This afternoon will mark the 21st time in my sentient life that I will be delightfully surprised by a particular televised event. It will be the 21st time since I started paying attention to their intermittently competent antics that the New York Football Giants will be playing a playoff game.
When I was growing up, I never thought I’d see even one. I was happy when there was simply the hint of contention in the air, a dab of a dream that the Giants and not the Cowboys or the Redskins or the Eagles (or the Cardinals a couple of times, for cryin’ out loud) would represent the National Football Conference’s Eastern Division in the National Football League’s postseason tournament. If I could get a 5-3 going in early November, I found that highly satisfying. If such a year ended smashed to 6-10 pieces, well, it was nice to remember when they were 5-3.
I was born with the promise of something better. In fact, I’m fairly confident that the lead sports story in all the New York papers on the very day I trotted onto the gridiron we call Earth was the Giants’ participation in the NFL championship game the day before. Indeed, on December 30, 1962 (or Greg Minus One as I like to think of it), the Giants lost the league title to the Green Bay Packers, 16-7. It was part of a natal-era trend, the Giants playing for and losing it all. The Giants won the NFL East in 1961 and would do so again in 1963, getting beaten by the Packers and Bears, respectively, after doing so…not that I could possibly remember the former or reasonably recall the latter.
My mild absorption into the New York Football Giants (I love that they’re still called that, as if somebody hasn’t found out there’s nothing but an ugly housing project hard by Coogan’s Bluff) began in the fall of 1969, presumably after I settled down from that year’s World Series and on a Sunday when the Knickerbockers were off. My dad liked the Giants, so I liked the Giants. There was nothing to like, mind you. The Giants had to streak to get to 6-8 in the old Century Division. Right then and there I learned to have no pretensions to success where my favorite football team was concerned.
They didn’t disappoint in that sense. The Giants gave me nothing through the decade of the 1970s. Absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, I gave them my habitual viewership — if there was no league-mandated TV blackout — and earspace (do today’s 6-year-olds rabidly listen to sports on the radio and accept it to be normal behavior as I did?). I was rewarded with an endless string of 4-10/5-9 seasons that changed only when the NFL tossed an extra couple of loss possibilities on the pile with a 16-game schedule. Then it was 6-10 or 4-12.
It’s not that I was in the Giants’ camp on par with the way I was a Mets fan. Nothing of the sort. Sports required a local allegiance (a pox on New York-area children who choose favorite teams from other places) in each of its sectors, so it was kind of a default thing. I knew nobody else who rooted for the Giants besides my dad — he wasn’t that rabid on the subject — and I wasn’t going to start watching football with anybody but him. I had no Giant clothing or any desire to wear any. There was no 1969 in the Mets’ sense or 1969-70 in the Knicks’ sense in which to invest a little residual faith. I knew they had been good about the time I was born, but that may as well have been in the 1800s. If it didn’t happen on my watch, it didn’t happen.
To be fair, I didn’t take it all that seriously. It was only football. I loved baseball. By the late ’70s, I liked football a lot more than I had earlier in the decade — it left basketball in the dust for second place in personal sports affection — but the Giants weren’t cooperating with my ramped-up interest. There’d be a hint that something good was about to happen, but it was usually fumbled away (rather than sensibly fallen on and protected) in the last minute of play.
All I wanted was one lousy playoff appearance. The kids in Dallas and Miami and Oakland and Minnesota and Pittsburgh and Los Angeles seemed to have had them provided in a trust fund. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to see my favorite football team play once there were only a couple of games on any given Sunday. Lord knows I couldn’t fathom winning one of those games and I surely never would have taken it for granted as I assume the Cowboy and Viking and Steeler and Raider fans must have.
Even the perennial crappy teams were getting in on the action. The Eagles started being good. The Oilers. The Broncos. The Patriots. Almost everybody but the Giants was getting a shot.
Almost. There was another football team that was equally inept. Naturally I started rooting for it, too.
This is where the baseball me becomes completely unfamiliar to you. This is where I grow so desperate for New York to get in on some of that sweet playoff action that I divide my loyalties. Or increase their parameters.
In 1978, I started rooting for the Jets. Not instead of the Giants, but in addition to them. I saw nothing strange or hypocritical about any of this. If anything, at 15, I was finally doing what I think I was supposed to be doing. Mets…Jets…Shea…it’s a natural.
I never made the connection even as I recognized it. I think the roundabout reason I didn’t go green upon my introduction to football was because it was exactly the one and only time there was a Jets’ bandwagon worth jumping on. I’d already decided the Giants were my team. The Jets, in their post-Super Bowl glory — I remember them being defending champs but have no recollection of them getting there — were the ones getting most of the attention circa 1969. I actually knew kids who rooted for the Jets. Namath, even on gimpy knees, was more glamorous than all the Giants combined. But the Giants were my team. In an early example of the principles that would guide me well into middle age, I found myself resenting the Jets for the very act of being somebody else’s choice, leaving my choice as the de facto odd team out. I didn’t like being ignored, whether accidentally or deservedly.
But I didn’t hate the Jets. What would’ve been the point? To my mind, they were in another league. It took me a couple of years to sort out that the AFL was now the AFC and in the NFL. As long as they weren’t bothering the Giants very often, I wished them well. In fourth grade, there was the added motivation of one of the Jets’ player’s kids (the kicker’s daughter) being in my class. “Hey, I’m glad the Dolphins kicked your dad’s team’s ass yesterday while Norm Snead teased a little more false hope from me!” wasn’t my style.
Sheer desperation for one lousy playoff game including one lousy New York football team drove me to give one half of my football self over to the Jets in ’78. They won their first game and did so in snazzy new green uniforms with their name spelled out on their green helmets in a way that made JETS look really cool, like the SST. That’s about all it took for me to think that maybe they could be my ticket to ride. (Though we never discussed it, that was also the season when my father quietly began shifting to the Jets; I doubt he gave it as much as a paragraph of thought.) As for their playing in Shea, I grudgingly forgave them that. Forgave? Not embraced? What can I tell ya? As a preteen I was a junior Pete Flynn, continually bristling (albeit without the brogue) that my precious baseball surface was being torn up by large men in cleats. Baseball, gentlemen.
In whatever color they came and wherever they deigned to call home, I decided it was fun to have this other New York team to pull for, quantifiable evidence aside. No matter how well they were going, the Jets always seemed one series of downs from toppling like a tenuous banana republic tinhorn dictator whose army wasn’t nearly the force he thought it was during the walkthrough. That sense of danger made the Jets more entertaining than the win some/lose some/muddle through Giants. I didn’t like my new team more than my old team. I just liked them differently.
The ’78 Jets had a few moments — Matt Robinson is a name that echoes amid the cobwebs — but they managed to let me down with the same thunderous thud the Giants delivered weekly. Surely you’re familiar with the Joe Pisarcik episode at the Meadowlands. On that very afternoon at virtually the same moment (both locals were playing home games at 1 o’clock, unthinkable now), Pat Leahy, the kicker who replaced my erstwhile classmate’s father, shanked a 19-yard field goal that would’ve beaten the Pats. I was stung by both defeats. Ow! OW! Although the Giants had a nine-season head start on being my wet blanket of autumn, the Jets caught up quickly in the doling of disappointment.
Come 1981, I got my wish twice. The Giants made the playoffs. The Jets made the playoffs. In fact, the Jets making the playoffs by beating the Packers ensured the Giants their spot, so it felt very right to cheer on both teams. By then, I was in college in another state and had to taste my first iota of New York football success while sitting in my parents’ condo in Florida.
That was all right because the games were on TV. That’s where I’ve seen every NFL game I’ve ever seen save two (the Giants and the Jets each visited Tampa Stadium once while I was at USF and I took advantage), and that’s fine. I’ve been careful to not have used the phrases “Giants fan” or “Jets fan” here to describe myself. It’s not because I don’t share some of the characteristics common to fans of these teams (for instance, I have a decent stash of Giant and Jet apparel these days), but as an identifier, I realize it’s one thing to follow a team, rejoice when it wins, bum when it loses, stick with it regardless, but it’s another thing entirely to declare yourself a [Blank] Fan.
I thought I could call myself a Giants Fan when they put all the Pisarcik behind them at the dawn of 1987 and reached the Super Bowl. Then I watched the true diehard Giants Fans who were on hand for the NFC championship win at the Meadowlands express how much it meant to them, how long they’d been going to the games, how big a part of their existence the Giants composed. Wow, I thought, that’s not me — I just like them a lot and want them to beat Denver. Listening to Joe Benigno on WFAN when he was hosting early Monday mornings after dismal Sunday afternoons (think of Fireman Ed with more than four letters to his vocabulary) told me I wasn’t that way about the Jets either.
I may sincerely if modestly revel in their triumphs and just as sincerely if modestly suffer in their traumas and occasionally yell at the TV or radio on these teams’ behalves or very occasionally lie awake calculating who will have to lose to whom so one or both of them can win the right to compete in January, but that doesn’t grant me license to refer to myself as an upper-case Giants Fan or Jets Fan. Not the way I’m a Mets Fan. Or METS FAN.
Rooting for the Giants or the Jets is something I do when they’re in season and the Mets are not. During the Giants’ Wild Card round game against the Panthers today, I’ll be a Mets Fan first and foremost. Still, I always find it wonderful to have at least one of the New York football teams playing right about now. If the Giants beat the Carolina Panthers, it will make me happy. If they lose to them, I’ll still be delightfully surprised they had a game at all.