Chrebet Gave Us Reason to Believe
Wayne Chrebet will officially retire Friday here at Weeb Ewbank Hall. He is just a few months short of 33 and his remarkable football playing career is over. Chrebet says it will be "weird" to tell people he is retired.
"I'm grateful that I did last this long. I was 21 when I was a rookie, so even if I played for a long time I was going to leave the game at a fairly young age," Chrebet said this week. "I have my health and I have a lot of business ventures going, so hopefully it will be my second career."
We talked to Chrebet via phone while he ran errands. At the same time, his former teammates took part in one of their Organized Team Activities (OTAs). There is no longer the familiar sight of #80 lining up in the slot before torching a defensive back or Chrebet tutoring an undrafted free agent wideout. Instead he will address the media in what promises to be an emotional occasion.
"I've thought about this one throughout my whole career about how it would be. I don't know if I can play out how it's going to go, but I'm sure it's going to be very emotional," he said.
"There are a lot of people I want to thank. Some people don't know I'm retiring; some people have assumed it already happened. I think it's the right time to finally thank the right people: the fans, my teammates, and people who were with me for the ride. Just letting the emotions flow will make it easy."
It has been a hell of a ride for Chrebet and those of us fortunate enough to witness his brilliance. Chrebet, a Garfield, New Jersey native, was a college standout at Hofstra but went undrafted and didn't sign with the Jets until April 25, 1995. The young local believed he could defeat the odds and make the team.
"I was confident but I'm not going lie, I didn't expect any of this," he said. "I just thought that numbers-wise if I just get a chance, then I would have an opportunity to make the squad."
Little by little, the 5'10" Chrebet made his mark. He started by finding seams in the defensive backfield against his veteran teammates in camp before collecting 66 receptions as a rookie.
"I knew early on that I could play, just by going out against some of the guys we had on our defense because we had real good cornerbacks," Chrebet said. "Then on Sundays, I started going out there and felt comfortable. I got to the point where I could just impose my will out there and felt like there was nothing I couldn't do."
Some critics wondered aloud if Chrebet was just a one-year wonder who would disappear from the NFL landscape. His answer was emphatic, grabbing 84 balls his second season for 909 yards and totaling three touchdowns. Wayne Chrebet was here to stay.
"Most people always wonder if their first year success was just a one year thing and the second year started and again, I felt comfortable out there, it just felt like home," he said.
Chrebet became the face of New York Jets football. He earned the "Mr. Third Down" moniker because the Jets would always throw to #80 on third down and he'd make the reception, moving the chains in the process. Chrebet was not only clutch but fearless. He never had a problem accepting punishment. Instead he took it and defenses paid for it throughout the league.
"I think that part is courage, part is stupidity," said Chrebet of his gutsy play. "The truth is I would make myself believe that I could do things that maybe I couldn't."
And that's why we gravitated towards Chrebet. You couldn't help but respect an 188-pound wideout who truly laid everything on the line for the team.
"It ultimately ended my career playing that way, but that's when I felt most alive out there. The big hit gets the crowd on their feet," he said. "Making that extra yard or inch got the crowd on their feet. There was something about doing what nobody else wanted to do is where I felt I could make my mark in the league and hopefully play a long time. It was the thing that got me most noticed and the thing that ultimately ended my career."
The force of those violent collisions left Chrebet with a number of well-documented injuries. But he didn't empty his locker before totaling 580 receptions, 7,365 receiving yards and 41 touchdown receptions. He was labeled as an overachiever.
"I don't think it's the right term, I think I took the abilities I was given and made the best of them," Chrebet said. "I don't know what the term would be for someone like me, but at this point there's no sense in thinking about. I am just grateful for the career that I had. If people want to label it, so be it."
It would be fair to label Chrebet a good teammate. Away from the cameras and the microphones, there was a different side to Chrebet. He was a reliable friend, a guy players liked to be around. Whether it was with Vinny or LC or even a wide-eyed rookie, Wayne was relaxed and playful.
"I had a sister growing up and was as close as can be, but I never had brothers," he said. "Whenever I was on the team, I considered each one of my teammates my brothers –whether they were younger, older, black or white, it didn't matter. When I was out there, I was willing to do whatever I could to help them succeed.
"I'm going to miss them all, I had a chance to meet great athletes and play with great people over the years, everybody I was on the field with out there, I consider each of them family."
And you were his family too. Chrebet not only related to the fan, but he fed off their energy. You must remember that before he slipped on #80 for the Green & White, Chrebet was a young boy just trying to get a ticket to enter the Meadowlands.
"It's a surreal feeling, I was always in sink with what the fans felt, I grew up going to Jets and Giants games - we didn't go to many games, maybe once or twice a year – and my Dad would scalp tickets on Route 17," said Chrebet.
People embraced Chrebet's tenacity from day one. He has been stopped countless times since and told how he's inspired people. Possibly the greatest thing Chrebet did was give people a reason to believe.
"When I look at the stands during pregame, or even in between series' or walking into the stadium or driving in, and I see a father and son or family, and they're all wearing my jersey - I know what that feels like and it's amazing that I've had that impact on people," he said. "I'm glad I gave them something to believe in. Everybody knew that when I got a rise out of the crowd is when I knew I made a good play. It wasn't just making the play; it was just getting the fans on their feet that made me happiest when I was on the field."
Chrebet will be happy off the field too. He is a family man whose voice resounds of pride whenever his young sons, Lukas Kane and Cade Jagger, are mentioned. Wayne has some more time on his hands now to help his wife Amy, his former college sweetheart at Hofstra, with the daily family chores.
"One of the best things is the fact that I can be there when my kids go to school or daycare and be able to pick them up and spend more time with them," he said. "I can already see that it's changed in my relationship with them as far as I was always second fiddle to mom because I wasn't around as much. Now I'm a part of there life and it's great - I cherish it. Some days I miss being here so much but it's worth it to be that close to be to my kids again."
He will remain close with the community as well. In May, Chrebet joined a number of Jets employees at a gathering celebrating the team's new practice facility in Florham Park, New Jersey. In two weeks, Chrebet will again participate in the Alliance for Lupus Research (ALR) Walk at the Meadowlands. And just across the street from Hofstra at Weeb Ewbank Hall lies the old Bogart's, a bar & grill which no longer operates. Chrebet is hoping to transform the establishment for the locals.
"It's still in the process to see if it will work out. It's going to be an upscale restaurant and lounge, though it's not etched in stone yet," Chrebet said. "Something I always wanted to do was to give back to the community, to have a place to go to watch the games and to have a place to go to after the Hofstra games. Hopefully it works out."
One would be inclined to think retirement will work out just fine for Chrebet. He will miss the game and the game will miss him, but Chrebet will be remembered for generations to come. He epitomized all that is good in sports by working and sacrificing and by playing with such heart.
Saying goodbye to a legend is never easy.