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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Heaven Must Wait

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.

21 comments to Heaven Must Wait

  • Ray

    This is what you get when you root for a team which is capable of having its heart ripped from it at the last minute by the Cleveland Browns, whose own Drive to Fumble their chances is legendary.

    That’s why I gave up on Gang Green when first I, then they, left your side of the Throgs Neck Bridge. I now root for an NFL team that never disappoints.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by You Gotta Believe!, Melissa and 5w30, Greg Prince. Greg Prince said: The #Jets — because the #Mets aren't disappointing enough. http://wp.me/pKvXu-20E [...]

  • I remember watching that game against Cleveland. Great memory. They don’t make ‘em like Cleveland Stadium any more. Quiche eaters and wine sippers need not apply.

    And congrats on ESPN NY. They’re cornering the market of best and brightest in Mets bloggers.

  • March'62

    The only silver lining in the Jets loss is that I won’t have to do my usual ritual whenever the Jets go to the Super Bowl – be asleep by 7PM (I was only 6 the last time).

  • Joe D.

    Greg,

    Can’t believe you originally rooted for the Giants since the Jets and Giants parallel the Mets and Yankees exactly.

    The Giants played in Yankee Stadium and by the early sixties were already established as one of the aristocrats of the NFL. The Jets were born two years before the Mets in the fledgling American Football League. Both started out at the Polo Grounds and then moved into a brand new Shea Stadium in 1964. Both suddenly flourished in 1968 and 1969, shocking everyone by winning their respective league championships and were overwhelming underdogs to winning the whole thing against their respective opposing teams from Baltimore. The face of both teams were their young confident future hall of famers,Tom Seaver and Joe Namath. And of course both names are spelled with “ets”.

    Like the Mets, the Jets also have also given their fans a lot of heartache while the Giants (like the Yankees) have accumulated more than one worlds championship.

  • Dave

    Like Joe D, I’ve always believed that the Mets and the Jets were at least fraternal twins if not identical, and I could never understand why Yankee fans would be rooting for my football team. The veins I have that don’t bleed blue and orange instead hemorrhage green.

    I’m trying to equate the current Jets with the mid-80′s Mets. Last year they went from ignorable to competitive overnight with a brash new boss, just like the Mets in 84. This year, higher expectations, lots of media attention that pissed off other teams because they hadn’t won anything yet to back it up, went right down to the wire, came up just short, just like the 85 Mets. So the sequence would be that they are the dominant team in the league next year and make it to the Promised Land, just like the 86 Mets. And yeah, I’d expect a long drought afterwards. Small price to pay.

  • GaryG

    Dave, thing is they’ve got lots of players who may have played their last year in Green and White. Lots of FAs, and the team up north there in Foxboro has oodles of draft choices this year….

    Greg,
    Thanks for reminding me of one of the many frustrating losses…. And kudos to your new ESPN NY gig.

    • Dave

      Jets can move forward without LT and Jason Taylor and the like. Solid young core, and a coach that I suspect lots of players would love to play for.

      • Nestornajwa

        Sure, they would probably be ok without LDT (much as I loathe the Giants, there was only one LT) and Taylor. If pressed, I’d say that Tomlinson, a great hall-of-famer well past his prime, had one more “revenge” season in the tank after his San Diego experience, but two? Probably not.

        But these are the Jets, and they WILL botch David Harris, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Shaun Ellis. Maybe they bring back 2 of those 4. Harris is a must, but he will receive a lot of attention from other teams. Both Edwards and Holmes think they are #1 receivers; Edwards outstanding DWI makes it less likely that he will come back to the Jets. No way they can afford to keep both of them under the cap.

        Bottom line: it’s the Jets. So if they are successful in bringing back Harris and enough of the others to make another run, there WILL be a strike and it won’t matter. If they screw up and lose, say Harris, Holmes and Ellis, then Harris signs with New England and the Jets slide to 9-7 or 8-8 and this run is over.

        At least, unlike the Mets, they are trying.

        • At least, unlike the Mets, they are trying.

          Hoping someday soon somebody writes an article like this about how far the Mets organization has come after years of desert-wandering.

          And that after it’s written, the result of the game that day is better than what transpired Sunday.

          • nestornajwa

            Amen. At this point, I would trade all hope for the remaining baseball and football seasons of my life for a guarantee of just ONE championship for either the Mets or the Jets (or even, and please try to keep a straight face, the Islanders).

            The Jets will never do it. Never.

  • Florida Me Fan Rich

    I was hoping that the Jets would win and bridge us to just about the start of Spring Training!

    The Mets have opened up the PSL Spring Training complex today for voluntary workouts so we are getting closer.

    With the Jets now out of it, like it or not its time to say

    LETS GO METS 2011!!!!….3 Weeks!

  • Guy Kipp

    Greg,

    I remember that game in Cleveland, and that ’78 Jets season, vividly. Your recollections are spot on.
    I guess that would have to be considered the second most heartbreaking loss the Jets ever suffered in Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

    Here’s part of that ’78 game on youtube. Charlie Jones on the call, as he was on so many tough Jet losses in the late 70s.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HzeQmIpK6Y

    (By the way, the Pat Leahy missed field goal against the Pats occurred on the same day as The Fumble at the Meadowlands.)

    • I was going to mention the Pisarcik timing (The Fumble occurred minutes earlier, if I recall), but decided the Jets deserved their own wallowing.

      In my research on the Cleveland game, I found John McVay crowing about the Giants beating the Cardinals that same day because it was their sixth win of the year, the most they’d accumulated since 1972 (never mind it was the first year of the 16-game schedule). McVay treated it as a real corner-turner for the Giants. Sadly for the coach, the only corner he turned was straight out of East Rutherford.

      Gads, what a decade.

      • (The Fumble occurred minutes earlier, if I recall)

        Other way ’round, Greg. I distinctly remember seeing Leahy slumped on his knees (and the Pats’ Steve Zabel patting Pat on his shoulders — a Victorino-worthy d-bag move, IMHO) after the miss, then flipping over to CBS just in time to see Herm squirm into the East Rutherford endzone.

        • I’ll take your word for it, Charlie. I’ve processed it as “THIS IS THE WORST THING I’VE EVER SEEN!!! … well, at least the day won’t be a total loss … oh, never mind.” Instead Leahy’s fairly mundane chip shot miss served as opening act for proto-Castillo.

          Except for a High Holy day situation (as happened in 2009), it’s impossible to imagine the networks allowing the two NY teams to kick off at the same time. And of course it could never happen they’d both have home games simultaneously.

  • Joe D.

    Doesn’t Sunday’s game remind everyone of the last game of 2007 when Tom Gl@v*n! put us in too deep a hole too early in the contest?

    How I wish the Jets got a good lease beginning in 1964 and stayed in Flushing, if only because it might have meant keeping our beloved Shea alive and who knows, renovating it enough to have kept the Mets from building that monstrosity next door. The Mets took advantage of the terrible financial situation the Jets and the AFL were in and was able to force those unreasonable restrictions on them, not only having to play the first month on the road but also giving up a lot of the parking and concession revenue too!

    • Guy Kipp

      Actually, it reminded me much more of Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, when Al Leiter put the Mets in a deep hole before they heroically stormed back only to lose nobly (Kenny Rogers’ ignobility notwithstanding).

      • That was one of the three games I thought of, actually: NCLS Game 6 (except Jets never took the lead as those Mets did); Chargers-Dolphins classic from Jan. ’82 (was thinking, when it was 24-0, “we need a hook and ladder”); and the second Steeler-Oiler AFC championship after which Bum Phillips insisted Houston would kick the bleeping door down next year…which never came to be.

        • Guy Kipp

          Greg,
          In 1981, when the Jets qualified for the playoffs for the 1st time since the merger, they fell behind 24-0 to the Bills in the rain at Shea — and almost came all the way back in that one, too. Lost 31-27. Bill Simpson picked off Richard Todd at the goal line in the final seconds.