The New York Times Book Review
Gang Green: An Irreverent Look Behind the Scenesby Gerald Eskenazi
Question: What is the only team in the four major pro sports that has existed since the early 1960s and never had a coach leave with a winning career record for the team?
Question: What is the only team in sports/b>/i>/b>/i>
Question: What is the only team dating back to the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that has yet to win a division title?
Question: What is the only team in the four major pro sports that has existed since the early 1960s and never had a coach leave with a winning career record for the team?
Question: What is the only team in sports that plays its home games in a stadium named for another team?
If you bleed green and white, you know the answer to these questions as well as you know the color of Joe Willie Namath's shoes. The New York Jets have a record for futility and self-sabotage that is unmatched in the history of professional sports. And nonetheless, they have been rewarded with a loyal following that has made Jets tickets as hard to come by as Jets winning seasons.
For Jets fans, the bright beacon of promise has always turned into an onrushing train. They reveled in the joy of the Jets' epic victory in Super Bowl III, when their team beat the 18 1/2-point odds to defeat the Baltimore Colts, just as their cocky young quarterback had guaranteed; they then watched as contract squabbles broke up the core of the team, which would reach just one playoff game in the next twelve years. They cheered as their sleek, explosive team roared into the AFC Championship Game in January 1983; the team was held scoreless after overnight rains pelted the uncovered Orange Bowl field, turning the gridiron into a quagmire that favored the defense-oriented Dolphins. They dared to hope when the Jets went on an unprecedented spending spree in 1996, signing a Super Bowl quarterback and adding a host of fleet receivers and experienced linemen; they saw that team go 1-15, as Rich Kotite's Jets career coaching record sank to a jaw-dropping 4-28.
In Gang Green, New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi details the bizarre history of this remarkable team. From the poor decisions (drafting Ken O'Brien instead of Dan Marino) and bad luck (Joe Namath's knees, Dennis Byrd's near-tragic neck injury) to the horrendous leadership (see Kotite, above) and outright strangeness (team practices held in an open area alongside the Belt Parkway, leRoy Neiman's presence as team artist-in-residence, the Richard Todd/Matt Robinson quarterback duel that wasn't) that have typified the Jets' mystifying approach to football, Gang Green captures the history of this most unusual franchise in a funny, rollicking, nostalgic tale. If you can name the Jet who is the only man in NFL history to run more than 90 yards on a play from scrimmage without scoring; if you remember the glory days of the New York Sack Exchange, when practice was often disrupted by the distracting presence of Mark Gastineau's inamorata, Brigitte Nielsen; if you can still hum the fight song coach Lou Holtz made the team sing after victories -- not that there were enough for them to memorize the lyrics; or if you know which Jets coach told which Jets punter that his flatulence traveled farther than the punter's kicks -- then Gang Green is the book for you.
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Chapter Five: Super, Once
In sports, teams are defined by a body of work. Rarely is it merely a single moment that evokes every memory about a club. Think back to, say, the football Giants. Was it only the Bills' Scott Norwood's missed field goal that preserved Super Bowl XXV for them that we lionize? Rather, isn't it all the other fine and great things they had done in championship games -- changing sneakers to beat the Bears on a frozen field, or Phil Simms's sharpshooting eye against the Broncos?
And certainly the Yankees had so many championships that Reggie Jackson's three-home-run game isn't the only lingering thought. Nor is Don Larsen's perfect game. The Celtics amassed titles with Bill Russell clambering up the boards and with Larry Bird slinging in an over-the-shoulder bolo. Certainly, the Canadians have had their share, from Rocket Richard backhanding in the puck to Ken Dryden making outlandish saves.
The Jets are in that pantheon. And they are housed there despite having only one title, one defining image. Because they have never repeated, there is the constant of failed expectations. Unfair, perhaps. Equally unfair will be the criticism of Tiger Woods when he blows a tournament, especially the Masters. It was unfair for the baseball world to compare Doc Gooden forever after with his first two glorious seasons. But this is the nature of sports.
The Jets achieved such fame, such notoriety, became such a product and symbol of their times, that they also became a frozen icon. They can have life breathed back into them only by another great success. In the meantime, they and their fans have had to live with their moment in the sun, which, to keep the astronomical analogy, was a convergence of the Age of Aquarius and the shattering of the old sports verities.
The Jets' Super Bowl had many aspects to it that gave it a theatrical and historic aura. Except for a few former Colts on the Jets, none of them had ever been in a playoff game. Until two weeks earlier, with a victory over the Raiders, the franchise had never seen the postseason.
The NFL has grandfathered the Super Bowl name, but in reality, the first Super Bowl to be called the Super Bowl was the Jets against the Colts. Before then? The first two affairs, won by the Packers, were called "The World Championship Game." In fact, even the tickets (cost: $12) for the Jets-Colts were printed as "Third World Championship Game." It was too late to print the words "Super Bowl" on them because that name had been adopted only weeks before.
The name "Super Bowl" was laughed at by many because it had such grandiose pretensions. Remember, this was a time when America was girding for Woodstock, getting rid of tail fins on its cars, worried about its worldwide image. But a little Texas girl's drawling description of her high-bouncing Super Ball gave her daddy the inspiration. She was Sharron Hunt, and her father was Lamar Hunt, the powerful football figure who was owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. So Super Bowl it was, leading to Super Sunday.
When the Jets and Colts met on January 12, 1969, at the Orange Bowl, the game did not have the grandiloquent roman numeral III just yet. That was not attached to the Super Bowl until the following year. And when that happened, the first three championship games were transformed magically into Super Bowls I, II, and III.
Imagine what Sonny Werblin could have done at the Super Bowl. But Sonny wasn't a part of the excitement. It was perhaps inevitable that the team's other owners would eventually rebel at Werblin's fame and his 50-yard-line seats. With the team (and Sonny) commanding such a bright spotlight, the others wanted their share of the glory.
Those owners included Leon Hess and Phil Iselin. Hess was one of America's most dynamic businessmen, whose will and political connections (he contributed to everyone running for mayor or governor or senator) had helped him forge an oil empire as head of the Amerada Hess Corporation. He dealt with Middle Eastern potentates and dictators and had one of the great poker faces in American sports or industry. Iselin, a pleasant man who ran a dress business, had sunk some of his money into Monmouth Park, then the Jets. There were also Townsend Martin, who tended to his own personal fortune, and Donald Lillis, a hard-driving, successful stockbroker.
Although the Jets led the league in attendance for four straight seasons under Werblin's presidency, they showed no profit. But they were approaching a bonanza, with the merger just two years away. And early in 1968, the partners gave Sonny a choice -- buy them out, or sell to them. Sonny sold.
Lillis in particular was unhappy with the inordinate amount of public attention that had come to Werblin, who most people viewed as the owner, even though his share was virtually equal to the others. After the $1 million purchase, the owners had invested another $500,000, so their money was flowing out early. And then Werblin had spent even more of their money when he went ahead and made that famous record $427,000 deal with Namath! But Sonny didn't stop there. He paid $325,000 to Carl McAdams, $300,000 to Bill Yearby, $200,000 to John Huarte, and $150,000 more to Bob Schweickert. None except Huarte was still with the Jets when the owners made the move.
Those bonuses chewed away at the team's financial success at Shea Stadium, where they sold 51,000 season seats and where their home attendance, counting standing room, averaged 62,434 in a stadium with 60,000 seats.
Typically, Sonny threw himself a bash at Luchow's, the nowdefunct landmark German restaurant, to say good-bye to the press. Most of the people he invited there didn't even realize it was his farewell to football party. He worked the room. He tweaked me good-naturedly when I told him I liked the lox.
"Scotch salmon," he corrected, patting my shoulder.
That move to oust Werblin was Part I of the big change for the Jets -- a change that, as this book is being written 30 years later, still influences the team.
The other change? The one not made for a strong man: Lillis's failure to swing Vince Lombardi back to New York from Green Bay. Just a few months before Werblin's ouster, Lombardi stepped down as coach of the Packers in the wake of his second straight Super Bowl triumph.
Lillis often ran into Lombardi at a small Italian restaurant on Third Avenue and had spoken with him several times about coming to the Jets, either as coach or general manager. But Lombardi, who was to stay in Green Bay another year and then leave for a piece of the Redskins, opted not to return to New York. Who knows what might have happened? Maybe not Lou Holtz.
A decade later, the Jets again failed to get another prodigal son, renegade Al Davis of the Raiders, who would consider returning only if they offered a piece of the team. This the Jets, by then dominated by Hess, were not about to do.
In an ironic footnote to the Lombardi search, Lillis explained why he was contacting the gruff but successful coach.
"We want to have a winning team. We haven't got that yet. And we want to make some money," he emphasized.
Lillis didn't live to see the winning team. And although it didn't win much after the Super Bowl, it did make money. It just couldn't combine the two often enough.
We will never know what would have happened to the Jets in the years since if Lillis had survived. He died within two months of taking over, and the benign Phil Iselin replaced him.
Phil was a pleasant man who, if he had a beard, could have played Santa Claus at Christmas parties. In fact, he presided over one of the great parties sportswriters used to enjoy, an annual summertime bash at Monmouth Park for football and horseracing writers. When older sportswriters talk of how the relationship between themselves and the team has changed, they think of days like that of Iselin's party. (Of course, latter-day club officials bemoan that lost contact too, which led to kinder, gentler reporting. And today's younger writers would be appalled at the often symbiotic relationship that existed then.)
We'd start the day at "21," for breakfast. Then the private buses would roll out for the trip to New Jersey. Waiters on the buses wore white tuxedo jackets and served Bloody Marys and champagne. At the track, we were escorted into a garden penthouselike private-box area where we had our own betting windows.
Before the races, Betty Iselin would walk around with a huge basket filled with daily-double tickets. All the writers' spouses (that is to say, the wives) would stick a hand in and pick out a double ticket.
There was lunch, and a day at the races. In the evening, we'd all go to a private club on the beach for dinner and dancing. At these soirees, Namath would often appear. Once Sonny left, Joe's appearances diminished. Sonny, of course, had been the ubiquitous host. He would be quiet only when his wife, Leah Ray, a former band singer, performed.
He didn't talk much about his show-business contacts. But once, as he discussed his famous clients, Frank Litsky's wife, Arlene, asked him, "Sonny, what's Elizabeth Taylor really like?"
"Short," he replied. "Very short."
The press and the public missed Werblin's presence as head of the Jets. Lillis, though, seemed to be a strong replacement.
"I think Daddy would have devoted more of his time to the Jets," says Helen Dillon, Lillis's daughter, who inherited his 25 percent share. She became the only woman on the board of directors of an NFL team at the time, a position she enjoyed immensely because it allowed her to come to practices on Wednesday with her children, to fly in the bulkhead front seat of their charter plane, and to act as mother hen to 40 big, wealthy young men. She never pretended to know about the workings of football or even to involve herself with hiring and firing. I suspect that management didn't bother her with the details of what was going on, and she probably didn't want to know, either. She was the last of the owners to sell to Hess, who acquired 100 percent of the team by buying her out in 1984.
"My father was tough," she recalled. "He came from nothing. His father was a conductor on the Lehigh Valley Railroad. It was interesting how all the owners came from such varied backgrounds. Dad owned Bowie race track. He somehow got involved with Donald Grant, you know, the fellow with the Mets, and he hooked him up with the guys at Monmouth and then he invested in a football team. But, really, Leon was a self-made man and I believe Phil was, too. Townie, though, came from money. He was a Phipps. His job was handling his money."
Helen latched on to the Jets with some seriousness after becoming an owner. "All of a sudden, there it was. I had been going to the games, but shortly after my father died I was divorced and it was a great filler for me. The kids and I had something to do every week, two girls and a boy. I loved it. I even started a players' wives' association with Randy Beverly's wife. I remember once going out to practice with Amy, and they called practice off. So Dottie Hampton and I went into the locker room and we cleaned it up." Dottie's husband, Bill, the equipment manager, has been with the Jets since their creation.
That 1968 season without Sonny transformed the Jets into something none of the other owners could have imagined. They paid him about $2 million for his 17 percent share. His tenfold profit never seemed enough, though. Sonny was a man who wanted to have a piece of the spotlight: He didn't necessarily want to be in it, but he wanted to see it. He was to recall years later that his greatest thrill in sports came that moment when his horse, Silent Screen, briefly got the lead in the Kentucky Derby as the field turned for home. This happened a year after the Super Bowl. For that instant, with the track announcer calling out that Silent Screen was in front, Sonny's frustrations ended.
In a sense, that race mirrored what he had with the Jets: He got close to the front, but he got shut out in the homestretch. He was passed by other owners. His horse finished fifth.
This is what Sonny missed that Super Bowl year:
The Kansas City Chiefs were some experts' pick to capture the AFL title, perhaps even good enough to take the Super Bowl. But in the opening game of the 1968 season, the Jets produced a onepoint victory at Kansas City. Typically, the Jets opened on the road, as they did every year until 1978, because Shea Stadium was the Mets' playpen. In this championship season the Jets played their first three games on the road.
The Jets won their opener even though the two key running backs, Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell; the gifted, good-hands receiver, George Sauer; and Johnny Sample, the loudmouthed, big-play defender, were all unsigned as the season opened. It is unthinkable today, and yet the Jets started their championship season without all of them.
Emerson Boozer might have become the Gale Sayers of his day. He was a sixth-round choice out of Maryland State in 1966. He was only five-eleven and barely 200 pounds, but midway through his second season he had already scored a pro-football-high 13 touchdowns. He had a twisting style but he also was able to slide off tacklers.
In Game 8 of his sophomore season, two Kansas City Chiefs sandwiched him, and suddenly he couldn't walk. Dr. Nicholas, who operated on Boozer's right knee, said the ligament and cartilage damage was the worst he had ever seen.
Boozer returned in 1968 but his sophomore-season touchdown splurge was merely a memory. Still, he picked up five scores and ran for 441 yards. He had also learned how to become a blocker for Snell. The marvelous slithery skills Boozer had exhibited as a runner were never to be seen again, but instead he became the straight-ahead bruising blocker every team covets.
Matt Snell was the Mr. Inside to Boozer's outside attack. Snell was the first rookie to be selected in Ewbank's regime and the first to be romanced by Werblin's dollars. Snell was the first player the Jets chose in 1964 after his career at Ohio State; the Giants drafted him too, but there were rumors that that was simply to force the Jets to pay him more money. The Giants hoped the Jets would simply run out of cash and go away.
At Ohio State, Snell had been a fullback, a linebacker, and a defensive end at 220 pounds. Ewbank decided on fullback for him, and Snell responded with a rookie season that included 948 rushing yards and 393 more receiving. He was the AFL's rookie of the year.
But like Boozer, he was vulnerable. After three straight seasons finishing among the league's top 10 in both rushing and pass-receiving, he was injured in the 1967 opener at Buffalo. He twisted his knee while running (and without having been hit), and he needed surgery to repair cartilage damage.
He returned to form in 1968 at the age of 27, running for 747 yards. Like Boozer, he became a fearsome blocker. But neither was ever a great runner again.
George Sauer was the team's bookish player. Indeed, he eventually retired young, claiming he wanted to write a book. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses and had long blond hair and a tender manner. His playbook was filled with personal observations.
In his back pocket at one training camp he carried a copy of Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus. Presumably, the man condemned to rolling the stone uphill for eternity taught Sauer that it was better to have precise patterns to escape. That was what he was famous for -- that, and his hands.
It had been a long journey, but George Sauer, Jr., finally became more famous than his dad, a big man who had been an All-America fullback at Nebraska, had played with the Packers, had coached Navy and Baylor, and was a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. By the late '60s, George Sauer, Sr., was the Jets' director of player personnel -- that is, he scouted college players. And one of the best he had acquired was his own son out of Texas.
Johnny Sample was different from the others. He talked a lot, on and off the field. His mouth may have gotten him into trouble in the staid NFL, where he played for the Colts, the Steelers, and the Redskins. Then, he claimed he was "blackballed" by the NFL and became a Jet in 1966 at the age of 29. At six-one and 205 pounds he was bigger than most defensive backs, and he liked to hit big-time, too.
But he enjoyed talking even more. His game, he felt, was based in large measure on getting the other guy's goat. As a second-year player he even baited the great Frank Gifford in the 1959 championship meeting between the Colts and the Giants.
"Hey, Hollywood," Sample shouted at the flanker when they lined up, "You're too pretty to be playing this game!"
"Stop running off at the mouth," Gifford snapped. "You've got a lot to learn, kid."
That's just what Sample wanted to hear. "That's when I knew I had him," he explained years later. "When they get sore and answer you back. They get mad
Meet the Author
Gerald Eskenazi has been writing about sports for The New York Times for the last three decades, and about the New York Jets since 1975. The author of numerous books, including The Lip: A Biography of Leo Durocher, Bill Veeck: A Baseball Legend, and There Were Giants in Those Days, he lives in Roslyn, New York.
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