Winning was not as important as proximity, I suppose, though the Giants were not winning all that much either when football took a hold of me as a young boy in the mid 1970's. The Jets were a mediocre team, years removed from their Super Bowl III triumph, but they were my team in my neighborhood.
Shea Stadium was a simple car ride from the house I grew up in, only five exits on the Grand Central Parkway, maybe ten minutes or so without traffic. But we always took the subway to Shea. Grab the E or F train from Jamaica, switch to the No. 7, and rattle along on the elevated a few stops until you could see the horseshoe stadium emerge at the Willets Avenue/Shea Stadium stop.
Those subway rides were as much a part of the experience as the games themselves. As soon as you stepped onto the No. 7, the buzz was electric. Jam-packed with fans wearing Jets jerseys and hats and helmets, everyone excitedly chatted up one another about that day's matchup, or anxiously read the Sunday Daily News to preview the game.
It was like family. For those few stops until arriving at Shea, we were all family, united by the Jets. When we stepped out into the inevitable cold air and headed to our different gates and seat locations, we high-fived each other with a sense of "this is the day" for our team.
And to me, Shea Stadium, a multi-purpose facility, was just perfect for football. The swirling winds wreaking havoc on the kickers; the field level stands that moved on wheels from their location all summer during baseball season to reconfigure for the football field; the low-flying airplanes descending towards LaGuardia Airport next door; and the skin infield at one end which guaranteed that the players would all end up with dirty and muddy uniforms---the way football players should look---were all part of the Shea experience.
And, oh yeah, there was this guy---Joe Willie Namath. That was another pretty darn good reason to be a Jets fan.
Despite the fact that Broadway Joe was several knee operations, and other assorted injuries and broken bones, into his career, Joe Namath was still the coolest thing going in the NFL. And with him, there was always the hope that his magical right arm would overcome all of the team's other shortcomings and produce victory.
He moved in a stiff-legged way, and his shoulders were slumped forward whenever he took the field. But give him the requisite time to set up and throw---true, a rarity in those days---and there was poetry in what he could accomplish. The receivers were no longer Don Maynard and George Sauer, they were replaced by guys like David Knight and Eddie Bell and Rich Caster and Jerome Barkum. But Joe Namath could, at times, make them look like Jets' greats from the not-so-distant past.
I am not ashamed to say I idolized Joe Namath. I scoured the library and searched this used book store by my house for every book I could find about Joe Willie White Shoes. "Inside the Pressure Cooker", "My Son Joe", "I can't Wait Until Tomorrow Because I Get Better Looking Every Day". I still remember all of the titles because I read and re-read these Joe Namath-themed books again and again and again throughout my youth.
There was one coffee-table book that I must have checked out of the library at least 50 times. It was a full-color book that chronicled Joe Namath's game-day, from waking up at his Manhattan apartment, to being chauffeured to Shea, to playing the game, to meeting the media afterwards, and finally heading back to the city.
I studied every page, every photo. That book had everything for me. Joe Namath, The Jets, Shea Stadium.
When I began to play quarterback in school and prepare for a game, the pictures from the book would pop in my head, and I would try and look just like Joe did. I wore No. 12 proudly until I arrived on my high school team and that number was taken. So, I became No. 11, though No. 12 was always No. 1 with me.
So, that's how it all started, and once you are hooked, well, you are hooked. It doesn't matter that Joe Namath eventually moved onto the Rams or that the Jets moved on to Giants Stadium in New Jersey. And the fact that the Jets have not been back to the Super Bowl and crashed miserably in their two AFC Championship Games since does not change things for me.
The Jets are my team.
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