By Jared Max
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Among much wisdom my grandfather imparted, there is one pearl that my mother has reminded me of many times: It takes determination.
As I watched a former college classmate get honored by the Jets during halftime of Monday Night Football, I thought about my grandfather's line. Also, I thought of a 19-year-old young man from my hometown who recently told me that all he wants in life is to become famous. He doesn't have a plan for how he's going to achieve fame. He is set on becoming famous, though. When I challenged him on how he will achieve his dreams, he was lost. He offered various professions that could bring him fame. He spoke nothing of the work it will take to get there.
Prediction: he will be saying the same in 20 years.
Two decades ago I was in my senior year at Hofstra, working as a sports anchor on Hofstra TV. Through one of my oldest childhood friends who I attended college with, I met Wayne Chrebet. Because my friend was tight with Wayne, I felt comfortable calling him at his dorm room each week to get the latest update on his potential NFL status before recording my sports segment for Hofstra TV's News and Views. "Flying Dutchman wide receiver Wayne Chrebet has drawn interest from three NFL teams including the New Orleans Saints — who Wayne will meet with this week." I never doubted Wayne had the skills and makeup to make it in the NFL.
While scouts and "experts" were steered away by Chrebet's relatively small stature (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) and lack of playing experience against top-tiered universities, then-Jets head coach Rich Kotite was uninterested in their argument. So was I.
The knock on Chrebet's physical size seemed a convenient, overused rationalization for laziness and inability to think outside the box — a bogus reason for not drafting a player who once tied Jerry Rice's NCAA division 1-AA record scoring five touchdowns in one game as well as shattering Hofstra's seasonal and all-time scoring marks.
After Chrebet went undrafted in 1995, he remained steadfast about selling his worth. Despite being turned away on multiple occasions by the Jets, Wayne followed his agent Art Weiss' urging to work out for the Jets one last time.
"Wayne didn't want to come because they'd seen him a thousand times," Weiss told The Record. As Chrebet had performed in his previous Jets tryouts, he was impeccable. But, there was no contract offer.
Having received lukewarm interest earlier that same day from the Saints, Chrebet's agent gambled. He told the Jets that New Orleans had made an offer. With that, the Jets gave Chrebet a one-year contract for the NFL minimum $119,000 with a $1,500 signing bonus. He entered training camp 11th on the Jets' receivers depth chart. Eleven seasons later, Chrebet retired one of the most popular players and decorated receivers in Jets history. And, he barely got the shot to do it.
Weiss said he was told that on the final cut day of training camp in 1995, there were nine Jets personnel guys in a room who wanted to release his undrafted client and friend. The odds were stacked against Chrebet, who literally "walked on" to the Jets practice field where he attended college.
While the Jets coaching ranks by and large were not convinced that the Garfield, New Jersey native deserved a roster spot, the 10th and most important voice in the room, head coach Kotite, did. While he would get criticized from East Hampton to East Jabib for coaching the Jets to a combined 4-28 record over two seasons, Kotite could take comfort knowing he is greatly responsible for launching Chrebet's career. Not only did he discover a worthy, exceptional talent, he created an opportunity for Wayne's three sons to play a game at every Jets game they attend today — counting the numerous No. 80 jerseys they see.
Former NFL quarterback Ray Lucas pointed to Wayne's grit as the impetus for his success. Lucas, who was teammates with Chrebet from 1997-2000, told The Record, "People say you measure people's size in the NFL. I say you measure their heart. Being from Jersey, I know how big his heart is because I have the same one beating in my chest."
Looking at an autographed box of "Chrebet Crunch" cereal on display in my office, I am aware that his story should serve as inspiration to anybody who believes in himself.
Did you ever hear the one about the best guitarist in the world not being some guy playing on stage before 20,000 people, but rather some pimple-faced introvert jamming in his garage 23 hours daily?
Aside from my Poppy Irving's "It takes determination" line, I am reminded of a passage written by one of my heroes and role models, Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. Four years before Chrebet began his NFL career, Peart responded to the saying "There are no failures of talent, only failures of character. He wrote, "Sure there are a lot of talented people who don't achieve artistic or world success. But, I think there's usually a reason — a failure inside them. The important thing is: if you fail once, or your luck is bad this time, the dream is still there. A dream is only over if you give it up — or if it comes true."
This advice guided me after college while trying relentlessly to break into sports television. Friends I worked with at a sports TV network helped me make a demo tape. I created fancy VHS tape labels and sent my stuff to every job posting in America — from Anchorage, Alaska and Eugene, Oregon to Panama City, Florida and Montpelier, Vermont. Every time I left the post office after sending a tape, I was filled with hope. But, that hope disappeared when I didn't hear from any TV stations.
Eventually, somebody was interested to speak to me. I got a gig at News 12 Connecticut, filling in as a sports anchor and reporter. Had I not been so determined, I would have quit trying after a few rejections — let alone more than 30 or 40 examples of hearing "Thanks, but no thanks" without receiving one mere letter. An agent who told me I did not have enough experience to garner the interest of his services served me greater motivation. I was inspired by Chrebet, too. While I was never going to play professional football, I knew it meant something that I was in the Jets locker room regularly interviewing my former college classmate about his rookie NFL season.
Almost 20 years since he became a third-down specialist, catching 66 passes his rookie year, six documented concussions (some believe there were twice as many), 580 receptions, 7,635 yards and 41 receiving touchdowns later, Chrebet was honored Monday night, becoming one of 15 inducted into the Jets "Ring of Honor" — along with late team owner Leon Hess. A guy who was not given a chance by far too many turned out to be the Jets second all-time leader in receptions, third in receiving yards and touchdowns.
How did this little engine do it? Determination and courage.
While Chrebet did not take part in a class-action suit filed on behalf of former players that yielded a minimum $765 million settlement from the NFL, he does not regret playing his style of football. It is how he made his name. How he got his fame.
"Let's just say this: Even if I wanted to play today, I could not really make myself go out of bounds without turning it up and trying get an extra foot," Chrebet told The Record. "I wouldn't be talking to you about the Ring of Honor if I didn't have that courage/stupidity of going across the middle."
Of his 580 NFL receptions, 379 (65 percent) earned Jets first downs.
Chrebet created his niche and opened the door for others.
"His legacy should be as the original slot receiver that changed the game of football," Lucas said.
Knowing the success that receivers like Wes Welker, Victor Cruz and Julian Edelman have attained in the NFL, Chrebet's agent credits his client for opening a door to diminutive-sized players.
"Wayne created the role. He invented the position for the real quick, small slot guy," Weiss said.
As I watched the Jets offense on Monday night, I thought about where Chrebet would fit in with this team. Considering the Jets completed a total of seven passes for 65 yards all game versus the Dolphins (only one completion longer than 11 yards), I determined that the team is still reaching for the short-passing style Chrebet made profitable. The problem is that nobody on offense on today's Jets roster plays as fearlessly or determined as Wayne did. It seems most players today are more concerned with celebrating touchdowns than putting in the necessary work (that may, or may not lead to individual success) to help their teams win.
The fact that my favorite band, Rush, is still creating music 40 years after its first album speaks to the importance of being determined. In a rare video clip shot for a documentary in 1972 (note language) that surfaced in the award-winning rock documentary "Beyond the Lighted Stage," Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson argues with his parents about why he was quitting 12th grade. The future Rock n' Roll Hall of Famer wanted to dedicate his time to practicing his music instead of going to college.
"I don't want to make a bunch of money. Like, if I make a bunch of money, that's great," he said.
Again, it is about the work — not the dream of being a household name.
The 19-year-old kid from my town who dreams about fame asked me, "So, what do you think I should do?" Aware I was likely going to bruise his ego, I spoke as a friend telling him bluntly that people who believe they are going to become famous know how they're going to do it. There is a plan — a vision nobody else could blur. I implored him that fame is a byproduct of talent combined with tireless work and determination. And, some luck.
How many Wayne Chrebet's are there who won't get a shot because there won't be a Rich Kotite in charge to say, "I don't care what you guys think. This guy is a winner. I believe in him. And, we're going to make him part of our team"? Since the odds against this remain great, one's success rests in his fortitude.
It takes determination.
Jared Max is a multi-award winning sportscaster. He hosted a No. 1 rated New York City sports talk show, "Maxed Out" — in addition to previously serving as longtime Sports Director at WCBS 880, where he currently anchors weekend sports. Follow and communicate with Jared on Twitter @jared_max.
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