The heyday of the New York tabloid wise guy columnist was in its twilight, but those fellas weren’t done roaming the print earth just yet, not in January of 1983, not when I needed a hit of what they were pushing. The Jets were on the verge of taking on the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game in Miami. I was physically near Miami but my heart was of course in New York. I needed the hometown perspective, whether it came in the saltine-thin national edition of the Daily News or yesterday’s Post, flown in to savvy retailers who knew there were bushels of Big Apple expatriates who never lost their taste for deep, bold coverage of the stories that mattered most, like how the Jets were gonna kick the Dolphins’ ass and go to the Super Bowl.
That’s what I was looking for when I picked up one of those papers, I forget which, exactly. Didn’t matter. I needed an antidote to the Dolphincentric nonsense that surrounded me as I visited my parents in South Florida. So did my dad, whose birthday was the reason I slipped away from college in Tampa for a couple of days. What a nice present for both of us it would be to watch together as the Jets — our Jets — wipe the smirk off Don Shula’s face. This was gonna be our day, our year, our Super Bowl. The AFC Championship was just a formality.
I ripped open the News and the Post to soak up the analysis and the atmosphere of what was going on back at Hofstra as the Jets prepared to fly south. The back page of the Post headlined a picture of a few players whose breath was visible in the cold, JETS BREATHE FIRE! That’s the calm, objective journalism I was seeking. Somewhere in somebody’s inside pages was a column. I wanna say it was Dick Young, who had recently turned free agent and moved to the Post despite being adamantly against that sort of thing when he was railing at modernity when he was a staple of the News. I don’t know how much legwork of this type Young was doing at this point as his career and relevancy waned. I can imagine it being Steve Serby at the height of his Richard Todd-taunting glory, though Serby was probably busy out in Hempstead getting the quarterback’s goat. Maybe it was a gambling expert named Bernie in the News. There was always a gambling expert named Bernie with a column telling you to lay the points, one of those phrases I’ve always found charming, whatever the hell it means.
Whoever it was, the wise guy columnist got in touch with a bookie in Brooklyn. Went to see him, actually, because that’s what wise guy columnists did. The subject was the big game, Jets at Dolphins. The columnist said to the bookie that he supposed there must be a lot of money coming in for the Jets this week.
The bookie in Brooklyn shook his head and pointed at his right knee. No, the money was going the other way. Why? “The knee,” the bookie explained succinctly. “Klecko.”
Ah, Klecko’s knee. Joe Klecko, my father’s favorite player. “He drove a truck in college!” my dad, who never drove a truck, once told me excitedly. I responded with enthusiasm to this revelation, because I loved when my dad got excited about anything and wanted to talk about it with me, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why Joe Klecko having driven a truck in college was exciting. It was enough that the Jets, who neither of us paid any attention to until 1978, were exciting. We were Giants fans first and foremost every fall, yet expanded our portfolio and bought low on the Jets about the time they updated their uniforms and pasted that sleek SST-looking logo onto their helmets. In 1981, we exulted in both of our teams making the playoffs after a generation of New York football drought. In ’82, the Giants crapped out, but the Jets soared.
Except for Klecko’s knee. He hurt it badly in the second game of the season. Then there was a lengthy strike. Then the Jets came back and flexed their muscles, but without Klecko. They made the playoffs, anyway. Nine-game season, eight teams per conference. The Jets were seeded sixth in the AFC. We were still in it.
Klecko, by no means fully recovered, came back to reunite the New York Sack Exchange in the first-round game against Cincinnati. Freeman McNeil ran all over the Bengals. The Jets romped. The next matchup, in L.A., was anticipated as a street brawl and lived up to the hype. When it was over, the Jets outlasted the Raiders and were thus due back in Miami, in the Orange Bowl, site of previous franchise glory. It had been fourteen years since Joe Namath won Super Bowl III a relatively short drive down I-95 from where we’d be watching this Sunday’s game. Who doesn’t love symmetry?
You couldn’t have convinced me the Jets weren’t going to win, not until I read, “The knee. Klecko.” After that, I sensed we were screwed. The bookie in Brooklyn knew. His clients knew. It was reported by a reliable source, the wise guy gambling columnist named Bernie. Or perhaps somebody else. Whoever it was made it clear that we needed Joe Klecko at as close to top form as possible and that we weren’t gonna have that.
It was a rainy weekend in South Florida. When the Jets landed, they looked out their charter flight’s window, gazed at the leaden skies and reportedly chanted as one, “JET WEATHER! JET WEATHER!” Remember, these were the tough SOBs who breathed fire across the frozen tundra hard by Hempstead Turnpike a few days earlier. Their confidence made me feel a little better, but I couldn’t shake the pointing at the knee. Also, it kept raining and, as it turned out, that didn’t make it Jet Weather. Jet Weather would have allowed McNeil to run wild and free on the Orange Bowl turf. Instead, the turf drowned in the deluge. Smirking Shula explained it wasn’t the kind of grass you put a tarp on. No, nobody ever heard of covering a field when it rains, not when the team coming into plays you relies heavily on a gifted running back.
This game came to be known as the Mud Bowl. Freeman, who rushed for 202 yards at Cincinnati and 101 in the L.A. Coliseum, was held to 46. Todd, who rarely conjured visions of Namath in any stadium, threw mostly to A.J. Duhe, who, even with it caked in mud, could be seen sporting a Dolphins uniform. Five interceptions from Todd. Zero touchdowns, except from one of the interceptions. Dolphins 14 Jets 0. No Super Bowl appearance for the Jets after fourteen years on championship hiatus. No Super Bowl appearance for the Jets after thirty-six years more. Certainly not the happiest of birthday presents for my dad.
Save for a few spikes of interest in the market following the Mud Bowl, I’ve not been an over-the-top Jets fan post-1983. I wish them well. I hope they get their big day one of these winters, but they’re not my cause. Yet I continued to admire Joe Klecko, marveling that he switched positions as necessary and excelled at each assignment he took on. Every time I see a social media message urging support for him to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I click my two cents. He drove a truck in college, you know.
But the knee. The knee. That’s what I remember most. Every time I’ve watched a key player on a team I care about go down with an injury, especially when that team is doing well and has cultivated in my mind and perhaps theirs championship aspirations, I think of just knowing how one critical body part intrinsic to one player’s abilities can injure an entire team’s immediate future plans.
I don’t want to think about a bookie in Brooklyn pointing at Jeff McNeil ’s left hamstring after McNeil (no relation to Freeman as far as I know) felt “a little snag” Tuesday night in Atlanta toward the end of an otherwise unremarkable 5-3 loss to the Braves . It had been a relentlessly dreary night straight out of the Big O or Joe Robbie in its Pro Player phase during that period when Bobby Valentine’s Mets would arrive fresh from a raucous series at Shea only to overly decompress inside an empty, apathetic ballpark and play down to dismal competition. Except the Braves are in first place, so go figure why SunTrust Park looked so empty and sounded so apathetic. Zack Wheeler was racked around, while the Mets couldn’t do much with Max Fried. If you like good news, there were crumbs of it: Juan Lagares, pounding out four hits, showed offensive life for the first time this season; Todd Frazier reminded us emphatically he knows how to play third base with the best of them; Brad Brach appeared reinvigorated; Drew Gagnon threw a very solid inning in his return from Syracuse; Jeurys Familia was again major league-caliber; and the Mets, while never really in this game, somehow were never totally out of it.
Little of the gleaned positivity registered in the aftermath. The only image that lingers is McNeil running out a potential infield hit to lead off the ninth, one of his final strides compelling him to grab at something no Mets fan wants to see perhaps the most essential of 2019 Mets grabbing at. There wasn’t much game to come out of by then, but Jeff was done for Tuesday. An MRI will indicate how much more done he might be. It won’t tell us for sure. Nothing ever does. “It didn’t feel great,” the second baseman/right fielder/left fielder/third baseman said, trying to articulate the sensation he experienced. “It wasn’t…terrible.”
It’s a hamstring, an anatomical connector with alarm bells that sound every time the damn thing comes up in conversation. Too bad Keith Hernandez (among others) wasn’t in the booth Tuesday night. He knows from hurrying back from a hamstring injury and how counterproductive that can be . We spent many a summer fretting how tight Jose Reyes’s hamstrings could get , which was inevitably too tight and too often  for comfort. If rehiring Mackie Shilstone or Ray Ramirez and then blaming them for any of this would help, I’d be all for it.
Hernandez won a batting title. Reyes won a batting title. McNeil’s been competing hard for one of those. He competes hard for everything, including a Wild Card spot the Mets are near because they have a Squirrel who flies from position to position and never stops hitting until something he can’t play without snags.
Jeff McNeil’s left hamstring . It’s a body part we don’t want anybody pointing at.
UPDATE: MRI reportedly reveals a mild strain. Ten-day trip to IL allegedly all Jeff will need. Let’s hope. Also, Ruben Tejada (!) is returning in the interim.