When you watch a lot of sports on TV, and when you have a favorite team that you watch, there are little things that sometimes stick with you long after the game is over.
And when you start counting up all the hours you’ve spent watching your favorite team -- not just during the current season, but over a period of years -- it is really quite striking to recall the particular images that have stuck in your head and your heart, among all those that you’ve experienced.
In the case of my favorite football team, the New York Jets, it has become evident that the era that will ultimately be known for the success or failure of the team’s current coach, Rex Ryan, will be rich in memorable moments and striking images. And even though some of those memories may well be tinged with controversy or even downright silliness -- as the coach has a tendency toward hyperbole, and the New York sports media has an equal tendency toward stretching a point -- there will also be moments imbued with a telling courage and great poignancy.
Now having watched and read and listened to most all things Jets for the entire first two years of Coach Ryan’s time in New York, and having groaned a little at some of the more egregious antics of the coach and some of his players and the media that covers them, I am nonetheless grateful for the joy that all their work has brought to me and my fellow Jets fans. It is fun to watch and read about the Jets again, even if there are times when we wince a little while doing so...
But for all the brass and bluster, the controversy and the cacophony that is an apparently inevitable accompaniment to any successful New York sports team, the end of Ryan’s second season as the leader of the Jets also delivered a compelling insight into the character of the coach, and the quality of the man.
With their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, the Jets fell just short of a trip to the Super Bowl for the second straight year. Having insistently and repeatedly set a Super Bowl win as the team’s goal throughout his first two seasons as head coach, Ryan was understandably upset at losing out two years running, as would anyone in his position.
But in the moment when the game in Pittsburgh finally fell out of reach, when the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger completed a 14 yard pass to Antonio Brown to ensure the Jets’ defeat, Ryan demonstrated his frustration with a fury that betrayed the depth of his desire.
Tearing the headset and cap from his head -- the headset symbolic of the coach’s role as the center of control, the cap the marker of his fraternity with the players in his charge -- Coach Ryan slammed the gear to the ground, and expressed his frustration verbally with words that are probably best lost to posterity.
But in that moment of loss, there was also a deep sadness evident in the coach’s facial expression. It was a wrenching, heartbreaking expression -- the look of a man who had given a deep portion of himself to the task of leadership, only to be turned away at the summit.
For that instant, Rex Ryan was the ultimate sports hero: the competitor who suffers his team’s loss as his own, and who understands that in sports, as in life, opportunities are precious, and time is short.
However many championships a team wins or fails to win, and whatever success or failure an individual experiences in a career in sports, there is always above all the quality of the competitor and the dignity of the competition.
And while a championship down the road will certainly be seen -- and celebrated -- as redemption for these first two seasons of near-misses for the new-look Jets and their exuberant coach, that moment of anguish in Pittsburgh has already fixed Rex Ryan as a winner in the larger sense of the word, whatever the ultimate record of this period in the team’s history.
© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh