The Devil Lurks
By BOB HERBERT
Published: January 2, 2009
I don’t talk about it much, but I have been touched by the supernatural. I have personally felt the hot breath of the devil. I am a Jets fan.
If there were a cure, I would take it. I would go to the meetings, do whatever. But there is no cure for a curse, and the New York Jets football franchise is cursed.
Just ask its latest coach, a fine young man named Eric Mangini. Two years ago he was heralded as a genius and favored with a cameo appearance on “The Sopranos.” He spent the second half of this season staring in disbelief as his team collapsed before his eyes for no apparent reason. On Monday he was summarily fired.
Just ask Brett Favre, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. The Jets signed him in August, expecting great things, maybe even a championship. By the end of the season Favre, who is 39 and well past his prime, looked like a man in shock. Forget a championship; the team hadn’t even made the playoffs.
You may scoff, but this is not a mere fan’s lament. This is about a Faustian bargain on a football field. Trust me. Demons lurk.
January 12th, eight days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, will be the 40th anniversary of the most glorious day in Jets history. On that date in 1969 a young Joe Namath and his upstart teammates pulled off the greatest upset in pro football history, defeating the mighty Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl, 16-7.
As an obsessive and peculiarly sensitive fan, I knew during the course of that season that something odd was happening. A sense of unreality accompanied the Jets’ march toward glory. Unseen forces were tipping footballs this way and that. Fortuitous gusts of wind would erupt inexplicably on the calmest of Sunday afternoons.
What I didn’t know was that an adjustment had been made to the ordinary course of existence. A shift had taken place. Namath and his coach, the wily, grandfatherly Weeb Ewbank, had made a pact with the devil.
This is fairly widely known now. I bring it up for the following reasons: Because the anniversary is approaching and events this season so clearly showed that the unspeakable terms of the agreement remain rigidly in force; and because young Jets fans may not understand the source of their inevitable and unending pain.
How long has it been since the Jets went to the Super Bowl? Lyndon Johnson was president. Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis were newlyweds. Barack Obama was just 7 years old. And Favre hadn’t even been born.
The first public hint that Namath and Ewbank had sold the soul of the franchise came at a Miami awards banquet, a few days before the Super Bowl, when Namath famously guaranteed a victory. But a Namath biographer, Mark Kriegel, tells us of a conversation that Joe had with a Long Island bartender named Tank Passuello before the team headed to Miami for the game.
Passuello told Namath that the Colts were roughly seven-to-one favorites. Namath told Passuello to “bet the ranch” on the Jets.
Passuello asked if he was sure.
“Positive,” said Namath.
The game was one of the most famous in all of sports, and there is an iconic video image of Namath leaving the field at the Orange Bowl, his right arm raised and his index finger pointed skyward, as in, “We’re number one!”
But I saw another sight that most fans missed. Ewbank’s normally mild face was wild with demonic glee. He cackled like a madman. The devil had come through. The Jets had won the Super Bowl.
The payback " unrelieved futility " would last an eternity.
The Jets have had 13 coaches since Ewbank, including his unfortunately named son-in-law, Charley Winner. When Lou Holtz took over as coach in 1976, he seemed to know that weirdness was in the air. He made no grand pronouncements, promising fans only that the team would “move the ball.” He then hedged even that modest bet by adding, “I just hope to God it’s forward.”
Holtz fled before the season ended, shrieking hysterically as he left town that “God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach pro football.”
The devil could be heard roaring with laughter.
The great Bill Belichick was hired as head coach in January 2000, but he got wind of the curse and resigned after just one day.
The Jets have brief periods when they do well, but that only serves to make it more delightful for the devil when the raised hopes are dashed.
Hopes are rising again as the franchise searches for yet another coach. Can’t you hear the laughter?
There is no cure.
But that little running freak Sproles will be there. He scares me a little. But only a little. I have a feeling Dick LeBeau will have a little something special planned to take care of his scrawny little ass.
Were all of the Giant's playoff opponents favored over them last year?