When WR Wayne Chrebet came to Jets training camp in July of 1995 as a free-agent signee, the 5' 9 1/2 inch tall athlete from Hofstra was turned away by the security guard, thinking he was "just another Hofstra kid" trying to sneak his way in to see some of the big stars training in Hempstead, Long Island, like QB Boomer Esiason or LB Mo Lewis.
WR Ryan Spadola, too was a Jersey resident. He, too, came from an FCS school, a I-AA school. But nobody turned the blond-haired, 6'3 Spadola away at the gates of SUNY Cortland, even if the Jets depth charts had his name written in pencil rather than Sharpie, down at the very bottom, just like Chrebet years ago.
When Chrebet reached out to Ryan to talk pointers on Jets training camp, it wasn't just an email conversation between a legendary Jet and a rookie still learning the ropes. It was also a bridge between two powerful Northeast football programs in the mid-1990s, Hofstra and Lehigh, at the I-AA level.
It wasn't a perfect analogy. But it was still a pretty damned good one.
It's hard to understate the effect Chrebet had on the modern NFL in a lot of ways.
Before Chrebet made his way up Rich Kotite's depth chart, there wasn't really the concept of a third-down possession receiver being such an essential part of an offense.
Sure, there was the pass-happy run and shoot offense popularised by Jerry Glanville and Mouse Davis, or Joe Gibbs speedy triple wideouts of the Redskins' "Fun Bunch", but they generally were small cogs of a larger passing system. Guys like Oilers WR Drew Hill were 5'9 and 170 lbs and speedy, but they weren't go-to guys every third down.
And there were classic possession receivers, too, like WR Steve Largent, or superstar receivers that could do it all, like WR Michael Irvin and WR Jerry Rice. They were go-to guys, of course, but there were more thought of every down guys - expensive superstars, the guys that would get double-teamed most plays.
Chrebet earned his rank as superstar not by having the speed of a Drew Hill nor the size of a Steve Largent, but by having an incredibly strong work ethic, an amazing football mind, and extreme shiftiness, using his smaller size as an asset.
It also helped that he caught pretty much every ball which came his way, something that his college QBs at Hofstra confirmed to the New York Times as well:
Fittingly enough, what QB George Beisel and QB Carlos Garay seem to remember most about their onetime target are snapshots of the qualities that make the man. One Saturday night when Beisel was a sophomore and Chrebet a freshman, they both played in what Beisel believes was their first game. Beisel was cut and needed stitches. Chrebet wound up with a concussion. There Beisel sat, in a hospital emergency room, with this quiet New Jersey kid who kept telling his father that he was fine, just fine, and would be ready to play again next week.
Come to think of it, Beisel did remember one touchdown pass he made to Chrebet, though only because Chrebet ''got drilled'' and went back to the hospital with another concussion.
Besides pointing out that Chrebet is a killer basketball player who can dunk, Garay's premier college flashback was a forced scramble, into the secondary when, all of a sudden, Chrebet was in position to make a key block. ''He absolutely de-cleated this kid,'' Garay said. ''After all the hits he took, I know he remembers that one.''
They arrived at Hofstra together, and Garay couldn't help but like ''this tough little white kid who had to be extraordinary to be noticed.'' The Bills will notice him, but he will find a way to get open. QB Vinny Testaverde will throw a ball behind him, but he will manage to catch it.
This is what Chrebet does. He makes big catches and he makes quarterbacks better. Anyone who has played or practiced at Hofstra knows that.
The intense, perfectionist Chrebet essentially invented his own position as "third down-elusive possession guy" on the Jets, in the process pissing off prima donna receivers like WR Keyshawn Johnson and further cementing his lovable place in the Jet fan psyche.
In addition, what made him so loveable is how the management of the Jets seemed to be actively working against him.
A year after he was the top receiving rookie in the NFL, ownership congratulated him by drafting Keyshawn Johnson and WR Alex Van Dyke, and if that weren't enough adding WR Webster Slaughter and WR Jeff Graham in free agency, just in case it wasn't clear enough that he wasn't valued.
Johnson, after all of one season with the Jets, took to the literary circuit to criticize Chrebet, calling him the "team mascot". Other teams around the NFL were even less tactful:
''I heard players talk about him a couple of times this week,'' said the Dolphins player, who insisted on anonymity for fear of angering his teammates or even of being cut from the team. ''They look at film of the guy and they don't think he's that good. They were saying things like, 'If he was black, he wouldn't be getting this much pub.' '' Pub as in publicity, ink, air time.
He continued: ''The coaches would say, 'No. 80 is dangerous.' But it seemed like the the guys weren't really listening. 'Overrated' was how they described him. I was kind of shocked.''Kotite, himself a Division III player under current Wagner head coach Walt Hameline for the Seahawks, would have none of the media circus, making sure Chrebet was still a major part of the Jet offense during his tenure there. He knew that one of the things that made him dangerous was that "overrated" tag that seemed to follow him. People overlooked him - and that's when he'd strike.
A lot of those other names whispering around the NFL never worked out, including Slaughter, who washed out with the Jets at the end of the season. Chrebet, though, remained, the fan favorite with the 11 year career and 580 career receptions, many of them the toughest yards to get, those third-down catches for first downs where you're expecting contact - big contact, which made Chrebet as much the spokesman for better protection against concussions as much as he was NFL receiver.
Back when he was trying out for the Jets in 1995, he wasn't sure if he'd make the 53 man roster, per the New York Times:
The wide receiver question consumes the coaches and front office. This is cutdown day in the league, when teams pare to 53 players. The Jets must figure the significance of Chrebet, who had a great career at Hofstra and a fine two weeks of preseason practice and play.
He produced five catches against the Bengals, the most in the game. They were good for a modest 54 yards.
Now, if you're a Jets decision-maker, how important is it that the five catches were snared against the Bengals, otherwise known as the lowly Bengals? And yet, Chrebet's Hofstra numbers cannot be denied: five touchdown catches in a game (vs. Delaware, his final game in a Hofstra uniform), equaling a collegiate record shared by one WR Jerry Rice, and 245 yards receiving in one game.
This is what life has been like for Chrebet. He was so nervous before the Bengals game, in which he was chosen to start, that Coach Rich Kotite tried to calm him by saying, "Just think that you're playing on Hempstead Turnpike."
Actually, he's living not far from there. He wasn't sure if the Jets were going to cut him so he decided not to take an apartment. Instead, he has been sleeping on the couch of his former college teammate Mark Cox, who lives in Hempstead.
It's funny that Chrebet's preseason synopsis could have been ripped from today's headlines, though, again, it's not a perfect analogy. If Ryan Spadola has been Chrebet-nervous in any of these Jet preseason games to date, he sure hasn't shown it at any time, whether he's seen in the background of a TV shot featuring QB Mark Sanchez or catching his first strong-armed touchdown "in the second window" in between two Giant defensive backs, he's been the epitome of cool.
At Hofstra, Chrebet had a history with Lehigh, too, with an interesting link to the present.
On September 19th, 1993, George Beisel and Wayne Chrebet came to Bethlehem to face off against Lehigh. as his Hofstra Flying Dutchmen faced off against the Brown and White.
At that time, Hofstra was a I-AA independent in football, looking for a conference home, and thus saw faced off against many Patriot League teams including Bucknell and Lafayette.
In 1993, however, it was a bad time to be facing off against the Brown and White, as it would be the year where Hank Small's Engineers would finally pull things together and win their first-ever Patriot League title behind the efforts of QB Scott Semptimphelter and WR Dave Cecchini.
"We jumped out to a big lead early," Dave told me recently, "and I had a really big first half. Hofstra fought back and Chrebet had a big second half, making it a bit of a nail biter at the end."
With Small's "Air Lehigh" offense and Hofstra head coach Joe Gardi implementing the run-and-shoot, it was a receiving exhibition that Cecchini wouldn't forget.
Saying in the post-game press conference that they was "taking what [the Hofstra defense] gave them", Cecchini would notch 11 catches for 163 yards and 2 TDs, while Chrebet would grab 13 catches for 205 yards and 2 scores himself, both in the second half to get Hofstra back in the game.
"With the protection I was getting and the receivers getting open, you couldn't ask for a better day offensively," Semptimphelter told Paul Reinhard of the Morning Call back in 2001. "They were trying to take Dave away in certain situations. They were leaving the whole rest of the field wide open. It was great. It was fun. It was like sandlot football."
About the only thing that was surprising about the contest between two of the most potent passing I-AA teams in the nation at that time was that more points weren't scored.
"I may be a little biased but I remember Dave being the receiver of the day," Small told me recently. "After that game I believe that he was leading the nation in yards per catch."
You could say that, up by more than two touchdowns, Lehigh let up the gas, and overlooked the Hofstra offense a little - and that's exactly when Beisel and Chrebet struck.
Chrebet would gain the majority of his 13 catches and 205 receiving yards in the second half, clawing their way back in the game.
Late in the 4th quarter, down 31-17, Chrebet's touchdown grab with 1:24 left would pull the Dutchmen within a touchdown, and make it a nail-biting finish, only ending after Lehigh's defense held Chrebet and Beisel at the Engineer 41 yard line with a minute left to preserve the victory.
"He [Chrebet] was a fun player to watch from the sidelines," Cecchini told me.
It was an amazing year for Cecchini, who broke the single-season receptions and yardage record that season for the Engineers.
His Lehigh receiving records would not fall until 2011, when another great receiver that he was coaching - Ryan Spadola - would finally best it.
Like many Lehigh fans and Jet fans, Cecchini was not stunned at all to see Ryan's meteoric rise through Jet minicamp.
"I have been closely following Ryan's progress since our coaching staff visited the Jets for minicamp in the spring," he told me. "It has been a thrill to see the success he has had the past couple of weeks. Satisfying, but not surprising. He is doing exactly how I thought he would, picking up the new offensive system quickly, working hard, and making an impact on special teams."
Ryan is similar to Wayne in that he exploded onto the scene in the preseason, and has already made an early name for himself. They are similar in that they were dominating receivers at the FCS/I-AA level. As with all FCS/I-AA players, they were doubted simply because they didn't play in the Big 10 or SEC, and in both cases they showed that they deserve to be on the field as NFL players.
It's something that Wayne and Ryan undoubtedly talked about when they had the occasion.
"I was very fortunate, he actually reached out to me and wished me luck," Ryan said in a press conference this week. "He gave me tips, going through this whole process because obviously back when he started his career he went through a similar process as I did. Obviously I took all of his tips and I’ve embraced that, (I’m) just going to continue to work hard. He said never sit back on anything you achieved up to date and continue to work hard and push to better yourself."
Chrebet and Spadola are both seen as underdogs.
"I embrace the role as underdog,'' Spadola told Bob Glauber of New York Newsday, "That's the kind of role I've had through high school and college. I'm fortunate to be in a good situation here. You try to take advantage and capitalize on it.''
''People like to root for me as the underdog,'' Chrebet told the New York Times back in 1997. ''I'll accept that.''
Underdogs they may be, linked by FCS level football, the Jets, and the long odds of making a roster.
It's not a perfect analogy, but still a pretty damned good one.
"He has made the most of his opportunities, and will continue to rise to the occasion," Cecchini said.