The Jets lost one of their most famous fans Wednesday with the stunning death of actor James Gandolfini, 51, aka Tony Soprano, who reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack or stroke while vacationing in Italy.
"We're deeply saddened to hear about the passing of our friend James Gandolfini," the Jets tweeted Wednesday night. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family & friends."
Gandolfini was a Jersey guy long before he became a suburban mobster on TV. He was born and raised in New Jersey and attended Rutgers. He went to many Jets home games in recent years. In fact, he witnessed at least three memorable games -- a fourth-quarter comeback win over the Texans in 2010, the emotional and dramatic 2011 opening win over the Cowboys on the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11 and the crushing Christmas Eve loss to the Giants in 2011.
The accompanying photo is from the Christmas Eve game. Judging from the look of angst on Gandolfini's face, it could be his reaction to Victor Cruz's 99-yard touchdown. (On a personal note, the gentleman in the background is my father. Gandolfini, seated in the row ahead of him, graciously posed for a picture with members of my family before the game.)
Not many people know this, but Gandolfini narrated the video of the Jets' 2011 season, which was used as part of NFL Films' "NFL Yearbook" series. It was probably the best thing to happen to the Jets that year, an 8-8 disappointment.
Gandolfini's most celebrated connection to the Jets occurred in June 2007, when then-coach Eric Mangini made a cameo appearance (as himself) in one of the final episodes of "The Sopranos." Mangini didn't have any speaking lines; it was just a quick exchange of pleasantries with Tony Soprano in the fictional restaurant of his boyhood friend, Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia).
"It took me a long time to get into character," Mangini joked at the time. "Playing me eating dinner is a real stretch, but I worked with an acting coach and I think I really nailed it."
Mangini said he wasn't afraid of getting whacked.
"I knew the context of what we were doing prior to getting into it and felt very comfortable with being at the restaurant," he said, laughing. "It's not like Tony and I had any previous affiliation or subsequent affiliation. It was more or less just meeting another person at a restaurant who happened to be a fan of the Jets."