The police stopped rush-hour traffic at Eighth Avenue and West 47th Street on Wednesday so the buses could pass through and their passengers, burly men in jackets and ties, could make the curtain. These were the Jets, en route to the off-Broadway Actors Temple Theater. It was just before 9 a.m., earlier even for actors than for professional athletes.
“Last time I did a 9 a.m. show I was in the third grade,” said Layon Gray, who wrote, directed and performed in the play “Black Angels Over Tuskegee.” “I was a tree.”
But the Jets had a luncheon scheduled and then they were off to Philadelphia, where they will play the Eagles Thursday night in their final preseason game. If they were going to see the show and absorb its message about comradeship and loyalty and pride, it had to be early. Everyone was there (well, not Darrelle Revis), including Coach Rex Ryan and the team owner, Woody Johnson.
It was an odd scene, a parade of huge, well-dressed guys filing quietly and obediently into the tiny theater, where several took up more than one seat apiece. A bystander prompted a sizable lineman: “Better than practice, right?”
“I’d rather be practicing,” he responded.
How did this come to pass? Serendipitously.
The play, part history and civics lesson, part inspirational narrative, concerns half a dozen men who during World War II were among the United States’ first black military aviators, known popularly as the Tuskegee Airmen, and who cohere into the proverbial band of brothers. It has been running since February to modest reviews — “an agreeable drama,” The New York Times called it — and one day last spring Ray Anderson, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president for football operations, was walking after dinner with his wife, Buffie, passed by the theater and decided to buy tickets.
Afterward, taken by its themes, its historical poignance and its relevance, racially speaking, to a league whose players are overwhelmingly black, the Andersons were thrilled, and Buffie suggested to her husband that he take his staff to see it. He did, and he subsequently issued a statement extolling the play as “a dynamic teambuilding experience.”
He added, ‘Black Angels’ is a must-see.”
(Anderson could have more use for his skills as a drama critic in a few weeks when “Lombardi,” a new play about the Green Bay Packers coach, opens on Broadway, with the N.F.L. as a producer.)
Buffie Anderson also sent her friend, Sara Hickmann, to the show. Hickmann, formerly director of the N.F.L.’s player assistance services, is now a Jets staff psychologist.
“And the entire time I was watching it, I was thinking, ‘I have to figure out way to get the team to see this,’ ” Hickmann said. “It was so relevant to what they’re trying to do, coming from all walks of life and maybe not always loving everyone on the team, needing to be away from family and friends, experiencing life tragedies. There were similarities in terms of the kind of banter the characters engage in, in terms of being educated and having role models.”
Hickmann took her idea to the Jets’ general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, who approved it, and the league also approved the outing as part of the life-skills program that each team is required to provide for its players. At first, the Jets talked about inviting the performers to their training camp, but Hickmann wanted the players in the theater.
“There’s something about the humility of the building when you walk in,” she said.
The players were a respectful, attentive audience, and a reasonably appreciative one, though there was some confusion about how long to applaud, and the actors’ curtain call concluded in silence. Still, they were murmuring approval on the way out and several asked to purchase T-shirts, though there was a limited supply in size XXXL.
“The play was as good as advertised,” Ryan said. “The message was outstanding, about teamwork, the way you have to take care of each other, the way you have to go through adversity and still go out and function on a high level.”
Jason Taylor, the linebacker signed from the Miami Dolphins, saw the play as being about “guys coming together and not letting someone else tell you what you can’t be.”
He acknowledged that some of his teammates may have initially rolled their eyes at the idea that watching a play together might be beneficial. But he thought the majority found it both relevant and moving.
“I found myself getting emotional at times,” he said. “You can sit in a room full of testosterone and big tough guys. But if you let your guard down and let your guard down and be a true man, you’ll find something in it for you.”
As for the actors, they were delighted, too.
“We saw a few tears shed by those big fellas,” said Thom Scott II, who plays Abraham, a voluble but sensitive young man who has the added burden of looking out for his brother, who is prone to fits.
“I think this play offers a lot that can help them for their Super Bowl run; I’m rooting for them now,” Scott said after admitting he has always been a Steelers fan.
To see the original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/sports/football/02jets.html?ref=sports