Joe Klecko was one of the most versatile defensive linemen in NFL history, earning Pro Bowl honors at three different positions while playing a leading role for the Jets’ iconic “New York Sack Exchange” in the 1980s. He is now on the doorstep of earning Pro Football Hall of Fame recognition for a career that included a league-high 20½ sacks in 1981 and a reputation as a tough and unselfish player who played equally well as a defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle.
Klecko, 68, was one of three senior candidates nominated Wednesday for enshrinement with the Class of 2023. He was joined by former Bengals cornerback Ken Riley and former Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley from a 12-player field of finalists that also included former Giants and Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls. Klecko, Riley and Howley will be voted on by the 49-member Hall of Fame selection committee at its annual meeting in January 2023. All players must receive at least 80% approval from the committee.
Klecko broke down in tears when informed of the decision by Hall of Fame president Jim Porter.
“Give me a second,” Klecko said when Porter shared the news. “You made my day, that’s for sure.”
Klecko had received previous consideration for Hall of Fame recognition but never mustered enough support during the 20 years he was eligible as a modern-day candidate. He then went into a large pool of senior candidates, yet was also passed over until this year’s vote. The Hall of Fame approved a measure earlier this year to increase the number of senior selections from one to three for each of the next three Hall of Fame classes.
“I really appreciate the call,” Klecko said. “I believe it’s something we’ve looked forward to for a long time. I’ve had too many of them ‘no’ phone calls, and to get this one with the 'yes' is absolutely exciting. It’s a great time in the Klecko house.”
Klecko was the Jets’ sixth-round draft choice out of Temple in 1977, and he adapted quickly to the NFL game with eight sacks during a rookie season in which the Jets went 3-11. But once he, Abdul Salaam, Marty Lyons and Mark Gastineau teamed up, the group became one of the most celebrated lines ever. They hit their stride in 1981, combining for 66 sacks, led by Klecko’s career-high 20½. In November that year, they were invited to ring the ceremonial opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and they were soon given the nickname the “New York Sack Exchange.”
While Gastineau became the central focus of the pass rush, setting a then-NFL record of 22 sacks in 1984 and doing his famous “sack dance” in celebration of each quarterback takedown, Klecko was the heart and soul of the group. His unselfishness in playing different positions was a hallmark of his career, and he played brilliantly wherever he lined up. He was a first-team All Pro as a right defensive end in 1981, made the Pro Bowl as a left defensive tackle in 1983 and 1984, and was a first-team All Pro at nose tackle in 1985.
Klecko was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1981.
"It finally validated everything we knew about Joe as a player and teammate," Lyons told Newsday Wednesday. "He's finally getting the recognition he deserved from the people in Canton, Ohio, when there are so many Hall of Fame members - like Joe DeLamielleure, Dwight Stephenson, Anthony Munoz who said, 'This is a guy we played against and he's one of the toughest guys who lined up.' "
The Jets retired Klecko’s No. 73 in 2004, as he became just the third player in franchise history — after Joe Namath and Don Maynard — to have his jersey retired.
“I had to block Joe Greene and Merlin Olsen when I was playing, and believe me, Joe Klecko was equal to those two guys,” DeLamielleure, the Bills Hall of Fame guard, once said of the Jets’ lineman. “If Joe Klecko had played one position for 10 years, he’d have been considered one of the top two or three players at that position, whichever it was. There’s not another player who went to the Pro Bowl at three different positions. You take a defensive end and put him at nose tackle, and he’s just as good there, that’s a great player.”
Munoz, a Hall of Fame tackle for the Bengals, said Klecko was “right there at the top of the defensive ends I had to block, up there with Fred Dean, Lee Roy Selmon and Bruce Smith. Joe was the strongest guy I ever faced.”
Riley had 65 interceptions for the Bengals during a career that lasted from 1969 to 1983. His interceptions total are the second most by a cornerback in NFL history, trailing only Dick “Night Train” Lane’s 68.
Howley was a member of the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” that helped the team win two Super Bowl championships. He was a five-time first-team All Pro and a six-time Pro Bowl defender known for his tenacious style and sure tackling.
Walls, who made the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling in 1981 and finished with 57 career interceptions, will have to wait another year for Hall of Fame consideration. He had a rookie record 11 interceptions with Dallas and later helped the Giants to an upset victory over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
CLAIMS TO FAME
Joe Klecko's Canton credentials:
1981 Defensive Player of the Year