KILLER WITH A BABY FACE

Driving 18-wheel, 25-ton rigs cross-country or playing defensive tackle for the New York Jets, Joe Klecko may look angelic, but he has mayhem on his mind
September 23, 1979

There is something strange going on down there on the field. The New York Jets' defense is shuffling into position, and it's clear there's a cherub loose among the gorillas. It is No. 73, the right tackle. He is trotting up to the line daintily, no other word for it. His large, round face is completely without guile, and his blue eyes speak of peace on earth and goodwill to opponents. It is hard to tell in this light, but he seems to glow with a pink cleanliness; no doubt his halo is crushed down around his ears inside his helmet. It may sound odd, in view of what will happen when the ball is snapped, but it's true that, standing there benignly surveying the quarterback, Joe Klecko looks positively cuddly.

Ah, that's it. It's the stark contrast that makes this scene so strange. Everybody knows that defensive players snort and pop with hostile vibrations. They snarl and flash their teeth behind their face masks and, swollen with bloodlust, they paw at the turf. But not Klecko. He doesn't need to go through such histrionics to psych himself up, so firmly fixed is the sole aim of his game: getting a piece of the quarterback.

"Hate quarterbacks," says Klecko in a statement shockingly out of character with his appearance. Then he adds, "Well, no. I mean, I don't hate them as people. They're probably nice guys who brush their teeth and call Mom once a week. I hate what quarterbacks stand for. They stand between me and success."

Now Klecko gets down into his stance, leans forward and carefully positions his right hand on the turf. The hand is roughly the size of a catcher's mitt. He uses his right foot as a brace, twisting it into place. Then, slowly, he begins to swell, taking in huge drafts of air. And from almost any angle, sighting at field level or looking down from above, Klecko gradually becomes exactly as wide as he is high.

As the play explodes and Klecko surges forward, one more early impression is clarified. The reason for that dainty gait—indeed, the reason for most of Klecko's moves—is that his upper body rests on his hips like some great teetering rock overlooking Monument Valley. If Klecko ever falls, things will shatter. And now the play ends with Klecko lying belly-up and the quarterback clutched firmly in his arms.

This assuredly doesn't happen on every play. There are still too many times when a frustrated Klecko stands alone back there, flailing his empty hands in the air and wondering where everybody else has gone. But the sacks and other tackles happen often enough to make the 25-year-old Klecko the key defensive force on the young New York squad. He is in his third NFL season, and at that point in his career when his statistics are starting to take on a proper menace. Last year he led the Jets in quarterback sacks for the second time, with eight. He also racked up 139 tackles (62 unassisted) and blocked two point-after kicks and one field-goal attempt. In three games this season he has 20 tackles and one sack. "Sometimes I look around and Joe is all over the field," says New York Coach Walt Michaels.

Klecko, all 6'3" and 264 pounds of him, has been years in the making. He is the end product of hundreds of hours of training, a survivor of times when it seemed he would never get the idea of the game. He has been pounded, kicked and coached into shape, and at last he is ready to rampage through the season and finish as an All-Pro.

"You can sense the success in him," says Michaels. "I look at Klecko and the words 'pass rusher' jump into my mind. It's his incredible quickness and the strength of his hands. If he gets a quarterback in his grasp, he's down." Says Offensive Lineman John Roman, "You want talent? Not long after I met Joe, he opened 12 bottles of beer with his teeth. Now that's All-Pro."

This sort of tale makes the combination of the monster and his mien doubly disconcerting. The realization grows slowly that Klecko's angelic look has always been there, that the face came with the body in a delightful mismatch, reflecting an impish turn of nature and heritage. Looking at Klecko one gets a nagging feeling of having seen him before. But where? At last, there it is in the mind's eye: Cupid a Captive, painted by Boucher in 1754 for the boudoir of Madame de Pompadour. The scene shows a chunky cupid surrounded by the Three Graces, who seem amorously frisky. Two cherubim hover overhead; either they have rescue in mind, or they're about to wing down and join the party. The top cherub—blond, pink and fat-legged—is Joe Klecko.

Lord knows, it ain't easy being a baby face. When Klecko was growing up, many kids tried to change that face by adding lumps here and abrasions there. This was in Chester, Pa., a tough workingman's town near Philadelphia, where a gentle demeanor is rewarded with another hit on the head. "Man, I was a terrible sissy, always, always getting beat up," Klecko says.

The family sprang from solid Polish stock; "not just Polish, but purebred," Klecko says. His dad was a truck driver and a triple-threat semi-pro halfback. While he never nudged his boy toward football, he would often regard him reproachfully and sort of groan out loud. The young Klecko responded by becoming more reclusive. He retreated to an uncle's garage, where he pumped gas after school and spent the rest of his time converting a '55 Chevy into a dragster.

"It was while I was campaigning that car that I began to come out of it," Klecko says. "I wasn't great—I was no Big Daddy Garlits—but that car was a brute, and drag-racing it on those quarter-mile strips took guts I didn't know I had. I had it all full of trick things—to drive it you had to fight it. I never lost in it. The day after I sold it, the guy who bought it wiped it out in his first race."

As a gesture to his dad, Klecko had made one brief run at football as a freshman at St. James High. This cameo appearance consisted of a tryout on "the plank." Says Klecko, "The coach threw down this 14-foot board, a 2-by-12. One guy would get up on each end of it. And then they would run at each other and crash head on in the middle. The guy still on the plank made the team." Klecko got up on his end of the board, but something in his silhouette, some suggestion of tenderness, infuriated the coach. "Oh, for God's sake, Klecko," he yelled. And that did it. Klecko stepped down and went back to the garage. His dad—"He was pretty mad at me"—went back to brooding.

Klecko grew three inches and added 60 pounds in the two years following the plank fiasco, and before the start of his senior year he finally came storming out of the garage and announced to his dad, "I'm gonna play some football."

This time Klecko more or less bit the plank in half, made the team and tore his way through the season, playing on the defensive line and ending up on the all-county and all-league teams. When he graduated in 1971, several colleges expressed interest. The problem was that they all proposed stashing him in a prep school until his grades matched his size.

Klecko declined. "Listen, I couldn't go through another year of Jane Eyre," he says. "And I didn't need college. I already had a good job driving a truck." Beginning in his senior year of high school, Klecko had been a construction worker, driving dump trucks, and then was hired to muscle huge tractor-trailer rigs for Robbins Motor Transportation Inc. in Eddystone, Pa. Robbins specializes in hauling heavy, ungainly stuff that other truckers won't handle. Klecko was, and during the off-season still is, a natural at wrestling the 18-wheelers. "I once fought my way across the country carrying a propeller for a supertanker," he says. "The thing weighed 130,000 pounds and was 22 feet across, wide as most roadways."

It was a hardening experience. A member of the Robbins crew recalls riding shotgun one time when Klecko jumped a long line of trucks at a refueling stop, reasoning that he was moving priority cargo, heavy equipment for a nuclear plant. "The other drivers figured, priority my fanny," the shotgunner says, "and a whole bunch of them came strolling over to kick hell out of the driver. But when Joe came climbing down out of that cab, turning his shoulders to get out through the door, they all sort of gulped and said, 'Ah, nice rig you got here, kid. Just came over to look at it.' "

This was pretty tame stuff compared to the Great Blackberry Brandy Caper. The year after Klecko graduated from high school and went into trucking full time, along came the Knights, a new semi-pro team based in Aston, a few miles from Chester. The Knights were made up of a few local former high school players and a clutch of semidisabled and definitely jaded retreads. Klecko signed on, but to protect his amateur status he 1) played for free and 2) had himself listed as one Jim Jones, whose school was the University of Poland. The University of...what? "You know," says Klecko, "good old Cracow A&M."

The sandlot players were scarred and bent and disillusioned; not all of them had teeth. The quarterback was 5'7" and played in horn-rimmed glasses. The backup quarterback didn't have a thumb on his right hand. The action was strictly down and dirty.

"If a guy missed a block," Klecko says, "he'd roll over and snap at a passing leg, trying to rip out the calf muscle. Listen, we were playing the Hagerstown Bears, and I had been beating my man on the pass rush every time. Finally he hauled off and kicked me in the groin. It almost killed me. I crawled back to our team, all doubled over, and you think I got sympathy? 'Get him, you dummy,' they said. So on the next play, I steamrolled him over backward and then drop-kicked him in the ribs. That settled that."

Before and after games the Aston Knights stoked up on blackberry brandy. "We'd go on a trip, the bus would be loaded with it," Klecko says. "We'd get to a town where we were going to play, and first thing, five guys would be dispatched to buy a case. Those guys couldn't suit up without it. The brandy made them fierce and kept their guts warm on cold days. The one-thumbed quarterback sometimes played so drunk he'd lean against the center to keep from falling down. He'd bark out, 'Hut, hut, hut!' and everybody's eyes would water and guys would almost faint. The fumes hung over us like a mushroom cloud."

Still, it was playing for the Aston Knights that led Klecko to Temple University and, ultimately, the Jets. When Aston equipment manager John DiGregorio took the same job with Temple, he told Coach Wayne Hardin about Jim Jones-Klecko. "O.K., I'll look at the game films," Hardin said. "Game films?" said DiGregorio. "They can't afford 'em. And besides, they'd probably be X-rated. Just look at the kid."

Hardin did, and he came away so impressed that he agreed to a pact of sorts with Klecko: no prep school. Maybe a few remedial touches here and there. Just come to college. And Temple gained a 240-pound student, an angelic-looking truck driver with a 53-inch chest, a 38-inch waist, arms like beer kegs and an abiding hatred of Jane Eyre. He wasn't a typical freshman: in one of his first scrimmages Klecko turned Hardin's best running back upside down and dropped him on his head, thus sidelining him with a badly sprained neck.

By his senior season Klecko was second-string All-America, and in the 1977 NFL draft the Jets selected him in the sixth round. Draftee No. 144.

Klecko's face didn't show it—how could a sweet face like that reflect such a thing?—but the big cherub was plenty miffed about that sixth-round business. Michaels says that when Klecko showed up at camp, he walked through the wall instead of the door, which is hyperbole, and then sat down and ate 12 pork chops, which is pure truth. Before that camp opened, Klecko had trained maniacally, doing countless bench presses each day and running in his dangerously forward-toppling style while jabbing at the air with one-pound bolts clenched in each fist. Klecko had won 34 of 35 amateur boxing matches, and literally fought his way onto the Jets' roster. On one occasion, he thoughtfully removed a fellow rookie's helmet by the face mask before belting him in the nose. His teammates took to calling him Killer.

Klecko's intensity extends even unto the training table. "Now, then," he says, "are we going to eat—or are we going to mess around? Let me know what it's going to be." He puts down his tray and checks it for symmetry. On one side there is a huge fish filet, shadowed by a mountain of tartar sauce. On the other side are three sizable Swiss steaks under a rich onion-and-mushroom gravy. Off to one edge are three eclairs. Two 16-ounce paper cups contain Klecko's own brew: half iced tea, half lemonade.

He is being watched while he eats; timing, the kitchen staff knows, is everything. When the fish filet, is gone, the cook brings two more. "Just think, someday I'm going to have to come down off this weight," Klecko says. "Right now I'm burning it at, oh, maybe five, six pounds a game." He barely pauses, and the cook reappears. He puts down a new plate. It contains three more Swiss steaks with gravy.

Now it remains for Klecko to make All-Pro away from the dinner table, a designation he dearly wants to attain a few times in the five or so years left in his huge body. He figures pure Polish blood can boil only so long, and he already has everything else he wants. Klecko, his wife Debbie and their 3-year-old son Michael live graciously in an expensive new home in West Chester, which is where folks from Chester move when they've got it locked. After football, he expects to become a trucking executive for Robbins and a sales executive for Davidson Supply Co. Inc. of Brooklyn, which he also represents in the off-season. The two go together. "You sell a customer a mess of cast-steel pipe," Klecko says, "and then, in effect, you say to the customer, 'Listen, you want someone to haul that pipe to you?' Business relationships are delicate. In business you have to solve a problem. In football you can beat it up."

Off the field, Klecko's behavior is unfailingly appropriate to his cherubic face. He holds Michael in his big hands with surprising gentleness while he explains what Daddy does for a living. "I play a man in front of me," Klecko says. "All right. The man is obstructing me from getting to my destination, which is the ballcarrier. Now, I must physically abuse this man if he continues to obstruct me. I then proceed on my path to the ballcarrier and I lay the hardest hit on him that I can. And the play is over when he's on the ground or out of play."

In the background, Debbie is humming something. An old tune, perhaps. Can it be...? But no, she's too young for that. Still, there was a moment there when you could have sworn that she was intoning, "Have you heard I married an angel...."

TWO PHOTOSJOHN IACONOKlecko rushes quarterbacks such as Cleveland's Brian Sipe (17) almost as fiercely as he attacks his food, as Debbie and Michael very well know. PHOTOJOHN IACONOTo Klecko, football's something for the short haul, but trucking's his game for the long run.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)