The first time the New York Jets broke my heart was on a frigid Sunday in Cleveland, December 10, 1978. I was going to be making my high school acting debut five nights later in a production of Heaven Can Wait, as the minor character Inspector Williams, and as close to curtain as we were, the cast was called in for a Sunday rehearsal. Heaven Can Wait could have waited in my estimation, since the Jets game loomed as the most enormous football game played by a New York football team across the entirety of the 1970s.
There was a crush of teams contending for AFC playoff berths, and the Jets, at 8-6, were right there with them. Merely contending for the postseason so late in the NFL schedule was cause for Sunday afternoon fever in 1978. The Jets hadn’t been in the playoffs since December 20, 1969, when they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 13-6 at Shea Stadium and officially relinquished their Super Bowl III crown. For the next nine seasons — right up to kickoff on that December 10 — the Giants and Jets between them were 88-163-1. Neither team ever went anywhere but home.
Though I considered myself a Giants fan first, I had adopted the Jets in full that year because, honestly, I just wanted to see a New York team play an NFL playoff game sometime in my lifetime. The Giants hadn’t been in one since December 29, 1963, two days before my first birthday. I was several months shy of sports consciousness when the Jets won Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969, and had only the dimmest recollection of the AFL season that followed, the final one there’d ever be. Come 1970, the Jets were in the American Football Conference, where — save for an episode of The Brady Bunch and an oft-aired pantyhose commercial — they’d sink into a morass of Giant-like obscurity and futility.
That all seemed to be changing in 1978. The Jets changed their logo, their helmets, their jerseys…they even changed the terms of their lease with the city to allow them to play early-season games at Shea Stadium. Before making noise about moving to the Meadowlands, they were directed off stage, to road productions, until the Mets were done every September or, when we were lucky, October. I never really noticed because I wasn’t much of a Jets fan in the waning years of Joe Namath, when he was more celebrity than quarterback. But I did notice when, on September 3, 1978, I came home from my last trip to the beach for the summer and found my father watching the Jets beating the Dolphins at Shea to open their season. I had never noticed him watching the Jets before, either. He was the reason I was a Giants fan first, but now he was changing, too. He was into the Jets.
We both were. The Jets followed up their victory over the Dolphins with a late win over the Bills. They were 2-0, which may not sound like much, but in New York, during a football season in the 1970s, it was phenomenal. Nobody was ever 2-0 in September around here.
Sure enough, just as our hopes began to rise, the Jets fell to 2-3. But then, with starting quarterback Richard Todd lost to injury, Matt Robinson took his place and began leading the team to improbable victories. When you rooted for New York football teams in the era that winning was confined to distant outposts like Oakland, Dallas and Pittsburgh, all victories seemed improbable. Yet some of these were authentic stunners. Robinson’s signature game came at Mile High Stadium in Denver, where the Jets trailed the AFC champion Broncos 28-7 in the second quarter and stormed back to win 31-28. The winning score came on a 75-yard TD pass from Robinson to Wesley Walker.
That was the exciting part of being a Jets fan in 1978. The unnerving part was discovering in earnest what they were like when they couldn’t cap off exciting with successful. Two weeks after stunning the Broncos, the 6-5 Jets were on the verge of making a big move on a playoff spot. Trailing the Patriots at Shea by two lousy points, Pat Leahy lined up for the winning field goal, a 33-yard attempt with 31 seconds to go.
He didn’t make it. Don’t take my word for it. Take Pat Leahy’s:
“I missed it. I missed it. What can I say? I just missed it. It was close, but not through. I don’t know what to say. I just missed it.”
Close, but not through. That described the Jets with four games to go. They rebounded a week later to beat the Dolphins in Miami, then the Colts at Shea. That led them to 8-6 and the scramble for one of the two Wild Cards available. Cleveland was also scrambling, so this game against the Browns — which the papers were calling the most important the Jets had played since Super Bowl III — was a big deal for all concerned.
I returned home from Heaven Can Wait rehearsal that December afternoon and found my father in an uncommon football frenzy. The Browns had opened a 27-10 lead in the third quarter, but the Jets were fighting back. In a span of less than eight minutes, Robinson threw two touchdown passes, Leahy didn’t miss a field goal and Kevin Long scored on a one-yard run. With 76 ticks remaining on the clock, the Jets led 34-27 and were 1:16 from being 9-6. Dad and I were literally jumping up and down and hugging.
We rarely hugged. We never jumped up and down.
And what did we get in return for our unbridled enthusiasm? Brian Sipe hitting Calvin Hill in the end zone from 18 yards to tie it at 34 with 14 seconds left, and Don Cockroft nailing a 22-yard field goal at 3:07 of overtime to win it for the Browns 37-34. All of a sudden, the Jets’ thrilling season was over. A wild ride resulted in an extraordinarily disappointing finish.
When you adopt the Jets in full, that’s eventually how all your stories end.
As for the New York Giants — no, not those New York Giants — I invite you to follow me following around the greatest New York Giant (and pretty substantial New York Met) of them all at ESPN New York, from Friday in Harlem and Saturday in midtown.