Catch Up with the Jets Legend from Louisville Jim Gehman
Life can change in an instant. Or in John Neidert's case, with a phone call.
Drafted by the expansion Cincinnati Bengals out of Louisville in 1968, the linebacker was released after eight games.
"I'd just started my first game that week and I guess (Bengals Coach) Paul Brown thought I didn't play well. So they put me on waivers," Neidert said. "And it just so happened that the Jets needed some help on special teams and they claimed me. (Jets Coach) Weeb (Ewbank) called and said, "When can you be in New York?' And I said, 'When's the next flight out of Cincinnati?'
"I was there the next day and played against the same team that I played against right before I got cut by Cincinnati, the Houston Oilers.
"The Jets were in first place at the time, so they had a good team. I just tried to fit in and kept my mouth shut. Everybody accepted me right off. It was pretty nice. You never realize what's going to happen, but everything worked out well."
Contributing on special teams for the final five games of the regular season, winning four, Neidert helped New York post an 11-3 record and win the AFL Championship over Oakland. They'd then meet the highly-favored NFL Champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The Jets won, 16-7.
"Weeb said, 'We're not talking to anybody. We're not going to start running our mouths.' A lot of teams before that talked about how they were going to beat the hell out of the NFL teams. So I didn't say anything. I kept my mouth closed and helped with whatever I had to do," Neidert said.
"And then when Joe (Namath) made that prediction, 'We're going to win. I guarantee it.' I can remember Weeb saying, 'Joseph, why did you do that?' And Joe said, 'Coach, you said we've got to believe in ourselves. We're going to win.' I guess he backed it up."
To kick off the following season, the Jets needed Neidert to step up from being a backup linebacker and playing on special teams to the starting lineup. He didn't disappoint.
"Al Atkinson, who was the middle linebacker, got injured in the last preseason game. I'm thinking, 'He's going to play (in the season-opener). The defending Super Bowl Champs, we're going to get introduced in Buffalo," Neidert said.
"I practiced (with the starters) all week. Al was there and I thought he was going to play. So, on the way to the game, Weeb comes up to me and says, 'John, you're going to start at middle linebacker.' That's the first time I found out, on the bus ride to the game. And that was (Bills running back) O.J. Simpson's first game."
Holding Simpson to just 35 yards and a touchdown, and Buffalo to 181 yards of total offense, the Jets won Neidert's first of four games as their starter, 33-19. New York would finish the season with a 10-4 record.
Traded to the Bears, Neidert spent the 1970 season, his last, with Chicago. That was where he also portrayed a linebacker as an extra in the 1971 movie Brian's Song. It was based on the relationship between Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Teammates who became close friends, Piccolo's life was cut short after being diagnosed with cancer. He died on June 16, 1970 at the age of 26.
"Brian had passed away right before I got traded there, so I never met him. But I guess he was a real heck of a guy," Neidert said. "Billy Dee Williams played Gale and James Caan played Brian Piccolo. (Other Bears) Ed O'Bradovich and (Dick) Butkus were in it too. It was pretty interesting being a part of the film."
In the NFL for three seasons, what makes Neidert most proud of his career?
"That I was able to even play. And the Super Bowl. Not too many people win a Super Bowl," he said. "I can remember when I played with the Bears, I backed Dick Butkus up. We were talking one day and he said, 'You know, John, that (Super Bowl) ring. That's what I want.'
"He never played in a championship game and he was one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. He's really a nice guy, but that's what he told me. 'That's why you play the game, to try to win something like that.'
"I was lucky. The first year I played, I got it. You think it's going to be easy. It's harder to defend a championship than it is to win it, I think. Everybody's gunning for you the next year."
Following football, Neidert continued working outside as a brick mason. But when the recession hit and affected the construction business, he sought out a job with a more solid foundation, took the postal exam, and worked as a letter carrier in Sarasota, Florida for 32 years.
"When you're in the office, somebody's watching you. But when you're on the street there's nobody watching over you, so you've just got to do the job. I enjoyed that because I'd get out there and get it done and get back in there and get in the cool air. It got hot every now and then in Florida," Neidert laughed.
"And then my son, in 1989, was going to be a senior in high school, and the football coach at Riverview High School asked me if I wanted to help coach. I said, 'Yeah, but I'm not going to coach my son.' So I started coaching freshman, and I've been coaching there for 31 years."
The varsity's linebackers coach, what has Neidert enjoyed most about working with kids over the last three decades?
"I stress to them that you're not going to play athletics your whole life," he said. "If you're lucky enough to get a scholarship, get an education because they can't take that away from you. Someone told me a long time ago that one percent of all high school seniors will ever play college football. And one percent of that one percent will ever play pro football. So the odds of you playing (in the NFL) are not good, Get an education.
"Every now and then I'll see somebody I coached and it's really neat to see how they've succeeded in life. Not just football. In life."
Still coaching but retired from the postal service, Neidert and his wife, Lindy, make their home in Sarasota. They have four adult children: Tim, Aaron, Julie, and Katie; and seven grandchildren.