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Where are they now: Jets returner Bruce Harper

Quick, think fast. Picture a green Jets jersey with No. 42 on its front and tell us the first person who comes to mind.

Admit it. You thought of Fireman Ed, right?

Ed Anzalone has become a poster boy for Jets fans everywhere, thanks to his many years leading the J-E-T-S chants every Sunday afternoon. Although he has not attended any games this year because of preseason knee surgery, the fact that many of you thought of him speaks to his staying power.

Even the rightful owner of that jersey number - return specialist Bruce Harper, 1977-84 - realizes that he now has to share No. 42 in the public eye.

"That's my claim to fame now," Harper said the other day. "Now that I'm not on the field myself, I can brag about Fireman Ed wearing my jersey."

Harper, however, deserves to be remembered for much more than that. Listed at 5-8 and 174 pounds, he made the Jets as an undrafted free agent. All he did in the next eight years was become the best return man in franchise history, compiling 5,407 yards on 243 kickoffs, a 22.3-yard average.

Nowadays, though, most people to whom he's introduced want to talk to him about Fireman Ed. "You know, people have asked me if I ever met him," Harper said. "The question is, has he ever met me? OK."

Harper remains silent for a second, maybe two. You start to think this jersey business really must bother him. Then the silence is broken by hearty laughter. "Yeah, I'm only kidding you," he said. "We've had the pleasure of meeting each other many times."

Harper is smart enough to appreciate that his name - even his Jets legacy - lives on because of one very visible fan who always wears his jersey.

"It's a great compliment, in my opinion. A great compliment," Harper said. "I haven't played in 22 years, or something like that, and here's a guy that's a fan and out of all the players that have come through, great players whose jerseys he could have worn, he's still wearing my jersey. It's really a great compliment. He told me he was doing [the chants] when I was still playing, but I didn't know that."

These days Harper splits his time between his job as business development director at Computer Design & Integration and his role as president of the educational program "Heroes & Cool Kids."

For the past 10 years, Harper's program has been establishing relationships with New Jersey school districts. They train high school seniors to go into classrooms and act as mentors to sixth-graders, which Harper feels is a benefit to both age groups. He began this program after taking part in a similar program in Long Island schools while he was with the Jets, a time of his life that he cherishes greatly.

"The relationships that I established there are forever," he said. "That's the first thing I think about from my Jets days. I think about my dear friends, Wesley Walker, Marty Lyons, Greg Buttle, Freeman McNeil, Bobby Jackson. The list just goes on.

"The next thing I think about is how totally, completely committed I was to the job, and how alive I was doing something I absolutely loved. I worked so hard at it. I committed myself completely and I got to feel all of my emotions 100 percent. I cried. I laughed. It was so cool, man, so, so cool."

Harper said he recently came to the conclusion that he is a Jets fan for life. It's something that is a part of him that he can't shake.

"The Jets sent out this DVD of the history of the team before the season, and that clinched it for me," he said. "In spite of the fact they lose, that they're up and down, no matter what happens, I'm a fan and I'm not going to fight it anymore. I'm just going to root for the team. That's it. I can't help it."

Just like Fireman Ed.

Do you have a favorite missing person? email

Jim Baumbach with your suggestions:

jim.baumbach@newsday.com

New York Sports