Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Jets, the Pats and Death from the Sky at Halftime

FOR 60 YEARS, the New York Jets and New England Patriots have regarded one another with a wariness befitting Cold War superpowers, using whatever treacherous means necessary to gain competitive advantage. Executives have been pirated, head coaches coaxed away, star players persuaded to defect.

December 9, 1979, at
Shea Stadium in NYC
Largely led by Bill Belichick, New England has dominated on the field of play, rolling up a 67-54-1 all-time record with six Super Bowl championships to the Jets' measly one. Two times Belichick was named head coach of the Jets, only to be demoted in 1997 after the Bill Parcells ploy backfired and only to resign in evident disgust when tabbed again in 2000, all without ever actually coaching a game for them.

There's been the evil of Spygate, the embarrassment of The Butt Fumble.

Twice the Patriots/Jets convergence has had near fatal consequences and once, 40 years ago this weekend, it was actually, literally, deadly.

In 1969, just days after designing the offensive scheme for the Jets' Super Bowl III victory, Clive Rush was hired by the Patriots as their head coach. On Feb. 12, he was given the honor of introducing the team's new general manager, George Sauer Sr. (father of the champion Jets receiver George Jr.).

Rush stepped up to the podium, gripped the microphone and began screaming as electricity from a short circuit coursed through his body, according to the Boston Globe. Were it not for a Patriots board member ripping out the wires running to a wall socket, Rush's coaching career -- and indeed his life -- might have ended right there.

Then, on Sept. 23, 2001, early in Belichick's second season as the Pats' head honcho, Jets linebacker Mo Lewis slammed into New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe as he sought to escape New York's pass rush. Bledsoe suffered a torn blood vessel in his chest. Only a team doctor's prompt decision to rush him to the Mass General emergency room kept the quarterback from dying.

While the quick thinking saved his life, it couldn't save his job as backup QB Tom Brady stepped in to the starting role and hasn't relinquished it to this day.

But in between the Rush Electrocution and the Bledsoe Bleed there was a third incident, during halftime of a game at New York's Shea Stadium, that took the life of not a player or coach but of a Patriots fan. It was an accident so improbable, so tragically bizarre, that even the urban legend detectives at felt compelled to confirm it really did happen.

It happened on Dec. 9, 1979. I was there with my pal, Eddie, my dad and more than 45,000 other people.

Game day souvenir

It was the last home game of the season at the gusty multipurpose stadium near the shore of Flushing Bay, perhaps two miles southeast of LaGuardia Airport. The 6-8 Jets had gone into the locker room with a 17-12 lead over the 8-6 Pats.

Mid-game entertainment would be provided by the Electronic Eagles of The Radio Control Association of New York, an organization of gas-powered remote-controlled model plane enthusiasts. Only these weren't ordinary planes or even the hobby drones now popular across the U.S. They were flying contraptions, one of which was configured to look like a lawnmower.

As the innocent, if ill-conceived stunt flying exhibition got underway, my pal and I had headed off to the souvenir stand in search of swag, leaving my dad holding a pair of high-powered Bushnell binoculars I'd received as a bar-mitzvah gift a year earlier. Our seats were in the upper deck on what would be Shea's first-base side during baseball season.

Dad, now nearly 87, picks it up from there:

"The lawnmower plane was flying clockwise around the playing field at about the height of the top of the grandstand, with an occasional swoop downward and over the seating area. I was standing, following the show with the binoculars. 

After a swoop or two at the seating area across the field the plane swooped in and failed to swoop out again, as was expected. Instead, it crashed into several spectators, who went down. The crowd started to chant "Sue! Sue! Sue! It stopped when the injured party (or parties) didn't get up, when the crowd realized that the injury was more serious than originally thought. 

I don't think anyone anticipated a fatality."

The lawnmower plane crashed into field level seats behind the Patriots' bench, along what would be the third-base side of the stadium, and into a crowd of New England fans who'd made the trip to Queens for the game.

Game day program
Kevin Rourke, 25, of Lynn, Massachusetts sustained a concussion, according to a New York Times report. Another fan, John Bowen, 20, of Nashua, New Hampshire, died from his injuries four days later at a hospital in New York City.

The Queens County District Attorney's Office ruled the incident an accident and declined to bring charges against the pilot of the wayward craft, Brooklyn auto body repairman Philip Cushman.  Bowen's father later filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the Jets, the Electronic Eagles and Cushman.

But from there the trail goes cold. I could find no official record of the case or how it ended.

In the third quarter, New England rallied for a brief 19-17 lead before the Jets added 10 more points. A late Patriots touchdown brought them to within one but New York held on to win, 27-26.

Just grown men playing a game.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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