Coming out of high school in Garfield, N.J., he was not recruited by any Division I football schools, so he settled on nearby Hofstra University, only to become a surprise star, setting numerous receiving records. He was not regarded as an NFL prospect and thus was not selected in the 1995 NFL draft. He secured a tryout with the Canadian Football League’s Baltimore Stallions, but was released after one day. He earned a long-shot walk-on opportunity with the New York Jets where he was listed 11th out of 11 on the team’s wide receiver depth chart. To add insult to injury, Wayne Chrebet was detained at the front gate on his first day of training camp by a veteran Jets security guard who did not believe Chrebet was a football player due to his smallish frame. It took a New York Jet team official to authorize him as a legitimate walk-on and gain him entrance to the training complex.
What followed was one of the greatest rags to riches stories in the history of professional sports as Ukrainian Chrebet worked his way up the depth chart from 11th to actually make the team. He not only made the active roster, but became one of the most exciting players in the history of the New York Jet franchise. Chrebet set the NFL record for most receptions by a wide receiver in his first two seasons. He earned the nickname “Mr. Third Down” because 379 of his 580 career catches were first downs. Among all-time NFL players who were not drafted, Chrebet owns the third-most receptions in the history of the league behind only Rod Smith and Gary Clark. He gained his legendary status through his work ethic and performance, not his mouth. He prided himself on being respectful, values he learned from his parents. His career ended on November 6, 2005, in a game against the San Diego Chargers when he sustained a concussion on a clean play. His final third-down catch was good for a first down – he was knocked unconscious and lay on the ground for several minutes – symbolic of the type of plays he made throughout his career.
- NFL Players Association tri-state chapter Jet of the Year in 1995
- Named Jet of the Year in 1995 by Newsday’s readers
- Awarded the Dennis Byrd Award for Most Inspirational Player in 1996 as voted by his Jets teammates
- Won the Jets “Unsung Hero Award” in 1997
- Named Jets Player of the Year in 2001 by NFL Alumni Association
- In 1998 he teamed with wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to lead the league in receptions as the duo finished with 158/2,214yds/14.0avg/18TD
- Played his entire 11-year career with one team (New York Jets)
- His No. 80 jersey ranks as one of the most popular in the history of the storied Jet franchise. His jersey is still worn by fans at training camp and home games at the Meadowlands.
- Honored with the Thurman Munson Award for his outstanding efforts both on and off the field/serving the community in 2000.
He often noted that no matter what he had to overcome in his NFL career, it paled when compared to what his father had to overcome as a Purple Heart recipient in the Vietnam War.
During his career he caught passes from 13 different players (12 QB’s): Boomer Esiason, Bubby Brister, Glenn Foley, Frank Reich, Neil O’Donnell, Ray Lucas, Vinny Testaverde, Rick Mirer, Tom Tupa, Curtis Martin (running back), Chad Pennington, Quincy Carter and Brooks Bollinger.
He also suffered nine concussions during his 11-year career.
Chrebet is one of 16 ex-players to be enshrined in the New York Jets Ring of Honor, gaining this exclusive membership in 2014. In his 11 seasons from 1995 to 2005, this wide receiver caught 580 passes for 7,365 yards (12.7 average per catch) and 41 touchdowns. All-time team rankings have him third in yardage, second in receptions, third in touchdowns and fifth in games played. The NFL Network gave Chrebet some huge recognition in 2009, naming him the tenth best undrafted player in NFL history.
He was born on August 14, 1973, in Garfield, N.J., attended Hofstra University on Long Island and was diminutive in stature at 5-foot-10, 188 pounds. His college career was a productive one, setting several school records, including single-game receiving yards (245), touchdowns in a game (five), in a season (16) and career (31). He twice led Hofstra in receiving yards and during his 1994 senior season he became the first player in school history to amass 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. He got his name in the NCAA Division I-AA record book by scoring five receiving touchdowns in one game, tying a record held by NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. His school honored Chrebet for his outstanding college career by inducting him into the Hofstra University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006 as part of its inaugural class. They also retired his No. 3 jersey.
Chrebet Notable Quotables: “I will always be a New York Jet. I am glad I played my entire career here.” “Just to feel what it’s like to drive to a game, everybody with your jersey on, hearing the ‘Jets’ chant, being the center of that, it’s been the greatest 11 years of my life.” “I think it’s just human nature, when you get backed into a corner, no one believes in you anymore, the chips are down. If you’re any kind of competitor, that’s when you’ll come out and play well.” “I made myself believe I could do these things, part of what made me the player I was, and part of it ended my career. But when I got here, I decided I would fear no player here or in my career.” “My first day here, a 70-year-old security guard didn’t let me into practice. I could either laugh it off and go on my journey or take it as a sign that it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t take it as a sign. I believed in myself.” “People say it all the time, but it’s truly, truly, truly an honor. It’s not something I expected at any point in my career, that they’d have a Wayne Chrebet Day.”
Chrebet’s No. 80 jersey has not been formally retired, although the team has not reissued it since he retired, and it is understood that no Jet will wear the number in the foreseeable future. Chrebet was inducted into the Ukrainian Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.
Ihor Stelmach may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.