The storied “J-E-T-S” chant is oddly abrupt. Someone shouts “J-E-T-S!” and the crowd responds “Jets! Jets! Jets!” and that’s it. There’s nowhere else to go with it, and it would sound odd to repeat it. So it stops. It’s exciting in a primal way, but as soon as you start to get yourself wrapped up in the collective adrenaline, it’s already over.
This is the sort of thing you notice when you’ve heard said chant about 115 times during an eight-hour drive on a bus filled with 55 crazed Jets fans, like I did last week, heading to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game. The trip was promoted by fan site JetNation and run by The Stadium Events’ Todd Hutson, who organizes sports outings across the country. (Hutson’s website has pictures of him in the attire of several different teams; he’s actually a Chicago Bears fan, though he was wearing a Bart Scott Jets jersey all day.) The bus left Long Island at 4 a.m. Sunday, picked me up in Manhattan at 4:45, and made one last stop at the Secaucus Wal-Mart. The chant started shortly thereafter and continued on and off for the entire ride, interrupted only by the bus’s televisions, which played Jets highlight videos and six episodes of The King Of Queens. “That was a request after last week’s trip to Foxboro,” Hutson told me.
In the front of the bus was a gaggle of fans from Mineola, Long Island, mostly composed of volunteer firefighters, who were fairly well behaved. In the back there were groups of cops and bricklayers who got revved up quicker than the bus itself. At 5:15 a.m., bricklayer Dan “Flash” McNeely handed me a shot of Jack Daniel’s on my way to the already-wafting “restroom.” “You can have this as long as you quote me on this,” he says, pointing at my notebook. “Fuck. Pittsburgh.” He then helpfully spelled it out. “F … U … C … ”
As we approached Heinz Field, Mathew Sanderleaf Jr., 25, a Mineola firefighter, puts his Jets fire helmet on. It’s an old Mineola F.D. helmet that he painted in green and white. (His father, sitting behind him, had worn it for a while earlier, and told me it’s given him a measure of respect for iconic Jets fan Fireman Ed. “This helmet, it kills your neck,” he said, taking it off mere minutes after putting it on.) The younger Sanderleaf then hands me a potion called “glogg,” which involves vodka, port wine, and dried fruit, mixed together in a secret recipe his father will not reveal.
When we arrive at the Heinz Field tailgate six hours before game time, the bus unloads and a large Jets flag is quickly hoisted up. We’re immediately crowded by stray New York fans as if the bus were a traveling embassy. Hutson sets up grills and unloads the five vats of booze, which are iced, even though the wind chill in Pittsburgh is approximately minus 85,000. The crowd around the bus swells to nearly 300 Jets fans, drinking, cheering, and sporadically starting that chant, and Steelers fans make their way over to socialize. I expect a scuffle or two, but to a man, every Jets fan I talk to says the Steelers fans were the friendliest they’d ever encountered. “They’re classy here,” says one of the back-of-the-bus guys, ten minutes before he burns a Terrible Towel.
The Jets were five hours away from what everyone hoped would be their first conference championship in 42 years, and the gravity was lost on no one. I expected that some fans, after six hours of grilling, screaming, and heavily boozing, would be too exhausted for the actual game. But as kickoff approached, things only got more intense. Fans who had scattered began to coalesce around the bus. The chants became incessant. Everyone put their helmets on. They painted their faces. This was it.
“I’ve been a season-ticket holder since they were the Titans, back in the Polo Grounds,” Mike Desepoli told me. Desepoli is 72, a retired bar owner from Nesconset, Long Island. When he started going to games, tickets cost $12.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” he said as we prepared to walk into the stadium. “I wouldn’t miss this night for the world.”