Timing is everything, especially in the compressed story arcs that make up the NFL. And Mike D'Amato, a New Yorker and Long Islander all the way, made the most of his short time with the Jets in 1968, playing in 15 games, making two big playoff tackles and earning a Super Bowl III ring, before calling it one career and setting out on others.
D'Amato died of cardiac arrest in Florida in late November. He was 80.
When the Jets drafted him in the 10th round (264th overall) of the 1968 NFL draft (the leagues established a common draft before the two leagues finished their merger in 1970), D'Amato was no doubt thought of as local cannon fodder for that promising team's all-important training camp. He was born in Brooklyn in 1943 and attended Brooklyn Tech before putting in time on Wall Street and in the Air Force Reserve, and only then enrolling at Hofstra University — which in those days, of course, was the Jets' base of operations.
"I was ecstatic," D'Amato told newyorkjets.com's Jim Gehman in 2021 of being drafted by his home team. "I'm a New York guy, it's a New York team. What could be better? I had calls from other teams. Some of them said, 'We're going to get you in the third round' or 'We're going to get you in the fifth round.' But I was pleasantly surprised when I was drafted by the Jets.
"Certainly it had to have an effect on me because I was right at home. But you still had to put up with the other stuff. You're trying to make the team, so there's a lot of pressure on you. And I don't know whether that made a difference being at Hofstra for that."
It didn't seem to hurt during that fateful 1968 season. D'Amato sat out the Jets' season opener at Kansas City on the taxi squad, then played the next 15 games, as the rookie backup to SS Jim Hudson and also a kick-coverage contributor and on the depth chart to return punts and kickoffs, making his only pro KO return in Game 3 at Buffalo.
He saved his biggest tackles — or maybe they were merely his most memorable takedowns — for the postseason. Late in the AFL Championship Game against Oakland at Shea Stadium, Curley Johnson's last of 10 punts was fielded on the bounce by dangerous rookie PR George Atkinson, who returned from the Oakland 15 with some room to maneuver down the sideline, except for John Dockery and D'Amato racing over to throw Atkinson to the threadbare Shea turf at the 22. The Raiders' final drive never got to midfield after that.
"Big Mike was the last one in punt coverage], and he was able to bring him down," **[Joe Namath told Newsday** about that tackle. "Calling that a key play is an understatement."
Then in the Super Bowl, No. 47 in green and white remembered adding a late punt-return tackle against the Colts.
"When Johnny Unitas came in, he gave them a little lift," D'Amato said of the legendary Colts QB replacing Earl Morrall under center. "They came down and scored their only touchdown and it looked like they were picking up momentum. And I remember, I made a tackle on a punt and it kind of broke their momentum because they thought they were going to go from there, I guess."
The Jets' 16-7 win, he added "just legitimized the whole merger. It gave the whole merger credibility, and our league credibility."
It also brought the Jets a victory for the ages. But personally, D'Amato wasn't chasing fame and fortune as a football hero. He went to Hofstra not to get close to the Jets operation but to earn his degree, which he achieved in business administration in '68. And when head coach Weeb Ewbank regretfully made D'Amato a final cut in the 1969 preseason and offered to call other teams for him, the beringed safety and special-teamer gave a shrug.
"I was older and I said, 'You know, Weeb, I've got an offer from Montreal in the Canadian league that's guaranteed — and it's for even more money than the Jets," he recalled. "I'm going to finish up there and then I'm going to start my life where it was supposed to be going, in business."
True to his word, D'Amato played one season for the CFL's Alouettes. After that came his work with a long-term automobile and equipment leasing company and becoming president of a company that handled New York Helicopter, 34th Street Helicopter and a couple of charter jets (how appropriate).
Following the transportation-vehicle phase of his career, D'Amato returned to Hofstra as Assistant to the President and Vice President for Development, meaning he was in charge of fundraising and alumni relations. His Jets connections, he said, made it "the perfect job." He also was involved in the Marty Lyons Foundation.
D'Amato lived on Long Island, in East Northport, for more than four decades. Then, having tackled nearly everything he set out to do in life, he retired with his wife, Rita, to one more life's pursuit, living in his home on the first fairway of a golfcourse in Bonita Springs, FL.
"He was a righteous, humble dude, man," Namath told Newsday. "He was just a great guy."