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Monday, July 7, 2014

NY Jets #69- Part 2

Jeff Criswell wore #61 in his first three seasons with the Jets, and then wore #69 for the duration of his career, both with the Jets and the Chiefs. From little Graceland College in Iowa, Criswell was a 6'7" near 300 lb. offensive lineman who played seven of the most unhappy seasons in the franchise's history, 1988-94 - the end of the Walton era, the underachieving Coslet years and the first year of Pete Carroll's professional head coaching life.

That entire period marks the beginning of my life in the adult world. Western Civilization was still existing in a time before everyone starting looking for everything they needed on the Internet. There was nothing to watch on my 13" analog antenna TV. I drank watery beer advertised on television because that's all that the corner stores sold. Football was filled with steroids, mullets and embarrassing sideline hats. It was as if the world had run out of good ideas and was just waiting for a hit of some kind of new street narcotic that would take us away from the dreadful experience of being present with our own thoughts. All the photographs from that period that show up on friends' Facebook pages as "tbt" were taken with cheap little cameras, and the colors of the shots look faded, blurred and drab, as if Kodak knew the experiences we were having, and the pictures we were taking of them, would go lost in some box somewhere.

Jeff Criswell sits in the offensive line next to Dave Cadigan in my memory; Cadigan was a less effective, and a self-professed steroid user. The two were apparently called the "Penalty Pals," not because of steroids but because they were heavily penalized by officials during the 1992 season. It wasn't actually supposed be that bad a year for the team. There were signs of optimism. We drafted Johnny Mitchell out of Nebraska, which seemed like a good idea at the time; the previous season we drafted Browning Nagle. A person of generous spirit would suggest that neither of those picks was, in premise, bad - even if that's exactly how they turned out. But then we lost Al Toon and Dennis Byrd for good, forever, kaput. The year was a complete bust in so many ways.

Criswell and Cadigan had a short-lived radio show on WFAN in 1992 called In the Trenches, which was supposed to capture the nature of the offensive lineman's life. I always think of offensive linemen as the least verbose kinds of athletes, as resolutely stoic - frowning at the antics of the receivers, linebackers and secondary. The entire story of the show seems a little vague; perhaps they were taken off the air because, as Criswell says, "Dave and I tried to express some factual things that we knew were true."

On the surface, that sentence is a confusing redundancy that suggests some factual statements are not in fact true. But consider that he might have been talking about why he felt the team was still good even if it went 4-12 that year, or maybe he and Cadigan tried to explain away the high number of penalties they were given. In each case, perhaps the statistical facts and numbers do speak for themselves, but maybe each conceals some other truth lurking beneath the surface. In the 1993 link above, Criswell points out that he gave up only two sacks the season before, one of which was to Bruce Smith, which in 1992 was sort of like giving up a two-pointer to Michael Jordan. So, he wonders, where's the respect?

I've always wondered the degree to which a player gets labeled as a cheat for initially true reasons, yet then gets almost routinely penalized by officials without an extra thought - even profiled - the way an unimaginative teacher decides to label a particular student as "bad" because, well, somebody has to be the kid you complain about in the teacher's lounge. Clearly, in their effort to elaborate on the greater truths existing amid the facts and statistics, Criswell and Cadigan must have tried to defend themselves on the air. It didn't work. Criswell was benched by the end of the season. The WFAN show was abruptly canned.

He needs a lot less defending than Cadigan; Criswell was a reasonably good lineman on a badly injured, badly coached team. He and Cadigan resented Coslet, but it was Criswell who started almost all of his games with the Jets and then finished the last two seasons of his NFL career as a regular starter. Still, no matter what they may have tried to explain on the air as being true in the face of facts, or vice versa, their audience was still the tri-state area, a place (unfairly) derided by the rest of the country for its situational sense of moral right and wrong, yet one nevertheless unsparing its condemnation of athletes who fail to meet high expectations. It's a region for which schadenfreude is the local delicacy. As Criswell himself suggests says in the August 1993 link above (a few months after he had skipped minicamp for the way Coslet treated him the year before) had the Jets done better in 1992, then maybe the radio show would have done better, too. Both enterprises were doomed to fail, of course. (How could they not? And why would you listen to a show hosted by offensive linemen?)

Criswell is quoted by Timothy Smith above as saying, "They got taken from the show that we did to the next show with Mike and the Mad Dog. And they just tore us apart." Obviously something is missing from that statement, so I'm not sure what he means. It's not even good grammar. Who's "They?" Was Criswell saying that Mike and Mad Dog tore apart the Penalty Pals on the air? It certainly seems conceivable that at least one of the reigning lords of New Yawk bombast would enjoy the Pals' failure, as fans so often do when highly paid athletes try to explain their sense of the truth and so unselfconsciously fail. It's a sport in and of itself.

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The Jets' all-time database lists Steve Hammond as having worn #69 at linebacker in 1988, and the NFL's Database concurs that he was available for two games that year and did nothing else in his NFL career. At first I thought that maybe the NFL was wrong (wrong??) and that maybe his statistics indicate he played the two games of the strike season the year before. However, the Pro Football Database agrees that it was 1988, though it suggests that Hammond instead wore #96. In the larger sense, in a career spanning a mere fraction of a forgotten and barely successful team season, the truth of uniform number doesn't matter, except for our purposes.

Still, it's worth noting that Hammond, who probably graduated from Wake Forest and went undrafted in 1982, was 28 years old when he played his rookie season in the NFL for two games in 1988. So Steve Hammond's story is more interesting than that of the average washout in the league, and yet, like his uniform number, its whole truth gets lost. Consider that if Hammond gone on to play more a few more games than he did - or even better, a few more seasons - then his story would be deemed as extraordinary, and not just mildly quizzical to someone like me who apparently has nothing better to do. Much like our own struggles toward finding relevance in this world, his long odyssey toward the NFL must remain his property, mysterious and unknown.

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