Pawtucket native Gerry Philbin sat down to watch his old New York Jets team play football last month when the phone rang at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“It was the owner of the Jets, Woody Johnson, calling to tell me I was going to be inducted into the Jets’ Ring of Honor,” Philbin said on Thursday afternoon. “The ceremony will be held at halftime of Monday night’s game against the Dolphins.”
“I was quite surprised to hear from the owner of the Jets,” Philbin added. “He was such a gentleman to make the call personally. I told him it was a great honor.”
Along with Cranston’s Mark van Eeghen and Warwick’s Steve Furness, Gerry Philbin would have to be ranked among the very best Rhode Island high school football players who made it to the NFL. In Gerry’s case, much of his fame came with the old American Football League before the 1970 merger with the NFL.
Philbin, who played at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds as a defensive end for the Jets from 1964 through 1972, was named first-team all-AFL for the 1968-69 seasons.
He was also named to the AFL’s all-time team after the league merged with the NFL.
“I’m most proud of that honor,” Philbin admitted. “People were always putting the AFL down during the 1960s. We all pulled together to show we could compete with the NFL and even beat their best teams.”
Philbin played on the 1969 Jets team that beat Baltimore in Super Bowl III, a triumph that played a huge role in the NFL’s acceptance of the new league as an equal partner.
“I remember that game well,” the 70-year-old Philbin recalled. “I can remember going on the bus to the Orange Bowl, running out on the field ... I can remember a lot of the plays from the game. It’s funny, we played the Colts in Baltimore in 1972 and that was an amazing game, too. Joe (Namath) threw five or six touchdown passes and I sacked Johnny Unitas twice.”
Philbin said he is fortunate to be healthy and alert at this stage of his life.
“I feel great, knock on wood,” he said. “But I had my share of injuries. I have pins in both shoulders. I had operations on an ankle and my left knee. I played in games with a shoulder harness and knee brace on at the same time. That would be unthinkable today. We had concussions back when I played but they didn’t make a big thing about it. That’s why so many retired NFL players are unhappy with the pension plan. Guys are getting dementia from all the big hits and they’re not covered on their health plan.
“I got my bell rung a few times,” Philbin added. “But I never became nauseous and threw up, or had any of the symptoms you get with a bad concussion. I was lucky, I guess.”
Philbin first began to gain notice while playing football for Tolman High in the late 1950s.
“I was nearly six-feet two and around 190 pounds when I left Tolman to attend the University of Buffalo,” said the 1960 Tolman High graduate. “I probably weighed 235 when I graduated from Buffalo. In the pros, I was considered kind of small for a defensive end.
“I would have loved to have played linebacker but we had a lot of good players on our team. The Jets were ranked No. 1 in both offense and defense in the AFL from 1967-69.
“Jim Nance never gained 100 yards rushing against us,” Philbin said, speaking of a 260-pound running back for the Buffalo Bills who won league MVP honors in 1967. “We had some great players on our defense. I was small but had the quickness and speed to play defensive end.”
Philbin, who was drafted in the third round by both the Detroit Lions of the NFL and the AFL’s Jets, played on a defense that included tenacious defenders like Larry Grantham, John Elliott, Al Atkinson, Verlon Biggs and Ralph Baker, to name just a few.
Grantham will also be inducted into the Ring of Honor on Monday along with ex-Jets Freeman McNeil and Al Toon. The Jets’ Ring of Honor was inaugurated in 2010 with the original class of Namath, Weeb Ewbank, Winston Hill, Joe Klecko, Curtis Martin and Don Maynard.
Monday’s Ring on Honor ceremony will bring the Philbin family, which still has deep roots in Pawtucket, to New York for a joyous reunion.
“I got 41 tickets to the game,” Philbin said, “and probably 25 or 30 of the tickets are going to people coming down from Rhode Island. My sisters – Lillian Leonard, Joan Giusti and Lois Holland – will be there along with my brothers Terry and Tim and their families. A lot of their kids will be there, along with our grandchildren.”
Philbin, who worked in Long Island in the construction industry after retiring from pro football in 1974, lived in New Hampshire for a few years before retiring to Florida.
“We moved down there so I could be closer to my grandchildren,” he admitted. (His son John lives in Florida.)
Philbin’s mind often drifts back to his early years in Pawtucket.
“Please tell everyone from Rhode Island that I thank them for their support over the years,” he said. “You know, when I played football at Tolman, we didn’t have any great teams. Our goal was to beat St. Raphael on Thanksgiving Day. That was like our Super Bowl. It was like today with the Jets beating the Giants. But we all got along in those days. One of my best friends was Dennis O’Brien, who was captain of the St. Ray’s team in my senior year. He went on to become a great high school football coach.
“I was really good friends with Ted Dolan and Mike Brady,” Philbin added. “I’ve tried to keep in touch with them over the years. “
Philbin also spoke of the coaches and teachers who impacted his life at Tolman.
“Our football coaches, Rollie and Gig Pariseau, were great,” he said. “They used to bring the team over to their house so that we could watch film and eat ice cream together. Fred McKinnon, who worked at the CYO, was very instrumental in my life when I was in junior high school. I remember Mr. Ed Mellucci was a great teacher for me in high school. I really had some wonderful people from Pawtucket who influenced my life.”
Philbin became friends with a young Jets assistant coach named Buddy Ryan back in the late 1960s. Ryan would go on to become one of the great defensive strategists in the NFL, heading the defense of the great Chicago Bears teams in the mid-1980s before becoming head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1980s.
“Gerry was a great one,” Ryan said recently. “He and the (Kansas City) Chiefs’ Jerry Mays were the two defensive ends on the 10-year AFL all-time team. The only other Jets on it were Joe Namath and Don Maynard. Gerry should in the the Hall of Fame, but I guess everybody can’t be in it.”
Philbin actually played a role in Ryan becoming a professional football coach.
“Buddy was my position coach at Buffalo,” Philbin said. “I owe him everything. And when I got to the Jets, Weeb (Ewbank) called me into his office and asked me about Buddy, who by this time was coaching at the University of Pacific. Me and a guy from Buffalo named Bill Mazur told Weeb that Buddy would make a great professional coach. And we were right.
“I used to go over to his house when his twin sons -- Rex and Rob -- were just infants. We have maintained our friendship over the years. In fact, I spent a couple of days at Rex’s camp when he first became coach of the Jets two years ago. We talked and had a good time.”
Rex Ryan admitted that week that Philbin had been his football idol back in those days.
"I honestly did not know that until recently, when Buddy told me," Philbin told Jetsinsider.com two years ago. "I hadn't seen Rex and Rob since they were running around the locker room in 1968. Naturally, up here I just let him conduct his business. But it's great to see him."
"Gerry's a good guy, a class act, and such a competitive guy," Ryan told newyorkjets.com, recalling some classic battles Philbin had with future Hall of Fame tackle Bob "Boomer" Brown. "He was a great player and he got there because of his heart."
Gerry Philbin will trot back into the spotlight on Monday night at halftime of a Jets-Dolphins game that will be nationally televised by ESPN.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I made a lot of friends through football, starting with my time at Tolman and the University of Buffalo before going to the Jets. I just want everyone to know how much I appreciate their support over the years.”