Each August, five members of the Seniors Committee head to Canton, Ohio to choose worthy "senior" candidates for selection into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The committee has the difficult task of picking two nominees from a list of athletes that have been removed from the game for at least 25 years. These five men bear the responsibility of giving second opportunities to those worthy greats who were overlooked by the primary selection process. For decades, Jets fans have been waiting to hear the news that one man has been beckoned to Canton: Joe Klecko, who now has eligibility as a senior nominee. Unfortunately, Jets fans will have to wait yet another year. The committee announced this week that the 2016 senior candidates are Ken Stabler and Dick Stanfel…no Klecko.
"I like to be the best," remarked Klecko in a 1981 interview with New York Times sports writer Gerald Eskenazi. "I’ve always been good at things. I’ve never failed at anything."
Klecko is accustomed to getting his way – it’s one of the qualities that made him so great. So, it would be understandable if this week’s news gnaws at him more than it would for other former players. Many Jets fans feel the same way; the four-time Pro Bowler – including three at three different positions – and one of the best Jets defenders of all time did more than enough to earn his bronze bust in Canton.
Despite missing the cut this year, Klecko will have chances in the next several years, but his time is past due, and Klecko’s path to stardom is another reason why fans are rooting for him to earn a place in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Klecko was a different type of winner. He possessed a drive to be great, but he was never cocky. He learned valuable lessons while working, developing important skills, such as humility, a value Klecko always preached to his teammates. He didn’t fit into the stereotype of a great NFL star because he wasn’t flashy; he was humble and played with a chip on his shoulder. He contrasted with the New York, big city persona, yet Klecko became one of the most beloved players in Jets history. His number 73 is one of only three Jets jerseys retired at MetLife Stadium alongside Broadway Joe and Don Maynard.
Klecko was raised in an ordinary working class family in Chester, Pennsylvania. His father was a truck driver and his mom worked in a hospital kitchen. Similar to any typical kid growing up, he worked several minimum wage, odd, or physically grueling jobs. Klecko earned his first job from his uncle at just 11 years old cleaning oil burners. His first, like most men’s first jobs, was extremely dirty, as he would literally climb inside and scrub down the burners.
Following his stint in the cleaning industry, Klecko upgraded to working at a gas station, where he became intrigued with cars. He immediately took up drag racing and could be spotted speeding down the streets adjacent to Veterans Stadium, the former home of the Eagles and one he dreamed of making his own.
Klecko moved onto working with heavy construction equipment after high school and even served as a bouncer for a short time. Each one of these various jobs, no matter how strange or grimy, Klecko approached with the same work hard attitude because, remember, he wanted to be the best at everything. Klecko was dedicated to any task he took on and he would smoke competitors on the streets everyday with his black 1955 Chevrolet.
While working after high school, Klecko kept his NFL dreams alive by playing semi-pro football for the Aston Knights. In order to maintain NCAA eligibility, he played under the name "Jim Jones" from the fictional "Poland University," fitting for an athlete of Polish descent.
Eventually, Klecko accepted a scholarship to play at Temple University, remaining in his hometown of Philadelphia. He played under eventual College Hall of Fame coach Wayne Hardin, leading the Owls in tackles for three straight seasons to earn All-East team selections and All-American mentions his final two years. In addition to excelling on the gridiron, Klecko indulged in club boxing and was quite successful, winning two heavyweight NCAA Club Boxing titles.
Klecko wasn’t exactly a standout NFL prospect coming from Temple, but he proved that he could play at the college level and had the measurables. He was an enormous, bulky guy, which was mostly natural. Klecko was built well and gained strength from all the tough work he did as a kid. He fell to the sixth round in the 1977 NFL draft and was one pick away from the Eagles, a perfect fit for the young man who had played football his whole life in Philly. He wanted to go back home so bad, yet drafting right in front of the Birds was a team called the New York Jets.
"The New York Jets Called me up in the sixth, and I’m saying, ‘who? The New York Jets?’ You know at that time, who wants to play for the New York Jets," said Klecko on an episode of Jets 24/7 with Herm Edwards. "Good thing" he mentioned after about being taken by the team with which he would eventually spend 11 seasons.
Klecko wasn’t far off when he was having these thoughts during the draft, as the Jets went 3-11 during his rookie season. However, in 1979 the franchise drafted two defensive linemen who would team up with Klecko and Abdul Salaam to form one of the most productive and feared lines in NFL history.
The group, later nicknamed the New York Sack Exchange, consisted of Klecko, Salaam, first round pick Marty Lyons, and second rounder Mark Gastineau. The organization and New York media originally wished to market the quartet as a duo of Klecko and Gastineau, but Klecko stepped up and basically said it’s all of us or none of us. He recognized the efforts of each member on the line and refused to leave out anyone, so the four-man New York Sack Exchange was born.
Klecko and the gang enjoyed their best year in 1981, when the group compiled a total of 66 sacks on the season, which would become a team record. In addition, Klecko posted 20.5 alone to lead the league in sacks and earned his first All-Pro selection. The New York Sack Exchange propelled the team to success, as the Jets finished the year with a 10-5-1 record and made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. The squad lost to the Bills in the AFC Wild Card game, yet the group would advance to the AFC Championship the following year before falling to the Dolphins despite losing Klecko for most of the season with a knee injury.
After the band broke up the next year, Klecko was moved from defensive end to defensive tackle – his first position change. He excelled as a DT and was named to the Pro Bowl in two consecutive seasons. In 1985, the Jets switched schemes from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4, which meant Klecko had to learn a new position yet again. This was no problem for the motivated Klecko because he wanted to be the best at everything, including nose tackle. In 1985, he led the team with 96 tackles and five forced fumbles, while finishing second with 7.5 sacks to earn another All-Pro selection.
Klecko, along with the rest of the New York Sack Exchange and Lawrence Taylor, revolutionized the game of football by practically forcing the NFL to start counting sacks as an official statistic. These men brought great amounts of attention to the art of the pass rush, which pushed the league into making sacks a part of the NFL record books. Therefore, since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, Klecko technically only has 24 career sacks.
In 1988, the Jets released Klecko, as the team began to struggle once again. He was picked up by the Colts, but retired after only one year with his new franchise due to chronic knee problems.
Klecko lives in New Jersey with his wife, Debbie. The two had a total of five children, three of whom never got a chance to watch their father play in the NFL. One of Klecko’s sons, Dan, won three Super Bowl rings (two with our friends in Foxborough and one with the Colts) during eight years in the league. Although Dan never earned significant playing time, he played key small roles as both a linebacker and a fullback for several teams throughout his career.
Outside football, Klecko acquired small roles in four Burt Reynolds films – Cannonball Run, Heat, and Smokey and The Bandit one and two. With that "work man" mentality still embedded in Klecko, he currently sells metal stairs in the Tri-State Area and acts as a representative for a few construction companies. In addition, Klecko joined the Catholic Athletes for Christ and often speaks on the subjects of manhood and faith.
Despite Klecko’s lifelong success, he remains an outsider to Canton. Over the years, many current Hall of Famers have spoken in support of Klecko, such as offensive linemen Anthony Munoz, Dwight Stephenson, and Joe DeLamielleure. DeLamielleure even compared Klecko to the great Mean Joe Greene and Merlin Olsen, both whose bronze busts reside safely in Ohio.
Even though the Seniors Committee let Jets fans down once again, hopefully we will be surprised down the road to hear the name "Joe Klecko" announced from Canton on some random day in August.