But this morning, when I learned about the untimely death of LT's "Crunch Bunch" teammate Brad Van Pelt from an apparent heart attack at age fifty-seven, it put the mortality issue--both my heroes' and my own--into a new perspective for me.
This wasn't like the passing of Roosevelt Brown five years ago at the age of seventy-one. As a teenager I had observed Brown limping along the sidelines at Giants training camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University and was amazed when my father told me that this man, then nearing sixty, had once been one of the game's most dominant tackles. Time (and the game) had certainly taken its toll on Brown's body. He grimaced with every step he took, and looked to be closer to eighty than sixty. But because I had never seen Rosey Brown play--because I had never cheered for him, collected his football card or hung his poster on my wall, I didn't feel his passing personally the way those of my father's generation surely did. I didn't feel it because I couldn't touch it. By the time Roosevelt Brown entered my consciousness he was already a relic. It never occurred to me that the young gladiators he was helping to coach might one day walk like him, or, worse, fail to see their fifty-eighth birthday, as Van Pelt did today.
Van Pelt is different. Though he was already nearing the end of his Giants career by the time I began attending Giants games with my father in 1982, he was still one of the the team's most beloved players. Van Pelt and Harry Carson had provided the majority of highlights for some of the worst Giants teams ever assembled in the 1970s. As the Giants amassed a putrid 24-52 record from 1976-1980, Van Pelt made the Pro Bowl all five of those otherwise miserable seasons (he was joined by Carson on the NFC team in 1978 and 1979) and in doing so captured the hearts of the fans. Despite never playing on a winning team in the 1970s, he was voted the Giants player of the decade.
In 1981 Van Pelt, Carson and Brian Kelley (chosen 313 picks after Van Pelt in the 1973 draft) were joined by wunderkind Lawrence Taylor and together they formed "The Crunch Bunch", one of the more formidable linebacking corps in the NFL at the time. The Giants made the playoffs that year for the first time in seventeen seasons, beating the rival Eagles in the Wild Card round before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Forty Niners, and a new, promising era in Giants football was suddenly underway.
That offseason, "The Crunch Bunch" released the iconic poster seen below, which my father purchased for me as a gift. I slept under it for most of my childhood, and I can only assume that I was but one of thousands of young Giants fans who did the same. "The Crunch Bunch" were like gods to me, untouchable. They looked (and played) every bit as tough as the John Deere bulldozer they sat on for that photo shoot, and it would only be a matter of time before they'd be champions. Well, at least LT and Harry would.
Unfortunately, Van Pelt (and Kelley) didn't stick around long enough to partake in the glory of 1986. Kelley retired after the '83 season, and when the Giants selected Van Pelt's fellow Michigan State alumnus Carl Banks with the third overall pick in 1984, Van Pelt's days in blue were over. He was just thirty-two years old at the time, a year younger than I am now, but Giants GM George Young felt he needed a young, pass rushing outside linebacker to complement Taylor, and after selecting Banks traded Van Pelt to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for fullback Tony Galbreath.
Van Pelt refused to report to the Vikings, and was subsequently traded to the Raiders, for whom he started twenty-three games over the next two seasons. By 1986, though, when the Giants became World Champions for the first time in thirty years, Van Pelt was serving in reserve duty for the Cleveland Browns, his last year in the NFL. That year he would suffer the final professional indignity of being on the defense that allowed John Elway to drive the length of the field and beat his team in overtime in the AFC Championship Game in Cleveland, on the same day his former Giants teammates celebrated their first Super Bowl berth in franchise history with a shutout.
That wasn't the way things were supposed to go for Van Pelt, the former Maxwell Award winner who had turned down a contract from baseball's St. Louis Cardinals to sign with the Giants. A player of his ability and character probably deserved a better send-off into retirement. But Van Pelt's contributions to the Giants throughout the 70s and his mentoring of young Lawrence Taylor helped lay the groundwork for the team's renaissance of the mid-to-late 80s, a fact not lost on his former teammates.
"We had success as a group," Carson told Tom Rock of Newsday about those 1970s Giants linebacking corps. "As a team we did not have it. But we took great pride in the way that we played the game together."
"[Brad] was one of the main reasons why the Giants always had a signature defense," added George Martin, a teammate of Van Pelt's from 1975-1983.
A few years back, I took a meeting with Carson, my boyhood idol, to discuss a book project he had been working on. In the meeting Harry shared with me that the life expectancy of an NFL player is only fifty-three years, the same number that appeared on his Giants uniform. It was a difficult bit of information to process at the time, but thinking about it now, in the wake of today's news, it's staggering. Fifty-three is only twenty years older than I am now, and it's eleven years younger than my father is. And neither of us was a two-time All American safety. My old man is overweight and diabetic, and I'm so out of shape I can't run to the bathroom without getting winded. Granted, neither of our bodies have had to endure the kind of punishment an NFL player's does, but it still begs the question: if the average life expectancy of a top-conditioned athlete is only fifty-three years, then what chance do the rest of us have?
Van Pelt had joined Carson and LT on the field at Giants Stadium back in 2007, when the Giants honored Harry for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a halftime ceremony. Van Pelt appeared to be in fine shape that night, and he received a tremendous ovation from the home crowd, a crowd who remembered and appreciated his contributions to the team at a time when there was little else to cheer for besides him and Harry.
Today, Giants fans cheer for Van Pelt again. Rest in peace, #10. You will be missed.