Since we’ve started the TJB Hall of Fame, we have always tried to recognize players from a variety of different eras of the Jets whether they are Super Bowl champions from the sixties, the dark days of the seventies, the rising team of the eighties or even more recent times. We have also tried to recognize those who had long and storied careers with the team, but also those whose contributions with the team while valuable, were short-lived due to the nature of the sport. With our last induction of the 2013 TJB Hall of Fame class we want to recognize a player who had a key role in helping the Jets become the resurgent team they were in the eighties, Lance Alan Mehl.
Lance Mehl played eight seasons for the New York Jets from 1980-1987 after a stellar career as an All-American at Penn State University. Mehl’s talent for the game at higher levels became clear when as a backup at Penn State, Mehl tallied three sacks in limited playing time. The following season as a junior, Mehl became the Linebacker in “Linebacker U” and accumulated 96 tackles and four interceptions on a team that finished the regular season undefeated but lost to Alabama in their bowl game. As a senior, the co-captain’s work on the field only improved and he earned second-team All-America honors.
At a time where the Jets were rebuilding the organization from the seventies, the Jets selected Mehl in the third round (#69 overall) of the 1980 NFL Draft to be a key defensive piece to help the Jets return to glory. While the Sack Exchange made the headlines of the era, it was Mehl and his fellow linebackers that helped seal the dominance of the Jets defense. Mehl only started one game as a rookie, but became much more involved in the defense in the coming years.
1981 was Mehl’s first year as a starter as one of the team’s outside linebackers, immediately demonstrating his value to the defense. For a linebacker, aside from the tackle totals, Mehl had an uncanny knack to create turnovers via interception. It was his interceptions that later became his hallmark as a Jet defender.
In 1981, Mehl notched three picks; two of those interceptions came in wins against Houston and Green Bay and helped propel the Jets into the playoffs. It was the first time the Jets had gone to the playoffs since December 20th, 1969. At that time, the Jets lost to the Chiefs the year following their Super Bowl. In 1981 the result was the same; the Jets lost to the Bills 31-27, but it was clear to the NFL that the Jets were again on the rise.
In 1982, Mehl started nine games due the strike-shortened season and was an instrumental member of a team that fell one game short of reaching the Super Bowl. At the time, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman wrote that the strike fouled things up and players like Mehl were wrongly left off the All-Pro team.
Zimmerman’s words proved prophetic just five days later. Mehl, who had two interceptions in the strike-shortened season clearly wasn’t done as the Jets went into the playoffs. After blowing out the Bengals 44-17 in the first round, the Jets traveled to Los Angeles to play Jim Plunkett and the Raiders. After battling back in the fourth quarter and with just under five minutes remaining, the Jets clung to a three point edge (17-14) thanks in part to a long pass to Wesley Walker and then a short touchdown run by Scott Dierking.
It looked tense for the Jets as Plunkett led the Raiders offense with time running out, but it was Mehl who gained national attention by intercepting two of Plunkett’s passes in the final three minutes of the game to seal the victory for the Jets. That game defined Mehl’s career and legacy with the Jets.
1983 wasn’t as successful a year for the Jets as the Jets ended with a 7-9 record. Even so, Mehl had his best season as a NFL player, leading the team in interceptions by grabbing seven. Mehl was named the team’s MVP Award winner, even in a season where Mark Gastineau had 19 sacks. The following year, Mehl’s role switched slightly and he tallied five sacks, riding the surge of Gastineau’s then record-breaking 22. With another 7-9 record, the team again failed to make the playoffs.
After two disappointing 7-9 seasons, the Jets made some coaching changes under Joe Walton for the 1985 season and Bud Carson took over the defense from Joe Gardi. Carson was well-known as the coordinator of the Steel Curtain under Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh. After working in a few other cities, Carson came to New York and brought with him a switch to the nascent 3-4 defense. As the Jets switched over, the team asked Mehl to move from the RLB spot to the RILB spot. Mehl adjusted seamlessly to the new scheme and thrived, generating 5.5 sacks and three interceptions in his first year. That season the team went 11-5, finishing second in the AFC East before losing to the Patriots in the Wildcard round.
While the Jets stayed in the playoff race in 1986, it was also the year that Mehl received the injury that would eventually cause him to retire.
“We were playing New Orleans at Giants Stadium,” Mehl later told the New York Times of his injury. “The game was in the second quarter and I was chasing Wade Wilson across the field. Suddenly, without ever being touched, the knee just gave out on me.”
While Mehl probably wouldn’t blame anyone, the linebacker was avoiding a collision with a teammate on the play and upon stopping short on the (at the time) ruthless artificial turf of Giants Stadium, Mehl suffered damage to his anterior cruciate ligament, bone and cartilage. Mehl received reconstructive surgery soon after, but the medicine wasn’t what it is now today and he missed the remaining eight games of the 1986 season and due to pain in his knee, was only able to play in three games in 1987.
“Since the  injury to Lance, our defense hasn’t been the same,” Joe Walton of losing Mehl. “Lance was our signal-caller, and he was in charge of getting every one in proper position. Having him on the field was like having another coach out there … you always hope that a player of his quality can come back.”
Coaches, fans and Mehl alike all hoped he could come back. After his injury, Mehl dedicated himself to getting back onto the field, but it came at a cost. “I tried to come back [in 1987] and ended up hurting my left knee in a game against Miami,” Mehl told reporters upon his retirement at the start of the 1988 season. “I should have never come back at all … I just can’t get rid of the pain.”
After skill, much of playing with longevity in the NFL comes down to managing pain. Players today are the beneficiaries of applied science to the billion dollar business of sports, but that wasn’t the case in 1988. Leading into the 1988 season, Mehl dedicated himself totally to returning to the football field but it still wasn’t enough. In a 1988 interview, Mehl described even the simple act of playing golf would involve “knifing pain” to his knee. “I spent the entire off-season trying to rehabilitate my knee, and hoped that, maybe, I’d be able to come back. But it didn’t work out that way. Now I feel it’s time to move on.”
After his NFL career ended, Mehl returned to the Ohio Valley to live in the town of St. Clairsville. Mehl applied for workman’s comp from the NFL almost immediately, but was denied. It was a common story for NFL players of the time. After that, Mehl never asked the NFL again. “I’m not going to go begging,” he told Jim Baumbach of Newsday in 2008. “I can still work. I’m just not as mobile as I used to be.”
As recently as the 2008 Newsday article, Mehl was working with troubled youth in hopes of leading them away from a discouraging future. In essence, Mehl’s job is share with at-risk youth what it takes to become a respected and productive person. According to the article, Mehl has enjoyed his work despite knowing that he can’t reach every juvenile who walks through his door. Mehl has learned to relish seeing graduates of his program say hello or offer a simple thanks.
Lance Mehl’s career overlapped with another linebacker in New York wearing #56 and the Sack Exchange. In part because of this, and in part because of his injury, Mehl didn’t get the accolades he could have otherwise received during his career. Lance Mehl was a big playmaker for the Jets and his stellar playoff performances against Cincinnati and Oakland in 1982 were critical to the Jets making it to the AFC Championship game. His play was also critical for the Jets becoming a relevant playoff contender in the early eightes AFC East. While his knee injury might have slowed him down, it didn’t prevent his addition to the All-Time Jets team. Many who watched Mehl play believe that had he been capable of playing ten or more seasons, it is very likely he would be viewed in the Jets pantheon of defenders among names like Klecko and Gastineau.
By honoring and inducting Lance Mehl into the Class of 2013 TJB Hall of Fame – we hope that this will in some small way honor his legacy with the New York Jets.
Brian Bassett, TheJetsBlog.com