The TJB Hall of Fame Inductees roll on with today’s entrant … it’s my honor to introduce today’s entrant: Joe Klecko.
Beyond his amazing physical gifts, his retired number (#73), his key role in the Jets Sack Exchange and the fact that he is the only player who ever was named to the Pro-Bowl at three different positions, there’s something in Joe Klecko that makes him immediately connect with regular people. I for one, think it’s the fact that in many ways, he’s just like us, and maybe in our minds, if not only for a few fateful twists and turns in his life he could have been one of us — as content to drive a truck for a living as he was at mauling opposing offensive lines.
Joe Klecko Jr. grew up in the working class suburb of Chester, PA to Polish immigrant parents amidst a proud Polish-American community. Like his father before him, Joe loved sports, but mostly stuck to pickup games to spend time on his first love, cars. Although he played football for St. James High School, his time on the field was far too short and he didn’t get any attention to play collegiately. At age 19, Klecko was working as a truck driver and playing semi-professional football with the Ashton Knights. Temple’s equipment manager and organizer of a semi-pro league Joe DiGregorio protected Klecko’s eligibility for college by giving him a pseudonym and college, Jim Jones from Poland University. DiGregorio, with the help of his family and future wife eventually coaxed Klecko to attend college and play for the Temple Owls, something he did reluctantly, not wanted to give up the money he’d already been earning since high school ended.
At Temple, Klecko played under coaching legend Wayne Hardin (the former Navy coach who guided two Heisman Trophy winners in Bellino ’60 and Staubach ’63) where he learned to take his physical gifts and apply them properly on the gridiron. Still Klecko wasn’t much sought after by the time he finished school and he went to the Jets in the sixth round of the 1977 draft.
Early on, Klecko was pegged to play Defensive Tackle, but due to his speed, they soon moved him to End. In his first season as an end, he was used mostly in strictly passing situations, but he still lead the league in sacks by a rookie with eight.
Klecko was known around the league as one of the strongest and toughest players. Seattle Center Blair Bush said of Klecko, that he and his teammates had a term they used for Klecko instead of bull rush “We [called] it, ‘The Klecko Skate,’ because when he hits you, it looks like your rolling backwards on skates. Even Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz would later say that Klecko was the strongest defensive lineman he had ever faced.
Like the rest of Klecko’s life to that point, even though he was successful at whatever he did, it was always on his own timetable. It wasn’t until almost a third of the way into his career that he peaked, playing lights out football during the early 80s along with his fellow linemates, Marty Lyons, Mark Gastineau and Abdul Salaam in the fabled Sack Exchange. Of his time with the Exchange, Klecko would later say that “it was really neat that we were feared as much as we were, we were an awesome group. Mark and I were the catalysts, but without Marty and Abdul stuffing the run, we couldn’t have put the fear in the QB.” In 1981, Klecko made his first Pro-Bowl Selection at End, leading the league with 20.5 sacks — a stat that many suggest the 1981 Jets team was instrumental in ushering into the league, as the NFL officially acknowledged it by creating it in 1982. The following year of 1982 brought a ruptured patella which he worked back from, and after which he played Defensive Tackle where he continued his assault on offensive lines and quarterbacks alike.
In 1985, the Jets switched to a 3-4 alignment and Bud Carson asked Joe Klecko if he wanted to play the nose. Although it was his first time as a nose, Klecko had a large task ahead of him, but he was eager and up to the task. Klecko would line up shading the center and was strong enough to take on multiple interior players, but quick enough to move to either gap on run plays. Later, Klecko would say, “nobody ever played like I played it since I played it.”
Still gifted with the quickness of an end, Klecko would later say “my forte was quickness and it just carried over.” He led the Jets in tackles with 96 and forced fumbles with five and was second in sacks with 7.5 In Bud Carson’s defense. Joe’s unique abilites allowed him to control the game from the nose tackle position and he again earned All-Pro honors becoming the first defensive player to be named to the Pro Bowl for three separate positions (DE, DT, NT).
After a bitter loss to New England in the playoffs, the Jets started the 1986 season with an unstoppable 10-1 record, but a series of injuries set the team back. Klecko was having yet another fantastic season, but was injured and needed arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. After surgery, he worked hard to return to the field, but was re-injured in a late season game against Pittsburgh and could only watch as the team was knocked off in the divisional playoff by Cleveland in a double overtime game. Klecko returned in 1987 following major surgery for his final with the Jets, but struggled to overcome mounting injuries, ending his career with the Colts in 1988.
Joe Klecko’s career was just like his abilites, unique in every way and marching to the beat of his own drum. We’re sure that Joe would have made a fantastic truck driver or car mechanic, but his choice to play football instead was something that millions of people are grateful for and that his name will endure among the league’s all-time greats.