On Christmas night, order one of the fifty greatest New York Jets of all time arrived at our house in Atlanta for dinner. We’d already begun eating, link unsure if he’d show up at all. But here Bill Mathis was, smiling as we helped him out of the car. He and his wife, Burnsie, are old friends of my stepmother, who invited them to join us for our holiday meal. I’d never met Bill before, but soon found myself—being the youngest and presumably strongest of the group—in an intimate embrace with him, lifting him out of the car. I put my hands under his huge arms and tried to pull his thick, two-hundred-and-seventy-pound trunk, clothed in an N.F.L.-labeled fleece jacket, from the passenger seat and into a wheelchair that Burnsie had removed from the back.

It took twenty minutes to maneuver Bill—through tight doorways, around heavy furniture and sniffing dogs—to the head of our dinner table, some sixty feet away. The whole journey there, he didn’t say a word. Though he just turned seventy-seven years old, Bill has the surprisingly smooth face and thick hair of a much younger man. He played for the New York Jets—and their predecessor, the Titans—back in the sixties, when they were part of the since discontinued American Football League. Hall of Famer Joe Namath roomed with him on the road: their coach instructed Bill to keep the charismatic young quarterback out of trouble. (“Tough,” Mathis told me.) In 1969 Mathis won a Super Bowl with Namath, and tonight, as usual, he had the massive ring on his finger, which he let me hold: it had the startling heft of a lead bullet. Namath had just called Bill a few hours earlier, to wish his old running back a merry Christmas and ask Burnsie how her husband of almost forty years was doing. The answer, Namath must have known: not so well.

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