New York was caught up in Giants mania. The Monday Kickoff Club luncheon was standing room only. The fans almost felt that they were a part of football history. After all, Giants owner Wellington Mara stood with George Halas and Art Rooney as throwbacks to the days when owners were consumed by one thing—running their teams. And then, into this temple of adoration stepped a funny little team called the Titans, which three years later became the Jets, Their fans were mostly people who couldn't get Giants tickets and who were willing to settle for any kind of pro football. The Establishment treated them to the curled lip.
The big breakthrough in attendance came not when the Jets signed Joe Namath but a year earlier, in 1964, when they moved into brand-new Shea Stadium and for the first time managed to sign a No. 1 draft choice, Matt Snell, the fullback from Ohio State, their first legitimate superstar and a player they had outbid the Giants for. Their average home attendance jumped from 14,792 to 42,710, rising another 12,167 in '65 when Namath arrived. The Giants still owned New York, even though they had grown old and turned into a loser. It was still the toughest ticket in town. Once the fans had chanted "Dee-fense!" now they sang "Goodbye Allie" to coach Allie Sherman. Either way it was exciting.
The Jets captured New York briefly in 1968. Sure it took a Super Bowl victory and Namath's flamboyant personality to do it, but the town was theirs. A year later they held it by force of might, their 37-14 exhibition-game victory over the Giants a grim payback for past indignities. It was a defeat so bitter for the Giants that it forced Sherman's dismissal. Now it was up to the Jets to hold the city, and three or four solid years might have done it. But the Jets had one more playoff year; then they slipped into the Great Dismal, the swamp of the '70s, the worst era of the team's history.
Back came the Giants, flawed, scarred and certainly no bargain. But at least the Giants had tradition on their side, those eight glorious years. The Jets were still dismissed as one-season wonders.
It's tough to figure out what holds New York fans. Fads won't do it. The soccer team, the Cosmos, proved that. The formula they tried was simple, just sign up the best player in the world every year—Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, you name it—and you'll own New York. When the freak-show appeal was gone, so were the fans. Mets and Yankees fans are cyclical creatures. Give us a winner, and we'll support you. Over the last 20 years the Mets have outdrawn the Yankees at home 12 times. Hockey, the sport itself, holds a magical appeal for Garden fans, and New Yorkers will pay to see the Rangers in the worst of times. But the Islanders won four Stanley Cups just beyond the city limits, and in town there were a lot of yawns. Loyalty to pro basketball is ephemeral. Once the Garden rocked for the Knicks. Now it's a drafty arena when they play. It is occasionally rumored in Manhattan that there is another metropolitan pro team named the Nets, playing games somewhere in Jersey.
The old bitterness between the Giants and Jets is gone now. Leon Hess even moved his team out of Shea in 1984 to play in the Giants' ballpark. But if it took one thing to put the old bitterness to rest it was the last weekend of the 1981 season, when the Giants sat in the Stadium Club in the Meadowlands and rooted for the Jets to knock the Packers out of playoff contention for them, which they did—and both teams were in the postseason action at the same time for the first time.
"The Jets-Giants rivalry doesn't exist as far as the players are concerned," says Giants linebacker Harry Carson, an 11-year veteran. "It's strictly a fan thing." Of course, the battle for who owns New York is really who owns the suburbs. New Jersey is the Giants' turf, while Long Island belongs to the Jets. The land in between, Manhattan and the boroughs, well, the Giants hold an edge, but the players don't know it because they're never around. Once upon a time you could walk into Toots Shor's, and at one table there were Mantle and Ford and Billy Martin, with Namath not far away, and maybe Gifford and Kyle Rote in a back booth, seeing and being seen, with Shor himself patrolling the aisles like a galley master, ready to bounce any patron who annoyed the superstars. These days the Giants drink in Manny's in Moonachie, N.J., in the shadow of their stadium. The Jets hang out in Buttle's or Klecko's on the Island. Manhattan? Well, we don't live there.
Now, every legitimate star or near star on these teams seems either flawed in some way or anonymous. Both quarterbacks, Phil Simms and O'Brien, played in the Pro Bowl last year, but it's a well-kept secret. Jets running back Freeman McNeil is always hurt; the Giants' Joe Morris was a long camp holdout; Gastineau has half a sack in three games and only Arthur Murray worries about his dancing. Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor boycotts the press, but there's not much to write about anyway. He seems to poop out toward the end of games. Leonard Marshall, the Giants' emerging super-sacker last year, has done zip so far. It's Toon, not Walker, who seems to turn on the fans, despite Wesley's five touchdown catches in three games, maybe because it's so much fun yelling "Toooooon."
The closest thing to a genuine hero in the grand old style is Joe Klecko, the Jets' exceptional noseguard, but New York isn't his apple. On Tuesdays he escapes to Chester, Pa., and the rest of the time he's holed up on Long Island.
There aren't even any decent nicknames. The closest thing belongs to the Giants' offensive line, which is known as—get ready now, this surely will get the old blood flowing—the Suburbanites.