Joe Klecko’s Hall of Fame Election Recalls Bygone Jets Era

Perhaps it will make Jets’ fans a bit happier. Perhaps it will evoke the good memories of the 1980s, the Era That Almost Was for this star-crossed team.

The beating heart of those Jets’ teams — Joe Klecko — was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a senior candidate on Thursday. The former cornerback Darrelle Revis will be inducted, too.

No Jet defensive player had previously been elected. Only quarterback Joe Namath, wide receiver Don Maynard and running back Curtis Martin had gotten into the hallowed halls in Canton, Ohio, from the Jets. Namath announced Klecko’s selection at the N.F.L. Honors ceremony in Phoenix.

Klecko was an animating force. “Was I the leader of the team?” he asked recently. “I think it’s legitimate. I always felt the team needed me, no matter what. If I was hurt or the team faltering, I thought they needed me for the big play.”

And they got it from Klecko, a 6-foot-3, 260-pounder who was drafted out of Temple University — the 144th player selected — in the sixth round in 1977. He was a tough guy, yes, but he always thought the team came first.

The Jets went through the 1970s without a winning season, but the team made the playoffs four times during Klecko’s 11-season tenure. He went to the Pro Bowl four times and was twice voted an All-Pro. He starred at nose tackle, as pass-rushing end and as run-stopping tackle. He was voted the N.F.L.’s top defensive player in 1981.

And yet, he was always that guy driving the truck. He loved talking about his blue-collar days before Temple, playing semipro ball under the alias “Jim Jones of Poland University” (he never got paid), driving a truck and hinting at associates who, shall we say, were a smidgen behind the line of respectability.

The Jets made four playoff appearances in Klecko’s 11 seasons with them.Credit…Vic DeLucia/The New York Times

And then, by 1980, he was united on the Jets’ defensive line with Marty Lyons, Mark Gastineau and Abdul Salaam. A year later, the Jets finally got into a playoff game, and the quartet was christened with the sobriquet the Sack Exchange. (Klecko himself had 20.5, though the sack didn’t become an official statistic until the next year.) The team’s public-relations director, Frank Ramos, had seen a fan write those three words on a sheet at Shea Stadium, and Ramos used it in a news release. It stuck.

The group could have been a Hollywood creation: Lyons would stir pregame bedlam in the locker room by breaking, say, a table, and once he put his fist through a glass door; Salaam, who was born Larry Faulk but adopted the Arabic name meaning “Soldier of Peace,” silently did his job; Gastineau, flamboyant, chided by Klecko for celebrating after sacking the quarterback, seemed to do everything for attention.

Klecko, as did so many of his peers, played with an assortment of injuries. Lyons once marveled at how Klecko would practice with his foot in a cast, and then remove it on game day.

Klecko estimates he’s had almost a dozen surgeries, most of them after his playing days but related to the poundings he took — and administered. He would practice with his shoulder taped, then remove the strips on Sundays. One of his teammates described him as a throwback.

His presence was a key factor in those 1980s winning teams. But ironically, the way those playoffs ended may also have been the inspiration for the phrase “Same Old Jets” — an unfair comparison to clubs that seemed to pull defeat out of a march to victory.

There was that first Sack Exchange season of 1981, which ended with a wild-card game against Buffalo. The Jets had come back after trailing by 24-0, and were down by 31-27 with 10 seconds remaining. They had roared to the Bills’ 11-yard line. But Richard Todd’s pass was intercepted on the 1-yard line.

From left, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons, Abdul Salaam and Mark Gastineau were nicknamed the Sack Exchange for their pursuit of quarterbacks.Credit…J. S. Moses for The New York Times

The next season, they were one victory away from the Super Bowl when they played in Miami. That was the infamous “Mud Bowl,” when days of rain turned the Dolphins’ field into a squishy mess and made it difficult for the Jets’ acclaimed running back, Freeman McNeil. He could manage only 46 yards on 17 carries as the Jets were shutout and continued their playoff woes.

In 1985, they lost the wild-card game to New England after quarterback Ken O’Brien, the league’s top-rated passer that season, suffered a concussion and missed the second half. The Jets committed four turnovers.

And in 1986, the Jets had a divisional playoff victory seemingly sewn up. Leading by 20-10 with four minutes remaining, they had the Browns at second-and-24. Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar threw an incomplete pass. But Gastineau hit him late, resulting in first down by penalty, and Cleveland went on to win in double-overtime.

Meanwhile, Klecko benefited from Donald Trump’s largess. Trump had taken over the Generals of the United States Football League, which was started as a low-cost off-season diversion for N.F.L. fans. But once Trump got his hands on the team, he wanted the best players available, and he wooed Klecko.

The Jets, to keep Klecko, made him the highest-paid defensive player in the league at $830,000.

But the injuries had piled up. And after the 1987 season, the Jets’ team orthopedist, the noted Dr. James A. Nicholas — a pioneer in sports medicine — advised Klecko to quit.

Despite having undergone serious knee surgery, and shoulder surgery, and suffering from assorted problems, Klecko demurred. He felt his salary had something to do with the Jets not wanting him to play any longer.

He signed with the Indianapolis Colts and ended his career after the 1988 season.

But for Jets fans and those who knew him, he was the gritty, grind-it-out, selfless animator of the defense all those years. He made those around him better. Indeed, as he said, “I always felt that the team needed me, no matter what.”

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