CORTLAND, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Why did he walk away?
Ed Anzalone never wanted to hang up his helmet.
The New York Jets super-fan known as Fireman Ed simply grew tired of the increasing harassment in the stands at MetLife Stadium. Some cursed at him. Others spit on him. Beer was also tossed his way.
"It was just guys who decided, 'Hey, we're going to mess with the fireman,'" Anzalone said.
The tipping point came on Thanksgiving night in 2012, when the Jets were getting romped by the New England Patriots. Anzalone went to a rest room at halftime and two men confronted him. Sensing a bad situation brewing, Anzalone took off before it escalated.
"It was time to go," Anzalone said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I said, 'If it's got to come to that and we're getting to that point, it's over.'"
And just like that, Fireman Ed was no more.
The familiar face of the fan base, the leader of the J-E-T-S chant, was G-O-N-E.
"I've still got plenty of energy and plenty in my tank, but it was for the best," Anzalone said. "We had a nice time, I had a great run and I didn't want to go out in a negative manner. I didn't want to end up on the front page of a newspaper."
Anzalone became a fixture at home games, leading the J-E-T-S chant for 27 years — from Shea Stadium to Giants Stadium to MetLife. He would climb on the shoulders of his brother Frank, and later his buddy Bruce Gregor, silence the crowd of 80,000 and then rock the stadium with the deafening chant that fans all over the NFL came to recognize.
"It was an honor and I was humbled by it," he said. "As much as there were haters, there was nine times more love. It was all because I spelled out four letters. If they had me spelling Buccaneers, I would've been out of business."
His absence as Fireman Ed has been felt. Anzalone, who turns 55 next month, was approached by the Jets about returning, but declined. The Jets recently announced that they're holding a contest to find eight chant leaders. Season ticket holders are being asked to submit videos of themselves leading the J-E-T-S cheer, and fans will be able to vote for their favorites on the team's site.
In a sense, it's a search for the next Fireman Ed.
"I'm happy they're doing something because I want to see it go on," he said.
Anzalone and his brother are entering their 40th year as season ticket holders, and they still attend Jets games. They sit in a different part of the stadium, though, and Anzalone is no longer decked out in his familiar Fireman Ed garb — his firefighter helmet and, for years, a No. 42 Bruce Harper jersey before switching to Mark Sanchez's No. 6.
His absence has angered many fans, who accuse him of quitting on them and the franchise, despite Anzalone writing an open letter published in Metro newspaper in 2012 announcing his reasons for stepping away.
"All these years, I never left until there were four zeroes on the clock," he said. "You can't be the leader and leave. You have to stay. So, there was a reason why I left. I didn't quit. That's what bothers me."
Anzalone, who once got into it with a Giants fan during the 2010 preseason, thinks the introduction of personal seat licenses — or PSLs — helped contribute to the negativity.
"I feel like the fans felt like they were entitled," he said. "It just changed the whole attitude. It was tough."
Anzalone, a retired New York City firefighter, grew up rooting for the NFL teams he saw on TV: mainly the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. He has caught grief for years about the high school yearbook photo in which he is wearing a Dolphins sweatshirt.
That all changed in 1975 when his brother bought Jets season tickets and asked him to come along.
"I went to Shea and I just fell in love with them," he said, laughing. "And, I've been suffering ever since."
The J-E-T-S chant wasn't started by Anzalone. It was fans in opposite end zones who would chant back and forth. In 1986, an excited Anzalone was running up and down the aisles at a game and trying to get fans fired up in the lower tier when he got on one of the railings.
"The next thing I know, I almost fell over," he said. "My brother grabbed me, pulled me back up and says to me, 'Get on my shoulders!' Slowly, as the years went on, it started to build."
That's how the legend of Fireman Ed was born, and he became part of the in-game experience. He was even included in an exhibit at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1999. Visits with sick children and die-hard fans became regular occurrences.
"I was very lucky," Anzalone said. "It was a wonderful time."
While Anzalone will never be Fireman Ed on a regular basis, he is open to the idea of a cameo appearance — to lead one more J-E-T-S chant.
"If the time is right and the fans wanted it and it worked out, I would do it for old times' sake, of course," he said. "I would never turn my back on the Jets. It was never about not loving the Jets. It was about the good of my name.
"I love the Jets. It's just in my blood and always will be."
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