As luck would have it, the first year my parents let me ride The New York subways on my own (I sneaked onto them to go to games on occasion before that) was 1968. I knew the system cold—at least the part of it that mattered to me. To get to Yankee Stadium I took the IRT number 1 train downtown from 79th street to 59th street and then went downstairs (free transfer) and took the IND D train to 161st and The Grand Concourse. The D was an express so it didn’t take very long.
Getting to Shea Stadium took a little longer. I still started on the number 1 out of 79th street and then made the transfer at Times Square to the number 7, which was a brand new route that had come on line when Shea’s opening in 1964 coincided with The World’s Fair. I knew every stop by heart and loved riding in the front car and watching the train wind its way from stop-to-stop especially after it became elevated in Queens.
You could always get a ticket to the Mets and Yankees—it cost $1.30 to sit upstairs in general admission for a Mets game and $1.50 for a Yankees game—a much better seat since Shea Stadium had an extra deck. You couldn’t buy Giants tickets. Every once in a while a friend of my dad’s who had season tickets would take me but most of my early pro football experiences were at Shea, watching the Jets and Joe Namath,
The Jets should have made the playoffs in 1967 but choked down the stretch and lost the AFL East to the Houston Oilers. I was furious. A year later, even though Namath threw five interceptions in two losses early in the season (I remember smashing a radio when he did it against the Bills) they finally made the playoffs. I saw six of the seven home games (it was a 14 game schedule then) buying $3 standing room tickets and then sneaking into a good seat downstairs. There were always some empty seats, especially once the weather turned cold.
The $3 ticket became a $6 ticket for the AFL Championship game against the Oakland Raiders. In those days the Jets offices were at 57th street and Madison Avenue and two of my buddies and I were there on Monday at lunchtime (we ducked out of school) to get our tickets. Then we watched Namath outduel Daryl Lamonica to get the Jets to the Super Bowl.
I had watched the first two Super Bowls and, being an AFL fan, winced when Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers crushed the Kansas City Chiefs and then the Raiders. I still remember the scores: 35-10 and 33-14. Most people expected a similar result with the Jets taking on the Baltimore Colts, who were anywhere from 17 to 19 points favorites, depending on who you listened to that week.
Here’s what I remember about that Sunday afternoon (in those days The Super Bowl was an afternoon game believe it or not). Earl Morrall threw an interception (on a deflection) on the goal line early in the game to stop a Colts drive. Then the Jets quietly dominated for most of three quarters. Namath was superb, the offensive line kept opening holes for Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer and the defense completely clamped down on Morrall and the Baltimore offense.
The entire time I paced up and down in front of the TV. It had become my habit. Pacing was good for the Jets, sitting was bad. Often I would stop and talk to the TV as if I was Weeb Ewbank coaching the team.
Snell scored on a sweep. Jim Turner kicked three field goals. It was 16-0 in the fourth quarter when two things happened: my dad came back from a concert and Johnny Unitas, who had been hurt most of the season, came into the game for Morrall.
“What’s the score?” said my dad, whose interest in sports never really went past asking for an occasional score.
“We’re up 16-0 I answered.”
“That’s a surprise isn’t it?”
“Um yeah dad, you could say that.”
Curious, he sat down to watch. I paced.
“John will you sit down, you’re making me dizzy with the pacing.”
“Need to pace dad, it’s good luck.”
“They’re winning 16-0, you can sit.”
I sat. About five plays later, Unitas had the Colts in the end zone. It was 16-7.
My dad and I looked at each other. “Go ahead and pace,” he said.
I did. The Jets finished off their historic victory which started a euphoric 16 months for all New York sports fans: The Jets over the Colts; the Miracle Mets over the Orioles and the Knicks over the Lakers in the ‘Willis Reed game,’ in which Walt Frazier had 36 points and a triple-double.
Of course the Jets deal with the devil has been paid off in spades the last 40 years. They lost to the Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs a year later and Namath was never the same again. They have been in a couple of AFC Championship games but never another Super Bowl. They have been through coaches and quarterbacks and owners and have played in a stadium with another team’s name on it in New Jersey. Shea Stadium is gone. Namath failed miserably as a TV announcer after he retired.
But now, here they are again, as unlikely a team to reach a conference championship game as anyone has seen in a long, long time. And there I was on Sunday night pacing again, nervous as a cat after Shonn Greene’s touchdown run made it 17-7. (Actually my cat sat on a chair watching calmly while I paced). You see when you’re a Jets fan a 10 point fourth quarter lead doesn’t mean you have a good chance to win it means you have a good chance of finding a truly miserable way to lose.
But Rex Ryan isn’t a find-a-way-to-lose coach. There was no doubt in mind he’d go for the 4th and 1 on the last series and I was pretty convinced the Jets would pick it up.
What’s really fun about this is I LIKE this team, not just the uniforms. I got to know Rex when I did my book on the Ravens five years ago. Truly a good man with a terrific sense of humor. I still remember sitting in the Ravens draft room on draft day. The assistant coaches were across the hall. When the Ravens turn to draft came up I heard a loud “whooeee,” come from the room where the coaches were.
“Rex,” Brian Billick said. “He’s getting his man.”
Rex knew, looking at the 150 players the Ravens had ranked based on their scouting reports, that the next player on the list when the Ravens turn came up was defensive lineman Dwan Edwards and that Ozzie Newsome never veered away from the list.
When Rex took the Jets job he took Mike Pettine with him as defensive coordinator. Pettine was sort of a coach-in-training, an assistant to all the defensive assistants when I was in Baltimore. He’s certainly come a long way even if he took it kind of hard last year when I asked him how in the world Virginia (his alma mater) could lose to Duke.
“Embarrassing,” he admitted.
“Humiliating is more like it,” I said.
And then there’s Bob Sutton, who was the coach at Army when I wrote, “A Civil War.” There are few better men in sports than Sutton, whose firing by the worst athletic director in history (Rick Greenspan) was the start of Army’s 11 year tailspin, lowlighted by an 0-13 record a few years ago.
My favorite player during my Ravens year? Bart Scott. Back then he was mostly a special teams player, a kid who had come out of nowhere to become an NFL player. I still remember him arguing vehemently with virtually the entire offensive line in the days leading up to the 2004 election about why George W. Bush should NOT be re-elected. At one point he looked at Jonathan Ogden who kept saying, ‘the man (John Kerry) is going to raise my taxes,’ and said, “JO, can you for once stop thinking about your damn money!”
That cracked the room up. Ogden was famously cheap.
Now Bart’s a star. Now Rex is a media rock star in New York. I DID feel bad for Norv Turner because his team making The Super Bowl would have really been a nice payback for him to Danny Snyder, who still hasn’t found the right coach (unless Mike Shanahan is it) to deal with his Napoleonic personality since he fired Norv when he was 7-6 and in playoff contention nine years ago.
But seeing the Jets in the conference championship game with a lot of people I truly like involved is great. I know the Colts will be heavy favorites on Sunday and they should be. But I’ve got a warning for Peyton Manning: I’ll be pacing. That should make him a little bit nervous shouldn’t it?