Back when we were kids, growing up on Emerald Lane in Mahopac, N.Y. Matt Walker and I lived for the New York Jets. They were our team, and even though the green and white never sniffed a Super Bowl, we were as loyal as loyal gets. Name a player (even the worst friggin’ players) and we were diehards. Wesley Walker, Lance Mehl, Al Toon, Joe Klecko, Pat Leahy, Marty Lyons—those were our guys.
But no one was more important than Ken O’Brien.
In case you don’t remember, Ken spent 10 years as a Jet. He had absolutely breathtaking arm strength, looked off receivers well, took hits like the toughest of men. Did he always get rid of the ball, eh, quickly? No. But that was his only glaring weakness.
Oh, wait. He had one more weakness—something not of his doing. O’Brien was selected by the Jets with the 24th pick in the 1983 NFL Draft … three spots ahead of Dan Marino. So as the Dolphin legend went on to have a Hall of Fame career, Jet fans often wondered what could have been …
I never felt that way. Truly, I didn’t. O’Brien was a helluva player. He was my boyhood quarterback.
Anyhow, here Ken talks about the 1983 Draft, about the wacky life of a Philadelphia Eagle and how one adjusts when the cheering stops. He now lives in Manhattan Beach, and works in wealth management.
Ken O’Brien, screw the Hall of Fame. You’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN: I recently saw an ESPN 30 for 30 on the 1983 draft, and it’s always the same. Marino! Elway! Kelly! Studs! Eason, Blackledge—sorta busts. And Ken O’Brien—um, yeah. Strikes me as unfair to a really great NFL career. Bug you at all?
KEN O’BRIEN: You know, to be honest I know it’s there and three of the guys are in the Hall of Fame. So they’re great players, but they’re also all great guys. And we’ve had the chance to get together. It’s an honor to be friends of theirs and have competed against them. But you only control what you control. Every situation is different. What I had in New York was different than what other guys had. I’m not saying worse, but different. And inside that building things were done in ways that you didn’t always see on the outside. I played with great guys, and I wouldn’t change that at all. But as far as the perception—it is out there. I know it is. But I don’t lose any sleep over it. I know I did everything I could do. It’s a cliché, but I really tried to give 110 percent every day. I can’t look back much after that. I did my best. I’m comfortable with that.
J.P.: Blair Thomas once told me being a Jet back then was … different. And he sorta felt that, had Emmitt Smith been drafted by New York and Blair went to Dallas, everything about his career is different. Better.
K.O.: I think it sort of does. Blair was a great guy, and he was coming off being hurt a couple of times. So it took him, physically, a while to get to be 100 percent. But every organization is different. And you learn along the way. That was a time when I was young, and had I learned a little more and approached things differently, maybe I could have made the team better. I don’t know. You’re a sum of all your experiences.
J.P.: You were a California kid—Jesuit High, Cal Davis. What was it like transitioning to New York? The frenzy? The cold? Worse than one would think? Easier?
K.O.: Well, my mom and dad are … my dad is from Kew Gardens, my mom is from Bay Ridge. My uncles are New York City cops. My entire family is back there, so it was fun going back. I got to spend more time with my aunts and uncles and cousins than I ever before did. When I was a kid we’d vacation in New York. I mean, in those days vacations with six kids were like Brady Bunch rides. So we didn’t do a ton of them. But when we went back, my uncles would take us around. One time we went to see the pitchers from the World Series team of 1969. They were doing an event at a park. Seaver, Ryan, Koosman. They’d take us to the Jet facility, and I actually met Joe Namath when I was a little kid. Small world.
So coming to New York as a player felt like coming home in many ways. That made it pretty easy.
J.P.: When you played, the big knock was that you held onto the ball too long. 1. Fair? 2. Easier said than done?
K.O.: I mean, anyone’s opinion is fair, so I don’t blame that. But it’s what you’re asked to do on offense. Back then, maybe it was my deal, but I was supposed to stand in there, take a shot, get rid of the ball. The game has changed—now you see guys getting rid of the ball real quick. One-step slants, back-shoulder throws, all these things that are involved now that were not part of the game then. I think it’s the evolution of the game. For me, you do what the offense asks. I mean, I guess the easy answer is if I saw someone open sooner, I would have let the ball go sooner. But it’s sometimes being stubborn, too, because you always think there’s a chance to make a big play. So could I have been better at it? Yes. And we worked on it. But at the same time you’re trying to make the plays as guys get open, and you wanna hang in there as long as you can.
J.P.: I’m as fascinated by ends as beginning. In 1993 you went to camp with Green Bay, you were cut, then you spent the season in Philly with Randall Cunningham and Bubby Brister. Good? Bad? When did you know it was over?
K.O.: It started out strange at Green Bay. I was comfortable in New York. I knew my teammates, my coaches, the office managers, everyone. All the guys in the building. There’s a real comfort factor. Then you go to a new place, and you have no home and you’re starting over. It’s hard to explain, but it was hard for me.
When I finally got to Philly, well, I wish I’d stayed in New York for 20 years. Going to Philly was a great life experience, because Philly was so different than anything I’d seen in the world of football before. It was just crazy. It was run by the prisoners a bit. Buddy Ryan had just left and he bent over backward to give the players all sorta of controls. Especially defensive players. Then Richie Kotite came in and he was there and he had all the holdovers from Buddy’s era, and there was just some crazy funny stuff, things that would never happen in the 10 years in New York. There were just some outstanding stories …
J.P.: Wait! How about an example?
K.O.: It was every day. Guys were on their own schedules, they showed up when they wanted to. There was a race one day … this is a great one. It was late in the year and Philly had an offense vs. defense type deal. That’s what Buddy had instilled—defense would win games, offense just couldn’t screw it up. That’s the short version of the impression I got when I talked with other guys. Because I never played for Buddy. And Zeke Bratkowski was the quarterback coach, and he had that job with the Jets. I became friends with Mark Bavaro and Herschel Walker—go down the list and there were a bunch of really good guys there. It was an opportunity to be with some quality guys. And one day at practice I was walking with Herschel, and we had a defensive back named Mark McMillian. He’s a little guy, probably one of the really fast corners in the league. And a bunch of guys were giving Herschel a hard time, and Herschel never said anything. And they were laughing at him, calling him an old man. Herschel and I were close to the same age, and he was so accomplished. They didn’t even know he’d won the Heisman Trophy. They had no idea all he’d accomplished. And Herschel didn’t say a word. It was snowing, we were practicing outside, and Mark challenged Herschel to a race. And I was taking bets, and I was putting everything on Herschel. I promoted him. And he gets out and they get on the field, and Richie Kotite and Bud Carson are holding some DO NOT CROSS tape. And they’ve got down jackets on, gloves, hats. It’s freezing out. And here comes McMillian, and he’s got his tights on. Everyone else is freezing, but Mark has the tights on. And Herschel doesn’t show up. He’s not there. He’s not coming out. And they’re all making fun. “Your buddy’s not coming out. Hahahaha.” And finally here comes Herschel, and he’s coming out like he’s going to practice, gear on—shoulder pads, pants, helmet. And they’re like, ‘He’s not gonna run!” Making fun. And he walks up to the line and says, “OK, you ready to go?” And they get down to race, and guys are lined up—offense on one side, defense on the other.
On your mark …
Get set …
And when they said “Go,” the look on the kid’s face after five yards was disbelief. Herschel comes up and he’s gone. And Mark knows at five yards he’s done. This speeding bullet goes by. And Herschel beats him, and Coach Kotite has the money in his hand, Herschel jogs by, grabs it, jogs into the locker room and practice is over. That was it. Everyone was laughing. It was the funniest thing you’d ever seen. The poor kid had no idea he was with a world-class sprinter.
Every week something like that would happen. The Eagles were the Animal House of the NFL.
J.P.: A lot has been made of concussions and the afterlife of football players. How are you? What do you think of the lawsuits? Concerned for yourself?
K.O.: Fortunately I’m OK. I just turned 54. When I turned 50 I was fine. You do have aches and pains, but maybe that’s just getting old. Your back, your knees, everything else. I’m not what I used to be, but I don’t think anyone would notice anything falling apart on me just yet.
As far as the concussions and lawsuits, I think there are a lot of guys out there who are much worse. You run into former players occasionally and you wish there was something in place where they could get some help. I know they’re fighting for it, I know it’s a big money deal—but at the end of the day it’s the right thing to do to help guys get through this. It’s just the right thing to do. A lot of them can’t get the right medical insurance, and they need help. I actually went into this business because I wanted to help people after seeing people go sideways.
J.P.: You played in front of 50,000 people, adrenaline, fame, perks. How did you adjust when it ended?
K.O.: The main thing that I learned—it’s hard to replace the passion. I mean, it’s not like when you’re playing football you’re working. Every day you’re doing something you enjoy doing. You’re working out, you’re developing a game plan, you’re throwing a football. Are you’re around guys who become your best friends. There’s a reason why football is so popular—people love it, and we loved playing it. I certainly did. So how do you replace that passion? It’s very hard. Do you want to go and work in a bank? Maybe, but it’s not the same. You’re punching in, you’re working 8-to-5. I bounced around a lot, trying to find something that gives me satisfaction. It took time. But you also need things outside of work—family, kids, travel, hobbies. Because you’ll never fully replace what you had. It’s probably impossible. You’re only passionate about so many things.
At UC Davis back in the day.
J.P.: People always say when they’re playing, “This will haunt me.” Do you feel haunted by never making a Super Bowl? Do you care?
K.O.: I wouldn’t say haunted. But the goal every year was to make it. You feel unfulfilled in that regard, especially because we came close. It does matter, but it’s one of those things where I know my teammates gave everything they had, and I did. We fell short, but we fell short fighting. Whether it was a play or running out of time, it didn’t work out. if you didn’t give it everything you had, it’d hurt.
J.P.: I remember when you left New York and they brought in Boomer Esiason, gave him your number, and it struck me as disrespectful to a longtime quarterback. Did I read that wrongly?
K.O.: You know, I never really spent any time thinking about it. It really wasn’t a big thing for me. Number doesn’t mean anything to me. They actually called later down the line, and someone with the organization apologized and said they made a mistake. But I said, ‘No big deal.’ There are a lot of things to lose sleep over. That’s not one of them.
Now if you ask my wife, she might have a slightly different opinion.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KEN O’BRIEN:
• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Nuu Faaola?: Ha. It was exciting every day. It was like I was back in the tropics.
• Who’s the most underrated guy you ever played with?: Dan Alexander, our offensive guard. Dan played at LSU as a defensive lineman. He came to the Jets when they had the Sack Exchange, moved to offensive guard and stayed there for ages. He was terrific. Plus, he had a great mustache.
• How often are you recognized?: Um, as I get older and further removed from it not as much as I used to. But every once in a while someone says something nice about an old guy that makes me feel good.
• Five greatest quarterbacks of your lifetime: Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Marino. And, ooh boy, Tom Brady and Brett Favre and Peyton Manning are all there. But I’m going Bert Jones. He had a rifle. Plus, I’ve gone hunting with him. You can’t ignore hunting buddies with strong arms.
• Three reasons one should make Manhattan Beach home?: I don’t think they should. Pass it by. It’s full. There’s no room for anybody else here. I’m not publicizing it; saying that you should come live down here. You should go to Laguna. It’s so much better.
• How’d you meet your wife?: We grew up together. I met her the first time when we were in seventh grade.
• What’s your Super Bowl prediction?: Tough one. Pete Carroll is a good friend, he lives down the street. But I really like Tom Brady. I’m not good at predictions, but whoever can put pressure on the quarterback will win. I think Seattle will find a way. Somehow. They have a lot of speed in every area. They find ways defensively to do it.
• What are the five ugliest NFL uniforms?: Um, not including throwbacks. I think the Bengals uniform is horrendous. I don’t like the color for Carolina. Tampa Bay doesn’t do anything for me. And put the Dolphins up there, too. I hate the Dolphins on general principle.
• Because he was drafted before Jerry Rice and got hurt early, people forget about Al Toon. How good was he?: He was a freak. He was a really good friend, first, and we’ve kept in touch. But as far as a player, he was a freak. He could do everything. He was like a quarterback in that he understood the whole offensive scheme. We could communicate with just a look. He made some unbelievable catches all the time in practices, games. He could do whatever he had to do to get open, deceptively strong. And when he had someone chasing him, no one caught him. The longer he played, the better he would have been in people’s memories. But he’s one of the best.
• Are the Jets cursed?: No. Todd Bowles is an interesting hire. They’re really happy with him as the new coach. Rex has a way about him—he’s a great player’s coach, but if it doesn’t click after a while people stop listening. It got to the point. But the Jets need to settle on a quarterback and have confidence in him. The last three games or so, Geno Smith played well and looked like he got it. I haven’t watched film to know he’s the guy to take us there. But I sure hope so.