My first memory of Wayne Chrebet took place in Jackson, Mississippi, of all places. He was hogging a pay phone and I was on deadline.
It was 1995, Chrebet's rookie year. He was still a no-name with the New York Jets when they played the Philadelphia Eagles in a preseason game at Jackson State, which hosted to promote pro football in the area. Then-coach Rich Kotite graciously allowed the beat writers to fly home on the team charter, but that meant calling in quotes to our newspaper offices before leaving the stadium. This was the pre-cell phone era, so we had to do it the old-fashioned way, dictating quotes for our running game stories.
There was a pay phone outside the locker room, but I got stuck behind this undersized wide receiver from Hofstra. So I waited. And waited. It became clear he was on the phone with his parents, giving them a rundown of his performance in the game. I'm guessing the game wasn't televised live in the New York area. Pretty cool, I thought. Here was this long-shot local kid, living the dream, excitedly sharing the moment with loved ones.
Who knew the bottom-of-the-roster guy in front of me would become one of the most prolific wide receivers in Jets history?
I'll be thinking about that night in Mississippi on Monday night at MetLife Stadium, where Chrebet will be inducted into the Jets' Ring of Honor. It's a deserving honor for a player who defied the odds and enjoyed a terrific career -- 580 receptions (second in franchise history), 7,365 receiving yards (third) and 41 touchdowns.
If there had been a "Hard Knocks" television series back in '95, Chrebet would've been an instant star, captivating the country with his story. But he, too, had to do it the old-fashioned way, showing up every Sunday and being better than the other guys.
Chrebet visited the Jets' facility the other day and did some reminiscing. He recalled his first regular-season game, which occurred in Miami.
"What's funny about that is, I know Boomer Esiason tells this story how I'm out there, we're trying to play and he's trying to put me in motion and go and I'm looking around," Chrebet said. "He's like, 'What’s the matter?' And I’m like, 'That's Don Shula and Dan Marino over there.' He's like, 'All right ... you've got to get into the game.'"
It's fitting the Jets are playing the Dolphins for Chrebet's induction. One of his best games was the Monday Night Miracle in 2000.
"Me and Vinny [Testaverde] always laugh about how, by the end of that game, we had run so many plays, the same play over and over, that in the huddle, Vinny’s like, 'Do one of these or do one of these,' because it was like we were running out of plays, we ran the same thing," Chrebet said. "He was like, 'All right, do this one, but just kind of hook around.' It was like straight playground football."
Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson formed a terrific tandem from 1996 to 1999, but theirs was a complicated and cool (as in frosty) relationship. In his autobiography, released in 1997, Johnson calls Chrebet the "team mascot." Naturally, it was a big story in those days, back-page fodder for the tabloids.
Bill Parcells, who always felt confrontation was healthy, put them side-by-side in the locker room, making for some interesting sessions with the media. I can't tell you how many times they stood next to each other, talking about the other in separate interviews, but never acknowledging his presence. It was like there was an invisible wall between them.
But on the field, there were no barriers. They left the personal stuff in the locker room.
"As far as now, if I saw him, I'd say hello and I'd reminisce, whatever," Chrebet said. "I have no ill feelings toward the guy. When me and him played together, you'd have a great argument that we were one of the best tandems in the league, especially in '98. We blocked for each other. ... We took care of each other, we practiced. We weren't going to go out and break bread together, but I respect the guy. I respect that he's made a career for himself after football. He got a Super Bowl ring, right? So obviously I'm jealous about that."
The relationship was the focus of the famous "Flashlight" game in 2000. During the run-up, Johnson, traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, made headlines by saying Chrebet was a flashlight compared to his star. It backfired on Johnson. He had a terrible game and Chrebet caught the game-winning touchdown on an halfback option pass from Curtis Martin.
"He threw a hell of a duck, but I caught it and it's one of the best memories, given the circumstances of the game and the history between me and Key," Chrebet said, calling it "poetic justice."
At halftime Monday night, it'll be 1995 all over again. Chrebet will be talking to admirers -- a stadium full of them -- and that beat writer from the pay-phone line will be on another deadline, except this time he won't be in a rush. Chrebet can take as long as he wants. He earned the moment.