years roll on, and further compensation is needed for the current players and recent retirees, it's never going to come from the league without a fight. The more the league relents and gives, the more it will find justification to fight to give nothing later on. We already gave you guys money. It's a tricky endgame.

I still miss Kevin Mawae. It's hard to replace someone who works like the heart of a team. To Nate he is an emblem of a time when his team made him the most excited, and I suspect it's because he represented what was best about them back then. For me, he is the guy who wants to take the bully behind the shed. Everybody needs somebody like that in their lives. He is an Infinite Jet - so much so that I hope he will soon have a place in the Ring of Honor, though I would have preferred that he go into the Hall someday in our uniform.


***
Schmitt, Johnson, Grantham, Namath, Talamini and Stromberg in 2008
In the 2008 photograph above, we see Mike Stromberg #68 who was on the Jets' roster during their championship season of 1968. Behind him, I see the omnipresent sunglasses of Joe Namath; there's Curly Johnson and John Schmitt, both looking well. Number 60 is Larry Grantham, a true legend, part of the Ring of Honor. His expression is cartoonishly grim and resolute. He is a man who seems to dwell on the basic truth that this is probably the only trophy his longtime team will ever hoist. As a result, with the knowledge that the only Infinites who will ever enjoy this privilege are the ones who are beginning the last acts of their lives, he is understandably somber on what is obviously the occasion of the team's 40th anniversary of Super Bowl III.

Of course that's not what he's really thinking. The truth is that's what I'm thinking. Larry Grantham may have been not feeling well that day in 2008 as he has struggled with his health in the last few years. He's one of those guys who's second acts in life make him a hero. As for Mike Stromberg, he may have traveled up to the Meadowlands that weekend with Earl Christy, who evidently lives in the Tampa area as well; Christy is the emcee for a Tampa-area bar that specializes in catering to transplanted Jets fans each Sunday of the season. Ladies and gentleman, give a warm Jets welcome to Super Bowl III veteran, Mike Stromberg.

***

Rich Cimini ranks David Ware #68 as one of the worst picks in the draft that the Jets ever have made. That's a weighty claim, as we know. The single fact that Ware never even played in a game for the Jets after being drafted in the fourth round in 1993 makes him a good candidate, though. The other might be what I discovered about Ware as he was trying to return for the '94 season. Apparently, he seemed unhappy with the idea of even playing pro football.

By the end of an article from August 1994 in the Times, Gerald Eskanazi suggests that Ware ultimately made up his mind to return to play (or sit on the bench), though we know he didn't even make it through camp, whether because he was cut or he just quit. The intriguing thing is that Ware was also considering going into teaching instead of returning to camp at Hofstra, and though he may have been momentarily talked out of it, he may have taken the path and joined us in the profession, as many former players do. Pete Carroll, who was beginning his career as a head coach for the Jets that summer, apparently had a conversation with Ware that at first convinced him that Ware wanted to stay. Ware's confusion over what to do was, according to Carroll, one of those situations "where people get their priorities out of order." Or, perhaps, in order, depending on how you look at it.

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