Jets head coach Rex Ryan created a small firestorm this week when he advised Cowboys fans to stay clear of MetLife Stadium for tonight’s season opener. Ryan sidestepped his original comments the next day, retracting his “They’re coming into our stadium, it’s probably not recommended that you wear Cowboys stuff, I would think” line with a caution against fan violence.
But for one Jets fan, Ryan’s comments hit home.
Rob Formola looks like your average 32-year-old. Born and bred in Staten Island, N.Y., Formola is a die-hard Jets fan and has been since age four, having held season tickets for the team since 2007. He hit the road last January to watch his team play in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts in Indianapolis, Ind.
Formola figured that he might never see this moment again, after all, 2010 marked just the third time at that point that the franchise had made an AFC Championship Game.
“Me and a couple of friends packed our bags and headed out to Indianapolis,” Formola said. “As the fourth quarter was approaching the end and the Jets were behind, I wanted to head out before the hustle and bustle, so I headed out to the street to meet my friends.”
Hoping to beat the traffic, Formola instead got a beat down on the streets outside the stadium as he fended for his life. It lasted mere moments, but it left him critically wounded.
“As I approached the street where our car was parked, I saw a crowd pushing and shoving and yelling back and forth. I heard someone yell, ‘That’s the guy that hit you,’ and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” Formola said. “I never saw anyone hit me and I touched my head and my hand was covered in blood. The next thing I remember I woke up in the hospital.”
Formola had been repeatedly hit in the head with the leg of a police barricade. He remembers no prior problem in the hours leading up to the game or any issues with Colts fans during the game itself. But within one moment, he was targeted and assaulted by fans who saw the New York colors.
The injury was bad, but the side effects may be worse. Formola suffered a depressed skull fracture with a contusion to the temporal lobe. He now has a metal plate in his head and has problems with his memory. Having played hockey since a young age, he now cannot participate in physical sports and is on medication for seizures .
Even driving is a problem due to the threat of a seizure.
“My life will never be the same,” Formola said.
Since then, there have been bright moments. He has been the guest of Jets owner Woody Johnson to several games, including the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh last year. He counts Darrelle Revis’ family as friends and cites the outpouring of love from the entire organization, from “Fireman Ed” to Matt Higgins, the Jets executive vice president of business operations.
But the decision that a Colts fan made to bash his skull in is something that this diehard Jets fan still can’t understand. And even if Ryan’s comments resulted in a mea culpa a day later, Formola still finds some wiggle room.
“Let’s be honest, if you love your team, you should be proud to wear their colors. I have plenty of friends from right here in the New York/New Jersey area that are Cowboys fans. I think we all should realize we are just, Formola said. “We are not players getting paid millions of dollars to fight for our team - that is what they get paid to do. It is just a game, isn't that what you learn when you are growing up?”
But Johnson, who has hosted Formola in the owner’s suite several times, is cautious to ensure all visiting fans that MetLife Stadium will be a positive experience for them. Even if they, like Formola did in Indianapolis, decide to wear the opposing team’s “stuff.”
“I don’t care what jersey you’re wearing, you’re going to be safe at our stadium. That’s just the fact of the matter,” Johnson said. “We have a responsibility to protect you and make sure you have a good time.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.
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