The headlights cut through the blackening gloom of the Charlestown section of Boston, and occasionally the car bumped a little as it ran over a patch of cobblestones or an abandoned trolley track. Howie Long slumped low next to the driver and watched the familiar streets slide by.
"The Neck," he said. "This part is called the Neck. It's where the British landed the day before Bunker Hill. We used to go down to the playground here when we were kids and look out across the water and watch Chelsea burn. Every two or three years Chelsea burns."
There was a pause. The car passed a series of dark, low apartments.
"The Projects," he said. There was no further comment. Howie Long's sister lives in the area.
It was a bleak night in February and Uncle Mike Mullan was driving. Mike Mullan, a man as tough as his name. Bald, hard, he spoke in four-and five-word sentences, and his occasional snappers had an edge of bitterness. When he died of leukemia four months later, it hit Howie Long very hard. Uncle Mike was one of the four Mullan brothers. Long's four uncles who took charge of a maverick Charlestown street kid and turned him into a 6'5", 275-pound All-Pro defensive end for the Los Angeles Raiders. Actually five Mullans had a hand in it.
The fifth was Long's grandmother, Elizabeth Hilton Mullan, whom everybody, including Howie, calls Ma. It was to her house, which she shared with Uncle Mike until his death, that they were driving on this winter night. Every year Long leaves his home in Redondo Beach, Calif. and comes back to Charlestown. It helps him keep things straight—where he is now, where he has been.
The car turned off Main Street onto Albion Place to No. 7, halfway up a hill that leads to a dead end. It's a two-way street with one lane. If you meet another vehicle on the way up, you back down and try again. Imitation gas streetlights provide a kind of antique touch.
Parking is no problem on Albion Place—if you live there. People don't park in front of someone else's house. An occasional stranger who makes that mistake doesn't make it again. Once, a couple of off-seasons ago, Long, with out-of-state license plates on his car, parked in front of his grandmother's house at 7 Albion Place and someone ripped off his stereo. It made headlines in the Boston papers and provided a lively topic for the interview sessions before the Raiders-Redskins Super Bowl.
"They wrote that I came from the slums, the ghetto, Gangland, U.S.A.," Long says. "It became a locker room joke. The people here didn't think it was very funny. They were offended. They're very proud people, working-class people, Irish mostly, and very close. They're suspicious of outsiders, and that's what I am now, an outsider. You'd think I'd be a favorite son in Charlestown. I'm not. I'm not a hero. I didn't play my football here. I left."
Heroes played for the Townies, the local semipro team in the Park League. The games were down by the Neck. Jack the barber coached them.