By Jason Keidel
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My father migrated to New York in 1964, his first job at the World’s Fair in Queens. He came from the appalling poverty of coal-mining country in Western Pennsylvania, a few fly balls from the West Virginia border.
He raised me on the black-and-blue tales of his childhood and his black-and-gold view of sports. By the time I was ten my beloved Steelers fitted four Super Bowl rings on their fingers, my moppy hair flopping as I skittered through classrooms waving a Terrible Towel.
But there was a pull from Flushing, the site of the fair and a fair team from Shea Stadium. Any native New Yorker over 35 is imbued with the legend of Joe Namath. Beyond his bravado, my dad said, Namath was a perfect quarterback who threw a flawless football.
There’s one clip I recall of Namath tossing a bomb to Don Maynard. I don’t recall the date or the opponent; it was just one in a sublime montage of memories – Namath encircled by ravenous linemen, ankle-deep in dust from Shea’s infield…out of the chaos he launches a 60-yard pass with the tight spiral of a tennis ball, landing softly between Maynard’s numbers.
Namath is the rare crossover star who was bigger than football by dint of his persona. But too many poseurs have tried to replicate Namath’s rebellious bent only to find that we only embrace the sinners once they become winners. Everything else is just talk.
I was born the year the Jets and Mets pulled off the improbable exacta. Memories are valuable, but Jets fans are sick of seeing their only championship framed by black-and-white film and by the baritone of John Facenda.
So along comes Rex Ryan, with all the bluster of our snowy winter: the coach, provocateur, and lead vocalist for the Jets. Ryan is deeply bonded to that ‘69 team, not only as current coach of the Jets, but also as son of an assistant coach under Weeb Ewbank.
Ryan is not Namath, but there’s a sincerity to his hubris that makes him the perfect heir to Broadway Joe. The Tao of Rex – he doesn’t seem to know any other way. New Yorkers have a nose for BS artists, and Ryan passes the smell test. Simply, he’s a fool, but he’s our fool.
The Jets have a precious chance to dance down Canyon of Heroes, to make Manhattan their personal party of sporting anarchy. New York would lose its mind, make another blizzard filled with confetti for the team with verve and the nerve to make good on the coach’s bombast.
Ryan is precisely what New Yorkers want in winners. But win he must. It’s no coincidence that two of the most cherished teams in our history (’86 Mets and Namath’s Jets) were the two loudest teams.
Tom Jackson said that Namath wasn’t necessarily the best player ever, but he won the most important game ever. And no matter his crumbling knees or drunken pleas to Suzy Kolber, Namath is a beloved New Yorker for life. It is the prerogative of winning the big game in the best city.
The Jets have a formidable foe on Sunday in the Patriots, the closest thing to a juggernaut in the NFL. But, in a sense, the opponent is incidental. This is about the Jets rewarding a writhing fan base that somehow stayed loyal through four decades of ignominy.
My dad took me to Shea stadium on December 10, 1983, where the Jets lost, 34-7, to our beloved Steelers. It was a farewell of several sorts. It was the Jets’ last game at Shea, the last game for Terry Bradshaw and, two days before my 14th birthday, the end of my childhood.
Should my Steelers lose to the Ravens (a most unpleasant proposition), I want the Jets to win it all. 1969 was a good year, but some of us don’t remember it too well. A few million sons have been born in New York City since. The Jets can give us another reason to chat sports with our dads, for us to feel the way they did in the summer of ’69.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com