By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
Back in late October of 2013, I was faced with the fact that I was going to have to go through my second aortic valve replacement surgery in less than a month, on November 21st, two days before my 40th birthday.
I had to go through my first full-on open heart surgery on October 29th, 2001, while in my mid-20’s, due to the fact that I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve (something I was not aware of until a month before the first surgery), meaning the valve that was supposed to have three leaflets only had two.
That replaced leaflet had reached the end of its functionality after about twelve years of use, and it was basically my two-minute warning, in the second half, with everything on the line.
Rather than get into the all-inclusive details of my upcoming procedure, its gravity, and the urgency of the situation, I can honestly say that my health was deteriorating fast and I was about as emotionally defeated as I could possibly be.
To add icing to the calamitous cake I was being served, I had been laid off from my job earlier in the year and my anemic physical condition made it extremely difficult to successfully look for work. My deck of cards was stacked with jokers, and these were not the funny kind. I was stuck in the valley with the peak of the mountain so far out of reach that all I could do was crawl my way towards it.
Following the Jets was one of the few things that helped me to keep my mind off of my soon approaching session with the scalpel. As you all know, counting on the Jets to bring you out of a depression can be an uphill battle to say the least.
At that particular point in time, the team was 3-3, coming off of a disgusting 19-6 home loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was looking like another one of those non-descript, uninspiring, disappointing 8-8 seasons, which unfortunately was the end result of that year.
So, anyway, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came to a tweet by Kellen Winslow Jr., announcing an Ultimate Fan Contest, in which you were to write a message to Kellen explaining why you are the ultimate Jets fan and deserve two tickets to the game. Five Winners would be picked, receiving two tickets each to the Winslow Family suite, to enjoy the November 3, 2013 game against the New Orleans Saints, in luxury.
I decided to draw upon the rollercoaster ride of Jets fandom I had been on for well over three decades, sticking with the green and white through all of their dastardly dips, including the 1983 Mud Bowl in Miami; Gastineau’s OT meltdown in the 1987 divisional playoffs against the Browns; the Rick Kotite Error; the infamous Dan Marino fake spike; and so many other “wonderful” moments in Jets history.
I explained to Mr. Winslow how incredibly strenuous it had been to go through the trials and tribulations that come along with being a fan of the Jets, remaining optimistic through it all, never wavering in my support of the much maligned football franchise.
It is not as if I felt like I was alone in this plight or that I was any more of a fan than so many others who have been teased and tormented week after week, year after year. But still, I wanted those tickets, so I poured my heart out to the man.
I also realized that despite the fact that I had poorly stacked deck of cards, I did have one card that could give me an edge on the competition. So I told Kellen about what I was going through with my heart and how my surgery was to be two days prior to my 40th birthday.
Immediately touched by my story, Winslow Jr. reached out to me shortly after I sent my entry, informing me that I would be one of the winners of the contest. It was the first real smile that had come to my face in quite a while and I immediately and triumphantly informed my fiancé that we would be attending the game on November 3rd, less than three weeks before my surgery, in style. The next day I received an email from Kellen’s wife Janelle with a congratulatory note and a link to the tickets.
Going through a tough financial time and realizing how expensive parking can be at MetLife Stadium, and that I was going to have to park close due to my health condition, I swallowed my pride and asked her if parking was included in the contest. She responded to me that unfortunately they were unable to supply the winners with parking spots.
Although I was disappointed, I still felt incredibly fortunate to have won the tickets and knew that we would find some way to purchase parking. Then, to my delightful surprise, Janelle contacted me again, informing me that since some of her family members would not be attending the game, she would give me their parking passes, right in front of the stadium.
Needless to say, I was so grateful for their generosity. Not only did the Winslows decide to share their family suite with some die-hard Jets fans, but Janelle went out of her way to make sure I had somewhere to park. Over the next few days, I contacted Janelle and Kellen on a few occasions, just to let them know how thankful I was. They responded in kind, letting me know that they were more than happy to accommodate me.
I was so excited for the game, and being that Winslow Jr. was injured at the time, I was looking forward to possibly meeting him and his wife, so I could thank them in person. The day of the game arrived, so my beautiful fiancé and I hopped in my Jets green Ford Explorer and headed out to JetLife Stadium. When we arrived and saw how close the spot was to the entrance, it was just an added plus.
After doing a bit of tailgating, we made our way to the gate and went up to the suite. When we got to the room it was stacked with all sorts of refreshments. As a fan that sat up in Section 319, at the old Giants Stadium, on several occasions as a season ticket holder, this was a whole new world. I met with the other fans who had won the contest and dug into some of the delicious treats that sat on the counter before me, as we all got ready for the game to begin.
Unfortunately, there was no sign of Winslow Jr. or his wife Janelle, but that was a minor disappointment considering that we were going to get to enjoy the game in luxury. Right after the opening kickoff, my fiancé tapped me on the shoulder a couple of times, to which I ignored her because I was in “game mode.” After another tap or two I decided to finally turn to her, and she asked me, “Who’s that?,” as she pointed towards a rather tall, older gentleman.
Well, it wasn’t Winslow Jr., as I had hoped, but it was actually his Hall of Fame father, the legendary Kellen Winslow Sr., one of the greatest Tight Ends to ever play the game. This was, in a word, awesome! I got to speak with him for a bit, telling him how much I enjoyed watching him play the game as a child.
I told him what a pleasure it was to watch him and Dan Fouts tear apart defenses except for when it was the Jets, prompting him to joke about how his quarterback always stole the spotlight. We also spoke about my upcoming surgery, to which he wished me luck. He was quite humble and genuine and it was a true honor to be in his company.
As tough as things were for me at the time, this experience was about as good as I could have asked for. Not only did I get to go to a Jets game for free, and in style, but I got to sit and converse with Kellen Winslow Sr., while also bringing my fiancé to her first Jets game.
To top it all off, the Jets put on a hell of a show that day against a team that was expected to crush them. Chris Ivory gashed his old team to the tune of 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, including a 52-yard dash.
When all was said and done, the Jets had emerged victorious by the score of 26-20, in a game that was far more lopsided than the final score indicated due to some late game heroics by Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham that were brought to a halt with a huge sack by Muhammad Wilkerson in the last two minutes of the 4th quarter.
I will forever be grateful to Kellen Winslow Jr. and his wife Janelle for hooking me up with the tickets as well as the parking. Regardless of how you feel about Kellen after his “alleged incident” in the Target parking lot, I know him to be a compassionate human being with a big heart and a ton of talent that was never fully realized due to the motorcycle accident he sustained back in 2005.
Say what you will about the man, but I do not judge him for something we do not even know the full story of anyway, and he provided me with one of the most joyful experiences I have had in my life at a time when I needed it most. Thanks again Kellen and Janelle.