Jets nose tackle Joe Klecko watches play in 1982. 

Jets nose tackle Joe Klecko watches play in 1982.  Credit: AP/Al Messerschmidt

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Joe Klecko took a gigantic step forward in his quest to earn Hall of Fame recognition for his outstanding career with the Jets from 1977-88, but the former defensive lineman and charter member of the “New York Sack Exchange” won’t allow himself to celebrate just yet.

“I’ve learned not to get excited about anything unless the check is in the bank,” Klecko said Thursday at the Jets’ training facility, where Klecko was invited after learning he’d been selected as one of three Seniors finalists. “Until the check is in the bank, I’m going to maintain my civility about this and live my normal life.”

If — and only if — Klecko secures at least 80% of the votes among the Hall of Fame’s 49-member voting panel when it meets in January, then he’ll let the emotions pour out. Until then, he’ll bide his time and hope for the best after a career in which he achieved unparalleled greatness among his peers.

Klecko, the only player in NFL history to earn Pro Bowl recognition at three different positions, is certainly deserving of a place in Canton. And the odds favor him, especially after he was named along with Bengals cornerback Ken Riley and Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley as the three Seniors finalists.

The credentials are impeccable. He was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1981, when he recorded a career-high 20 ½ sacks and helped fellow linemen Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam earn the “Sack Exchange” nickname. He later earned Pro Bowl honors as a defensive tackle and then as a nose tackle, when he welcomed a position switch suggested by former defensive coordinator Bud Carson in 1985. Klecko became a forerunner to the 3-technique nose tackle, which turned the position from one that occupied blockers to one that added a new dimension to the pass rush.

“[Carson] asked me, ‘Joe, do you want to try it?’ I said I’ll do anything you want,” Klecko recalled. “He allowed me my freedom to play. I was doing things out there that nose tackles didn’t do. They weren’t quick. They weren’t making sacks. They were just cannon fodder, big 300-pound guys taking on blocks. I was raising havoc as a nose tackle, and he loved it. I said, ‘Bud, what do you want me to do here?’ He says, ‘I don’t care what you do.’ Bud had rules and you followed them, but with me, he said, ‘Joe, just keep it up.’ ”

Klecko was a first-team All-Pro selection at nose tackle in 1985. It was one of his most cherished football memories.

Another was the time when he, Lyons, Gastineau and Salaam went to New York for a photo shoot at the New York Stock Exchange in ’81 in honor of their new “Sack Exchange” nickname.

“We drove down there, we’re in a limo, and we turn a corner where the bull is on Wall Street, and there’s mobs of people,” Klecko said. “We’re like, why? What happened?”

The crowd was there to see the players.

“You’re kidding,” Klecko remembers thinking. “It was that exciting. It’s just New York. They do everything big. When we get out of the car, the cameras were on us, and it was a surreal moment, but it’s a long-lasting moment.”

And any Jets fan with even a remote connection to that era can never forget how special a time that truly was. The Jets’ defense had captured the city’s imagination, as the Sack Exchange helped the team get back to the playoffs for the first time since Joe Namath’s 1969 team. The Jets went to the AFC Championship Game the following year, and got close once again after the 1986 season before an unfortunate roughing the passer call by Gastineau in a playoff game against the Browns ended their run. It would be Klecko’s final playoff game.

Now he hopes to celebrate one more victory early next year. A victory that would assure his football immortality in Canton.

He’s hoping for the best, and also hoping that another former Jets great, All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, gets there, too.

“That week, Canton, Ohio, may become New York if [Revis] and I both make it at the same time,” Klecko said. “For these fans from this area, it’s going to be fantastic.”