When honoring Aaron Glenn’s career with the New York Jets, fans should also walk away with a new understanding of professional football and — most importantly — life.
Forget every cliché about size and how big a man must be for a successful NFL career, because talent knows no size; and don’t hurry to apply the ‘bust’ label to a man’s name, because every set back is also a learning opportunity.
In the end, your first impression could be terribly wrong.
The Jets, holding the 13th pick in the 1994 NFL Draft, shuffled the board slightly when then-general manager Dick Steinberg sent a fifth-round pick to New Orleans and swapped places with the Saints for the rights to select Glenn, from Texas A&M, 12th overall.
When pre-draft speculation had the Jets targeting a wide receiver, the team instead went with the player who possessed the skills to cover them well. Instincts are, sometimes, everything.
Glenn played the first eight seasons of his 15-year career with Gang Green, racking up 24 of his 41-career interceptions in that time, including a career-high in 1998 with six picks. He represented the Jets in two of his three Pro Bowls, visiting Hawaii for back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998.
His achievements were well-deserved after his detractors were prepared to immediately dismiss the generously-listed 5’9″ Glenn as a bust. The criticism slowly faded after Nov. 26, 1995 — Glenn’s 27th regular-season start — when he notched his first interception in a victory against the Seattle Seahawks.
“It was a long time coming,” Glenn joked to the New York Times after the game. “I needed it so I could get the media off my back.”
That didn’t happen right away, as former Daily News writer Paul Needell accused Glenn of whining. But with the first pick came the first brick in the foundation of a legacy that would see him become one of the most beloved Jets in franchise history.
No Little-Man Complex
Glenn knew people doubted his abilities because of his size. It wasn’t something people whispered in fear of insulting him, or speculated upon in the media. The questions were blurted out, following him from college and into the pros.
People wondered how he’d match up against taller, more physical receivers. They wondered if he’d be able to disrupt a quarterback’s timing, break down a receivers’ pattern, or even become a legitimate starting cornerback.
Fortunately for the Jets, then-head coach Pete Carroll didn’t share those concerns. Instead, he and his staff evaluated Glenn’s game film and saw a player who didn’t jump off the page, but dominated on the field.
Glenn was elite where it mattered most. He played bigger than he looked.
Carroll spoke of Glenn’s “almost unmatched physical abilities” to the New York Times, and former defensive backs coach Ed Donatell echoed those remarks after working with Glenn. The young cornerback’s dedication to becoming a top defender was evident to everyone who worked with him.
“He has unusual closing quickness that is very rare,” Donatell said. “He can make up time.”
Despite notching only one interception in his first two seasons, Glenn was known for his ability to throw a blanket over receivers. He may not have come away with the pick, but the receiver wasn’t always going to come away with a reception.
“I had a vertical leap of 41 inches and I’ve played against tall receivers all my life,” Glenn said after being drafted. “I don’t think I have a problem at all.”
The Defining Moment
The Fake Spike game lives in infamy, not only in the minds of longtime Jets fans, but in the heart of the cornerback who allowed the game-winning score.
A squandered 18-point lead resulted in a devastating 28-24 loss when Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino saw an opportunity to outsmart the Jets, and took it.
Marino distracted the defense by shouting, “Clock!” as he approached the line of scrimmage. Moving at half speed, everyone was caught by surprise when the ball was in the air for receiver Mark Ingram in the corner of the end zone — the same corner rookie Aaron Glenn was covering.
It was Ingram’s fourth touchdown of the day and the beginning of the Jets’ 1994 losing streak.
The following seasons were summarized masterfully by Times writer Gerald Eskenazi.
The Jets lost their final five games and have remained in the vortex of that loss. If they had won, they would have tied the Dolphins for first. Instead, it kicked off a stretch in which, over three seasons, the Jets are 3-20.
”I learned a lesson,” Glenn said. ”What it taught me was you can never take a play off.”
Despite losing seasons on struggling Jets teams, Glenn approached every snap with the intensity that made him one of the most reliable players to wear the uniform.
”I know it’s hard to play for something when you have nothing to play for,” Glenn said. “But my attitude is that this game that I play — the tape will go to 29 other teams and I want them to say, ‘See that 31? He’s playing hard.'”
”Plus, it’s embarrassing to get beat out there all alone.”
When Pro Bowl voting ended in December 1997, Glenn learned he would be preparing for his first trip to Hawaii in February. Long gone were the days where quarterbacks looked in Glenn’s direction and saw an undersized defender.
That was an elite corner roaming the secondary.
Lost in the Expansion Draft
In 2002, a high salary, a shift in the coaching scheme, and a new team in Houston looking to fill up their roster spelled the end of Glenn’s career with the Jets.
Former general manager Terry Bradway and coach Herm Edwards made Glenn available for the upstart Texans, and they jumped at the opportunity to select a 29-year-old franchise cornerback fresh off a five-interception season in 2001.
Upset that Bradway or Edwards hadn’t notified him of their decision, Glenn remained a consummate professional and took the prospect of wearing a different uniform in stride.
“I had a feeling it was coming, with the salary and everything,” Glenn told the Daily News. “I don’t know if I have a future with the Jets. I just don’t think I’m their type of guy as far as a corner.”
In his first season with Houston, Glenn nabbed five interceptions, returning two for scores, and recorded his only career sack for the right to attend his third and final Pro Bowl. He spent two more seasons with Houston before finding his way onto the rosters of the Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Saints, where he played in a limited capacity until 2008.
Through the Highs and Lows with the Jets
With more than half his career spent in a Jets uniform, the Texas-native embodied the underdog nature that often defines the organization.
After being discounted for his size, he was ultimately overlooked around the NFL for being part of dismal teams. When the Jets started winning, everyone took notice of the 5’9″ firecracker sitting in the back pocket of every receiver he was tasked with facing.
Glenn was trusted to jump for balls against receivers like Herman Moore, and asked to slice the field in half for every quarterback he faced. And when he was finished doing that, he’d win the field-position battle on special teams as a lighting-quick return man.
A competitor as an athlete and a leader of men, Glenn embraced the opportunity to bring along former college teammate Ray Mickens after the Jets drafted him in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft. Only two years (and one interception) into his career, and Glenn was the centerpiece of the Jets secondary.
While it was disappointing to see him go in the middle of his career, the impression he left on the organization isn’t one that will ever fade. Honorable men rarely do.