With the start of the new NFL football season this week and the high expectations for the NY Jets following last year’s outstanding showing, I thought I would reminisce about the years the Jets held their training camp in Peekskill.
Anyone who lived in Peekskill from 1963-1968 could give his or her own accounts of the players’ exploits and influence throughout the city. For me, between the ages of 5 and 10, I was treated with a rather unique perspective on the team’s impact.
The team’s owner, David “Sonny” Werblin purchased the NY Titans, changed their name to the Jets and established their training camp at Peekskill Military Academy beginning in the summer of 1963. Werblin had a financial interest in the academy (not sure how much) and his son was a student there so it was easy to see why he chose PMA.
The players didn’t much like the arrangement since the academy was old and the dorm rooms had no air conditioning. However, they made up for that by spending most evenings at one of the local bar/restaurants. I was not old enough to witness the colorful stories that emerged from many of those evenings but I have heard enough about them second hand.
For me, the memories all took place literally in my back yard. I grew up on Walnut Street just behind the Academy’s Administration Building. In fact, it is the only building that still stands from the academy and is presently the Administration Center for the Peekskill City School District. The rear of the building faced my backyard and the door to the locker room was a mere 50 feet away. There is a private sidewalk that leads from the locker room door directly to the practice field. My back yard ended just a few feet from this sidewalk. So every day, to and from practice, the players walked right past my house. My friends and I would greet them every day, help carry their helmets, talk to them, get their autographs and they would always be so nice and accommodating. They never seemed to get tired of us. One time on a very hot August day on the way back to the locker room after practice a few players ran into my backyard and jumped into our swimming pool – with all of their equipment on!
Because my father worked at PMA I was also able to see some of the players “after hours” around the academy. I would mostly just hang out around them but also talk to them. I remember quite a number of players who over the years were memorable for their kindness and just basically putting up with us kids. Players like Jim Turner, Matt Snell, Emerson Boozer, Don Maynard, Larry Grantham, George Sauer, Winston Hill and Sherman Plunkett.
However, there was one player who took me under his wing, so-to-speak, and let me pal around with him. He was Sam DeLuca. I would change the key on the “Universal Weight Bench” that changed the amount of weight (this was a new technology at the time that replaced barbells), we would talk about my schooling or whatever and he would bring me over to “Chet’s” (deli) on the corner of Elm and Wells Streets to buy me a soda to thank me for helping him. What a wonderful experience for a kid. I still think about it often.
Besides having some great players the Jets also had coaches that were already successful in professional football and others who would go on to make a name for themselves. Head Coach Weeb Ewbank was already a winning coach from the Colts and others were winning coaches in the making, such as Chuck Knox and Walt Michaels.
Of course the big year was 1965 when Joe Namath came to town. Werblin spent a lot of money to sign him and much was expected. The media was also right there to capture much of it. I didn’t realize how much of an influential person Sonny Werblin was until long after the Jets left Peekskill for good in 1968. He was a powerful and successful man who made his mark through the Music Corporation of America (MCA). He was one of the biggest talent agents in the country and managed dozens of stars including Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason (who has his own Peekskill Story), Abbot and Costello, Joan Crawford, Eddie Fisher, Jack Benny and Liberace to name just a few. He also handled some of the major TV shows of the day like My Three Sons, Wagon Train, Mike Hammer, The Virginian and Bachelor Father. On top of that he was the Director and major stakeholder in Monmouth Park Racetrack.
Namath was an experience all in itself for me. He was under a lot of pressure and frequently teased by his teammates so he wasn’t particularly as friendly as the other players. One time a player instructed me to say something to Namath, I can’t remember which one or what he had me say, but Joe didn’t like it. Yes, I remember what he said back to me but I can’t say it here. My father had some interesting interactions with Namath which he enjoyed telling people about for many years.
Growing up in Peekskill was a wonderful experience and having the NY Jets be a part of that for a short time contributed greatly to that. Having a professional football team come to town each year was a great treat and could never happen in the same way today. We were all sad when they left in 1968. PMA closed it doors after that year as well. Most of the buildings were demolished and Peekskill was never the same. Some day I will tell the PMA story as well. However, 1969 was great for one reason, we were able to watch some of the players we knew win a National Championship and give us in Peekskill a lifetime of memories.