PHOENIX — He was the baby-faced truck driver who sparred once with Joe Frazier and 34 long years after he retired, Joe Klecko finally sacked injustice.
Joe Klecko is finally where he belongs.
“It’s us. It’s all about us,” Klecko told The Post. “I was all for the fans, you know that. And I always wanted to win for the fans. I always stayed after for ‘em. And I want them to enjoy it along with me because of the loyalty of Jets fans. They stuck with us through thick and thin, and I appreciate them.
“And I want them to be able to understand that along with being Joe Klecko in the Hall of Fame, that it is also Joe Klecko of the New York Jets in the Hall of Fame. And Jet fans are included in that. I just want them to know that the accolades that come for me for what I’ve done, all because of really great fans. I’m still remembered how many years later in the lore of the New York area? And it’s only for one reason, because the fans made me popular. They made my life a lot easier by rooting for me. So I just want them to enjoy it with me as a member of almost my distant family, if you will. I really appreciate the fans.”
A 6-foot-3, 265-pound rolling ball of butcher knives, he was the most feared and fearsome member of the New York Sack Exchange, a compact game-wrecking machine whose ability to play three positions on the defensive line seemed to be more of a curse than a blessing to misguided Hall voters. Joe Klecko had every right to his own bust in Canton five years after he stopped terrorizing anyone in his path. He is the only man to be voted to the Pro Bowl at three different positions (DT, DE, NT), for crying out loud.
“Hate quarterbacks,” Klecko told Sports Illustrated in 1979. “Well, no. I mean, I don’t hate them as people. They’re probably nice guys who brush their teeth and call Mom once a week. I hate what quarterbacks stand for. They stand between me and success.”
They couldn’t stand sturdily when he was the Jets’ Smokin’ Joe, No. 73. He was a force against both the run and the pass — 20.5 sacks in 1981 and 78 for his 12-year career. Not bad for a sixth-round pick out of Temple. He missed the rest of the 1982 season after rupturing his patellar tendon in the opener and the final six games of the 1986 season (knee) and first seven games in 1987 (knee).
I asked him what physical traits he possessed that made him who he was. “I had two — I was quick and I was strong,” Klecko said. “I was stronger than anybody I played against, just about. I don’t think I ever faced somebody that was stronger than me.”
Klecko — with Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam — led a Jets revival under coach Walt Michaels. The infamous Mud Bowl defeat in Miami kept him from his greatest chance to play in the Super Bowl.
“When we became the Sack Exchange is when the Jets really started winning,” Klecko said. “Nobody was used to being adored like that. Fans just really went wild for us, and when we would make sacks, it was crazy, they’d almost bring the house down.”
He retired at 35 after one unfulfilling season with the Colts.
“When I came in the league, and even four or five years ago, I remember playing against centers who were 250 or 260 pounds,” he said at the time. “This year, I played against nine guys that were 290 pounds. It’s time for the little guys to move aside.”
Colts owner Jim Irsay was the club’s GM at the time.
“I’m not sure this should be a retirement as much as it should be an ascension to the Hall of Fame,” he said that day.
The ascension never came, and it was shameful. Until Thursday night. When we learned that 69-year-old Joe Klecko was one of three Seniors finalists — Ken Riley and Chuck Howley were the others — and received at least 80 percent approval in the balloting.
In high school, Klecko drove dump trucks, and later huge tractor-trailer rigs.
Roadway Joe. Better late than never.