Sometime in the winter of 2010, my dad sat my younger brother and me down for a talk.
He was getting older, he said. His side of our family was becoming increasingly distant due to age and sickness and death and divorce, and because there were no women in our family—my mom died when my brother and I were kids, none of my grandparents are alive anymore, and my dad’s two brothers are both divorced with sons—he told us that as we got older there would be no one to wrangle the family together, no one to plan events and reunions and make sure that we saw each other.
Inspired by a lengthy conversation he had with my uncle, he told us he wanted to have something to pass down to us, something precious that could help keep us together as a family, a reason to remember each other and start new traditions with our own families. And so my dad, who never met a sport he didn’t know a single thing about, bought season tickets to the New York Jets.
It wasn’t the most ridiculous idea at the time.
The Jets were coming off a surprise trip to the AFC Championship Game, led by a brash new coach and a hotshot young quarterback with the poise and charisma of Joe Namath. They had a brand new stadium, still the most expensive ever built, and for the first time in what felt like decades, a real shot at establishing a future where they could be a dominant NFL team for a long, long time. They had hope.
At first, my dad looked like a genius. It’s tough to remember now, years after his shtick went cold, but those early Rex Ryan-led Jets teams were an impossibly fun bunch. These were the years of “let’s go eat a goddamned snack” and still-endearing foot fetish jokes, before the true nature of Rex’s eventual Trump-shilling ineptitude had fully shown through. They were even better in Rex’s second year cruising to an 11-5 record and a second straight AFC Championship Game. Yes, they lost the opening game in their new stadium while my brother and I were in attendance, but at the time a 10-9 loss to the Ravens wasn’t the sign of foreboding it clearly should have been. Instead, it felt like something new—a new team, a new stadium, and maybe even the start of new family traditions. My brother and I, along with my cousins who also had two tickets each in the same section as us a few rows down, tried to go to as many games as we could.
The next year, the 2011 season, wasn’t as fun as the season before—but it wasn’t nearly as bleak as things were going to get either. The Jets lost their final three games to bring themselves to 8-8 and out of playoff contention, but they at least had the decency to beat up on the Jaguars, Dolphins, and Chiefs at home and look like a competent football team while doing so.
2012 is when the rot started to set in.
Two weeks after signing Mark Sanchez’s contract extension, the Jets traded for Tim Tebow, creating a quarterback controversy where there was none before, which only added to the rising sense that Rex was losing his grip on the wheel. Rex showed up to training camp 100 pounds lighter, and the bluster and shit-talking that had been so invigorating in years past had started to become thin and hollow. A few weeks later, a 20-person brawl broke out.
Things got worse once the games started counting. After Week 11, the Jets were 4-6, and my brother and I hadn’t been to a single one. Their last-ditch hope for saving their season depended upon a win, at home, in primetime on Thanksgiving, against the Patriots. We decided we would leave Thanksgiving dinner early to see if they could pull it off in person. The Jets always played hard against the Pats, and even if they lost, it was bound to be a fun, close game. What was the worst that could happen?
The thing I remember most about that night is how cold it was. Weather archives tell me that the weather in East Rutherford, N.J., for Nov. 22, 2012, was 46 degrees and clear, but when you’ve left the extreme comforts of a warm home on Thanksgiving after quickly shoveling some turkey down your throat so you can drive an hour into New Jersey and sit sober while you watch the worst play in NFL history, it’s going to be hard to keep warm, no matter what the temperature reads.
It’s always amazing how sports fans can delude themselves into thinking things can still go their way, even in the face of insurmountable odds. Down 14-0 in the second quarter, it still felt like the Jets had a shot at pulling themselves back into the game. New England’s previous two touchdowns had come off turnovers, yes, but they happened deep Patriots territory. The Jets were showing that they were still a team that was capable of creating and sustaining long drives; all they needed to do was to get in the end zone before the end of the half and they were right back in it.
Even from where we were sitting, with our seats right by the 15-yard line, you couldn’t really see the full extent of just how badly the Jets had fucked up. The play clearly broke down, that much was clear. Sanchez turned, too late, in the wrong direction, tried to scramble, and then all of a sudden there was confusion, a mass of bodies, Sanchez was on the ground and a Patriot had scooped up the ball and scored a touchdown. Only after the replay showed could you actually see that he had run into his own lineman’s ass. After the groans, the booing, then the yelling, the inevitable “We Want Tebow!” chant began. I don’t think it stopped until halftime.
It’s often overlooked, but the play just following the buttfumble was a disaster, too. Joe McKnight botched the kickoff, and the Patriots scored again, capping off a 52-second sequence in which they scored 21 points. Like true Jets season-ticket holding masochists, we committed to staying through the rest of the half even as everyone in the stadium (including constipated narcissist Fireman Ed, who was so traumatized by this game he didn’t return to MetLife until 2015) poured out into the parking lot. The score at the end of two full quarters was New England 35, New York, 3. No one cheered when the Jets kicked that field goal.
Sanchez was the Jets’ starting quarterback for the rest of the season, and Rex would stay on through the 2014 season, but, really, it was the buttfumble that marked the end of the Rex Ryan era in New York. All the poise, all the braggadocio, all the playoff wins, all the blustery press conferences, all the hope, wiped out with a single head to a lineman’s ass.
Because we decided to stay the rest of the quarter, getting out of the MetLife parking lot took about an hour. I don’t even think we had the radio on, and if we did, it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing could have filled the void of regret during that car ride home. The only option was to languish in the silence. By the time we got home, the house was dark and it was late. Neither of us had any energy to do anything but go to bed.
My cousins don’t live close enough to New York to go to games anymore, and they both have kids who we hardly ever see. My uncle, who originally pressured my dad into buying the tickets, is now battling prostate cancer and is scheduled for heart surgery on Wednesday morning. Our tickets for this Sunday’s game are still unsold, and are currently up on StubHub for much less than face value. I haven’t been back to a Jets game since Nov. 22, 2012.