Saturday, September 6, 2014

NY Jets #70 - Part 3

A chance to chat with Gus Frerotte
If all we can say about Lance Legree #70 is found in this single image, then that will suffice. Playing in 2005, in a meaningless late season losing effort, in one of the worst seasons in the club's history, Lance Legree is managing to offer a little trash talk to Gus Frerotte, whom he has presumably just sacked. This may have been the last sack of Legree's career, which ended the following year with a brief return to the Giants.

If he hasn't sacked Frerotte, then he's just getting in a little of the business with the sporadically talented, durable man whose name itself is synonymous with "journeyman quarterback," or more unfairly, "backup." The name "Gus Frerotte" is not one to strike fear into the hearts of any man or woman who loves Jets football, whereas "Dan Marino," or the unmentionable hair model who is the field general for the team that plays in Foxboro could both be said to shorten a Jets fan's life by hours or days at their mere mention.

It's a lesson to us as the Jets' season begins tomorrow, a lesson in how we all have to take whatever we can wherever we can. If all life has allowed you is the opportunity to tackle - or heckle - Gus Frerotte, then take it, and that's what Lance Legree did that mid-December day in Miami, when we had nothing at stake. Frerotte threw for almost 3,000 yards that season, for a team that went 9-7. That was good enough for Legree to ruefully enjoy stopping in its tracks, even for a moment. You don't know how many more opportunities you will have.

Jim McCusker #70 finished his career with the Jets in 1964. He belonged to an entirely different era that included playing for the Cardinals of Chicago in the 1950's and winning $4,000 when he played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship. As a resident of this fair city, I know that the allure of that championship has long waned, much more than the well-worn yet frequently trotted-out mythology surrounding the pelting of Santa Claus in 1968.

Both events happened at Franklin Field, and though famous stadiums of the old game are long gone, Franklin was fully purposed as both Penn's football field and the home of the annual Relays. I love driving by it; its small scale, brick facade, and pennants atop its spires are a living reminder of a time when it really was only a game and that, as McCusker reminds us in his Chautauqua County Hall Fame induction speech video at the Hall of Fame site, the most important thing you earned from an NFL Championship was a ring. The jewelry itself was enough. The red-brick monument of Franklin Field in West Philadelphia narrowly lines the road leading up to Walnut Street and the university. It sits resolutely in this existing world of identical stadiums, enormous screens, wealthy corporate boxes, package seating deals and acres of parking space, a world that poet Robert Lowell - in consideration of surviving relics of his own time - might have said "slides by on grease."

Bert Bell, dominoes, anxious men
The area around here was also the home of Bert Bell, who was the NFL Commissioner until his death a year before the 1960 title game. Bell lived in Narberth, a little Main Line town that is less fussy and more comforting than the towns leading away from Philly along Route 30, with their increasingly wealthy addresses. Bell was famous for designing each year's schedules on a cardboard sheet on his dining room table, setting up one club's schedule after another with his daughter's old dominoes set. Each team's name was put on pieces of paper and then taped to the dominoes, and he would then go about physically arranging the weekly contests in rows of dominoes during the off-season, with a glass of iced tea next to him. Men as powerful as Halas and Mara would petition Bell as he worked, knowing that that a now grown-up daughter's old toys held the key to their fate.

Even more engaging to me is the fact that little Narberth is the site of a crucial moment in the history of sports. In a local restaurant called the Tavern, which still exists today, Lamar Hunt met with Bell just a few months before the Commissioner's sudden death. According to Michael MacCambride in his great America's GameHunt secretly wondered about starting a new football league, but he proposed the idea to Bell of an NFL expansion to Dallas. Over lunch, Bell asserted that the league owners would oppose any move to Dallas and that the idea would go nowhere. The meeting cemented the idea in Hunt's mind of moving forward with what would become the AFL.

When Jim McCusker ended his career, he returned to his hometown of Jamestown, NY and opened a bar called The Pub on its North Main Street. Like the Tavern in Narberth, it is still open, though he has apparently passed ownership onto a nephew. It looks like a neighborhood bar where everyone knows your name.

On the eve of the new season's first weekend, I like these relics of the past - the stadium, the taverns, the dominoes. It must be a function of age, or perhaps just a vague wave of sentimentality passing through me like some vertigo, but it pleases me that all of these things still exist, with all of their cliches and mixed promises. The NFL that continues after Thursday's blowout win by Seattle is an enormous industry powered by towering wealth that tastes a little metallic going downI know that the world is more complicated now and that those complications are a necessary by-product of transformations greater than the game itself that also brought freedom and wealth to people who, at best, could only expect a piece of jewelry as a reward for bashing their brains out. And yet, aside from the fact that I think my team will probably manage a 6-10 season at best - or maybe even one as bad as 2005 - the season as a whole inexplicably leaves me a little cold on a hot day.

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