Monday, September 8, 2008

Cruel Summer?

Wayne Chrebet wasn’t even the Hofstra player most likely to make a professional football roster in the summer of 1995. Linebacker Herve Damas and defensive end Fritz Avin seemed to have much better chances of making the Buffalo Bills and the CFL’s Ottawa Roughriders, respectively, as undrafted free agents than Chrebet did of making the Jets, even after Chrebet’s brilliant senior season (1,200 yards, 16 TDs) and a similarly impressive workout with the Jets, for whom he caught something like 48 of 50 passes during a workout on campus shortly after the NFL draft.

Even then, it was hard to envision him as anything other than a training camp curiosity: The local star who gets a cup of coffee before his inevitable departure with the first cuts. It was a neat story, some good publicity for both the Jets and Hofstra.

Chrebet entered training camp last on the depth chart at receiver. People were mispronouncing his name and the security guard wouldn’t let him into the Jets complex because he didn’t think Chrebet could possibly be a football player.

Of course, as we all know, the cheapest free agent signing the Jets ever made turned out to provide unimaginable dividends. In retrospect, though, should we have been surprised that Chrebet made play after play to earn a spot in the week one starting lineup?

First of all, the Jets had a starving need for competent wide receivers following the trade of Hempstead’s Rob Moore and the release of the aging Art Monk. Tight end Johnny Mitchell (snort) and backup running backs Brad Baxter, Richie Anderson and Adrian Murrell didn’t exactly throw fear into anyone. The most experienced wide receiver in camp? That would be second-year player Ryan Yarborough, he of the six career catches.

The Jets selected two wide receivers in the draft, but fourth-rounder Tyrone Davis ate his way to tight end (and caught two passes with the Jets in two years) and seventh-rounder Curtis Ceaser never caught an NFL pass. The Jets eventually acquired Charles Wilson from the Buccaneers, and his 45-catch season did nothing to disprove the notion that you’re not going to trade for a savior late in the summer.

Plus, even at 21, Chrebet had already spent his entire life proving people wrong and maximizing his slivers of opportunity. Chrebet wasn’t pursued after high school—his dad sent out videotapes to numerous colleges, a process he’d repeat with every NFL team following the 1994 season—and he was an afterthought in Manny Matsakis’ offense for most of his first two years.

Yet anyone who saw the guy over the course of the 1994 season could tell he had “it”—even if people have a hard time explaining what “it” is. I remember my dad, who gets excited about nothing, raving about Chrebet as we walked through the Student Center after Chrebet’s impressive performance in the Homecoming win over New Hampshire.

You can’t teach the toughness needed to climb from undrafted free agent to starter in the NFL. Nor can you teach the toughness needed to perform Chrebet’s non-glamorous yet essential job—the possession receiver who went over the middle on short yardage situations, absorbed the punishment and held on to the ball for the first down.

The guy who wasn’t supposed to make it past mid-August proved to be the ultimate survivor—and a prophetic one as well. “I plan on being here for a while,” Chrebet told Newsday in the summer of 1995.

Chrebet locked up a starting spot with five catches in the preseason finale against the Bengals. He caught his first touchdown pass in week two against the Colts, caught another one a week later against the Jaguars and made his most memorable catch against the Falcons in week four, when he outraced a bunch of defenders for a 31-yard gain before he was dragged down inside the five-yard-line. I remember hanging out at a bar near UConn, where we were celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday—hey, I told you there’s nothing to do there but drink—and when Chrebet’s play appeared on NFL Primetime I jumped up and started yelling about how I went to school with that guy.

He finished second on the Jets with 66 catches, all the while rooming with an ex-Hofstra teammate a few blocks west of campus. Chrebet finished first or second on the Jets in receptions seven times in his first eight seasons (in 2000, he finished third with 69 catches, one behind Curtis Martin) and was one of the few constants on the ever-tumultuous Jets.

The Jets drafted receivers with their first two picks in 1996—including this moronic “author”—and four more receivers over the next seven seasons. Chrebet outlasted them all (though Laveranues Coles came back to the Jets after two seasons with the Redskins). He caught passes from 13 different quarterbacks (including Martin against the Buccaneers and the “author” in 2000), played for four different head coaches and sported one of the best-selling uniforms in team history.

He was so good for so long that we eventually began to wonder what could have been for the guy who was never supposed to play a down in the NFL. The aftereffects of the multiple concussions he’d suffered—the “official” count is nine, which is a surely and frightfully conservative estimate—started piling up in 2001 and he caught just 73 passes while missing 17 games over his final three seasons.

He put off retirement following the 2003 and 2004 seasons before he had no choice after this. Chrebet once seemed destined to surpass Don Maynard as the top pass-catcher in team history, but he finished with 580 catches, 47 shy of the Hall of Famer.

In the end, the toughness that created an inspiring story also ensured it would have a conclusion as sad as it was inevitable. It’s easy, from here, to wonder why Chrebet kept going back for more until retirement was foisted upon him.

Most of us would spend the rest of our days with a smile plastered to our face if we ran made one catch and heard the appreciative roar of 80,000 fans. But we can’t comprehend the narcotic rush that must provide, nor why one catch is not enough. Or why 580 weren’t enough.

“If someone said I could play again,” Chrebet told the Newark Star-Ledger last September, “I’d be back out there tomorrow.”

Now you can only hope there’s not a sad coda to Chrebet's story. The Star-Ledger article—in which Chrebet talks of his awful memory, his inability to drive without a GPS and how he still regularly battles post-concussion malaise—paints a sobering and worrisome picture. And the pro football landscape is dotted with too many stories—some tragic—of players whose brains never recovered from the abuse they took on the field.

Chrebet made it clear to the Star-Ledger he has no regrets about his career and whatever price he may be paying. But still: You hope that, in his quiet moments, the guy who was never supposed to play an NFL snap doesn’t wonder what could have been if the summer of 1995 was the end instead of the beginning.

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