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There is something strange going on down there on the field. The New York Jets' defense is shuffling into position, and it's clear there's a cherub loose among the gorillas. It is No. 73, the right tackle. He is trotting up to the line daintily, no other word for it. His large, round face is completely without guile, and his blue eyes speak of peace on earth and goodwill to opponents. It is hard to tell in this light, but he seems to glow with a pink cleanliness; no doubt his halo is crushed down around his ears inside his helmet. It may sound odd, in view of what will happen when the ball is snapped, but it's true that, standing there benignly surveying the quarterback, Joe Klecko looks positively cuddly.
Ah, that's it. It's the stark contrast that makes this scene so strange. Everybody knows that defensive players snort and pop with hostile vibrations. They snarl and flash their teeth behind their face masks and, swollen with bloodlust, they paw at the turf. But not Klecko. He doesn't need to go through such histrionics to psych himself up, so firmly fixed is the sole aim of his game: getting a piece of the quarterback.
"Hate quarterbacks," says Klecko in a statement shockingly out of character with his appearance. Then he adds, "Well, no. I mean, I don't hate them as people. They're probably nice guys who brush their teeth and call Mom once a week. I hate what quarterbacks stand for. They stand between me and success."
Now Klecko gets down into his stance, leans forward and carefully positions his right hand on the turf. The hand is roughly the size of a catcher's mitt. He uses his right foot as a brace, twisting it into place. Then, slowly, he begins to swell, taking in huge drafts of air. And from almost any angle, sighting at field level or looking down from above, Klecko gradually becomes exactly as wide as he is high.
As the play explodes and Klecko surges forward, one more early impression is clarified. The reason for that dainty gait—indeed, the reason for most of Klecko's moves—is that his upper body rests on his hips like some great teetering rock overlooking Monument Valley. If Klecko ever falls, things will shatter. And now the play ends with Klecko lying belly-up and the quarterback clutched firmly in his arms.
This assuredly doesn't happen on every play. There are still too many times when a frustrated Klecko stands alone back there, flailing his empty hands in the air and wondering where everybody else has gone. But the sacks and other tackles happen often enough to make the 25-year-old Klecko the key defensive force on the young New York squad. He is in his third NFL season, and at that point in his career when his statistics are starting to take on a proper menace. Last year he led the Jets in quarterback sacks for the second time, with eight. He also racked up 139 tackles (62 unassisted) and blocked two point-after kicks and one field-goal attempt. In three games this season he has 20 tackles and one sack. "Sometimes I look around and Joe is all over the field," says New York Coach Walt Michaels.
Klecko, all 6'3" and 264 pounds of him, has been years in the making. He is the end product of hundreds of hours of training, a survivor of times when it seemed he would never get the idea of the game. He has been pounded, kicked and coached into shape, and at last he is ready to rampage through the season and finish as an All-Pro.
"You can sense the success in him," says Michaels. "I look at Klecko and the words 'pass rusher' jump into my mind. It's his incredible quickness and the strength of his hands. If he gets a quarterback in his grasp, he's down." Says Offensive Lineman John Roman, "You want talent? Not long after I met Joe, he opened 12 bottles of beer with his teeth. Now that's All-Pro."
This sort of tale makes the combination of the monster and his mien doubly disconcerting. The realization grows slowly that Klecko's angelic look has always been there, that the face came with the body in a delightful mismatch, reflecting an impish turn of nature and heritage. Looking at Klecko one gets a nagging feeling of having seen him before. But where? At last, there it is in the mind's eye: Cupid a Captive, painted by Boucher in 1754 for the boudoir of Madame de Pompadour. The scene shows a chunky cupid surrounded by the Three Graces, who seem amorously frisky. Two cherubim hover overhead; either they have rescue in mind, or they're about to wing down and join the party. The top cherub—blond, pink and fat-legged—is Joe Klecko.
Lord knows, it ain't easy being a baby face. When Klecko was growing up, many kids tried to change that face by adding lumps here and abrasions there. This was in Chester, Pa., a tough workingman's town near Philadelphia, where a gentle demeanor is rewarded with another hit on the head. "Man, I was a terrible sissy, always, always getting beat up," Klecko says.