Maybe you know that Bruce Harper wore number 42 for the New York Jets from 1977 to 1984 and that he is the all-time leader in punt return yardage in Jets history. It's more likely, however, that you know that Fireman Ed wore number 42. He didn't back Joe Namath or Wesley Walker or Curtis Martin. The Jets' most famous fan wore a fireman's hat and a punt returner's jersey, until this year, when he threw his support behind embattled starting quarterback Mark Sanchez. Who knows what he'll wear next year? Fireman Ed retired last week as the team's superfan, vowing to lead a normal life and no more chants.
Even before the Thanksgiving night debacle, it had been a miserable season for the Jets. That was just the final act under the big top. Now this. The preeminent Jets fan is sick of Jets fans because of what the Jets made them do. The superfan is no more. Fireman Ed wrote:
I decided to leave Thursday because the confrontations with other Jets fans have become more common, even though most Jets fans are fantastic.
This is an indication of how society has lost and is continuing to lose respect for one another. The stadium has become divided because of the quarterback controversy as well. The fact that I chose to wear a Mark Sanchez jersey this year and that fans think I am on the payroll—which is an outright lie—have made these confrontations more frequent.
It wasn't always so dour. I grew up a Jets fan lucky enough to attend games with my dad. It was the 80's and early 90's so we sat through Joe Walton. We sat through Bruce Coslet and Pete Carroll. We sat through Rich fucking Kotite. I remember two things above all else. One, I learned every single curse word in the English langauge from the guys behind us. They always apologized to my dad, but what could you do? Fucking Browning Nagle was a piece of shit, man. The second was Fireman Ed. He was in our section, probably 10 or 15 rows down. His poor brother would carry him on his shoulders up and down the beer-and-peanut-shell-caked steps every game, with Ed screaming like a lunatic.
Fireman Ed started out as a fan of the Jets' bitter rivals, the Miami Dolphins. But he's been with the Jets for the long haul: he became a Jets season ticket holder in 1976. The Jets first put him on the screen in 1986 and he went from section-wide cheerleader to stadium-wide institution. As the Jets became more relevant nationally, so did Fireman Ed. He began cropping up in interviews and articles and he became more and more a part of the game day experience. Before kickoff, after scores and to start the half, there was Ed (and everyone else in the building) spelling his lungs out. He was the Jets fan's Jets fan. Still, before 2009, Fireman Ed was primarily a regional act.
Then there was a subtle shift. The Jets organization began paying more attention to Fireman Ed. It all started with Rex Ryan and the Jets' home opener in Week 2 against the Patriots. Ryan recorded a message that was auto-dialed to Jets ticketholders imploring them to show up and make some noise. When the Jets won, Ryan gave Ed a game ball. Chad Johnson talked about mocking him if he scored a touchdown in the final game of the 2009 season, a game the Jets needed and the Bengals did not. The Bengals rolled over and Ochocinco was a non-factor. He later extended an invite to Ed for the rematch the following week in Cincinnati, in the Wildcard round of the playoffs. Ed declined—he would not go as a guest of the opposing team.
He did not attend the game in Cincinnati, but he had reaped the attention anyway: 2009 made Fireman Ed the face of Jets fans.
Three years later, Fireman Ed stepped away from the limelight and all that spelling because he didn't like how angry fans were with him. How did we get here? Some of the anger he perceived probably came from the company he kept: People attending NFL games, especially Jets contests, are presumably more boorish than the population at large. A lot of it, though, came from the new stadium and its manufactured gameday experience. At the new stadium, Fireman Ed no longer stood atop his brother's—or, later, buddy's—shoulders, climbing up and down the filthy steps. He had his own perch, directly above the locker room entrance where the Jets charged the field, through fire and fireworks-spewing pyrotechnics. He was no longer just a big fan. He was Fireman Ed, who had the Jets' apparent seal of approval. Of course Jets fans eventually attacked one of their own: He was the only one who would listen.
With all the viewers, money, and attention that follow professional sports—especially football—now, the superfan can't just lead his section in a chant one day a week. MNF has to make him the star of its opening segment, journalists have to talk to him: It's a load. And it's a load that becomes untenable in a stadium filled with frothing fans who sense only one viable outlet for their complaints. Fireman Ed tired of this, and so he went back to being Regular Old Ed. He'll still cheer for the Jets. And before too long, the Jets'll be back. But the superfan probably won't be.