Joe Klecko, a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, was one of the most dominant defensive linemen of the 1980s.
Selected by the Jets in the sixth round of the 1977 NFL Draft out of Temple, the Chester, Penn., native was a Pro Bowl selection at three different positions during his decade-plus run with Gang Green. Klecko, along with Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam, formed the vaunted “New York Sack Exchange” in 1981. Together they tormented opposing quarterbacks and led the NFL with 66 sacks that season.
Klecko, who started 131 of his 140 games with the Jets, finished with 78 career sacks. He had his No. 73 retired by the Jets in 2004 and was part of the franchise’s inaugural Ring of Honor class in 2010.
About the only thing Klecko hasn’t been able to tackle during his stellar career is enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now he is among 12 senior finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023. The 12-person Seniors Committee will meet next week. Only three can get in.
Now a successful businessman in New Jersey, the Daily News caught up with Klecko to discuss his thoughts on the Hall, as well as his storied career with the Jets.
(Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity)
DAILY NEWS: Why do you think you haven’t received a call to the Hall?
JOE KLECKO: I wish I knew. They only induct one guy a year as a Senior Finalist into the Hall. I missed being a Senior Finalist for 2022 by one vote. [Oakland Raider wide receiver] Cliff Branch was inducted last year. I am happy Branch got the nod, but it’s unfortunate that he’s not with us anymore to enjoy it. That’s the real shame, giving players these honors after they die. Howie Long called me after he heard the news last year saying, ‘Kleck, I can’t believe it!’, but I said, ‘Howie, I ain’t jumping off a building. If it doesn’t work out, it’s fine. And if it does, God bless it.’ [Hall of Fame offensive guard] Joe DeLamielleure makes a great case for me. He said if I just stayed at one position I’d be in the Hall. But what’s the difference? I still dominated at every position
EDITORS’ NOTE: The Hall approved up to three senior-pool selections for the Classes of ‘23, ‘24 and ‘25 earlier this year.
DN: What was the best game you ever played?
JK: Wow. Nobody’s ever asked me that question before. Wow. There were some games where I made big plays at the end. If I didn’t make them, we’d have lost the game. I’d say that when we had to win, I never let any offensive lineman touch my linebackers. I’d yank ‘em down, I’d do whatever I had to do. So those kinds of things happened a lot.
But I guess my best one was the Green Bay game in 1981. It was the end of the year and we had to win to go to the playoffs. And we actually put the Giants in the playoffs too, by beating Green Bay. We beat the crap out of [Packers QB] Lynn Dickey. He was a good quarterback, but their offensive line could not handle us. I think we had 10 or 11 sacks on the day. And nobody … nobody … ran my way on the left side. I always had the mentality that they [the Jets] needed me to win. I had the fortitude to win.
Another game was against the Buffalo Bills the same year. Ken Jones, the Bills’ left tackle, had four holding penalties against me in the first half. After half time he changed his jersey number — like the referee wasn’t going to going to notice. He was just holding and dragging me down. He had a very rough day.
DN: What are your thoughts on QB Richard Todd?
JK: Richard? I loved him. What a competitor. Tough. He got the stuffing knocked out of him for years. For him to come in here and play as well as he did while he was riding the horse… I mean, he took a beating here. But he was built like a workhorse so he could take that beating. I love Richard, and we’re still friends. In 1981 we were supposed to be nothing, but we built this team with Freeman [McNeil] and Wesley [Walker] and offensively we were doing great. Richard was having a great year. We took steppingstones to get to the playoffs against the [Buffalo] Bills, but we had that game. It was such a tough loss. We were coming down the field and Richard throws that interception in the end zone — that was a tough one. We could have gone far that year.
DN: How about QB Ken O’Brien?
JK: Ken took a beating too, but I don’t think any criticism of Kenny is warranted. He was a hell of a quarterback. Remember, he had that shootout with [Dan] Marino, where they combined for like 1,000 yards and Kenny won that game. If Kenny had the running game and the defense that Miami had…wow, but we just didn’t have it at that time. But Kenny won that game for us.
DN: Favorite NFL coach?
JK: Oh Walt Michaels, without a doubt. Walt drafted me; he was just like my dad. A perfect example — I was a pretty good baseball player when I was younger. I’m playing shortstop, and I was left-handed. My dad would sit in right field so he could catch my home runs. One time I hit a home run to win the regionals and everyone’s congratulating me. I had to walk out to my dad because he ain’t gonna walk back to me, and instead of congratulating me he says, ‘Why’d you boot the ball at short?’ And that was just like Walt. If you did your job, you were the best guy in the world, but you weren’t gonna get compliments about it. I was used to that because that was how I grew up.
A funny story; when I was a rookie, before the last game of the year, I was walking down a hotel hallway in Philly, and I saw Walt coming the other way. When you’re a rookie, you don’t talk to head coaches, and I’m trying to stay as far away from him as I can. He’s veering right towards me, he knocks me into the planter and he keeps walking. From Walt, that was a term of endearment. Other kids might have taken it the wrong way, but I thought it was pretty cool. My head coach knocked me into the flowers.
DN: Who was the best offensive lineman you ever faced?
JK: I played them all. This is an arrogant way to say this, but I can’t say I ever had a really bad time against anybody. By position, [center] Dwight Stephenson from Miami, and Webby [Mike Webster] in Pittsburgh. Webby had a good team around him. Stephenson, who I went against year after year, was the quickest guy I played against, without a doubt. But that was my mantra — I was the quickest guy most people played against. That’s what made us so competitive. Don Shula always said, ‘Joe Klecko was the only guy I couldn’t leave Dwight Stephenson to block on his own.’
At guard, John Hannah. John was the kind of guy that if you did beat him, he wouldn’t get intimidated. He would come back and try to bite your nose off. John was a real competitor. Of course, at tackle was Anthony Munoz. He’s such a good guy — he’s always plugging me for the Hall of Fame.
DN: Who was the best quarterback you ever faced?
JK: Without a doubt, it’s Dan Marino. He just got rid of the ball so fast. His instincts were beyond anyone. The best athlete at QB was John Elway, tough quarterback. I remember chasing after him, pursuing him to our defensive right, he’s running left, and he threw a ball across the field from the 20-yard line to the end zone on a rope. He was amazing.
DN: Who was the best running back you faced?
JK: In my mind it was Earl Campbell. Now, a lot of people don’t really talk about him much because he never got to the Super Bowl, but Earl never looked for highlights. Earl never stepped out of bounds. Earl would run a play, then get up so slowly, hand the ball to the ref and walk back to the huddle like he was about to die. Then next play he’d run for a touchdown. He was unbelievable that way. The only concussion I ever got was from Earl and a guard at the same time. They were coming around the end, so I threw my body in there and, oh man.
DN: Favorite Jets helmet?
JK: The traditional white helmet always sat well with me, the one that Joe [Namath] wore. I only played my rookie year with that helmet. I never grew to like the green helmet. The white helmet was the tradition of the Jets. Not for nothing, they were from a time that the Jets were Super Bowl champions. Why do you change something like that?
DN: What was your one year at Baltimore like?
JK: It was different, I don’t regret it. The reason is I could still play, and I wanted to show everybody. And I did. Ron Meyer was the coach. I went there because they had a chance to go to the Super Bowl. They brought in [Hall of Fame running back] Eric Dickerson, they had a great offensive line and Gary Hogeboom at quarterback. So, if I could help the defensive line as far as the pass rush…but they had a defensive line coach that didn’t leave me in for pass rushing, so I don’t know where that came from. It’s not like he had studs in there. By the time the end of the year came it was a little disheartening to be there. So that made my decision to retire easy.
DN: Thoughts on NFL player celebrations today?
JK: Look, I’m as old school as it gets. I told my son Danny [who played in the NFL for the Patriots, Colts and Ravens], ‘If you ever sack a quarterback and you start to celebrate, hurry up and turn around. Because I’m gonna put you on your ass.’
DN: But wasn’t Gastineau one of the biggest sack celebrators of all?
JK: There was nothing I could do about Gastineau. They loved him. They promoted what he wanted to do. He was so good. He was a hell of an athlete, and you weren’t going to deter him. He was gonna do what he was gonna do no matter what. It brought him fame.
DN: What are your thoughts about Robert Saleh, QB Zach Wilson and how the Jets will do this year?
JK: Everyone I talk to, whether it’s in the media, players, or other coaches, all say how hard Saleh’s teams play for him. That’s what you want in a head coach. He’s a great leader. I think he’s a good fit for what the Jets want to accomplish. I like the kid QB. He needs to be a little faster with his reads, but he has talent. He needs to take advantage of the short to intermediate passes. Teams today have a lot of success with the six- or seven-yard passes moving the offense down the field. Look, you can’t throw deep against a Belichick defense. You shouldn’t even try. His biggest problem will be the offensive line in front of him. I saw what happened to Mekhi [Bekton]. Losing him for the year is going to make things even rougher. The Jets have a good coach and a talented defense. I see no reason they can’t be a .500 team. Eight wins would be a good season for them. It’s such a tough division with the Bills, Dolphins, and Patriots. That’s three extremely good defenses they face six times a year.