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Friday, July 11, 2014

NY Jets #69 - Part 3

I just finished reading David Peace's Red or Dead, about Liverpool's legendary manager during the 60's and 70's, Bill Shankly. If you can get past the style of its narration, then it's worth reading as an epic, with its relish for naming names and numbers and statistics, its love of ritual and routine, and because its protagonist is an epic hero.

"Shanks," as he was called, is depicted as a struggler in his relentless dedication to a singular purpose. He is, perhaps, the only real example of an athlete or coach whose main motivation was to satisfy the fan, the supporter, most specifically the ones cheering in the Kop, the "Spion Kop," the stands behind the goal, so named (also in different stadiums throughout Britain) for its resemblance in angle to a hill lost in the Boer War. In the novel Shankly prefers a modest salary but is willing to force management's hand to pay out for the best players from around the country. Just to bring championships to the fans he loved so much.

One of my favorite moments in the novel comes when Shankly advises Ian St. John, his most valued and loyal player in the 1960's, that he must begin to think about retirement. The "Saint," as he's called, was Scottish like Shankly, and the two have a wonderful showdown about the indignity of time's passage. Shankly suggests to the aging St. John that he should consider an apprenticeship in managing. The Saint agrees, but adds that he already knew Shankly was trying to phase him out during the previous holidays, when club's assistant secretary forced him to take a smaller Christmas turkey, the ones meant for the reserves, rather than the big ones set aside for starters:

"After I had scored one hundred and seventeen goals for Liverpool Football Club. That was when I knew. When your bloody lap dog gave me a tiny fucking budgie for my Christmas turkey. That's when I knew I was finished with this club. But still I played for you on Saturday. And I still scored for you on Saturday. Didn't I, Boss? For you. For you, Boss."

If you try reading it aloud in a Scottish burr, it's even better. Shankly is always quick to correct his players that they do not play for him, but for the Kop. But it never works. His players love him and will do anything for him. Next to their salary, they care more about him than they do the fans. His players are always surprised when their time has come, and they can't believe someone they love so much would end it all for them. But the game must end, as all games do, and the athlete's time on the field is always briefer than he thought it would be. 

"It comes to us all," Shankly says in response to the Saint. "It comes to us all, son."

***

A touchdown, no? 
Jason Fabini #69 is depicted here in a very important moment in the history of professional football. It's 1998, and he has just helped Vinny Testaverde across the line in a last second, fourth down goal-line touchdown to beat Seattle at home, at the Meadowlands, 32-31.

Fabini was a part of the best Jets offensive line since the unsung heroes of Super Bowl III - Hill, Herman, Schmitt, Rasmussen and Talamini. Along with Kevin Mawae, Jumbo Elliott, Todd Burger, and Matt O'Dwyer, Fabini was on a front line that allowed Testaverde to be sacked only 19 times (Steve Young was sacked 48 times!) and gave him the space to be the second leading passer in the league. The Jets won their division for the first time since 1969 and were one quarter away from going to the Super Bowl. To me, all of this is as if it were yesterday.

If the local network in Philadelphia didn't show the Jets game on my analog TV, then I was mostly out of luck. There was no way of following the game online in the ways there are today, so I was left to try and pick up Howard David and Dave Jennings on WFAN or WABC. I did that day, and heard both of them broadcast Vinny's touchdown. But then they hemmed and hawed over the replay, wondering whether or not the ball had actually crossed the line. Turns out it didn't, but because there was no official instant replay, the touchdown stood, and the Jets moved to 9-4. Had it been reversed, the Jets might not have ended up with home field advantage in the second week of the playoffs. On the basis of this and several other official miscues that season, challenges were officially made available to coaches the following season. Hence the red flags that you know and love so well.

But Fabini is doing the right thing in the above picture. He's possibly aware that his quarterback didn't make it, but he's signaling touchdown anyway. (During the World Cup, it seems that the squads with the greatest number of flopping players usually had the best chance of winning. Even Bill Shankly is depicted in Red or Dead as ordering his trainer Bob Paisley to paint a bruise on the scrotum of one his players who was being investigated by the FA for punching an opponent. Shankly's player apparently insisted that the guy he punched had been grabbing his balls.)

Shankly's players are depicted as solid blocks of stone, surprised when their Boss benches them, and easily manipulated when he goads them to see things from his point of view. He flatters them when he needs to. The Saint has a rare perceptive eye. Jason Fabini and his elder colleague Jumbo Elliott seem almost as if they speak of Peace's book when the following is quoted from a 2000 article from Gerald Eskanazi, just before the beginning of what would be a tumultuous season:

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Aug. 23— ''Are you trying to say I'm stupid?'' Jason Fabini said to Jumbo Elliott, his former mentor who is now his backup.
''No, it's just that I've got an I.Q. of 140,'' Elliott said today before downing a handful of protein powder. Then, he added, ''And went to the University of Michigan.''
Of course he's saying that Fabini is stupid. It could be argued too that Elliott's own haranguing might have been in defense of his own intelligence. Jumbo had just recently resolved the business surrounding his 1999 arrest for apparently punching a Long Island bar patron and urinating in the women's room sink. To give Fabini a little credit, the intonation of his question might have been, "Are you trying to say I'm stupid?" But Fabini was also arrested that night, along with Matt O'Dwyer - something that Messrs. Talamini, Rasmussen, Herman, Schmitt and Hill probably never experienced.

Jason Fabini is considered a member of the Jets Four-Decade Team. Here he seems to show himself to be a good chef. But here he is implicated, but not accused, in an enormous marijuana ring his brother ran out of one of Fabini's several homes in Indiana, presumably while Jason was out of town. Here is the record of a 2009 appeals case suggesting that now that since he was unable to play any further, he would need to modify his child support. The Internet is the enormous wasteland graveyard of our miserable indignities, especially those that mark our transition from active player to getting the "fucking budgie." But I remember too that when Jason Fabini was one of the blocks of stone opening for Curtis Martin and closing for Vinny Testaverde, he was great indeed. Our memories are more valuable than the Internet.

***

If there is any coach who ever inspired the kind of devotion from his players the way Bill Shankly did, then it would be Bill Parcells. Consider William Roberts #69. Roberts played 14 seasons on the offensive line - all for Parcells - with the Giants, the Patriots, and the Jets (in 1997). Roberts might have seen his arrival with the old boss as being business as usual, but he could not have missed the historical fact that the Jets have always been a place where good and great players come to metaphorically die (Leonard Marshall, Art Monk, Ronnie Lott). If any conversation resembled the one between Shankly and the Saint, it might have taken place in 1997, when Roberts' season and career were coming to a premature end. Perhaps he was called into the Great Tuna's office for one last chat. Like the Saint himself, did Roberts see the signs of it all ahead of time, or did it come to him as one great shock? Regardless, it comes for us all.

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