Sack Exchange: The Definitive Oral History of the 1980s New York Jets
by Greg Prato
Publisher – ECW Press
Copyright – 2011
Rating – 8/10
Summary – During the early-1980s, the New York Jets seemed on the verge of winning a Super Bowl. They never got there. But the team had more than its fare share of larger-than-life characters and many great games. Author Greg Prato does a good job of collecting the ex-Jets’ reminiscences in a book that all of “Gang Green’s” fans will enjoy.
Review – After years of losing and an abysmal start to the 1981 season, the New York Jets came out of nowhere to clinch a playoff berth. The team was led by a fierce defensive line nicknamed “The New York Sack Exchange.” As a football-mad young boy, I watched the Jets rise. (Football never seemed as exciting again). Author Greg Prato tells the story of the early-1980s Jets in the good book Sack Exchange.
Glory Days at Shea – 1981 to 1983
One thing that prospective readers should know at the start is that while Sack Exchange covers all of the 1980s, it focuses on a few of those years. Author Greg Prato starts with 1976 and quickly follows the Jets through the 1980 season as they tried to rebuild after the end of the Joe Namath years. The heart of the book is its account of the Jets’ rise during the early eighties, 1981 to 1983.
During those three seasons, the Jets qualified for the playoffs for the first time in twelve seasons (1981), made it to the AFC Championship game (after the 1982 season), and then disappointed when expectations were highest (1983). As one might guess, much time is spent on the “woulda, shoulda, couldas” factors that caused the Jets to fall short. Prato devotes considerable attention to the decision in early-1983 to fire head coach Walt Michaels just after the Jets had been within a game of the Super Bowl.
Author Prato also devotes much space to Jets owner Leon Hess’ decision to move the team (following the 1983 season) from rickety Shea Stadium in Queens to Giants Stadium in northern New Jersey. Most of the players and fans regard the move as a huge mistake, because in their minds – the Jets identity was tied to Shea and its Queens location. Also, many of the team’s fans found it difficult to get to the games at Giants Stadium.
(As an aside, a few years ago, I saw a special on the NFL Network on the 1970s Minnesota Vikings teams that played their games outdoors, on real grass at old Metropolitan Stadium. Interestingly, the Vikes fans said the same things about the old Met that the Jets fans said about Shea).
Sack Exchange covers the 1984 through 1989 seasons, but there is considerably less space devoted to these years. For Prato, as for the players, the Jets seemed to lose something after moving to New Jersey.
A View from the Stands – Johnny “Bubba” Caruso
The biggest surprise in the book is the material provider by a Jets fan named Johnny Caruso. Caruso’s comments provide a fan’s perspective on everything that happened with the 1980s Jets. Certainly, he enjoyed himself at the games. Consider these anecdotes.
– According to Caruso, he never paid to get into Shea Stadium. Along with a large group of friends, he would offer the low-paid ticket taker $150 or so to allow them into the stadium. When the Jets moved to New Jersey, the bribes stopped working.
– After games, many of the Jets players would tailgate with fans in the Shea Stadium parking lot. Caruso has some excellent stories of eating and drinking with Joe Klecko, Dan Alexander, Joe Fields, Scott Dierking and other Jets.
– In December 1981, the Jets beat Green Bay at a frigid Shea Stadium to clinch a playoff berth. Before the game, Caruso threw a bottle that grazed Green Bay quarterback Lynn Dickey, who was warming up. After the game, Caruso, his friends, and several thousand others stormed the field, ripped down the goalposts, and tore chunks of sod from the field. By the time Caruso got to the subway platform, his friends had stuffed the sod into his pants. Then, in Caruso’s R-rated words…
“When I got to the subway platform, I declared that I had to take a dump, and dropped trou, and let this thing plop right to the floor [laughs]. Oh, the people on the subway that weren’t part of the game … I picked up my pants and everybody was going nuts. I just screamed, “Oh, what a relief!” And then, we heard some guy say to somebody else, ‘Wow, he didn’t even wipe’” (p. 131).
Predictably, Caruso hated the Jets’ move to the suburbs. Also he makes good point that the NFL was built on the loyalty of working-class fans; fans who are being now being forgotten as teams price them out of the market for tickets.
I’m not sure that I’d want to sit next to Caruso at a game, but he adds a lot of fun to Sack Exchange.
Behind the Scenes
One surprising aspect of the book is that Prato had access to most of the players and coaches associated with the early-1980s Jets. Many of the front-office personnel also gave interviews. Prato uses his access to show readers what life was like with the Jets when the cameras were off.
A lot of the anecdotes are lighthearted, as the Jets discuss the practical jokes that they liked to play on each other and their nights on the town in New York City. For instance, at the famed Studio 54, someone snapped a picture of quarterbacks Matt Robinson and Pat Ryan with the 1978 Penthouse Pet of the Year. That must have been the life 😉
However, some of the “insider” material is less happy. There were some racial divisions among the early-1980s Jets, with white and black players voluntarily dividing themselves into separate cliques. On the other hand, superstar defensive end Mark Gastineau was unpopular among his teammates, in part because he was not seen as a “team” guy. A disappointing chapter concerns steroids. Only Joe Klecko admits that he used ‘roids, though many contend that steroid use was common on the team.
Time to Punt – Areas for Improvement
Make no mistake, I like this book. However, there are a few areas that could be improved a little. In two chapters at the end of the book, the former Jets players list their biggest team and individual rivals. These chapters are fairly predictable. Another missed opportunity (also at the end of the book) is a chapter on ex-Jets owner Leon Hess. Hess prominently figures in the story, particularly in the decision to fire Walt Michaels and the Jets’ move to New Jersey. But the Hess material that made it into Sack Exchange is too short and does not speak to his influence on the team.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is the last one, “Today,” which tells what happens to yesterday’s Jets when the cheering stopped. (Most the guys have normal jobs and many have children who are athletes). The chapter briefly addresses whether yesterday’s Jets are suffering from injuries today. (Lineman Ted Banker says “…my body is falling apart – to be quite honest” (p. 422)). But given that injuries among ex-players is such a “hot” topic, I would have liked to have seen more comments.
The Final Gun
Of course, Sack Exchange isn’t War and Peace or Moby Dick. Reading it won’t make you a better person or give you any deep, philosophical insights. But it is a lot fun. Jets fans and fans of the 1980s NFL will enjoy a look at this bygone era.