On Monday night at halftime of the game against the Dolphins, the membership in the Jets' Ring of Honor will swell to 10 with the induction of the four members of the Class of 2011 — LB Larry Grantham, RB Freeman McNeil, DE Gerry Philbin and WR Al Toon. Over five days we're presenting a profile on each player along with a slideshow recalling their playing careers and audio of a conference call each player had with reporters this past week. Today: Freeman McNeil.
As a member of the first class of Ring of Honor inductees in 2010, RB Curtis Martin is unequivocally the most recognizable and highly decorated tailback in Jets history. But somebody had to set all those rushing records that Martin would eventually break.
Freeman McNeil will be inducted into the Jets' Ring of Honor at halftime of Monday night's rivalry game with the Miami Dolphins.
"The guys that have been named already were fantastic," said McNeil. "They have made their presence known, and they did things that set them apart. To be recognized is really just a great privilege. It's an amazing award, it really is."
Drafted with the third overall pick in 1981, the former UCLA tailback went on to an illustrious 12-year career with the Jets. In his rookie season, McNeil led the Green & White with 623 yards rushing. One year later, he led the NFL with 786 rushing yards in the strike-shortened nine-game '82 season.
When McNeil retired at the conclusion of the 1992 campaign, he left as the Jets' all-time leader in rushing yards (8,074) and attempts (1,798). Both records would be broken by Martin, but for a generation of Jets fans, McNeil was the face of the Jets offense.
He Did It with His Teammates
To this day, McNeil still holds the Jets record for career rushing yards per carry with a 4.5 average, good enough for 14th all-time among running backs with at least 10 years of experience.
"Being in the NFL is just an honor," he said. "Being a part of it, and having success, was just amazing. It's absolutely gratifying when you're in the NFL."
McNeil, in all his humility, was quick to note the efforts of his teammates when he spoke of some of his favorite memories in a Jets uniform. For instance, he glowed about the team's grueling 17-14 win in the 1982 AFC Divisional Playoff win against the Los Angeles Raiders.
"Even in that game, I don't think I did that well," he said.
Maybe McNeil didn't do well by his own standards, but it's worth noting that he rushed 23 times for 101 yards that day.
"In fact, I took a big hit and fumbled that ball, which could have lost us the game. But I had guys on that team like tackle Marvin Powell, who made the tackle to keep it from turning into a touchdown, guys like linebacker Lance Mehl, who intercepted Jim Plunkett twice in order to seal the win. Being a part of that stuff was just absolutely amazing."
The playoff game that preceded that Raiders win is perhaps the one that Jets fans most remember about McNeil. Freeman ran roughshod through the Bengals, posting a team-record 202 yards on only 21 carries in the 44-17 drubbing in Cincinnati. He also added a 14-yard touchdown pass to WR Derrick Gaffney for good measure.
"People talk about that being a great game," he said. "All I did was run through holes that were gaping. My offensive linemen just did a great job."
That single-game record stood until Martin literally one-upped McNeil by going for 203 on Dec. 3, 2000, against the Indianapolis Colts. It took Martin 30 carries to eclipse the team record, but McNeil's mark could have been substantially higher if it were not for one minor detail.
"We were very successful to the point where I was pulled out of the game in the fourth quarter," he said. "I was actually watching the last seven to eight minutes of the game."
Still a Part of the Jets
McNeil proved to be a primetime performer throughout his career. He led the Jets to six playoff appearances in his 12 years and reached the AFC Championship in early '83 before falling short to the Dolphins.
The successful Jets teams of the Eighties remind McNeil of the current squad. Making his home in Long Island, McNeil still keeps tabs on his former club. He even made an appearance at training camp this past August.
"When I see the team, I reminisce about the times I played," he said. "I look at them from afar, but I still feel like I'm a part of the Jets because it's a part of my history."
The game has changed significantly since the days when McNeil tore up the turf and the record books in the kelly green Jets uniforms of a bygone era. Nonetheless, he sees parallels between his former teammates and the current squad.
"When I played, we were on the cutting edge of changing the game, making it ours, putting a piece of us in it," he said. "Now I see these guys doing the same thing. When I watch [Mark] Sanchez, D'Brickashaw [Ferguson], Number 24 [Darrelle Revis] and all the other guys go out there make plays, it reminds me of the guys I played with. Guys like Al Toon, Ken O'Brien, Wesley Walker, Joe Klecko and Marvin Powell."
That's high praise, comparing the all-time Jets greats with the players who don today's darker green and white unis. In particular, McNeil is most impressed by the player who now wears his former number:
"Darrelle's figured it out. He's one of those guys that has transcended his position. Now he's starting to ride it. To see him, he's the epitome of what you would call one of the football players that just changes the position and the way it's looked at. What had been the norm now is not. You can look at it and judge by him the talent that's out there because he's set the bar so high."
McNeil and Revis share more than a number, as both have proven to be able to handle the intense spotlight and pressure that naturally accompanies a top athlete in New York. The area has a reputation of being unforgiving, but there is no better place in the world when you're one of the best.
"It has a lot to do with the people that come to watch the games. It's part of their culture," McNeil said. "They're devoted to the Jets, win, lose or draw. You just have to play to a standard that's above most. They will cheer when a player goes out there and is at the top of his game all the time. They don't forget. The pressure is on you to produce."
There is no question that Freeman McNeil played to a standard "above most." He played to a standard nearly above all.
"To be memorialized by Jets fans, all the media that surrounded the team, fellow players and teammates, and on into the current guys, is just an awesome honor," he said. "I'm very grateful for that."