Practice makes poifect.
—old New York saying
Friday is always "polishing day" for the New York Jets, the one workout of the week in which all that has been learned from chalk-talks and movie-watching, grass drills and scouting reports is supposed to fuse. Last Friday, as they prepared to play host to the Miami Dolphins—whom they beat 34-31 with their patented fourth-quarter heroics, which produced 18 points—the Jets frisked onto the greensward of Shea Stadium in Flushing, N.Y. with all the grace and style of, well, a world-champion street gang. Polishing day indeed. It looked like a job for Aerowax.
In the first place, the field was a mess. Since the Mets' World Series triumph, most of the sod in Shea has been transplanted to other locations, like backyards in Bayside, Hollis and Whitestone, leaving vast, elliptical scars on what is laughingly known as the playing surface. The players themselves didn't look much better. Clad in a motley of shredded sweat shirts, bloodstained foul-weather jackets, dirty wool caps, work-worn shoes, their noses and cheekbones scabbed and leaking pus, their mouths leaking gallows humor, the Jets came on like stragglers from the Eastern Front.
First off, the punters started working. Steve O'Neal, the lanky, redheaded rookie from Texas A & M who booted Curley Johnson clear over to the New York Giants, boomed long, spiraling kicks from sideline to sideline—53 yards apiece, well in keeping with his league-leading average of 46.9 yards. Mike Battle, the feisty kick-return specialist from USC, moved in on one of O'Neal's punts with the abandon that typifies his style—and dropped it. Battle stood for a moment, stunned, then picked up the ball and served it in O'Neal's direction with his fist, volleyball fashion. On the next punt that came his way Battle fielded the ball faultlessly and scooted upheld. "Way to ramble, kid," yelled Babe Parilli, the veteran backup quarterback, some of whose own punts were exceeding O'Neal's. But, as Parilli confessed, he had inflated his ball with helium.
Next Joe Namath began unlimbering his costly arm. George Sauer Jr., his long blond hair trailing from the bottom of his helmet, was Joe's most difficult target: a Custer figure with his budding yellow mustache, Sauer executes each feint and deadleg so eloquently that it has to wow any defender—or even a passer. Namath throws behind him. "Goddammit!" Broadway Joe whips off his woolly cap and throws it to the ground. Then he flashes that white, happy-wolf grin, his unshaved cheeks bulging with glee.
Then Don Maynard cuts out with his jackrabbit gait. Some parts of his body go in one direction, other parts fly another way, and one wonders why the slight, scrawny creature doesn't simply fly apart and collapse, the separate pieces still faking and twitching on the ground. Maynard is all jaws and legs, a Faulknerian creation—Flem Snopes in shoulder pads—who gives no more thought to danger than he does to molecular physics. He looks so frail that, as a teammate puts it, "You'd think a Paramecium could gobble him up—or even a single mecium. Haw, haw, haw!"
On this particular pattern Namath reads Maynard's final cut and throws the ball perfectly, but Don cuts so hard that he falls down before he gets to the intersection. He jogs back in, his jaws working furiously, and a few plays later he nabs a high pass in his armpit—a hard-thrown ball that should have torn him to pieces. Coming back to the line of scrimmage, Maynard holds the point of the ball against his shoulder, as if it had skewered him. "Good catch, Barney," somebody yells. Maynard is addicted to The Andy Griffith Show and identifies strongly with Barney Fife. Hence the nickname.
In fact, as the practice moves along, it becomes evident that nearly all the Jets have nicknames. Running Back Bill Mathis is known as Birdie. Well, now, how can you call a man of 30 years who stands 6'1" and weighs 220 Birdie? Because he's got "birdlike legs." Sometimes, just for the heck of it, Mathis is called Cymbals. That's because when he catches a pass he slaps his hands together—clang! Like that.
These are the men who triggered New York's resurgence as the capital of the sporting world, the exemplars of the new breed of anti-heroes, the guys who made the Mets and the Knicks possible by doing the impossible in the Super Bowl. By beating Miami, the Jets now stand 6-2 on the season (precisely the record they had last year at this point), have a commanding lead in the AFL's Eastern Division, and the same protective coloration that helped them in 1968 is once again at work. They have a tendency to lose, or barely win, breathers but they have that fine tuning—that ability to put it all together for the big games. So far this season they have played superlative ball only twice—in the preseason against the Giants for the Super Bowl Championship of New York and against Houston, which was touted as the competition in the East, but after being upset by Boston last week has now lost as many games as it has won—four.
Like the Packers of yore, the Jets court disaster. Week after week they seemingly try to find out how close they can come to the edge without falling off. Except for the Giants, whom they beat 37-14, the Jets have yet to crush anyone. They're apparently above that sort of thing. "We don't have to rub anybody's nose in it," says Cornerback Randy Beverly. It's almost as if it would be ungentlemanly for the Jets to whomp the stuffing out of another team. Champions do it with style, not bludgeons.