The common theme to last Tuesday's gathering of Jets alumni at head coach Rex Ryan's invitation for the start of the Jets' full-squad minicamp was Super Bowl III. Emerson Boozer, Randy Beverly, Randy Rasmussen, John Schmitt and Gerry Philbin all played in that great game of long ago. Buddy Ryan, Rex's dad, coached in it.
But within that group was a very special triangle that hadn't been reunited for a long time. Since Buddy was serving as an NFL assistant coach for the first time in 1968, Rex was working as a ballboy for the Jets. And one of Rex's very favorite players on that legendary team was Philbin, the Jets' left defensive end starter.
"I honestly did not know that until recently, when Buddy told me," the silver-haired, mustached Philbin, who coincidentally turns 68 next month, said in between practices last week. "I hadn't seen Rex and Rob [Buddy's twin sons] since they were running around the locker room in 1968. Naturally, up here I just let him conduct his business. But it's great to see him."
"Gerry's a good guy, a class act, and such a competitive guy," Ryan told newyorkjets.com, recalling some classic battles Philbin had with Hall of Fame tackle-to-be Bob "Boomer" Brown. "He was a great player and he got there because of his heart."
Such was the bond between player and coach's son that four decades later, Ryan did some interior redecorating of his training center office. The trinity for Rex, all from the SBIII team, are Joe Namath, tackle Winston Hill and Philbin, whose three jerseys hung in separate huge frames on the wall next to his desk.
Now there are two frames and some empty hooks. Ryan took Philbin's frame down, removed the No. 81 jersey and presented it to his idol after hours at the minicamp.
Philbin Meets the Ryans
Philbin actually had quite an impact on the Ryan family back in the Sixties. He came to the Jets as a third-round pick in the 1964 AFL draft out of the University of Buffalo. Wouldn't you know one of his coaches at UB was James David "Buddy" Ryan?
Gerry even remembered being invited over to dinner by the Ryan family when he was still in college and meeting Rex and Rob for the first time — when they were in their cribs.
A few years later, Philbin recalled providing a helpful reference that got Buddy out of the college ranks.
"I like to think I had a part in getting Buddy into pro football," Philbin recalled. "We hired him when I was going into my fifth year with the Jets. Weeb Ewbank brought me in and asked me about bringing in this guy from College of the Pacific. He was my old coach from Buffalo. I had nothing but the best to say about Buddy. I said he'd be a great coach in pro football."
By that time, Philbin was becoming a fairly great player himself. He played in the final two AFL All-Star Games in 1968 and '69. And he was part of a formidable front seven for the Super Bowl Jets, since DE Verlon Biggs, DT John Elliott and LB Al Atkinson accompanied him to the game after the '68 season.
Still, for fans who remember that team, its talents and its textures, it seemed the defense was forever in the shadow of the Namath-led offense. As Edition 9 of "The Sports Encyclopedia: Pro Football" captured it:
[t]he New York defense, consistently downgraded by opponents and the press, hung together in a unit which jumped on every enemy mistake.
"We took for granted that it was just part of the game," Philbin said. "The glamour always went to the offense, the quarterback, and at that time we had the most glamorized quarterback and football player in all of sports, and that was great. So it was tough for the defense."
Completing the Circle?
And tough for players like Philbin, who recalled that he had several four-sack games in his career — except that they're lost in the mists of time because the NFL didn't recognize defensive sacks until 1982. Philbin doesn't even remember Buddy Ryan and Walt Michaels, the Jets' defensive coaches, charting sacks.
But all the players were graded game-by-game, and Philbin graded out fine as he built his 10-year pro career, all but the last season spent as a Jet.
And all the Jets players basked in the glory of that 1968 season and Super Bowl conquest. With Rex Ryan taking over the fortunes of his old team this January, Philbin is sure this is all a sign of what's to come.
"I believe in fate," he said. "I thought about this when I was coming down here. We just missed the playoffs in '67. We were all together out in San Diego, we had just beaten the Chargers. If the Houston Oilers would've lost, we'd have been in the playoffs. And so we were one game away and we were sad and dejected.
"But we built on the momentum from that year. We brought in some great players, two especially in Babe Parilli and Bob Talamini, and brought in a coach — his name was Buddy Ryan."
The Jets also had just moved into their then-new training complex at Hofstra University to start the '68 season. Now with Rex taking over the Jets controls in a new complex, well, the similarities are adding up.
"I told Rex it's more than time to relinquish this hold on being the only team to win a Super Bowl in Jets history," Philbin said. "I've been rooting for them for years, but 40 years is too long."
Yet not too long to strengthen some old bonds from another time and another place that had the familiar colors of green and white.