We enter rarefied air with the top 13 players in New York Jets history. These men have had the greatest impact on the success of the Jets over the years. These are the men who shone brightest on the field of play. They came from all eras and from big schools to little ones.
This segment includes #10, 9 & 8
Freeman McNeil RB 1981-1992
McNeil was born in Mississippi, but his family moved to California soon after. In high school he was a standout running back with superior power. McNeil led his school (Phineas Banning High) to the Los Angeles city title. He was recruited and signed with his hometown UCLA Bruins, where he became a two time All-Pac 10 selection. In his final two seasons with the Bruins McNeil gained over 2,500 yards and scored 16 TDs.
The New York Jets made Freeman McNeil the 3rd overall pick in the 1981 draft. McNeil led the Jets in rushing yards that year despite starting only 6 games. McNeil’s efforts helped lead the Jets to the playoffs in 1981 for the first time since 1969. McNeil led the NFL in rushing the following year, albeit in the strike shortened year of 1982. That year he helped the Jets reach the conference final first by destroying the Bengals 44-17, a game in which McNeil set the franchise record with 202 rushing yards. Here he helps put the game out of reach with a 20 yard scoring scamper in the 4th quarter.
The Jets were down in the game early in the 1st quarter. Freeman McNeil helped turn the tide in the game when he threw a TD pass to Derrick Gaffney in the 2nd quarter to trim the Bengals’ lead to 14-10. From then on the Jets dominated on both sides of the ball to crush the Bengals. They then moved on to the divisional round against the Oakland Raiders. In a rough, smash mouth kind of game the Jets had a workman like 17-14 victory over the Raiders, with McNeil gaining 101 yards on 23 carries.
Sadly the 1981 season came to an end at the AFC Championship game in Miami when the Dolphins’ head coach, Don Shula (fearing the Jets’ speed), kept the field uncovered all week during major rainstorms. The result was a muddy field that gave Jets receivers Wesley Walker, Lam Jones, Jerome Barkum and Micky Shuler little footing to run by defenders. The Jets gained a meager 139 yards on the day, with McNeil gaining 46 yards on 17 carries in the muck of the Orange Bowl. It didn’t help that Richard Todd threw 5 INTs.
McNeil was not only a terrific runner, he was a mainstay in the passing game as well. McNeil ranks 16th in receiving yards (2,961) in Jets history and 14th in total receptions (295) for the Jets. Here he is catching a swing pass from Ken O’Brien against the Browns.
Freeman McNeil was a physical, north-south runner who exploded through holes, then made secondary defenders pay for any tackle they made. This was sometimes to the detriment of McNeil, as he had a tough time staying healthy for the season. He wasn’t all that big at 5’ 11” 215 lbs, and he would get the worst of the collision occasionally. He also shared the backfield for 10 of his 12 seasons with another terrific runner in Johnny Hector. Hector ranks 5th in rushing yards in Jets history and he was usually the goal line back when the Jets were close to the end zone. He ranks just ahead of Freeman McNeil and is 3rd all time in Jets history with 41 rushing TDs.
Freeman McNeil played in only 144 of a possible 192 games with only 97 starts. Yet he was the engine that moved the offense. It’s ironic that the only season McNeil played and started all 16 games was in 1988, which was the last year he was the lead runner on the team. Johnny Hector took over in 1989 and the Jets drafted Blair Thomas to become the featured back in 1990. That didn’t work out so well.
Through it all Freeman McNeil was the driving force on the team when he was on the field. He helped hide a QB like Richard Todd, who was serviceable at best, and he helped work in a new QB like Ken O’Brien in a game the Jets just destroyed the Buffalo Bills 44-3 in 1985.
McNeil retired in 1993 as the franchise all-time leading rusher with over 8,000 yards. He has since been passed by Curtis Martin, but McNeil’s legacy with the Jets is still solid. McNeil was an All-Pro and a 3 time Pro Bowl performer. He is all over the statistical leader board with the Jets. He is 2nd in rushing yards, 4th in rushing TDs with 38. He is 25th in overall receiving TDs and he is tied for 1st for receiving TDs by a running back. McNeil holds that honor with Emerson Boozer, as both players had 12 TD receptions during their career. He has the highest rushing average (4.5 yards) of any Jet player who has at least 400 rushing attempts.
Freeman McNeil is 5th in total TDs for the Jets with 50 and he is #1 in playoff rushing yards in Jets history. He had 29 games with at least 100 yards rushing which is 2nd on the all-time Jets list.
McNeil was a fan favorite because of his total effort on the field and he was inducted into the Jets Ring Of Honor in 2011. McNeil was always a humble man who appreciated his teammates as well as the fans.
As McNeil stated:
The guys that have been named already were fantastic. They have made their presence known, and they did things that set them apart. To be recognized is really just a great privilege. It’s an amazing award, it really is.
To be memorialized by Jets fans, all the media that surrounded the team, fellow players and teammates, and on into the current guys, is just an awesome honor, I’m very grateful for that. It has a lot to do with the people that come to watch the games. It’s part of their culture. They’re devoted to the Jets, win, lose or draw. You just have to play to a standard that’s above most. They will cheer when a player goes out there and is at the top of his game all the time. They don’t forget. The pressure is on you to produce.
Being in the NFL is just an honor, being a part of it, and having success, was just amazing. It’s absolutely gratifying when you’re in the NFL.
Wesley Walker WR 1977-1989
Wesley Walker was a big play receiver with tremendous speed to test a defense. He was an All-American at Cal Berkeley who had 22 TDs and a gaudy 25.7 yards per catch average in his college career. Walker was a first round talent, but he had a serious knee injury during his senior year. A knee injury in 1976 was a lot scarier than it is today. Walker was also legally blind in his left eye so he was a risk to many teams.
The Jets selected Wesley Walker with the 5th pick in the 2nd round of the 1977 draft, #33 overall. Walker did well his first year with the Jets. He started all 14 games that year and led the league with 21.1 yards per catch. He finished 2nd in voting for offensive rookie of the year behind a very popular Tony Dorsett of the Dallas Cowboys. Walker recalled that saying:
I was very proud of that. Obviously, you’d love to be the rookie of the year, but for a little guy that was said couldn’t catch and too small and (legally) blind in one eye, I didn’t do so bad. But I’m definitely proud that I had some success. Not the success I would have liked to have because it always could be better. I was a perfectionist. I was always frustrated for not being better than what I was.
Walker continued to develop in the Jets system and in his 2nd year he was named a first team All-Pro. He again led the league in yards per catch at an amazing 24.4 yards a catch and had over 1,100 yards that year with 8 TDs. Walker said:
I think I was very lucky because I came from a pro-style offense-oriented school. I had quarterbacks Vince Ferragamo, who got drafted by the Rams in the first round, Steve Bartkowski, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the first round. And a guy by the name of Joe Roth, who surpassed all the records and was the second coming of Joe Namath, but he passed away of cancer. I think I had that little bit of advance knowledge to be able to adjust to the NFL.
Yet Walker was most proud of being named Jets MVP that season.
When you get voted MVP, that’s by team members, the people around you. When you’re voted by your teammates, it doesn’t get any better than that. I was just in awe. It was like a dream come true. Oh my God, it was like the best.
Walker holds the record for the longest reception in Jets history with a 96 yard TD. Here it is:
Fearless to a fault, Wesley Walker would go anywhere on the field to make a reception, although the Jets loved to use his speed deep in the secondary. Walker was not a big guy. At barely 6 foot and under 180 lbs he was a target that safeties would look to prey upon. Back in Walker’s playing days there were no rules about hitting a defenseless player. Defenders used to drool at the thought of really crushing an unsuspecting player.
Walker started and played in every game his first two years but after that he had some injury problems. He was a team player who would put himself in perilous situations if he thought it would help the team. Here against the Dolphins he scores the tying TD as time expires.
If you are going to tie a game then you might as well win it for the team as well. This next TD was a Jets record 4th of the game for Walker. It came in overtime for the win.
Wesley Walker played for 13 seasons, all with the Jets. He retired from playing in 1990, then went into teaching after he earned his masters degree in psychology from Mercy College.
I always wanted to work with student-athletes. Not really coaching, but I would do that to help other athletes. The reason I was able to go to college is because I was not only a great athlete, I was a good student. Grades are so important and that’s what I wanted to give back to the student-athletes. That’s why I got into teaching.
I didn’t know where that was going to take me, but I taught every level, K-12. And to be honest with you, I taught physical education and coached football and track the last 16 years at Park View Elementary School in Kings Park, and that’s the most fun I’ve ever had.
The kids, I was very close to, and it gives you a chance to influence people. I’ve been able to influence people because of my blindness. People who had problems or incidents or they lost their eye, I’ve been able to encourage people. That makes me feel good. I never knew that an athlete could have the influence that you do.
Walker retired with the 2nd most yards receiving (8,306) of any Jets receiver. He is 5th in career receptions with 438 and his 19.0 yards per receptions is #1 in Jets history for any receiver with more than 20 career receptions. He is also 5th all time in games played with 154. It was a great career for a San Bernardino, California native who described himself as a “black hippie” from Berkley.
Wesley Walker was inducted into the New York Jets Ring Of Honor in 2012.
Mark Gastineau DE 1979-1988
The histrionics that exemplified the career of Mark Gastineau will probably never be fully understood. On the field he was a self absorbed wild man who was lightning quick off the snap and had some of the greatest God given talent to play football I have ever seen. I don’t say that lightly, and I was never a true fan of Mark Gastineau. Football is a team sport and you have to play it as a teammate. Many of his teammates didn’t particularly care for Gastineau, though they often kept their thoughts to themselves at the time. He is #8 on this list because he was a unique talent who should be much higher, but he could not help being his own worst enemy. Let’s see what made him tick so to speak.
Mark Gastineau was born in Ardmore Oklahoma. As a child Gastineau broke his leg in an accident. The injury was so severe that doctors believed he would never walk again. Yet through some pain and inexorable work he slowly recovered. His father bought a ranch in Arizona and the family moved there. His father built him a rodeo ring and he started to enter roping events when he was 12. Mark wanted to play football but his father would not allow him until he was well into high school. Mark showed promise as a player but he was not offered a scholarship by the time he graduated from school.
Gastineau enrolled at Eastern Arizona Junior College, where he starred on the field and was named a Junior College All-American. He transferred to Arizona State University but left after one year. Gastineau then enrolled at East Central Oklahoma State University (now East Central University). In two years at East Central, Gastineau had 27 sacks.
Back then there was no NFL combine, there were no Pro Days, no pre draft physicals, no interviews, no cell phones, so a player like Mark had little chance of making it to the NFL without some diligent scout who kept their nose in the wind, looking for that diamond in the rough.
Fortunately for Gastineau the Jets had one of those scouts and she was the only female scout in the industry. Connie Carberg found Gastineau, but she had to get him in front of coaches. Again fortunately for Gastineau the Jets were one of the teams of coaches who were coaching in the Senior Bowl that year, and they needed another defensive lineman.
Gastineau’s play in the Senior Bowl, coupled with his strong pre-draft performances, propelled him up the 1979 Draft watch list. The Jets then drafted Gastineau in the 2nd round of the 1979 NFL draft (#41 overall).
Gastineau only started one game that year and he had two sacks in limited action. In 1980 he started all 16 games and totaled 11.5 sacks on the year. He was starting to get noticed and he made sure when he got a sack that everyone noticed.
Sacks back in Gastineau’s time were near muggings of the quarterback. Players would run the QB over unmercifully in an attempt to incapacitate the opponent. Many players on opposing teams did not appreciate the theatrics of Gastineau. Players were meant to celebrate team accomplishments but not at the expense of showing up an opponent. Here Gastineau was heaping praise on himself (not the team) while disrespecting the other team. This started a brawl when the Jets played the Los Angeles Rams in California.
In 1981 the Jets formed the famous New York Sack Exchange, which wreaked havoc on opponents. In November 1981, Gastineau and his line mates were invited to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, which was the inspiration for the crew’s nickname. During the year Joe Klecko had 20.5 sacks and Gastineau had 20 sacks. Nose tackle Abdul Salaam said “What was created here was this system of defeating opponents by the sack. That is how we functioned. We would stop the run, put them in a second-and-long, third-and-long, and that would change the attitude of the offense.”
At first, the media focused the moniker only on Gastineau and Klecko, but Klecko put an end to that. “The media originally wanted two of us, and I just put an axe on that. Listen, if it’s going to be a sack exchange, there’s going to be four of us, because without Abdul and Marty, Mark and I are nothing.”
In 1982 the Jets came back from the strike and Gastineau had six sacks. He was voted the AFC defensive player of the year and was voted to his first of three consecutive All-Pro teams. He was unblockable at times like in this case.
The NFL soon grew tired of Gastineau’s antics and in March of 1984, the NFL instituted a new rule where such celebrations would receive an ‘unsportsmanlike taunting’ penalty along with a fine for the player committing the foul.
Years later even Joe Klecko told of his dismay with the “sack dance.” Klecko said “There were times with Mark’s sack dance; it didn’t sit comfortable with us in the locker room. But I think the best part of it all was that, when we came on the field to play on Sunday, I don’t care what was between any of us. As a football team, we played.”
Even without the dance Gastineau had a superior 1984 season, picking up 22 sacks, 69 tackles and a fumble return for a score. He was voted the UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year. During the Pro Bowl game after the season, Gastineau had four sacks and a safety which led him to be named the game’s MVP. His 22 sacks were an NFL record until broken (kinda) by Michael Strahan. The level of 22 sacks was later achieved by Jared Allen and Justin Houston, who achieved 22 sack seasons in 2011 and 2014, respectively.
Gastineau showed incredible quickness during that season. At times it was like he was shot out of a cannon.
Time would eventually catch up to Gastineau. During the ‘86 season Gastineau would tally only two sacks. Groin and stomach issues, along with a left knee that required arthroscopic surgery, limited him to just seven games that season.
Then came the players strike in 1987 and the NFL started using replacement players to keep the season going. Gastineau was the first Jets team member to cross the picket lines. His reason for returning so quickly was because he had to pay alimony and didn’t want to miss any game checks. It did not sit well with some players. Punter Greg Jennings said “We expected it (crossing the picket line) from Mark. He’s always put himself in front of the team.”
In 1988 Gastineau was again leading the league in sacks with 7 after 7 games when he announced his retirement because his fiance, actress Brigitte Nielsen, purportedly had cancer of the uterus. It shocked his team and many wondered if it was true that he would just abandon his teammates. Gastineau was accused of just playing for sacks at times. Opponents would run draw plays to his side of the line and take advantage of the gaping hole he would leave in the line in his attempt to get to the quarterback. Some considered him a selfish player who played for himself and not the team.
Gastineau ended his career with five trips to the Pro Bowl and three All-Pro honors. He was the NFL sack leader in 1983 and 1984, NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1982, and UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. Gastineau is the Jets All-Time leader in sacks with 107.5, but one wonders what could have been if he had stayed. His ability was off the charts, and if he was mentally stronger he could have been historically great.
Later Mark Gastineau revealed much about his life that wasn’t good, and he had numerous problems on and off the field. He would later give a cryptic message to younger players stating, “If a football player is 16, 17 years old and he sees a tall blonde coming through the door, just don’t give it up. Don’t give up football. If you leave the team, you will regret it, and I do. I really feel bad, but at the time it was something that I did. There are consequences for everything you do in life.”
Mark Gastineau at age 64 is battling numerous health problems. He was diagnosed with dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.
Next up: # 7, 6 & 5