Friday, December 23, 2005

Salute to a Gamer
By Ben Valentine

The way it ends is so wrong, yet in many ways, so right.

The Jets lined up in a third and long inside San Diego Charger territory. After a poor start, the team had rallied behind Brooks Bollinger and were driving down the field, trying to make a game of it. But now the drive was on the verge of stalling. The 6-1 Wisconsin QB dropped back and fired a pass to number 80, Wayne Chrebet. And old reliable hauled it in as usual, and proceeded to lay out for the first down, getting hit on the process. The Jets picked it up. They weren’t down yet.

However, Wayne Chrebet was. And this time it was for the count.

Chrebet had sustained his sixth NFL concussion. Everyone watching knew what it meant as soon as he didn’t get up. A guy who probably should have called it quits before was going to have to do it now.

But when one looks back on the career of one of the most popular Jets of all time, there is no doubt it must be called a positive Cinderella story. Chrebet was a local product from Hofstra, who only got a chance because the Jets practiced at the school’s facilities. At a generous 5’10, lacking size and anything remotely considered blazing speed, he was expected to be one of the first players to get cut in that 1995 Rich Kotite training camp. So the fact that his release has finally come 11 years later should leave Chrebet, his family, and his fans with a smile on their faces.

And what an 11 years it was. The poster boy for the scrappy player, Chrebet turned out to be better than that. Many of us like to joke about that term, how it really means mediocre to bad players who try hard, get a fan base and manage to stick around when they’re really just wasting a roster spot. So in many ways, calling Chrebet “scrappy” is an insult. No people, it was more than that. The guy was good.

Chrebet never made the Pro Bowl, though he should have in 1998 when he posted 1053 yards and 8 TDs for a Jets team that came within one game of the Super Bowl. The man Keyshawn Johnson once called a flashlight to his star went over 900 yards receiving and had more than 8 TDs two more times in his career. One particularly memorable one came against Keyshawn and the Buccaneers. In the season following the Keyshawn trade, Chrebet caught the game winning TD on a HB pass from Curtis Martin in Tampa to cap a Jets’ come back win. That day, he was the star and Keyshawn was out of batteries.

He never had less than 700 yards receiving in a full season until 2002, his 8th year in the league. Even then, he managed to post 9 TDs in that season. All told, number 80 finished with 580 catches, 7365 yards and 41 touchdowns in his career. He’s no hall of famer, but he was certainly a lot more than “scrappy.”

Of course what Chrebet was most known for was his third down receiving. The guy was always there whenever the Jets needed a big play on that decisive down. Somehow he’d find his way into being matched up with a linebacker, then beat him across the middle of the field, haul it in and often lay out for that marker. Jets fans can still envision those scrawny arms and bare hands extending that less than imposing 5’10 frame as far as it could go to get past those sticks.

But Chrebet is loved for more than just the effort; it was more the fact he was successful most of the time. Trying hard and overcoming despite apparent shortcomings; to the fans Chrebet was the regular guy who seemingly became an NFL star. The truth of course is that Chrebet worked hard but was also extremely talented. However, since that wasn’t the impression you’d get from looking at him or hearing his back ground, it made the romantic idea of Chrebet being the “working man’s wideout” if you will, more appealing to Jets fans. It’s also probably why nobody batted an eye when Chrebet repeatedly attempted to come back from concussions as became clear they were going to shorten his career. Chrebet, like most fans, probably believed it was another challenge to overcome. Sure, it may have been a long shot; but were the chances any longer than Chrebet’s when he first walked onto that Jets’ practice field in 1995?

Unfortunately yes, because while talent and hard work can overcome perception and make people believers, they have little defense against issues of health. Just ask Troy Aikman, Steve Young or for a Jet perspective, Al Toon. However, I’d expect he’ll resurface somewhere down the road as a coach. Chrebet loved the game too much and clearly has shown to have an understanding of it. How else can one explain him consistently getting open when everyone in the stadium knew the ball was headed his way?

And so after 11 years, at the age of 32, Wayne Chrebet has had to call it a career, a bit more prematurely than one might have expected just four years ago. And yet, I’m not sure there is any more perfect way for him to go out, outside of winning a Super Bowl. He retires a career Jet, having only donned the green and white. He is second all time in receptions for the team and being one of the most popular figures in its history, no doubt will have his number retired. And of course, as many have pointed out, it’s only fitting that the last image Jets fans have of Chrebet on the field is him hauling in a third and long pass for a first down. That final play was a snapshot of what Wayne Chrebet was and a perfect capper of his career.

I know I am not alone when I wish nothing but good luck to #80 in the future and say thank you for all the memories. It’s not often Jets fans can look back on something or someone so fondly, so universally.

Maybe that’s Chrebet’s greatest achievement of all.


Blogger Sports Litter said...

Similar to my Jimmy Smith post.

Chrebet was a very quiet player who did his job. I'm surprised he made it this long. No one is tougher at WR than Wayne. He took a beating time and time again. All the while putting up respectable numbers.

I didn't get to watch him play much because we don't get many jets games on tv.. but thanks for writing this up and informing me a bit more on his career.

Excellent post.

10:46 AM  
Blogger The Armchair Quarterback said...

I have been a Chrebet fan for a long time. As a kid I rooted for Al Toon and Wesley Walker. Chrebet joins those guys on my list of all time Jet favorites.

1:40 PM  

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