I: Being a Ghost Story of the New York Jets
The Eagles game was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The burial had taken place and the crushing defeat in Philadelphia was as dead as a door-nail.
Ryan knew it was dead. Of course he did. He had to prepare for the next game, on Christmas Eve, against the Giants.
Having stayed late in his office the night before the game, he finally went home and tried to sleep, when he heard the echoing sound of clanking footsteps on the stairs outside his bedroom door. Through the door came an apparition that chilled Ryan to the bone.
The same face, the very same. Leon Hess in his big glasses stood in the pale light before Ryan. Wrapped around him like a tail was a chain whose links were made of muddy fields, missed field goals and incomplete passes.
“Mr. Hess?” said Ryan. “What do you want with me?”
“Much!” – Hess’s voice, no doubt about it.
“Why do spirits walk the earth?” asked Ryan, “and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost of Hess returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men.”
“You are fettered,” said Ryan, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chains I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard. Every time we played like a bunch of horses’ asses. Every time I hired a Walton, a Coslet, a Carroll, a Kotite. Every time I signed a check for an O’Donnell, an Esiason, a Lott. Every time we drafted a Haight, a Vick, a Cadigan. When I moved us in with the Giants I added 30 yards to this sucker.”
“Jesus,” said Ryan. “When you put it like that…”
The ghost set up a cry, and clanked its chains hideously.
“Oh! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Mr. Hess,” faltered Ryan.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “The fans were my business. The Vince Lombardi Trophy was my business. The Jets were my business!”
“Any way,” the Ghost continued, “My time is nearly done. You will be haunted by three spirits.”
“Kraft, Belichick and Brady, I’ll bet,” Ryan muttered, “those mother…”
“Look to see me no more,” the Ghost interrupted, “and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”
The apparition walked backward from him and was gone. Ryan tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable and went straight to bed.
II: The First of the Three Spirits
When Ryan awoke, the clock was striking 12.
“Here we go…” he muttered as a strange figure appeared, dressed in Jets cap and satin jacket, one finger stuck up its nose.
“Are you the spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” Ryan asked.
“I am!” came the reply. “I am the Ghost of Jets teams past.”
“You’re Joe Walton, aren’t you?” said Ryan. “What business do you have here?”
“Your welfare!” replied the Ghost. “Rise! And walk with me!”
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall and stood upon a parking lot.
“Good Heaven!” said Ryan. “I was bred in this place! I was a boy here!”
The spirit gazed upon him mildly. Ryan was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long forgotten! He begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.
“I could walk it blindfold,” said Ryan as they entered Shea Stadium. Down on the tattered field in front of them stood a quarterback, young and tall.
“These are but shadows of the things that have been’” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
He pointed to the slim young quarterback warming up on the sidelines.
“That’s Ken O’Brien,” said the Spirit. “He was drafted for this stadium. He threw a tight spiral that could cut through the Shea Stadium wind and he and I were going to take the Jets back to the top. We started out here. It is 1983, my first year as head coach, his rookie season. Look how he throws that ball!”
“You could have had Marino though,” Ryan pointed out.
“O’Brien was good enough,” said the Ghost of Joe Walton in mournful tones. “But I ruined him. I let him take a beating behind a terrible offensive line. ‘Kenny Timex’ they called him. He takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.”
Ryan looked down at the sprightly youngster rifling passes to his teammates and tried to reconcile it with the O’Brien he remembered.
“He was sacked 353 times in his career, and that’s just the regular season,” the Ghost continued. “62 times in 1985 alone. Andre Tippett knocked him out of the wild card game that year.”
Ryan stifled a yawn. “Sure,” he said, “that’s a shame and all, but what does this have to do with me?”
“Didn’t you watch the Ravens game!” the Spirit suddenly barked out. Didn’t you see the pounding Sanchez took? And last week, against the Eagles? You left Wayne Hunter in there all day and Sanchez got the snot knocked out of him! I’ve got news for you Rex, you let your quarterback take a lickin’ like that and sooner or later they stop tickin’, believe me! Now get your head out of your ass and protect your quarterback or THAT” he pointed down at O’Brien, “will happen again.”
Ryan was suddenly conscious of being exhausted, overcome by drowsiness, and he really needed a snack. Finally, he was aware of being back in his bedroom and sank into a heavy sleep.
III: The Second of the Three Spirits
Awakening in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Ryan saw a ghostly light spilling under the door. Getting up softy, he shuffled over in his slippers.
The moment Ryan’s hand was on the handle, a voice called out to him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.
“Christ,” said Ryan. “It’s Tiny Jim.”
“I am the Ghost of Jets teams present,” said Jim Leonhard. “Come in! Come in and know me better, man!”
“The Ghost of Jets teams present? That doesn’t really make much sense,” Ryan grumbled.
“Come on,” said the Spirit, “we all knew the gig was up when I went down again.”
“Spirit,” said Ryan, humbly, “conduct me where you will.”
A stadium materialized before them, packed with baying Patriots fans. As Ryan watched, a sick feeling growing in his stomach, the crowd rose to its feet as a tall figure collected a pass and ran through the Jets’ secondary.
“Gronkowski,” Ryan growled.
“Yes, it was Gronkowski on this day,” said the spirit, “but I could just as easily have shown you Fred Davis, or Brent Celek or Jason Witten, or…”
“I get the picture,” said Ryan angrily, “We struggle with tight ends.”
“You struggled even when I was in the game,” said Leonhard, rubbing his knee absent-mindedly. “With me gone…”
“What’s your point, Jimmy?” Ryan asked, none too politely.
The Spirit looked at him coldly.
“The point is, get a fricking safety, you moron!”
Ryan closed his eyes in despair, but when he opened them again, the Spirit was gone. The clock struck 12. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, Ryan beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. By now, his urge to have a snack was well and truly gone.
IV: The Last of the Spirits
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Ryan bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. There was no Super Bowl ring on that hand.
“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Jets teams yet to come?” said Ryan.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
“You are about to show me shadows of things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Ryan pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.
“Ghost of the future!” Ryan exclaimed. “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But, as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another coach from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Lead on!”
The city seemed to spring up around them. The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of men, and Ryan advanced to listen to their talk.
“When was he fired?” asked one.
“Last night, I believe,” answered another.
“Not before time,” said a red-faced gentleman. “Missing the playoffs three years in a row is a disgrace.”
“It wasn’t all his fault,” said a third man, causing Ryan to smile hopefully.
“Sanchez was never the same after that injury, and they just wouldn’t commit to the run. And I can’t believe they didn’t bring in a new safety until this year.”
Ryan’s smile faded and died.
“It all stops with the head coach,” the red-faced gentleman said again. “Thank God he’s gone now. I was two years old when we last won a Super Bowl and now I don’t know if there’ll ever be another. He promised us. He guaranteed it.”
The city dissolved around them and they were in a wood-paneled hall, in front of a list of names in gold leaf under the heading ‘Former Head Coaches’. The Spirit lifted its hand once more and pointed at the last name on the list.
“Before I draw near to that list to which you point,” said Ryan, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they the shadows of things that may be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed toward the list by which it stood. Ryan crept toward it, trembling as he went and following the finger, read upon the wood his own name, REX RYAN, 2009-2013.
“Am I that coach who was fired?” he cried, upon his knees. “Am I the coach who failed to win the Super Bowl? No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”
The finger was still there.
“Spirit!” Ryan cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the coach I was. I will not be the coach I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. The Spirit shrank, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
V: The End of It
Yes! And the bedpost was his own! The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
“I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future!” Ryan repeated as he scrambled out of bed.
“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” he said. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. Never mind. I don’t care!”
Throwing up his window he looked down at a passer-by.
“What’s today?” he called.
“Eh?” replied the boy, “Today? Why, Christmas Eve!”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” said Ryan to himself. “I haven’t missed the Giants game. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can.”
He headed for the stadium. “Run the ball!” he cackled as he went. “Ground and pound! Protect the quarterback! Draft a safety, that’ll have to wait, but we can give Hunter some help today, yes! Just wait until I see Schotty!”
Ryan was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more. And to the Jets, whose playoff hopes did NOT die, he became a second Weeb Ewbank.
He became as good a friend, as good a coach, and as good a man as the good old city knew, and it was always said of him, that he knew how to coach a football team.
And so, as Tiny Jim observed, “J, E, T, S, Jets! Jets! Jets!”