“. . .and whosoever was not found written into the book of life was cast into the lake of fire…” — Revelations 20:15
This was the theme of the sermon I delivered off the 20th-floor balcony of the Hyatt Regency in Houston on the morning of Super Bowl VIII. It was just before dawn, as I recall, when the urge to speak came on me. Earlier that day I had found — on the tile floor of the Men’s Room on the hotel mezzanine — a religious comic book titled “A Demon’s Nightmare,” and it was from the text of this sleazy tract that I chose the words of my sermon.
The Houston Hyatt Regency — like others designed by architect John Portman in Atlanta and San Francisco — is a stack of 1000 rooms, built around a vast lobby at least 30 stories high, with a revolving “spindletop” bar on the roof. The whole center of the building is a tower of acoustical space. You can walk out of any room and look over the indoor balcony (20 floors down, in my case) at the palm-shrouded, wood and naugahyde maze of the bar/lounge on the lobby floor.
Closing time in Houston is 2:00 AM. There are after-hours bars, but the Hyatt Regency is not one of them. So — when I was seized by the urge to deliver my sermon at dawn — there were only about 20 ant-sized people moving around in the lobby far below.
Earlier, before the bar closed, the whole ground floor had been jammed with drunken sportswriters, hard-eyed hookers, wandering geeks and hustlers (of almost every persuasion), and a legion of big and small gamblers from all over the country who roamed through the drunken, randy crowd — as casually as possible — with an eye to picking up a last-minute sucker bet from some poor bastard half-mad on booze and willing to put some money, preferably four or five big ones, on “his boys.”
The spread, in Houston, was Miami by six, but by midnight on Saturday almost every one of the two-thousand or so drunks in the lobby of the Regency — official headquarters and media vortex for this eighth annual Super Bowl — was absolutely sure about what was going to happen when the deal went down on Sunday, about two miles east of the hotel on the fog-soaked artificial turf of Rice University stadium.
AH … BUT WAIT! Why are we talking about gamblers here? Or thousands of hookers and drunken sportswriters jammed together in a seething mob in the lobby of a Houston hotel?
And what kind of sick and twisted impulse would cause a professional sportswriter to deliver a sermon from the Book of Revelations off his hotel balcony on the dawn of Super Sunday?
I had not planned a sermon for that morning. I had not even planned to be in Houston, for that matter. … But now, looking back on that outburst, I see a certain inevitability about it. Probably it was a crazed and futile effort to somehow explain the extremely twisted nature of my relationship with God, Nixon and the National Football League: The three had long since become inseparable in my mind, a sort of unholy trinity that had caused me more trouble and personal anguish in the past few months than Ron Ziegler, Hubert Humphrey and Peter Sheridan all together had caused me in a year on the campaign trail.
Or perhaps it had something to do with my admittedly deep-seated need to have public revenge on Al Davis, general manager of the Oakland Raiders. … Or maybe an overweening desire to confess that I had been wrong, from the start, to have ever agreed with Richard Nixon about anything, and especially pro football.
In any case, it was apparently something I’d been cranking myself up to deliver for quite a while … and, for reasons I still can’t be sure of, the eruption finally occurred on the dawn of Super Sunday.
I howled at the top of my lungs for almost 30 minutes, raving and screeching about all those who would soon be cast into the lake of fire, for a variety of low crimes, misdemeanors and general ugliness that amounted to a sweeping indictment of almost everybody in the hotel at that hour.
Most of them were asleep when I began speaking, but as a Doctor of Divinity and an ordained minister in the Church of The New Truth, I knew in my heart that I was merely a vessel — a tool, as it were — of some higher and more powerful voice.
For eight long and degrading days I had skulked around Houston with all the other professionals, doing our jobs — which was actually to do nothing at all except drink all the free booze we could pour into our bodies, courtesy of the National Football League, and listen to an endless barrage of some of the lamest and silliest swill ever uttered by man or beast … and finally, on Sunday morning about six hours before the opening kickoff, I was racked to the point of hysteria by a hellish interior conflict.
I was sitting by myself in the room, watching the wind & weather clocks on the TV set, when I felt a sudden and extremely powerful movement at the base of my spine. Mother of Sweating Jesus! I thought. What is it — a leech? Are there leeches in this goddamn hotel, along with everything else? I jumped off the bed and began clawing at the small of my back with both hands. The thing felt huge, maybe eight or nine pounds, moving slowly up my spine toward the base of my neck.
I’d been wondering, all week, why I was feeling so low and out of sorts … but it never occurred to me that a giant leech had been sucking blood out of the base of my spine all that time; and now the goddamn thing was moving up towards the base of my brain, going straight for the medulla … and as a professional sportswriter I knew that if the bugger ever reached my medulla I was done for.
It was at this point that serious conflict set in, because I realized — given the nature of what was coming up my spine and the drastic effect I knew it would have, very soon, on my sense of journalistic responsibility — that I would have to do two things immediately: First, deliver the sermon that had been brewing in my brain all week long, and then rush back into the room and write my lead for the Super Bowl story. …
Or maybe write my lead first, and then deliver the sermon. In any case, there was no time to lose. The thing was about a third of the way up my spine now, and still moving at good speed. I jerked on a pair of L.L. Bean stalking shorts and ran out on the balcony to a nearby ice machine.
Back in the room I filled a glass full of ice and Wild Turkey, then began flipping through the pages of “A Demon’s Nightmare” for some kind of spiritual springboard to get the sermon moving. I had already decided — about midway in the ice-run — that I had adequate time to address the sleeping crowd and also crank out a lead before that goddamn blood-sucking slug reached the base of my brain — or, even worse, if a sharp dose of Wild Turkey happened to slow the thing down long enough to rob me of my final excuse for missing the game entirely, like last year. …
What? Did my tongue slip there? My fingers? Or did I just get a fine professional hint from my old buddy, Mr. Natural?
Indeed. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. John Mitchell said that — shortly before he quit his job and left Washington at 90 miles an hour in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
I have never felt close to John Mitchell, but on that rotten morning in Houston I came as close as I ever will; because he was, after all, a pro … and so, alas, was I. Or at least I had a fist-full of press badges that said I was.
And it was this bedrock sense of professionalism, I think, that quickly solved my problem…which, until that moment when I recalled the foul spectre of Mitchell, had seemed to require a frantic decision between either delivering my sermon or writing my lead, in the space of an impossibly short time.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Who said that?
I suspect it was somebody from the Columbia Journalism Review, but I have no proof … and it makes no difference anyway. There is a bond, among pros, that needs no definition. Or at least it didn’t on that Sunday morning in Houston, for reasons that require no further discussion at this point in time…because it suddenly occurred to me that I had already written the lead for this year’s Super Bowl game; I wrote it last year in Los Angeles, and a quick rip through my fat manila folder of clips labeled “Football ’73” turned it up as if by magic.
I jerked it out of the file, and retyped it on a fresh page slugged: “Super Bowl/Houston ’74.” The only change necessary was the substitution of “Minnesota Vikings” for “Washington Redskins.” Except for that, the lead seemed just as adequate for the game that would begin in about six hours as it was for the one that I missed in Los Angeles in January of ’73.
“The precision-jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Minnesota Vikings today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stops around both ends …”
The jangling of the telephone caused me to interrupt my work. I jerked it off the hook, saying nothing to whoever was on the other end, and began flashing the hotel operator. When she finally cut in I spoke very calmly. “Look,” I said. “I’m a very friendly person and a minister of the gospel, to boot — but I thought I left instructions down there to put no calls — NO CALLS, GODDAMNIT! — through to this room, and especially not now in the middle of this orgy … I’ve been here eight days and nobody’s called me yet. Why in hell would they start now?… What? Well, I simply can’t accept that kind of flimsy reasoning, operator. Do you believe in Hell? Are you ready to speak with Saint Peter? … Wait a minute now, calm down … I want to be sure you understand one thing before I get back to my business; I have some people here who need help … But I want you to know that God is Holy! He will not allow sin in his presence! The Bible says: ‘There is none righteous. No, not one. … For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’ That’s from the book of Romans, young lady. …“
The silence at the other end of the line was beginning to make me nervous. But I could feel the sap rising, so I decided to continue my sermon from the balcony… and I suddenly realized that somebody was beating on my door. Jesus god, I thought, it’s the manager; they’ve come for me at last.
But it was a TV reporter from Pittsburgh, raving drunk and demanding to take a shower. I jerked him into the room. “Nevermind the goddamn shower,” I said. “Do you realize what I have on my spine?” He stared at me, unable to speak. “A giant leech,” I said. “It’s been there for eight days, getting fatter and fatter with blood.”
He nodded slowly as I led him over to the phone. “I hate leeches,” he muttered.
“That’s the least of our problems,” I said. “Room service won’t send any beer up until noon, and all the bars are closed. … I have this Wild Turkey, but I think it’s too heavy for the situation we’re in.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I got work to do. The goddamn game’s about to start. I need a shower.”
“Me too,” I said. “But I have some work to do first, so you’ll have to make the call.”
“Call?” He slumped into a chair in front of the window, staring out at the thick grey mist that had hung on the town for eight days — except now, as Super Sunday dawned, it was thicker and wetter than ever.
I gave him the phone: “Call the manager,” I said. “Tell him you’re Howard Cosell and you’re visiting up here with a minister in 2003; we’re having a private prayer breakfast and we need two fifths of his best red wine, with a box of saltine crackers.”
He nodded unhappily. “Hell, I came here for a shower. Who needs the wine?”
“It’s important,” I said. “You make the call while I go outside and get started.”
He shrugged and dialed “O” while I hurried out to the balcony, clearing my throat for an opening run at James 2:19:
“Beware!” I shouted, “for the Devils also believe, and tremble!”
I waited for a moment, but there was no reply from the lobby, 20 floors down — so I tried Ephesians 6:12, which seemed more appropriate:
“For we wrestle not,” I screamed, “against flesh and blood — but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world — and, yes — against spiritual wickedness in high places!”
Still there was no response except the booming echoes of my own voice…but the thing on my spine was moving with new vigor now, and I sensed there was not much time. All movement in the lobby had ceased. They were all standing still down there — maybe 20 or 30 people…but were they listening? Could they hear?
I couldn’t be sure. The acoustics of these massive lobbies are not predictable. I knew, for instance, that a person sitting in a room on the 11th floor, with the door open, could hear — with unnerving clarity — the sound of a cocktail glass shattering on the floor of the lobby. It was also true that almost every word of Gregg Allman’s “Multi-Colored Lady” played at top volume on a dual-speaker Sony TC-126 in an open-door room on the 20th floor could be heard in the NFL. press room on the hotel mezzanine … but it was hard to be sure of the timbre and carrying-power of my own voice in this cavern; it sounded, to me, like the deep screaming of a bull elk in the rut … but there was no way to know, for sure, if I was really getting through.
“Discipline!” I bellowed. “Remember Vince Lombardi!” I paused to let that one sink in — waiting for applause, but none came. “Remember George Metesky!” I shouted. “He had discipline!”
Nobody down in the lobby seemed to catch that one, although I sensed the first stirrings of action on the balconies just below me. It was almost time for the Free Breakfast in the Imperial Ballroom downstairs, and some of the early-rising sportswriters seemed to be up and about. Somewhere behind me a phone was ringing, but I paid no attention. It was time, I felt, to bring it all together … my voice was giving out, but despite the occasional dead spots and bursts of high-pitched wavering, I grasped the railing of the balcony and got braced for some flat-out raving:
“Revelations, Twenty-fifteen!” I screamed. “Say Hallelujah! Yes! Say Hallelujah!”
People were definitely responding now. I could hear their voices, full of excitement — but the acoustics of the place made it impossible to get a good fix on the cries that were bounding back and forth across the lobby. Were they saying “Hallelujah”?
“Four more years!” I shouted. “My friend General Haig has told us that the Forces of Darkness are now in control of the Nation — and they will rule for four more years!” I paused to sip my drink, then I hit it again: “And Al Davis has told us that whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire!”
I reached around behind me with my free hand, slapping at a spot between my shoulder blades to slow the thing down.
“How many of you will be cast into the lake of fire in the next four years? How many will survive? I have spoken with General Haig, and…”
At this point I was seized by both arms and jerked backwards, spilling my drink and interrupting the climax of my sermon. “You crazy bastard!” a voice screamed. “Look what you’ve done! The manager just called. Get back in the room and lock the fucking door! He’s going to bust us!”
It was the TV man from Pittsburgh, trying to drag me back from my pulpit. I slipped out of his grasp and returned to the balcony. “This is Super Sunday!” I screamed. “I want every one of you worthless bastards down in the lobby in ten minutes so we can praise God and sing the national anthem!”
At this point I noticed the TV man sprinting down the hall toward the elevators, and the sight of him running caused something to snap in my brain. “There he goes!” I shouted. “He’s headed for the lobby! Watch out! It’s Al Davis. He has a knife!”
I could see people moving on all the balconies now, and also down in the lobby. Then, just before I ducked back in my room, I saw one of the glass-walled elevators starting down, with a single figure inside it… he was the most visible man in the building; a trapped and crazy animal descending slowly — in full view of everybody from the busboys in the ground-floor coffee-shop to Jimmy the Greek on the balcony above me — to certain captivity by that ugly crowd at the bottom.
I watched for a moment, then hung the Do NOT DISTURB sign on my doorknob and double-locked the door. That elevator, I knew, would be empty when it got to the lobby. There were at least five floors, on the way down, where he could jump out and bang on a friendly door for safe refuge…and the crowd in the lobby had not seen him clearly enough, through the tinted-glass wall of the elevator, to recognize him later on.
And there was not much time for vengeance, anyway, on the odd chance that anyone cared.
It had been a dull week, even by sportswriters’ standards, and now the day of the Big Game was finally on us. Just one more tree breakfast, one more ride, and by nightfall the thing would be over.
The first media-bus was scheduled to leave the hotel for the stadium at 10:30, four hours before kickoff, so I figured that gave me some time to relax and act human. I filled the bathtub with hot water, plugged the tape recorder with both speakers into a socket right next to the tub, and spent the next two hours in a steam-stupor, listening to Rosalie Sorrels and Doug Sahm, chewing idly on a small slice of Mr. Natural, and reading the Cocaine Papers of Sigmund Freud.
Around noon I went downstairs to the Imperial Ballroom to read the morning papers over the limp dregs of NFL’s free breakfast, then I stopped at the free bar for a few bloody marys before wandering outside to catch the last bus for the stadium — the CBS special — complete with more bloody marys, screwdrivers and a roving wagon-meister who seemed to have everything under control.
On the bus to the stadium I made a few more bets on Miami. At that point I was picking up everything I could get, regardless of the points. It had been a long and jangled night, but the two things that needed to be done before game-time — my sermon and my lead — were already done, and the rest of the day looked easy: Just try to keep out of trouble and stay straight enough to collect on all my bets.
THE CONSENSUS AMONG the 1600 or so sportswriters in town favored Miami by almost two to one … but there are only a handful of sportswriters in this country with enough sense to pour piss out of their own boots, and by Saturday night there was an obvious drift among the few “smart” ones to Minnesota, with a seven-point cushion. Paul Zimmerman of the New York Post, author of A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football and the sportswriting fraternity’s scaled-down answer to the Washington Post‘s political guru David Broder, had organized his traditional pressroom betting pool — where any sportswriter who felt up to it could put a dollar in the pot and predict the final score (in writing, on the pressroom bulletin board, for all the world to see) … and whoever came closest would pick up a thousand or so dollars.
Or at least that was the theory. But in reality there were only about 400 writers willing to risk a public prediction on the outcome of a game that — even to an amateur like me — was so obvious that I took every bet I could get against the Vikings, regardless of the spread. As late as 10:30 on Sunday morning I was calling bookies on both coasts, doubling and tripling my bets with every point I could get from five to seven … and by 2:35 on Sunday afternoon, five minutes after the kickoff, I knew I was home free.
Moments later, when the Dolphins drove the length of the field for another touchdown, I began collecting money. The final outcome was painfully clear less than halfway through the first quarter — and shortly after that, Sport Magazine editor Dick Schapp reached over my shoulder in the press section and dropped two bills — a five and a twenty — in my lap.
I smiled back at him. “Jesus,” I said. “Are you giving up already? This game is far from over, my man. Your people are only 21 points down, and we still have a whole half to go.”
He shook his head sadly.
“You’re not counting on a second-half rally?” I asked, pocketing his money.
He stared at me, saying nothing … then he rolled his eyes up toward the soupy mist above the stadium where the Goodyear Blimp was hovering, almost invisible in the fog.
IN THE INCREASINGLY rigid tradition of Super Bowl games, this one was never in doubt. The Dolphins took the opening kickoff and stomped the Viking defense like they were a gang of sick junkies. The “Purple People Eaters” — Minnesota’s fabled “front four” — ate nothing but crow on that long afternoon in Houston. It was one of the dullest and most predictable football games I’ve ever had to sit through, on TV or anywhere else. My final score prediction in Zimmerman’s pool had been Miami, 27-10 — three points high, on both sides, from the final score of 24-7. It was not close enough, apparently, to win the sportswriters’ pool — but it was close enough to beat most of the bookies, wizards and experts.
There is a definite, perverse kind of pleasure in beating the “smart money” — in sports, politics or anything else — and the formula for doing it seems dangerously simple: Take the highest odds you can get against the conventional wisdom — but never bet against your own instinct or the prevailing karma.
Moments after the game, standing in the sawdust-floored circus tent where the players were being led in, one by one, for mass interviews with the sporting press, I was approached by Larry Merchant, author of a recently published book called The National Football Lottery, a shrewd layman’s analysis about how to beat the bookies by betting on pro football games. I was just finishing a long talk with Dolphins owner Joe Robbie about the relationship between national politics, pro football and the cruel fate of our mutual friend, George McGovern, when Merchant tapped me on the shoulder with one hand and handed me a $50 bill with the other. He said nothing at all. I had given him Minnesota with six and a half. The final spread was 17.
I smiled and stuck the bill in my wallet. Joe Robbie seemed not to notice. Gambling on the outcome of games is strictly verboten among owners, players, coaches and all other employees of the National Football League, and being seen in public in the presence of an obvious gambling transaction makes these people very uncomfortable. The only thing worse than being seen with a known gambler is finding yourself in the white-light glare of a network TV camera in the company of an infamous drug abuser … and here was the owner of the winning Super Bowl team, moments after accepting the Lombardi trophy in front of 300 cameras, talking with obvious enthusiasm — about the likelihood of President Nixon’s impeachment — to a person long-since identified by the NFL security watchdogs as both a gambler and a drug-freak.
I half-expected Robbie to jerk his coat over his head and sprint for the tent-exit, but he never even blinked. He kept right on talking about the McGovern campaign, then shook my hand again and invited me out to the Dolphin victory party that night at the Marriott Motor Hotel. “Come on out and celebrate with us,” he said. “It should be a nice party.”
“Why not?” I said. Behind me I could hear George Kimball, bellowing in the throes of a long-delayed acid frenzy … and as I turned to deal with Kimball I remembered that Joe Robbie was originally a politician — a candidate for Congress, among other things, on the left-wing Farmer-Labor ticket in Minnesota — and there was something about him that suggested a sense of politics or at least political sensitivity that you rarely encounter among men who own and run professional football teams. Both Robbie and his coach, Don Shula, seem far more relaxed and given to quick flashes of humor than the kind of militaristic, puritanical jocks and PR men you normally have to deal with on the business/power levels of the NFL. This was just as obvious — especially with Shula — before the game, as well as after it.
In stark contrast to Shula, Viking coach Bud Grant spent most of Super Week acting like a Marine Corps drill sergeant with a terminal case of the piles. Grant’s public behavior in Houston called up ominous memories of Redskin coach, George Allen’s, frantic pregame bitching last year in Los Angeles.
The parallel was hard to miss, and it seemed almost certain — in both cases — that the attitudes of the coaches had to either reflect or powerfully influence the attitudes of the players … and in high-pressure games between supposedly evenly-matched teams, pre-game signs like confidence, humor, temper tantrums and bulging eyeballs are not to be ignored when betting-time comes.
Or at least not by me … although there is definitely another side to that coin, and it comes up just often enough to keep the game interesting. There is a factor known among players as “flakiness,” which translates roughly as a kind of “team personality,” characterized by moodiness and an almost manic-depressive unpredictability both on and off the field.
Miami is decidedly not a flakey team; they are consistent to the point of tedium. “We’re a money team,” says all-pro defensive back Jake Scott. “When something has to be done, we do it.” And the record is there to prove it: The Dolphins have won two straight Super Bowls and lost only two games in the past two years. One of these was a meaningless, late-season giveaway to Baltimore last season, when Shula was resting his regulars for the play-offs — and the other was a potentially ominous 12-7 loss, in the second game of this season, to the Oakland Raiders — known throughout the League as the flakiest team in pro football.
When I began this doom-struck story many months ago, the idea was to follow one team all the way to the Super Bowl and, in the process, try to document the alleged — or at least Nixonian — similarities between pro football and politics. The problem, at that time, was to decide which team to follow. It had to be one with a good chance of going all the way, and also a team I could get along with over an extended period of time.
That was in early November, and the list of possibilities included about half the League, but I narrowed it down to the four teams where I already knew some of the players: Los Angeles, Miami, Washington and Oakland … and after many days of brooding I chose Oakland.
There were two main factors involved: 1) I had already made a large bet, at 8-1 odds, on Oakland to go all the way — as opposed to a 4-1 bet on the Redskins and 2-1 against Minnesota … and 2) When I checked with Dave Burgin, a former San Francisco Examiner and Washington Star-News sports editor, he said there were only two teams in the whole League flakey enough for me to identify with in any kind of personal or human way: One was Pittsburgh and the other was Oakland.
WELL … IT IS three months later now, and the question that still haunts me is, which jail, morgue or asylum would I be in today if I’d happened to pick one of the other teams.
Even now — almost 2000 miles and two months removed from the Raider headquarters in Oakland — I still want to reach for an icepick every time I see a football … and my only consolation, looking back on that nightmare, is that I might have decided to “cover” the Dallas Cowboys. Just before talking to Burgin, in fact, I read a savage novel called North Dallas Forty, by ex-Cowboy flanker Pete Gent, and it had cranked up my interest in both Dallas and the Cowboys enough so that I was right on the brink of dumping Oakland and heading for Texas. …
Fortunately, I was shrewd enough to choose Oakland — a decision that resulted, less than three weeks after I made it, in a series of personal and professional disasters ranging from massive slander and a beating by stadium-cops outside the Raider dressing room, to total banishment from the field, locker room, press box, and for all practical purposes — because of the dark assumptions that would inevitably be made about any player seen with me in public — from any bar, restaurant, zoo or shotgun store in the Bay Area frequented by any Raider players.
The reasons for all this are still not entirely clear — or maybe they are, and I still can’t grasp the real meaning of what happened. Perhaps it was merely a case of the chickens coming home to roost, accompanied by three giant condors.
In any case, the telling of this tale requires a massive flashback — to the good old days, as it were, when I was still enjoying pro football, before either NFL or Raider investigators decided that I was a dangerous dope fiend, and certainly long before I was stricken from the book of life and cast into the lake of fire.
The Raiders kicked you out? For what? Drug rumors? [Laughter] Well, it’s nice to know they’re starting to give writers the same kind of underhanded chickenshit they’ve been laying on players for ten years. … Yeah, it varies from team to team: Like, for me, getting traded to Pittsburgh after all that time in Oakland was like finally coming up for air. As a matter of general philosophy, though, the National Football League is the last bastion of fascism in America.
— Tom Keating, defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
To reach the Oakland Raiders’ practice field you drive from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge and then south on U.S. 17 to Exit 98 at Hegenberger Road at the south end of Alameda Bay … turn right at the off-ramp that leads to the Oakland International Airport; glance back at the Edgewater Inn and the squat-white concrete-block building right next to the Edgewater that says “Oakland Raiders” and then swing north again.
About six miles past the Airport entrance, the Oakland Hilton and a speedboat raceway — the road gets narrow and seems to be heading downhill, through a wet desert of stunted jack-pines (or scrub-oaks, or whatever they call those useless little trees that grow on the edge of swamplands all over the country, near places like Pensacola and Portland) … but this is Oakland, or at least San Leandro, and when you drive 20 miles out of San Francisco to a lonesome place like this, you want a pretty good reason.
… Or at least a decent excuse.
The only people who make this run regularly, in the autumn months between late August and December, are Bay Area sportswriters and people on the payroll of the Oakland Raiders — players, trainers, coaches, owners, etc. — and the only reason they make this grim trip day after day is the nervous fact that the Raiders’ practice field and daily headquarters is located, for good or ill, out here on this stinking estuary across the bay from San Francisco.
It is a hard place to find unless you know exactly where to look. The only sure giveaway sign, from the highway, is a sudden rise of thin steel scaffolding looming out of the jack-pines about 200 yards west of the road — and two men in cheap plastic ski jackets on a platform at the top of the tower, aiming big grey movie cameras down at whatever’s happening on the other side of that tree-fence.
Turn left just beyond the film-tower, park in a muddy lot full of new Cadillacs and flashy sports cars, and walk up a grassy bank to a one-story concrete-block building that looks like a dog-kennel or a Pepsi-Cola warehouse in St. Louis … push through a big metal fire-door & along a naked corridor decorated on both sides with black and grey helmets, sharp-edged footballs, red-white-and-blue NFL stickers … and finally around a corner into the weight-room, a maze of fantastically-complicated machinery with signs all around warning “unauthorized persons” to keep their goddamn hands off of everything. One of the weight-machines costs $6500 and is designed to do nothing but stretch knots out of trapezius muscles; another, costing $8800, is a maze of steel cables, weights and ankle-hooks that will — if used properly — cure kinks, rips and contusions out of every muscle from the hip to the achilles tendon. There are other machines for problems of the feet, neck and elbows.
I was tempted to get physically involved with every machine in the building — just to know how it felt to get jerked around by all that fantastic machinery. I was also tempted to speak with the trainers and sample whatever medications they had to offer — but pro football locker rooms are no longer the wholesale drug dispensaries that they were in the past. National Football League Commissioner “Pete” Rozelle — along with “President” Nixon and the network TV moguls — have determined that drugs and pro football won’t mix; at least not in public.
On my first visit to the locker room — and on all other visits, for that matter — I avoided both the weight machines and the trainers. There was no point, I felt, in compromising the story early on; although if I’d known what kind of shitrain I was heading into I would have sprung every machine in the building and gobbled every pill I could get my hands on.
But I felt a certain obligation, back then, to act in a “professional” manner … and, besides, for my first look at the Raider practice field I was accompanied by a friendly little fellow named Al LoCasale, who had told me when I called on the phone that he was “executive assistant” to the Raiders’ general manager and would-be owner, Al Davis.
LoCasale led me through the locker room, past the weights and the trainers, and out through another small door that opened onto a long green pasture enclosing two football fields, four goal posts, many blocking sleds and tackling dummies, and about 60 men moving around very actively, gathered in four separate groups on both fields.
I recognized John Madden, the head coach, running the offensive unit through short-pass drills on the field to my right … and on the other field, about 50 yards to my left, another coach was running the defensive unit through some kind of drill I couldn’t recognize.
Far down at the other end of the field where the defensive unit was working, I could see George Blanda, the Raiders’ 46-year-old reserve quarterback and premier place-kicker, working with his own set of handlers and banging one kick after another “through the uprights” — from the 30 or 35 yard line. Blanda and his small crew were paying no attention to what was happening on the offensive and defensive fields. Their job was to keep George sharp on field-goals, and during the two hours I was there, that afternoon, he kicked at least 40 or 50, and I never saw him miss one.
There were two other solitary figures moving around on the field(s) beyond the small enclosure near the locker-room door where LoCasale and several assistants made sure the half-dozen local sportswriters stayed. One was Ray Guy, the rookie punter and number one draft choice from Mississippi, who spent all afternoon kicking one ball after another in tall spiraling arcs above the offensive unit to a brace of ball-boys just in front of the sportswriters’ huddle … and the other was a small wiry man in a tan golf jacket with a greasy duck-tail haircut who paced along the sidelines of both fields with a speedy kind of intensity that I never really noticed until he suddenly appeared very close to me and I heard him ask a sports-writer from the San Francisco Chronicle who I was and what I was doing there. …
The conversation took place within 10 yards of me, and I heard most of it.
“Who’s the big guy over there with the ball in his hand?” asked the man with the DA.
“His name’s Thompson,” replied Chronicle sports-writer Jack Smith. “He’s a writer for Rolling Stone.” “The Rolling Stones? Jesus Christ! What’s he doing here? Did you bring him?”
“No, he’s writing a big article. Rolling Stone is a magazine, Al. It’s different from the Rolling Stones; they’re a rock music group…Thompson’s a buddy of George Plimpton’s, I think … and he’s also a friend of Dave Burgin’s — you remember Burgin?”
“Holy shit! Burgin! We ran him out of here with a cattle prod!”
I saw Smith laugh at that point, then he was talking again: “Don’t worry, Al. Thompson’s okay. He wrote a good book about Las Vegas.”
Good god! I thought. That’s it. … If they read that book I’m finished. By this time I’d realized that this strange-looking bugger named “Al,” who looked like a pimp or a track-tout, was in fact the infamous Al Davis — general manager and de facto owner (pending settlement of a nasty lawsuit scheduled for court-action early this year) of the whole Oakland Raider operation.
Davis glanced over his shoulder at me, then spoke back to Smith: “Get the bastard out of here. I don’t trust him.”
I heard that very clearly — and if I’d had any sense I’d have abandoned the whole story right then, for reasons of extreme and unnatural prejudice; call the office and say I couldn’t handle the bad vibes, then jump the next plane to Colorado. … I was watching Davis very closely now, and it occurred to me that the fiendish intensity of his speech and mannerisms reminded me very strongly of another Oakland badass I’d spent some time with, several years earlier — ex-Hell’s Angels president Ralph “Sonny” Barger, who had just beaten a multiple-murder rap and then copped out, they said, to some kind of minor charge like “Aggravated Assault with Intent to Commit Murder,” or “Possession of Automatic Weapons” (submachine-guns), “Possession of Heroin (four pounds) with Intent to Sell, and Sexual Assault on Two Minors with Intent to Commit Forcible Sodomy”…
I had read these things in the Chronicle … but … What the hell? Why compound these libels? Any society that will put Barger in jail and make Al Davis a respectable millionaire at the same time is not a society to be trifled with.
IN ANY CASE, the story of my strange and officially ugly relationship with Al Davis is too complicated for any long explanations at this point. I spent several days pacing the sidelines of the Raider practice field with him — prior to the Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Kansas City games — and the only thing I remember him talking about is “Environmental Determinism.” He spoke at considerable length on that subject, as I recall, but there is nothing in my notes to indicate precisely what he said about it.
Shortly after I heard him tell Smith to get rid of me on that first afternoon, I walked over to him and somehow got wound up in a conversation about how he was having trouble buying property in Aspen because “some people out there” thought his money was “dirty” because of his known connections in Las Vegas. “Hell, that’s no problem,” I told him. “I once ran for sheriff in Aspen; I know the place pretty well, and I can tell you for sure that at least half the money out there is dirtier than any you’re likely to come up with.”
He stopped and eyed me curiously. “You ran for sheriff?” he said. “In Aspen, Colorado?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but I’d rather not talk about it. We didn’t lose by much, but losing in politics is like losing in football, right? One vote, one point — “
He smiled crookedly, then began pacing again. “I don’t give a damn about politics,” he said as I hurried along the white-lime sideline to keep up with him. “The only things that interest me are economics and foreign affairs.”
Jesus christ! I thought. Economics, foreign affairs, environmental determinism — this bastard is sandbagging me.
We paced back and forth a while longer, then he suddenly turned on me: “What are you after?” he snapped. “Why are you out here?”
“Well… “I said. “It would take me a while to explain it. Why don’t we have a beer after practice tomorrow and I’ll — “
“Not tomorrow,” he said quickly. “I only come out here on Wednesdays and Thursdays. They get nervous when I’m around, so I try to stay away most of the time.”
I nodded — but I didn’t really understand what he meant until an hour or so later, when Coach Madden signaled the end of that day’s practice and Davis suddenly rushed onto the field and grabbed the quarterback, Ken Stabler, along with a receiver and a defensive back I didn’t recognize, and made them run the same pass pattern — a quick shot from about 15 yards out with the receiver getting the ball precisely at the corner of the goal line and the out-of-bounds line — at least twelve consecutive times until they had it down exactly the way he wanted it.
That is my last real memory of Al Davis: It was getting dark in Oakland, the rest of the team had already gone into the showers, the coach was inside speaking sagely with a gaggle of local sportswriters, somewhere beyond the field-fence a big jet was cranking up its after burners on the airport runway … and here was the owner of the flakiest team in pro football, running around on a half-dark practice field like a king-hell speed freak with his quarterback and two other key players, insisting that they run the same goddamn play over and over again until they had it right.
That was the only time I ever felt that I really understood Davis. … We talked on other days, sort of loosely and usually about football, whenever I would show up at the practice field and pace around the sidelines with him… and it was somewhere around the third week of my random appearances, as I recall, that he began to act very nervous whenever he saw me.
I never asked why, but it was clear that something had changed, if only back to normal. … After one of the mid-week practices I was sitting with one of the Raider players in the tavern down the road from the fieldhouse and he said: “Jesus, you know I was walking back to the huddle and I looked over and, god damn, I almost flipped when I saw you and Davis standing together on the sideline. I thought, man, the world really is changing when you see a thing like that — Hunter Thompson and Al Davis — Christ, you know that’s the first time I ever saw anybody with Davis during practice; the bastard’s always alone out there, just pacing back and forth like a goddamn beast. …“
IN THE MEANTIME, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, I was trying to learn as much as possible about the real underbelly of pro football by watching a film of the Denver-Dallas game with several Raider players who provided a running commentary on the action — trying to explain, in language as close as they could cut it for the layman’s slow eye, what was happening on the screen and how it might or might not relate to the Denver-Oakland game coming up next Sunday.
The purpose of the film-session was to show me some of the things — in slow motion and repeated instant replay — that nobody in the stands or the press box will ever understand. It was done as a personal favor, at a time when neither I nor any of the Oakland players realized that I was about to be banished. If I’d been writing a story on Evel Knievel at the time, I would have asked him to do the same thing — sit down for an evening with some films of his jumps, and explain each one step-by-step, along with whatever was going through his head at any given moment.
What follows, then, is a random commentary by some pro football players just a few games away from the Super Bowl, watching a film of a game between two teams — one of which they will have to beat on Sunday, to make the playoffs, and another they might have to beat in the Super Bowl itself. The film we were watching was the Denver-Dallas game on December 2nd. Dallas won, 22-10 — which hardly matters, because pro football players don’t watch game-films to see who won or lost. They watch for patterns, tendencies and individual strengths or weaknesses … and in this case they were trying to translate their reactions into language I could get a personal grip on, which accounts for some of the awkward moments.
Under normal circumstances I’d identify all of the voices in this heavily-edited tape transcript — but for reasons that will soon become obvious if they aren’t already, I decided that it would probably be more comfortable for all of us if I lumped all the player voices under one name: “Raider.” This takes a bit of an edge off the talk, but it also makes it harder for the NFL security watchdogs to hassle some good people and red-line their names for hanging around with a Dope Fiend.
RAIDER: Okay, here’s the thing. Dallas is going to attack Denver a lot differently than we’re going to probably attack them. But the big main point I want you to see in this film is that Denver’s totally aggressive and that’s the way they win their games. They got linebackers that are in motion all the time, tryin to make tackles — the backs jump up quick — they’re tryin to stop runs. They’re tryin to knock people’s heads off all the time.
HST: Their defense against Dallas was really good. It was the offense that broke down.
Raider: Yes, that’s right. They’ll make a lot of big plays against us, just like you see here against Dallas — they’ll make a lot of play passes, a lot of big yardage — but that’s what’s losin this game for them. What was the final score? They got annihilated.
HST: For the first time. Usually it was the defense that cracked.
Raider: Okay, let me show you something. This defense they run primarily is not a basic four-man line. It’s a four-man line that’s overshifted to the weak side.
Raider: Look, if you can stop their pass rush, you can hold their linebackers in — which is pretty easy. There are massive holes for completions — people get wide open against Denver. Okay, now watch this wide receiver here. They got three linebackers there across the front. Those linebackers are ready to take somebody’s head off — they’re really aggressive type guys. They want to be run against. They want people to run against ’em because that’s what they’re tough against. They bring both linebackers in and they end up crushing the quarterback, forcing the Cowboys to fumble. If you’re gonna pass against them — they’re not bad against the pass, but they’d rather be playing against the run because they’re aggressive. They want to beat people up. Now, look at this wide receiver, look how wide open he is. I mean he’s very wide open —
HST: Whose fault is that? The linebackers?
Raider: ‘Yeah, that and the fact that they’re not playing cohesive defense. They’re playing a different style of defense. Instead of having the linebacker on the tight end, they have a defensive end overshifted so he’s outside the tight end. The linebacker that’s supposed to be on the tight end is on the outside — the defensive tackle has shifted where the defensive end normally is, and Paul Smith is playing over the center when he normally may be playing over the left guard. Okay, well what we’re gonna try to do against ’em is that those linebackers aren’t very big — and we’re gonna try and run right at those linebackers and beat ’em up — all day long. So we may not score a lot in the first half but by the second half we think what we’ve done to them by that time is beaten them so badly, physically, that they no longer want to take on our run any longer.
HST: That’s what Dallas did to Buonocotti in the ’71 Super Bowl, isn’t it?
Raider: Right. That’s what you gotta do. There are certain smaller players, you know — that’s basically what we did to Kansas City last week. We beat ’em into submission. If you’re playing against a defensive end who weighs like 260 and you weigh 220 or 230 — what they hope would happen is the guy can intimidate you into not blocking him most of the time, and that would hurt your strong side running. … That’s one of the theories behind the defenses they run all the time: that a guy can intimidate you. But if you don’t let him intimidate you — and you block him all the time — all of a sudden the defense becomes a lot weaker.
HST: How long does it take to know when you’re getting intimidated?
Raider: You can tell after the first three or four plays if you’re allowing them to intimidate you or not.
HST: Right away?
Raider: Yeah, it happens right away and he’s gonna try it. There are some teams, especially Pittsburgh, for example, that the guy on the first couple of plays won’t even think about making a tackle — all he’ll think about is trying to take your head off. Now here’s an example of what will beat Denver. It’s a play action pass. Look at the strong safety. See, he wants to get up and make the tackle on the sweep — so watch the quarterback. The quarterback fakes to the halfback or the fullback coming through — fakes — and look at the strong safety react — trying to stop the run. Look where the tight end goes! He’s wide open! He just beat the hell out of him simply because he wants to make a tackle … you see he overthrows him but that was a touchdown if he throws the ball right. Denver’s in a situation where every time they see a hand off attempted, they’re gonna try and knock the hell out of the guy who’s carrying the ball. That’s how you beat a team that’s this aggressive — play action passes.
HST: Why do you say they’re playing over their heads? It looks to me like they’re already doomed.
Raider: No, they’re really high, right now. They’re playin over their heads because they’re play in that kind of ball. If a team’s gonna play conservative against ’em — they just might beat ’em because they’re going to force fumbles and force mistakes. … Yes, there’s one thing we’re gonna do that a lot of teams won’t do. Look what Dallas is doing — Dallas is throwing the ball all the time. They’re tryin to sweep ’em — How many times have you seen Dallas run up the middle? They haven’t run up the middle once since this film started. … Okay, so here’s what’s gonna happen. Here’s what the difference is … they’re tryin to throw the ball up the middle — tryin to run sweeps on ’em — trying to beat ’em like that. Well, that’s where a team like this is pretty good — they’ll stop sweeps, they’ll stop this kind of stuff, but if you run right at them and try to beat them up all day —
HST: There we go, look at that — straight ahead.
Raider: Yeah, see what happens? You can blow ’em right out.
HST: What interests me is why you say Dallas is essentially a good defensive team and Denver is playing over their heads. What’s the difference? Why do you say that?
Raider: Watch what happens here …
HST: Holy fuck — who the hell is supposed to be on him?
Raider: Right. He should have caught the ball. He’s wide open. The linebacker’s supposed to cover that. That’s because they’re too aggressive.
HST: You recall that they beat Pittsburgh the week after Pittsburgh stomped you, and here — A really heavy physical show.
Raider: Yeah, they did. No question about it. I’m not belittling them.
HST: Well, I just wondered. I was surprised. How could they stomp Pittsburgh and then have Dallas pick them apart like that?
Raider: Well, the difference is that Pittsburgh was falling to pieces at the time — we outgained Pittsburgh 395 yards to 195. We got beat by ’em because we made a lot of mistakes, but then Pittsburgh lost the next two games after that. Denver was a team that was comin up. Dallas right now is a team that’s goin up and Denver’s goin down . … Denver’s not a good enough team to beat Dallas on a good day and they’re also not good enough to beat us on a good day. … But the point is whether or not we’re gonna have a good day against ’em. You can’t tell — you can’t get too carried away until you get out on the field and start playing. Sure, they can run around and they can beat the hell out of us. If we allow them to beat the hell out of us, they’re gonna win the game.
HST: But you’re not going to know until five or ten minutes into the game. …
Raider: Right. I’d like to say I could predict it totally, but that’s just not the way we’ve played all year.
HST: You really can’t get a sense of what’s happening until it actually starts?
Raider: No, you don’t. You don’t know how it’s gonna go.
HST: That’s what Davis said. Is there any difference in the way you deal with a bad team, or a team with mediocre talent that’s high — as opposed to a really good team that’s not high?
Raider: Well, I’ll tell you: There are two problems. The biggest problem is trying to deal with them emotionally, because we know right now, without any doubt, that we should beat Denver. And you can sit around and say, “We should beat Denver, we should beat Denver.” But you face a team like Kansas and if you’re not totally ready to play against them, they’re gonna kick your ass. They’re gonna beat the hell out of you.
HST: You couldn’t tell last week until you got out on the field?
Raider: I knew after the first couple of series we were gonna beat ’em. But before the game there was no way — and this week we face the same problem.
The small signs of nervousness I’d noticed in Davis on the practice field soon mushroomed into a series of incidents that seemed harmless at first, but which crystallized very suddenly when I made what I felt was a routine request for a “field pass” for the Oakland-Denver game. Some of the players had told me that I couldn’t really get a feel for the action up there in the press box or the stands. “You’ve gotta be down on the field,” they said, “and have Jack Tatum really crack somebody right in front of you. You’ll fell it, man. It’ll scare the piss out of you, just watching it.”
“Why not?” I said. “I’ll tell LoCasale I need a field pass this week.”
Which I did, via the standard press-credential channels that necessarily involved Rolling Stone Managing Editor John A. Walsh — a former sports editor at Newsday in New York, who knew, from his experience with teams like the Jets and the Giants, that any legitimate request for a field pass would be granted automatically.
HUNTER — CALLED LOCASALE this morn and he sed the foloing.
I sed Hunter wud like photo credentials for sunday and I mentioned that you would be going to follow pro football right up to the super bowl.
He sed that in his best judgment he had to turn you down on both counts — sunday and for the super bowl — because of your personal involvement in the drug scene. There’s too much at stake, he sed. he also sed that he would be happy to talk things over with you if you called or dropped by.
My interp is that they may have put one of the NFL private Is on you or something like that, anyway you can’t pass up talking with the people.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12TH, 1973.
“Good morning, the Oakland Raiders.”
“Hello, is Al LoCasale there?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Hunter Thompson … From Rolling Stone.”
“Yes, Hi Hunter.”
“Say, I just talked to John Walsh — and well, I’m sure you know what kind of message I got — first it’s sort of vague and disturbing but I can see your point — I wonder if you could possibly elaborate a bit on that.”
“Well, I tried to keep it vague to him because I don’t know your relationship with him and I didn’t want to say anything …”
“Well, I’m sure he knows at least as much as you do, whatever it is — All I got was ‘personal involvement in the drug scene.'”
“Yeah, you know I’d say — I’d rather not go any farther and just say — well, you know — ah, on the information we have I feel it would be better if we asked you not to come by.”
“Well, I can see that — and I’m certainly not going to cause you any trouble or any kind of hassles but I think if in all fairness that’s such a broad thing — like I read the other day in the Columbia Journalism Review where someone accused me of being a junkie — “
“No, I’m not accusing you of that — it’s just that the information that I have is such that I would prefer — particularly at this stage, while we’re actively participating in the season — that we keep a little distance between you and us.”
“Well, I guess I understand your position and I want to be as cooperative as possible but you see it’s put me in an odd position too. It’s so vague — that’s the thing — I wonder, say, if I applied for credentials for the Super Bowl — if my name is on some list as a drug peddler.”
“No, I don’t think so — no, I don’t think the League has a list and you know the Super Bowl and the Championships — they’re League-run games — they would have to make a decision — but you know this is a Raider game — so the decision is ours …”
“Well, I’ll abide by it. I’m not going to come over and hassle you or anyone else, at least not right now.” “I appreciate that.”
“But I wonder would it be of any benefit if, say, I came over there and we had a sandwich or a beer or something and — “
“After the season’s all over, possibly …”
“Well, it wouldn’t do me a hell of a lot of good, then. The story would be dead. Well … it’s the vagueness of the goddamn thing that worries me at this point. I’m sure you’re aware I’m not the only person who might have a personal involvement in whatever ‘the drug scene’ means. You can go out on the practice field and see a lot of people — both in uniform and out …”
“Well, but the thing is that — “
“You see that’s not what I’m writing about anyway. …“
“If I knew anything specific in the area you just mentioned then I’d have to take some action. But in your case, you know, the information seems to be reliable and you don’t deny it, and therefore I think it just would be better if …”
“Deny it? Hell, I don’t even know what information you’re talking about. I’m just … well … if you really want to get technical, coffee’s a drug … no, I’d be foolish to sit here and say I know nothing about drugs, but it’s kind of disturbing to have it laid on me across the board … and I think it’s fair if I say I won’t come over there anymore, and I won’t either embarrass you or screw the team up — it seems only fair that you should tell me what you’re really talking about.”
“Well, you know I would prefer to remain just general and just say that the information that we’ve obtained is such that I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t ask you to — “
“Yeah, I can see that but — “
“I’ve got a job to do — “
“Right, so do I — “
“You know our reputation has to be a helluva lot — at least effort has to be made by us to keep our reputation much more, ah, untainted than that of America in general — let’s put it that way.”
“Yeah, but it puts me into the odd position — in that I can get credentials to fly on Nixon’s press plane — clearance from the Secret Service and all that sort of thing … but, then this vague charge — “
“No, I’m not making a charge of any kind — I’m just saying it’s not in our interest — “
“Don’t worry, I agree to that. But what I’m trying to find out is whether there’s some massive blackball that’s been sent down — “
“No, no — in fact, I have checked with the League — but not by name — that is I just checked with the League on the position the League would have in general on someone who’s not a member of the pro football writers — you know — not a regular — who had a background where evidence had been submitted to us that he was involved to some degree in the drug scene — and they said — the League — while they agree with us that journalistic freedom is something that should be preserved under those circumstances — they would take a position where they would ask the person to not come around and I told them that would probably be the position we would take too. But you know — like we just left it there — as a hypothetical situation — “
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to do this — but I’m just wondering if I — since it does puzzle me — what if I called the League office — I’d like to know more about it frankly — because it could come up again and again and I have no idea what the hell I’m being charged with — “
“No, well the League office doesn’t know anything about it — I just presented to them a hypothetical situation because the final decisions — many times, the Commissioner, as an ex-PR man, gets involved — and he’ll say, you know like when Lombardi threw out certain reporters out of the practice field Pete stepped in and said ‘Wait a minute — I’ll make the decision there and they’re either coming back, or you throw everybody out.'”
“Well, you’d have to throw about half the press out, on this sort of vague charge — what worries me is that some weird information or rumor has come down that it’s much worse than. …“
“No, the information that I have. …“
“Personally, I would tell you whatever I was involved in. Hell, everybody else seems to know.”
“No, the information I have would probably not disturb — you know — general society but it has to disturb us, because we’re entrusted with the reputation of a football team and a game that has to have standards higher than that of the general public.”
“Yeah, well — at least it has to appear to have standards higher than that.”
“Well, we have to make every effort — “
“Yeah, I can see that — “
“You know, I just finished reading Peter Gent’s book for instance — I’ve been in this business fourteen years and I know — I know — they did something from Sunday to Sunday other than screw, drink and take dope because I’ve been at it 14 years — “
“I probably agree with you, but it would certainly be hard to deny that that sort of thing doesn’t go on to some degree — 5 per cent — 10 per cent — “
“Yeah, but you know the degree that the book connotates. Is that all that goes on. …“
“Yeah, that’s a bit heavy — I agree.”
“And you know — the first 9 or 10 years I was in pro football as a head scout and I was very close to the athletes because I signed them — found them and signed them — and used to socialize and was part of their circle — and I just know that’s not the way life went on — at least not with the three ball clubs I was involved in — “
“Well, ah, you know times are changing, Al — I hate to, ah …”
“I don’t disagree, but I think that pro football players as a group — their standards are higher than their own peer group. That is, people their own age, with a similar background, are more involved in the drug scene than pro football players are — but the standards applied are different, too.”
“Yeah, I can see that, but put yourself in my place — whatever in hell it is right now — I wonder what kind of onus has been laid on me: for instance, what if I applied for credentials to the Super Bowl…?”
“That will be a decision from the League office.”
“But as far as you know, I’m known as a drug user or maybe even a peddler — you see that’s what disturbs me.”
“No, as far as I know the League would have no knowledge — now the League might through their own sources — I know that they’re familiar with some of the things you’ve written — “
“Ah ha — now that’s what I’m trying to get at — “
“No, no because weeks and weeks ago when you first came out here I had mentioned to somebody — because I was familiar with the name — it rang a bell — but I wasn’t nearly as familiar with your writing as some other people who said ‘oh yeah, he wrote this and he wrote that,’ so there are people back there who knew of you — you know, as a writer — ” “Yeah, well that occurred to me — I told Jack Smith — “
“They’re a literate group.”
“Yeah, I’m sure of that. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can, and the last thing I’d want to do would be to come out and cause a scene. It’d be very unpleasant for me and I’d gain nothing from it, so I assure you — “
“Well, it’s just like last week I had a long talk with that young boy who admitted that he kind of stole [that press pass for the game last month]. …“
“Yeah, well you see — I was too embarrassed about that to even talk about it — “
“Yeah, well he stole that. He admitted he stole it.”
“That little bastard, goddamn him — I felt like a fool — “
“He kind of leads himself — I said ‘well did you take it out of his pocket? I mean did you pick pocket it’ — and he just laughed — and he said, ‘well, I think I found it on the ground — “
“No — he took it out of my rear hip pocket — I knew exactly where it was — I was so embarrassed about it I didn’t want to — ”
“No, I spotted him — the kid, he hangs around the dressing room area each week and finds some way to get in that stadium every game.”
“He must have just recognized that envelope sticking out of my pocket — I was wearing levis and that’s the tightest pocket I have. …Well, Jesus Christ, this was supposed to be a fun story, sort of a vacation from politics — but it’s turned into a nightmare…“
“Hunter, I have to head downtown for a booster club meeting right now. As I say, we have tried to keep it low key because to me it’s not that kind of a problem, it’s just something that I feel — if it grew into something big, and somebody made a big todo about your having been there — having been around — then I would have been remiss in not trying to cut it off before we got to the pass and the sheriff showed up.”
“Well, tell me this then, before you go — is this situation based mainly on what I’ve written?”
“No, I don’t think it’s based on your writings at all.”
“So — it’s possible that there’s a rumor around somewhere that I’m a drug peddler or something like that, which is not true.”
“No — there is just rumor around that you have experimented to some degree.”
“Yeah, I would admit that.”
“And I dare say that if we were all honest about it, you’d be shocked to find people in your own crowd over there who would have to say the same thing.”
“What I’m trying to do, here, is — “
“No — no one is painting you as a sinister man — someone who by his personal contact would taint the world — “
“Well, the Secret Service cleared me to travel with Nixon.”
“The Secret Service has cleared just about anybody. No I’m being facetious — that is — I mean as long as you’ve contributed the right amounts to the right party, I think Stalin himself could probably make the trip with them. No — I’m just being facetious.”
“I understand what you mean. For that matter the Secret Service is not clean — I know that for a fact.”
“Well, never mind all that… this thing still disturbs me because it’s so vague … but … you say we’re not talking about rumors of me peddling drugs to players and that sort of thing.”
“No, no — not even to the President.”
“Well, I did actually sell a lot of drugs to the President.”
“Okay, okay, Hunter — well — I have to take care of my end first — “
“Yeah, I understand that but I hope you can see where it puts me in a little of a gray area where I’m not sure just what — “
“Yeah, I can appreciate your problem.”
“Okay, now if I call the League and apply for credentials and I actually push it — then we’re not going to come down to the point where Al LoCasale said that Thompson’s a drug pusher and he shouldn’t be allowed in the press box at the Super Bowl?”
“No — I would definitely not say that.”
“Well, it’s not true.”
“Well, I don’t have any information that it would be and I would not assume it is.”
“No — I have better sense than to deal with that end of it — “
“Well, my first impression is that you’re a far too intelligent person for that kind of situation.”
“Yeah, I haven’t existed as long as I have with the kind of work I’ve done by going out and peddling drugs. …“
“Right. Well, okay, sorry it turned out this way, but what the hell — “
“So am I — it’s nice to have intelligent people — more intelligent people on the practice field on occasion.”
“Okay — thanks.”
STORY: Oakland Raiders
FROM: Raoul Duke
COMMENTS: The fact that the would-be author has been barred from any public association with the Oakland Raiders is not a serious problem at this time unless the veto originated at NFL (league-office) level & extends across the board — including all other teams and especially the question of personal access to all functions during Super Bowl week in mid-January. … Without access to the Super Bowl spectacle in all its gross & loathsome details, the would-be author is not in a position to lash this ill-advised scumbag together except as a desperate make-work gig designed almost entirely to justify the would-be author’s expense tab — which hovers, even now, on the brink of malignancy.
This is the central & overweening problem with the story: Not that it can’t be jerked up & beaten back to life, but that any long-term effort to do so might result in massive financial losses to the would-be author — who has already been barred from the Raider camp due to his “personal involvement with the drug scene.” The extent of this onus is unknown at this time. All signs pointing to it in the past six weeks were dismissed as “paranoia,” whereas they were in fact real evidence of what was happening.
Given these realities, the possibility of further discrimination against the would-be author should not be dismissed as paranoid delusions, but treated instead as a genuine possibility … and the question of access to the Super Bowl action now becomes one of paramount importance, not withstanding the fact that Walsh has received verbal “assurance” from the NFL publicist that RS will be granted credentials to cover the SB scene in Houston. If this works out, I think the story can be salvaged … but, if not, it’s fucked.
This is why the question of the origin of the allegations vis-a-vis the would-be author is critical to the life of the story. At one point (in the wake of the Keating revelations), we assumed that the problem was isolated on the player-level … which was wrong, because several weeks later we learned that it had long since been festering on the (Raider) management level. The question now is whether or not we’re dealing with the NFL front office — and on that score any gibberish about “paranoia” would seem to be out of order right now. Having stupidly under-estimated our problem in the past, I think the thing to do now is to assume the worst & operate on that basis — which will require some relatively heavy-handed movement on the part of somebody who can deal with the situation on a professional rather than a personal basis. For obvious reasons, this is a difficult argument for me to make on a personal basis — especially since we have no real idea what information the buggers have based their judgment on. The possibilities vary from some hazy ho-ho rumor out of the Lion’s Head all the way to the chance that my appearance in the Raider camp caused the NFL office to assign one of their investigators to what was already an active case in re: Oakland.
If the former is true, I think we can neutralize the problem by (implicitly) threatening the Raiders with a whack of bad publicity or perhaps even a First Amendment lawsuit — a de facto out of court settlement, as it were. But if this rap on me came down from Rozelle & the front office, even an implicit threat on our part could open a nasty can of worms that might cause serious damage to individuals whose cooperation made the story available in the first place — and this, to me, is a paramount consideration. I don’t mind writing a story that will permanently cripple an asshole, but putting the screws to a friend (or even a chance acquaintance who’s been promised immunity) is not my gig.
Which gets us back to the problem of determining just how serious these charges really are — not just to me & this story, but to the whole notion of a journalist’s access to a story being determined by rumors concerning his or her personal habits, preferences or even perversions.
What we have here is really a Civil Liberties (or First Amendment) case — complete with the old adage that “the weakest link in any good civil liberties case is usually the defendant.”
In any case, I think it would be a serious mistake to leave the situation as it is. If a reporter for a national publication can be barred from covering a story of national interest because of rumors concerning his private behavior, we are looking at a very heavy precedent. There are very few writers on RS — or any other national magazine, for that matter — who would be immune to this kind of personal screening.
Consider, for instance, the idea of assigning Felton to cover an appearance by the Pope in St. Louis, for the purpose of laying a Golden Egg on the banks of the Mississippi … would the Vatican press office be justified in barring Felton from the event on the grounds that he was not a “good Catholic”?
Would an Alcoholic Jew from the New York Times be allowed to cover such a story? Would the Vatican press office be justified in barring journalists who happened to be winos, dope addicts, lesbians, nigras, etc. from watching the Pope lay a Golden Egg in St. Louis?
My own biased guess is that a poll of daily newspaper editors in America would run about 9-1 in favor of the Vatican. RS‘s position on that spectrum is a thing I’d just as soon not speculate on at this moment in time, as it were… but what the hell? This memo is running out of control & I suspect the point was made several pages back.
If not, the nut appears to be this: Neither the health of journalism nor the cause of Civil Liberties in America is going to suffer drastically for lack of a kinky piece in RS on the psychic link between the NFL & Politics… or even a straight, fact-heavy expose, for that matter … but if these fascist cocksuckers who run this billion-dollar freak show can get away with barring any reporter on the basis of rumors (or even valid information) concerning his personal behavior, I think we’ll all live to regret the precedent we’ll be setting by caving in on this point.
My feeling at the moment is that we should at least do something. Nothing heavy or violent, but at the very least a forceful demand by somebody representing the magazine (if such a person can be found & pressed into service at this point in time) that the Raider management and/or the NFL give “us” a formal explanation of the charges, rumors, reasons, evidence, etc. that cause me to be physically, officially (& on at least one occasion, legally) excluded from any personal contact with the Oakland Raider football team — and perhaps from the entire NFL.
I frankly don’t give a flying fuck about the long-range effect of this thing on me, personally. I suspect I can live with the nightmare of being accused by some flack from the Oakland Raiders of being “personally involved in the drug scene,” whatever in hell that means … but I have to wonder how I’d feel if they’d barred me for something like “personal involvement with dangerous political behavior.”
Which is probably no less valid — from their point of view — than the drug charges. What if I’d been barred on grounds that I was “immoral”? Or “weird”?
Where will it end?
Probably not until somebody grabs these bastards by the ears and bangs them against the nearest solid object … Haldeman, Ehrlich-man, Rozelle, Goebells, Al Davis, Tex Colson.
Cazart. I sense this is getting a bit heavy. We are, after all, dealing with a story that was essentially Continued Continued without a spine until now.
Ah, madness madness … let’s end this thing quick.
DECEMBER 21, 1973
Mr. Al LoCasale
7811 Oakport Oakland, Calif. 94621
Dear Mr. LoCasale: I have tried to reach both you and Al Davis for three days now, but my calls have not been put through. I understand that this may not be the best time in the football season to try to reach you by phone. Playoffs, travel arrangements and ticket purchasing procedure do not make it easy for you to answer a phone call from a magazine, so I decided to send you this letter.
We at Rolling Stone were taken a bit by surprise when you decided to bar Hunter Thompson from covering Raider games and practice sessions. We decided to allow Hunter to deal with the matter himself, but when he informed us that he did not receive any substantial explanation for the move the matter became most disturbing. As I understand it from our brief conversation and from Hunter, the reason that you have barred him from covering pro football is “because of his personal involvement in the drug scene.” I am sure that you understand that such an unspecified charge, with not even a hint of evidence to back up the charge, raises some serious questions about journalistic freedom and the First Amendment. If we were to allow such a vague charge to stand up, we would be certainly remiss in our pursuit of journalistic integrity and freedom. The same kind of generality could prevent Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and even William F. Buckley, Jr., from covering major sporting events. We at the magazine feel it is our duty to defend our and their right to cover such events. As a matter of fact, I personally have been involved in sports for four-and-a-half years on a day-to-day basis. During that time, publications I worked for had a circulation of less than 7000 and were still credentialed to cover pro football games and World Series games. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall being turned down for credentials. Now a reporter for a national magazine with a circulation of around 350,000 has been told that not only can he not cover practice sessions, but that he cannot have even a pass for the press box.
This letter is not meant to be a threat; Rolling Stone has not decided to take any kind of action at this time against the Oakland Raiders or pro football. Journalistically, Hunter Thompson was going into the assignment with an open mind about the sport but, unfortunately, the events of the past two weeks, I suspect, may be changing his attitude. I have no reason not to believe him when he tells me that he has no intention of writing a negative article about the Raiders or pro football. As a matter of fact, as I explained to you a couple of times on the phone, the experiences of the Raider games and practice sessions were going to be used merely to background Hunter so he could cover the Super Bowl. I get the impression from talking with Hunter that he feels he is being forced to write a negative article. I hope it doesn’t turn out that way.
We still hope that Hunter can cover the Super Bowl and I hope that our requests for credentials for any future games are fulfilled.
I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible about this matter. I think you can understand our viewpoint: We just can’t let an unspecified attack like this prevent us from doing what we consider our journalistic duty.
John A. Walsh
cc: Mr. Al Davis, President
7811 Oakport Oakland, Calif. 94621
Mr. Hunter Thompson
Mr. Jann Wenner
Anyway, the thing I sensed from remembering that conversation was a definite possibility that LoCasale (and maybe Davis, too) might be serious about that offhand commitment he made to “explain things” to me “after the season.” So … on the strength of that possibility, I think we might be well advised to let the buggers forget about me for a while, and then try to work on the basis of “goodwill” immediately “after the season.” Whenever that happens to be.
It might be a nice twist, in fact, to send them a quick and formally friendly little’ note to the effect that Dr. Thompson has now recovered (at his spa in the Rockies) from the massive ego-shock of being barred from covering the only story in his long and brutal career that he ever really had a personal affection for, and that he looks forward to speaking “with you and Al, after the season.”
The ultimate fate of the story, I think, now depends on my Super Bowl Credentials — not just a ticket to the game, but total access to all the week-long pre-game press freakshow. With that as a nut — in addition to all this vicious background — I feel the first stirrings of a real appetite for this story. Somebody is going to pay for putting me thru this kind of shit.
Thanx … … … Hunter
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Ah yes, Mother Roberts. . … I found her card on the bus and jammed it into one of my pockets, thinking that maybe I would give her a call on Monday and make an appointment. I had a lot of heavy questions to lay on her like “Why am I here, Mother Roberts? What does it all mean? Have I finally turned pro? Can this really be the end? Down and out in Houston with —
“No, I was just kidding, Mother Roberts, just putting you on — just working a bit of the test on you, right? Yes, because what I was really leading up to is this extremely central question. …No, I’m not shy; it’s just that I come from way up north where people’s lips are frozen about ten months every year, so we don’t get used to talking until very late in life…what? Old? Well, I think you just put your finger or your wand or whatever, right smack on the head of the nail, Mother Roberts, because the godawful truth of the whole matter is that I’ve been feeling extremely old this past week, and … What? Wait a minute now, goddamnit, I’m still getting up to the main question, which is … What? No, I never curse, Mother Roberts; that was a cry of anguish, a silent scream from the soul, because I feel in serious trouble down here in this goddamn town, and … Yes, I am a white person, Mother Roberts, and we both know there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Are you prejudiced?. …No, let’s not get into that. Just let me ask you this question, and if you can give me a straight and reasonable answer I promise I won’t come out to your place … because what I want you to tell me, Mother Roberts — and I mean this very seriously — is why have I been in Houston for eight days without anybody offering me some cocaine? . … Yes, cocaine, that’s what I said, and just between you and me I’m damn serious about wanting some. …What? Drugs? Of course I’m talking about drugs! Your ad said you could answer my questions and lift me out of sorrow and darkness. …Okay, okay, I’m listening. …Yeah, yeah. …But let me tell you something, Mother Roberts: My name is Al Davis and I’m the Editor of Reader’s Digest. …Right, and I can have you busted right now for false advertising. …Yeah, well I think I might pick up some of my people and come out to see you later on today; we want some explanations for this kind of anti-christ bullshit. This country’s in enough trouble, goddamnit, without people like you running around selling drugs like cocaine to people in serious trouble…“
Mother Roberts hung up on me at that point. Christ only knows what she thought was about to come down on her when dusk fell on Houston. …Here was the Editor of the Reader’s Digest coming out to her house with a goon squad, and all of them apparently stone mad for cocaine and vengeance … a terrible situation.
It was not until Monday afternoon that I actually spoke with Mother Roberts on the telephone, but the idea of going over to Galveston and dealing with the whole Super Scene story from some rotten motel on the edge of the seal-wall had been wandering around in my head almost from the first hour after I checked into my coveted press-room at the Hyatt Regency.
And in dull retrospect now, I wish I had done that. Almost anything would have been better than that useless week I spent in Houston waiting for the Big Game. The only place in town where I felt at home was a sort of sporadically violent strip joint called the Blue Fox, far out in the country on South Main. Nobody I talked to in Houston had ever heard of it, and the only two sportswriters who went out there with me got involved in a wild riot that ended up with all of us getting maced by undercover vice-squad cops who just happened to be in the middle of the action when it erupted.
Ah … but that is another story, and we don’t have time for it here. Maybe next time. There are two untold sagas that will not fit into this story: One has to do with Big Al’s Cactus Room in Oakland, and the other concerns the Blue Fox in Houston.
There is also — at least in the minds of at least two dozen gullible sportswriters at the Super Bowl — the ugly story of how I spent three or four days prior to Super Week shooting smack in a $7 a night motel room on the seawall in Galveston.
I remember telling that story one night in the press lounge at the Hyatt Regency, just babbling it off the top of my head out of sheer boredom. … Then I forgot about it completely until one of the local sports-writers approached me a day or so later and said: “Say man, I hear you spent some time in Galveston last week.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I hear you locked yourself in a motel over there and shot heroin for three days.” I
looked around me to see who was listening, then grinned kind of stupidly and said “Shucks, there wasn’t much else to do, you know — so why not get loaded in Galveston?”
He shrugged uncontrollably and looked down at his Old Crow and water. I glanced at my watch and turned to leave. “Time to hit it,” I said with a smile. “See you later, when I’m feeling back on my rails.”
He nodded glumly as I moved away in the crowd … and although I saw him three or four times a day for the rest of that week, he never spoke to me again.
Most sportswriters are so blank on the subject of drugs that you can only talk to them about it at your own risk — which is easy enough, for me, because I get a boot out of seeing their eyes bulge; but it can be disastrous to a professional football player who makes the casual mistake of assuming that a sportswriter knows what he’s talking about when he uses a word like “crank.” Any professional athlete who talks to a sportswriter about “drugs” — even with the best and most constructive intentions — is taking a very heavy risk. There is a definite element of hysteria about drugs of any kind in pro football today, and a casual remark — even a meaningless remark — across the table in a friendly hometown bar can lead, very quickly, to a seat in the witness chair in front of a congressional committee.
Ah … drugs; that word again. It was a hard word to avoid in NFL circles last year — like the “missle gap” in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election, or “law and order” in 1968.
1973 was a pretty dull press-year for congressmen. The Senate’s Watergate Committee had managed, somehow, to pre-empt most of the ink and air-time … and one of the few congressmen who managed to lash his own special gig past that barrier was an apparently senile 67-year-old ex-sheriff and football coach from West Virginia named Harley Staggers.
Somewhere in the spastic interim between John Dean and “Bob” Haldeman, Congressman Staggers managed to collar some story-starved sportswriter from the New York Times long enough to announce that his committee — the House Subcommittee on Investigations — had stumbled on such a king-hell wasps nest of evidence in the course of their probe into “the use of drugs by athletes” that the committee was prepared — or almost prepared, pending further evidence — to come to grips with their natural human duty and offer up a law, very soon, that would require individual urinalysis tests on all professional athletes and especially pro football players.
These tests would be administered by professional urinalysists — paid by the federal government, out of tax-monies — and if any one of these evil bastards passed urine that turned red (or green, or blue, or whatever), they would be … ah … well … the Staggers Committee is still mulling on the question of penalties.
Maybe studying is a better word. Or pondering. … That’s right, they’re still pondering it … and God’s mercy on any muscle-bound degenerate whose piss turns red if Harley ever passes his law. The rumor on Capitol Hill is that Rep. Staggers is even now in the process of arranging for the construction of a model, medium security JOCK/DRUG PENITENTIARY AND REHABILITATION CENTER on the site of an abandoned missile base near Tonopah, Nevada.
MEANWHILE, THE VICE President of the United States has been lashed out of office and disbarred in his home-state of Maryland, the President himself is teetering on the brink of a Burglary/Conspiracy indictment that will mean certain impeachment, and the whole structure of our government has become a stagnant mockery of itself and everybody who ever had faith in it.
What all this means to Harley Staggers is hard to say. I am tempted to call him: It is 7:02 in Washington and I suspect he’s wide awake, administering the daily beating to his pit-bulls in the backyard garage and waiting for calls from reporters:
“What’s up Harley? Who’s gonna get it?”
“Well… let me say this: We know, for a fact, that the situation is out of control and I mean to put a stop to it or fall down trying…“
“A stop to what, Harley?”
“Nevermind that. You know what I mean.” (pause) “Let me ask you something: Does a phrase like “The playing fields of West Virginia” mean anything to you?” (pause) “Wait a minute — where were you raised? What’s wrong with — ” (click). …
Ah, Jesus … another bad tangent. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall signing a contract that said I would never do this kind of thing again; one of the conditions of my turning pro was a clause about swearing off gibberish. …
But, like Gregg Allman says: “I’ve wasted so much time … feelin guilty…“
There is some kind of back-door connection in my head between Super Bowls and the Allman Brothers — a strange kind of theme-sound that haunts these goddamn stories no matter where I’m finally forced into a corner to write them. The Allman sound, and rain. There was heavy rain, last year, on the balcony of my dim-lit hotel room just down from the Sunset Strip in Hollywood … and more rain through the windows of the San Francisco office building where I finally typed out “the story.”
And now, almost exactly a year later, my main memory of Super Bowl VIII in Houston is rain and grey mist outside another hotel window, with the same strung-out sound of the Allman Brothers booming out of the same portable speakers that I had, last year, in Los Angeles.
There was not much else worth remembering from either game — or at least not much that needs writing about, and the clock on the wall reminds me, once again, that a final deadline looms and there is hungry space to fill out there in San Francisco. …Which means no more thinking about rain and music, but a quick and nasty regression to “professionalism.”
Which is what it’s all about.
Indeed, I tend, more and more, to forget these things. Or maybe just to ignore them.
But what the hell? Retirement is just around the corner, so why not wander a bit?
“You grow up fast in Texas
and you got to lay it down
Or you’ll be working for somebody
way cross town.”
— Doug Sahm
THE FLOOR OF the Hyatt Regency men’s room was always covered, about three-inches deep, with discarded newspapers — all apparently complete and unread, except on closer examination you realized that every one of them was missing its sports section. This bathroom was right next to the hotel newsstand and just across the mezzanine from the crowded NFL “press lounge,” a big room full of telephones and free booze, where most of the 1600 or so sportswriters assigned to cover The Big Game seemed to spend about 16 hours of each day, during Super Week.
After the first day or so, when it became balefully clear that there was no point in anybody except the local reporters going out on the press-bus each day for the carefully staged “player interviews” that Dolphin tackle Manny Fernandez described as “like going to the dentist every day to have the same tooth filled,” the out-of-town writers began using the local types as a sort of involuntary “pool” … which was more like an old British Navy press gang, in fact, because the locals had no choice. They would go out, each morning, to the Miami and Minnesota team hotels, and dutifully conduct the daily interviews … and about two hours later this mass of useless gibberish would appear, word for word, in the early editions of either the Post or the Chronicle.
You could see the front door of the hotel from the balcony of the press lounge, and whenever the newsboy came in with his stack of fresh papers, the national writers would make the long 48-yard walk across to the newsstand and cough up 15 cents each for their copies. Then, on the way back to the press lounge, they would stop for a piss and dump the whole paper — except for the crucial sports section — on the floor of the men’s room. The place was so deep, all week, in fresh newsprint, that it was sometimes hard to push the door open.
Forty yards away, on comfortable couches surrounding the free bar, the national gents would spend about two hours each day scanning the local sports sections — along with a never-ending mass of almost psychotically detailed information churned out by the NFL publicity office — on the dim chance of finding something worth writing about that day.
There never was, of course. But nobody seemed really disturbed about it. The only thing most of the sportswriters in Houston seemed to care about was having something to write about … anything at all, boss: a peg, an angle, a quote, even a goddamn rumor.
I remember being shocked at the sloth and moral degeneracy of the Nixon press corps during the 1973 presidential campaign — but they were like a pack of wolverines on speed compared to the relatively elite sportswriters who showed up in Houston to cover the Super Bowl.
On the other hand, there really was no story. As the week wore on, it became increasingly obvious that we were all “just working here.” Nobody knew who to blame for it, and although at least a third of the sportswriters who showed up for that super-expensive shuck knew exactly what was happening, I doubt if more than five or six of them ever actually wrote the cynical and contemptuous appraisals of Super Bowl VIII that dominated about half the conversations around the bar in the press lounge.
Whatever was happening in Houston that week had little or nothing to do with the hundreds of stories that were sent out on the news-wires each day. Most of the stories, in fact, were unabashed rewrites of the dozens of official NFL press releases churned out each day by the League publicity office. Most of the stories about “fantastic parties” given by Chrysler, American Express and Jimmy the Greek were taken from press releases and rewritten by people who had spent the previous evening at least five miles from the scenes described in their stories.
The NFL’s official Super Bowl party — the “incredible Texas Hoe Down” on Friday night in the Astrodome — was as wild, glamorous and exciting as an Elks Club picnic on Tuesday in Salina, Kansas. The official NFL press release on the Hoe-Down said it was an unprecedented extravaganza that cost the League more than $100,000 and attracted people like Gene McCarthy and Ethel Kennedy. … Which might have been true, but I spent about five hours skulking around in that grim concrete barn and the only people I recognized were a dozen or so sportswriters from the press lounge.
Anybody with access to a mimeograph machine and a little imagination could have generated at least a thousand articles on “an orgy of indescribable proportions” at John Connally’s house, with Alan Ginsberg as the guest of honor and 13 thoroughbred horses slaughtered by drug-crazed guests with magnesium butcher knives. Most of the press people would have simply picked the story off the big table in the “work-room,” rewritten it just enough to make it sound genuine, and sent it off on the wire without a second thought.
THE BUS-RIDE to the stadium for the game on Sunday took more than an hour, due to heavy traffic. I had made the same six-mile drive the night before in just under five minutes … but that was under very different circumstances; Rice Stadium is on South Main Street, along the same route that led from the Hyatt Regency to the Dolphin headquarters at the Marriott, and also to the Blue Fox.
There was not much to do on the bus except drink, smoke and maintain a keen ear on the babble of conversations behind me for any talk that might signal the presence of some late-blooming Viking fan with money to waste. It is hard to stay calm and casual in a crowd of potential bettors when you feel absolutely certain of winning any bet you can make. At that point, anybody with even a hint of partisan enthusiasm in his voice becomes a possible mark — a doomed and ignorant creature to be lured, as carefully as possible, into some disastrous last-minute wager that could cost him every dollar he owns.
There is no room for mercy or the milk of human kindness in football betting — at least not when you’re prepared to get up on the edge with every dollar you own. One-on-one betting is a lot more interesting than dealing with bookies, because it involves strong elements of personality and psychic leverage. Betting against the point spread is a relatively mechanical trip, but betting against another individual can be very complex, if you’re serious about it — because you want to know, for starters, whether you’re betting against a fool or a wizard, or maybe against somebody who’s just playing the fool.
Making a large bet on a bus full of sportswriters on the way to the Super Bowl, for instance, can be a very dangerous thing; because you might be dealing with somebody who was in the same fraternity at Penn State with one of the team doctors, and who learned the night before — while drinking heavily with his old buddy — that the quarterback you’re basing your bet on has four cracked ribs and can barely raise his passing arm to shoulder level.
Situations like these are not common. Unreported injuries can lead to heavy fines against any team that fails to report one — especially in a Super Bowl — but what is a $10,000 fine, compared to the amount of money that kind of crucial knowledge is worth against a big-time bookie?
The other side of that coin is a situation where a shrewd coach turns the League’s “report all injuries” rule into a psychological advantage for his own team — and coincidentally for any bettor who knows what’s happening — by scrupulously reporting an injury to a star player just before a big game, then calling a press conference to explain that the just-reported injury is of such a nature — a pulled muscle, for instance — that it might or might not heal entirely by game time.
This was what happened in Houston with the Dolphins’ Paul Warfield, widely regarded as “the most dangerous pass receiver in pro football.” Warfield is a game-breaker, a man who commands double-coverage at all times because of his antelope running style, twin magnets for hands, and a weird kind of adrenaline instinct that feeds on tension and high pressure. There is no more beautiful sight in football than watching Paul Warfield float out of the backfield on a sort of angle-streak pattern right into the heart of a “perfect” zone defense and take a softly thrown pass on his hip, without even seeming to notice the arrival of the ball, and then float another 60 yards into the end zone, with none of the frustrated defensive backs ever touching him.
There is an eerie kind of certainty about Warfield’s style that is far more demoralizing than just another six points on the Scoreboard. About half the time he looks bored and lazy — but even the best pass defenders in the league know, in some nervous corner of their hearts, that when the deal goes down Warfield is capable of streaking right past them like they didn’t exist. …
Unless he’s hurt; playing with some kind of injury that might or might not be serious enough to either slow him down or gimp the fiendish concentration that makes him so dangerous … and this was the possibility that Dolphin coach Don Shula raised on Wednesday when he announced that Warfield had pulled a leg muscle in practice that afternoon and might not play on Sunday.
This news caused instant action in gambling circles. Even big-time bookies, whose underground information on these things is usually as good as Pete Rozelle’s, took Shula’s announcement seriously enough to cut the spread down from seven to six — a decision worth many millions of betting dollars if the game turned out to be close.
Even the rumor of an injury to Warfield was worth one point (and even two, with some bookies I was never able to locate) … and if Shula had announced on Saturday that Paul was definitely not going to play, the spread would probably have dropped to four, or even three. …Because the guaranteed absence of Warfield would have taken a great psychological load off the minds of Minnesota’s defensive backs.
Without the ever-present likelihood of a game-breaking “bomb” at any moment, they could focus down much tighter on stopping Miami’s brutal running game — which eventually destroyed them, just as it had destroyed Oakland’s nut-cutting defense two weeks earlier, and one of the main reasons why the Vikings failed to stop the Dolphins on the ground was the constant presence of Paul Warfield in his customary wide-receiver’s spot.
He played almost the whole game, never showing any sign of injury; and although he caught only one pass, he neutralized two Minnesota defensive backs on every play … and two extra tacklers on the line of scrimmage might have made a hell of a difference in that embarrassingly decisive first quarter when Miami twice drove what might as well have been the whole length of the field to score 14 quick points and crack the Vikings’ confidence just as harshly as they had cracked the Redskins out in Los Angeles a year earlier.
IT IS HARD to say, even now, exactly why I was so certain of an easy Dolphin victory. The only reason I didn’t get extremely rich on the game was my inability to overcome the logistical problems of betting heavily, on credit, by means of frantic long-distance phone calls from a hotel room in Houston. None of the people I met in that violent, water-logged town were inclined to introduce me to a reliable bookmaker — and the people I called on both coasts, several hours before the game on Sunday morning, seemed unnaturally nervous when I asked them to use their own credit to guarantee my bets with their local bookies.
Looking back on it now, after talking with some of these people and cursing them savagely, I see that the problem had something to do with my frenzied speech-pattern that morning. I was still in the grip of whatever fiery syndrome had caused me to deliver that sermon off the balcony a few hours earlier — and the hint of mad tremor in my voice, despite my attempts to disguise it, was apparently communicated very clearly to all those I spoke with on the long-distance telephone.
How long, O lord, how long? This is the second year in a row that I have gone to the Super Bowl and been absolutely certain — at least 48 hours before game-time — of the outcome. It is also the second year in a row that I have failed to capitalize, financially, on this certainty. Last year, betting mainly with wealthy cocaine addicts, I switched all my bets from Washington to Miami on Friday night — and in the resulting confusion my net winnings were almost entirely canceled by widespread rancor and personal bitterness.
THIS YEAR, IN order to side-step that problem, I waited until the last moment to make my bets — despite the fact that I knew the Vikings were doomed after watching them perform for the press at their star-crossed practice field on Monday afternoon before the game. It was clear, even then, that they were spooked and very uncertain about what they were getting into — but it was not until I drove about 20 miles around the beltway to the other side of town for a look at the Dolphins that I knew, for sure, how to bet.
There are a lot of factors intrinsic to the nature of the Super Bowl that make it far more predictable than regular season games, or even play-offs — but they are not the kind of factors that can be sensed or understood at a distance of 2000 or even 20 miles, on the basis of any wisdom or information that filters out from the site through the rose-colored, booze-bent media-filter that passes for “world-wide coverage” at these spectacles.
THERE IS A progression of understanding vis-a-vis pro football that varies drastically with the factor of distance — physical, emotional, intellectual and every other way…Which is exactly the way it should be, in the eyes of the amazingly small number of people who own and control the game, because it is this finely managed distance factor that accounts for the high-profit mystique that blew the sacred institution of baseball off its “national pastime” pedestal in less than 15 years.
There were other reasons for baseball’s precipitous loss of popularity among everybody except old men and middle-aged sportswriters between 1959 and now — just as there will be a variety of reasons to explain the certain decline of pro football between now and 1984 — but if sporting historians ever look back on all this and try to explain it, there will be no avoiding the argument that pro football’s meteoric success in the 1960’s was directly attributable to its early marriage with network TV and a huge, coast-to-coast audience of armchair fans who “grew up” — in terms of their personal relationship to The Game — with the idea that pro football was something that happened every Sunday on the tube. The notion of driving eight miles along a crowded freeway and then paying $3 to park the car in order to pay another $10 to watch the game from the vantage point of a damp redwood bench 55 rows above the 19-yard line in a crowd of noisy drunks was entirely repugnant to them.
And they were absolutely right. After ten years of trying it both ways — and especially after watching this last wretched Super Bowl game from a choice seat in the “press section” very high above the 50-yard line — I hope to christ I never again succumb to whatever kind of weakness or madness it is that causes a person to endure the incoherent hell that comes with going out to a cold and rainy stadium for three hours on a Sunday afternoon and trying to get involved with whatever seems to be happening down there on that far-below field.
At the Super Bowl I had the benefit of my usual game-day aids: powerful binoculars, a tiny portable radio for the blizzard of audio-details that nobody ever thinks to mention on TV, and a seat on the good left arm of my friend, Mr. Natural. … But even with all these aids and a seat on the 50-yard line, I would rather have stayed in my hotel room and watched the goddamn thing on TV; or maybe in some howling-drunk bar full of heavy bettors — the kind of people who like to bet on every play: pass or run, three to one against a first down, twenty to one on a turnover. …
This is a very fast and active style of betting, because you have to make a decision about every 25 seconds. The only thing more intense is betting yes or no on the next shot in something like a pro basketball game between the Celtics and the Knicks, where you might get five or six shots every 24 seconds … or maybe only one, but in any case the betting is almost as exhausting as being out there on the floor.
I STAYED IN Houston for two days after the game, but even with things calmed down I had no luck in finding the people who’d caused me all my trouble. Both Tom Keating and Al LoCasale were rumored to be in the vicinity, but — according to some of the New York sportswriters who’d seen them — neither one was eager to either see or be seen with me.
When I finally fled Houston it was a cold Tuesday afternoon with big lakes of standing water on the road to the airport. I almost missed my plane to Denver because of a hassle with Jimmy the Greek about who was going to drive us to the airport and another hassle with the hotel garage-man about who was going to pay for eight days of tending my bogus “Official Super Bowl Car” in the hotel garage … and I probably wouldn’t have made it at all if I hadn’t run into a NFL publicity man who gave me enough speed to jerk me awake and lash the little white Mercury Cougar out along the Dallas freeway to the airport in time to abandon it in the “Departures/ Taxis Only” area and hire a man for five dollars to rush my bags and sound equipment up to the Continental Airlines desk just in time to make the flight.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS later I was back in Woody Creek and finally, by sheer accident, making contact with that twisted bastard Keating — who bent my balance a bit by calmly admitting his role in my Problem and explaining it with one of the highest left-handed compliments anybody ever aimed at me. …
“I got nothing personal against Thompson,” he told another NFL player who happened to be skiing in Aspen at the time: “But let’s face it, we’ve got nothing to gain by talking to him. I’ve read all his stuff and I know how he is; he’s a goddamn lunatic — and you’ve got to be careful with a bastard like that, because no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t help but tell the truth.”
When I heard that I just sort of slumped down on my bar-stool and stared at myself in the mirror … wishing, on one level, that Keating’s harsh judgment was right … but knowing, on another, that the treacherous realities of the worlds I especially work in forced me to abandon that purist stance a long time ago. If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people — including me — would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.
It is also a rare and dangerous commodity in the National Football League, or at least that western 26th of it that may or may not be the eminent domain of Al Davis and his executive fixer, LoCasale — who finally, after all other dodges had failed, came out of his closet just long enough to welsh publicly on his personal agreement with me, to explain the roots and circumstances of my banishment “when the season is over.”
Which it was, for the Raiders, when they got stomped out of the playoffs by Miami, back in December. I waited several days, out of common decency, before calling LoCasale at the Raider office in Oakland, with the idea of setting up a mutually agreeable time and place — perhaps on one of those empty afternoons during Super Week down in Houston — for us to sit down with some green enchiladas and six or eight Dos Equis and get the whole problem untangled, or at least explained to whatever extent he seemed to have in mind when he set that “after the season” timetable back in December.
LoCasale was not in the office when I called. Neither was Al Davis. But I had a friendly talk with whichever one of their secretaries was handling the phone that day, and she assured me that one of them would be back very soon and would certainly return my call. I thanked her and left an Operator Number, so that the call would be on my tab.
SIX HOURS LATER I called the Raider office again, but there was nobody home. The answering service operator said that Mr. Davis and Mr. LoCasale had both gone home for the day, but if I wanted to leave my number she would get the message to both of them tomorrow, and either one of them — or maybe both — would call me as soon as possible.
Well … it is probably a sad commentary on my journalistic sense and also my personal naivete to admit, at this point, that I honestly believed that either LoCasale or Davis would soon return my call(s).
But they didn’t, and after two or three weeks of this bullshit — including a week in Houston, where LoCasale somehow managed to avoid me for eight days and Al Davis never showed up at all — it finally dawned on me that neither one of these devious bastards had any intention of ever talking to me again under any circumstances.
It was not really much of a shock, by this time. I had already checked with the NFL security office in New York and been assured that whatever foul information LoCasale felt he had on me had not come down from the League. “If you were as dangerous as LoCasale thinks you are,” one of the security men said, “we sure as hell wouldn’t have accredited you for the Super Bowl.”
It seemed like a reasonable premise until I tried it out on two NFL players. They both said the thing had all the hoof-prints of a League security operation, and both of them warned me against believing anything I’d heard or might ever hear in the future out of NFL headquarters. “It would stagger your goddamn mind to know how vicious those security bastards can be,” one of the players told me. “If they’re convinced you’re a dope freak, they’ll do anything they figure is necessary to get you out of their hair — and if they can’t find anything on you, they’ll arrange for the local cops to stop you for speeding and find something. You want to be very careful with those bastards; they’re absolutely ruthless.”
Jesus christ, I thought, this story was supposed to be a vacation from politics — but dealing with these pigs is worse than dealing with Ziegler.
Walsh, in the meantime, was pursuing the Davis-LoCasale connection from so many angles and via so many surrogates that we finally got through — by using a sort of Trojan Horse approach on Al Davis. But the result was not much better than all the blanks we’d drawn before. “It is not my policy,” Davis intoned to the sports-writer who finally reached him on our behalf, “to explain the decisions of my executives.”
And that, I think, is the only possible ending to this heart-rending tale of “How I never got it on with Al Davis, or even Pete Rozelle” . … And all that remains, now, is a vague sense of embarrassment with the idea that I could ever have taken pro football so seriously in the first place. Dealing with the combined treacheries of the NFL and the Oakland Raiders is like trying to cover the National Swineherds Convention with a head full of PCP or spending 90 days as an out-patient at Folsom Prison.
WHAT WAS EASILY the most provocative quote of that whole dreary week came on the Monday after the game from Miami linebacker Doug Swift. He was talking in his usual loose “What? Me worry?” kind of way with two or three sportswriters in the crowded lobby of the Marriott. Buses were leaving for the airport, Dolphin supporters and their wives were checking out, the lobby was full of stranded luggage, and off in one of the corners, Don Shula was talking with another clutch of sportswriters and ridiculing the notion that he would ever get rid of Jim Kiick, despite Kiick’s obvious unhappiness at the prospect of riding the bench again next year behind all-pro running back Mercury Morris.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the lobby, Doug Swift was going along with a conversation that had turned, along with Shula’s, to money and next year’s contracts. Swift listened for a while, then looked up at whoever was talking to him and said:
“You can expect to see a lot of new faces on next year’s [Miami] team. A lot of important contracts are coming up for renewal, and you can bet that the guys will be asking for more than management is willing to pay.”
Nobody paid much attention to the decidedly unnatural timing of Swift’s matter-of-fact prediction about “a lot of new faces next year,” but it was not the kind of talk designed to tickle either Shula’s or Joe Robbie’s rampant humours that morning. Jesus, here was the team’s Player Representative — a star linebacker and one of the sharpest & most politically conscious people in the League — telling anyone who cared to listen, not even 12 hours after the victory party, that the embryo “Dolphin Dynasty” was already in a very different kind of trouble than anything the Vikings or the Redskins had been able to lay on them in two straight Super Bowls.
SWIFT’S COMMENT WAS all the more ominous because of his stature as the team’s spokesman in the NFL Players’ Association — a long-dormant poker club, of sorts, that in recent years has developed genuine muscle. Even in the face of what most of the player reps call a “legalized and unregulated monopoly” with the power of what amounts to “life or death” over their individual fates and financial futures in the tight little world of the National Football League, the Players’ Association since 1970 has managed to challenge the owners on a few carefully chosen issues… The two most obvious, or at least most frequently mentioned by players, are the Pension Fund (which the owners now contribute to about twice as heavily as they did before the threatened strike in 1970) and the players’ unilateral rejection, last year, of the “urinalysis proposal” which the owners and Rozelle were apparently ready and willing to arrange for them, rather than risk any more public fights with Congress about things like TV blackouts and antitrust exemptions.
According to Pittsburgh tackle Tom Keating, an articulate maverick who seems to enjoy a universal affection and respect from almost everybody in the League except the owners and owner-bent coaches, the Players’ Association croaked the idea of mass-urinalysis with one quick snarl. “We just told them to fuck it,” he says. “The whole concept of mass urine tests is degrading! Jesus, can you imagine what would happen if one of those stadium cops showed up in the press box at half-time with a hundred test tubes and told all the writers to piss in the damn things or turn in their credentials for the rest of the season? I’d like to film that goddamn scene.”
I agreed with Keating that mass-urinalysis in the press box at half-time would undoubtedly cause violence and a blizzard of vicious assaults on the NFL in the next morning’s papers … but, after thinking about it for a while, the idea struck me as having definite possibilities if applied on a broad enough basis:
Mandatory urine-tests for all congressmen and senators at the end of each session, for instance. Who could predict what kind of screaming hell might erupt if Rep. Harley Staggers was suddenly grabbed by two Pinkerton men in a hallway of the US Capitol and dragged — in full view of tourists, newsmen and several dozen of his shocked and frightened colleagues — into a nearby corner and forced to piss in a test tube?
Would Staggers scream for help? Would he struggle in the grip of his captors? Or would he meekly submit, in the interest of National Security?
We will probably never know, because the present Congress does not seem to be in a mood to start passing “Forced Urinalysis” laws — although the Agnew-style Supreme Court that Nixon has saddled us with would probably look with favor on such a law.
In any case, the threat of mandatory urinalysis for professional athletes will probably be hooted out of Congress as some kind of stupid hillbilly joke if Staggers ever gets serious about it. He is not viewed, in Washington, as a heavy Shaker and Mover.
WHEN DOUG SWIFT made that comment about “a lot of new faces on next year’s team,” he was not thinking in terms of a player-revolt against forced urinalysis. What he had in mind, I think, was the fact that among the Dolphin contracts coming up for renewal this year are those of Larry Csonka, Jake Scott, Paul Warfield, Dick Anderson and Mercury Morris — all established stars earning between $30,000 and $55,000 a year right now, and all apparently in the mood to double their salaries next time around.
Which might seem a bit pushy, to some people — until you start comparing average salary figures in the National Football League against salaries in other pro sports. The average NFL salary (according to figures provided by Players’ Assoc. general counsel, Ed Garvey) is $28,500, almost five grand less than the $33,000 average for major league baseball players, and about half the average salary (between $50,000 and $55,000) in the National Hockey League. …But when you start talking about salaries in the National Basketball Association, it’s time to kick out the jams: The average NBA salary is $92,500 a year. (The NBA Players’ Association claims that the average salary is $100,000.)
Against this steep-green background, it’s a little easier to see why Larry Csonka wants a raise from his current salary of $55,000 — to $100,000 or so, a figure that he’d probably scale down pretty calmly if Joe Robbie offered him the average NBA salary of $92,500.
(A quick little sidelight on all these figures has to do with the price TV advertisers paid to push their products during time-outs and penalty-squabbles at the Super Bowl: The figure announced by the NFL and whatever TV network carried the goddamn thing was $200,000 per minute. I missed the telecast, due to factors beyond my control — which is why I don’t know which network sucked up all that gravy, or whether it was Schlitz, Budweiser, Gillette or even King Kong Amyl Nitrites that coughed up $200,000 for every 60 seconds of TV exposure on that grim afternoon.)
But that was just a sidelight … and the longer I look at all these figures, my watch, and this goddamn stinking mojo wire that’s been beeping steadily out here in the snow for two days, the more I tend to see this whole thing about a pending Labor Management crunch in the NFL as a story with a spine of its own that we should probably leave for later.
The only other thing — or maybe two things — that I want to hit, lashing the final pages of this bastard into the mojo, has to do with the sudden and apparently serious formation of the “World Football League” by the same people whose record, so far, has been pretty good when it comes to taking on big-time monopolies. Los Angeles lawyer Gary Davidson is the same man who put both the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey League together — two extremely presumptuous trips that appear to have worked out very nicely, and which also provided the competition factor that caused the huge salary jumps in both basketball and hockey.
Perhaps the best example of how the competition-factor affects player salaries comes from the ledger-books of the NFL. In 1959, the average salary in pro football was $9500 a year. But in 1960, when the newly formed AFL began its big-money bidding war against pro football’s Old Guard, the average NFL salary suddenly jumped to $27,500 — and in the 13 years since then it has crept up another $1000 to the current figure of $28,500.
The explanation for all this — according to Garvey and all the players I’ve talked to about it — is rooted entirely in the owner-arranged merger between the NFL and the AFL in 1966. “Ever since then,” says Garvey, “it’s been a buyer’s market, and that’s why the NFL’s average salary figure has remained so stagnant, compared to the other sports.”
Garvey said he’d just as soon not make any public comment on the possibility of a players’ strike next summer — but there is a lot of private talk about it among individual players, and especially among the player reps and some of the politically oriented hard rockers like Swift, Keating, and Kansas City’s Ed Podolak.
The only person talking publicly about a Players’ strike is Gary Davidson, president of the new World Football League — who called a press conference in New York on January 22nd to announce that the WFL was not only going after the top college players and the 35 or so NFL veterans who played out their options last year — but, in a sudden reversal of policy that must have sent cold shots of fear through every one of the 26 plush boardrooms in the NFL, Davidson announced that the WFL will also draft “all pro football players, even those under contract,” and then begin draining talent out of the NFL by a simple device called “future contracts.”
If the Boston Bulls of the WFL, for instance, decided to draft Dolphin quarterback Bob Griese this year and sign him to a future contract for 1975, Griese would play the entire ’74 season for Miami, and then — after getting a certified deposit slip for something like $2 million in gold bullion from his bank in Zurich — he would have a round of farewell beers with Robbie and Shula before catching the plane for Boston, where he would open the 1976 season as quarterback for the Bulls.
This is only one of several hundred weird scenarios that could start unfolding in the next few months if the WFL franchise-owners have enough real money to take advantage of the NFL Players’ strike that Gary Davidson says he’s waiting for this summer.
Why not? Total madness on the money front: Huge bonuses, brutal money raids on NFL teams like the Dolphins and the Raiders; wild-eyed WFL agents flying around the country in private Lear jets with huge sacks of cash and mind-bending contracts for any player willing to switch. …
The only sure loser, in the end, will be the poor bastard who buys a season ticket for the Dolphins ’76 season and then picks up the Miami Herald the next day to find a red banner headline saying: GRIESE, KIICK, CSONKA, SCOTT, ANDERSON JUMP TO WFL.
Which is sad, but what the hell? None of this tortured bullshit about the future of pro football means anything, anyway. If the Red Chinese invaded tomorrow and banned the game entirely, nobody would really miss it after two or three months. Even now, most of the games are so fucking dull that it’s hard to understand how anybody can even watch them on TV unless they have some money hanging on the point spread, instead of the final score.
Pro football in American is over the hump. Ten years ago it was a very hip and private kind of vice to be into. I remember going to my first 49er game in 1965 with 15 beers in a plastic cooler and a Dr. Grabow pipe full of bad hash. The 49ers were still playing in Kezar stadium then, an old grey hulk at the western end of Haight Street in Golden Gate Park. There were never any sellouts, but the 30,000 or so regulars were extremely heavy drinkers, and at least 10,000 of them were out there for no other reason except to get involved in serious violence. …By half time the place was a drunken madhouse, and anybody who couldn’t get it on anywhere else could always go underneath the stands and try to get into the long trough of a “Men’s Room” through the “Out” door; there were always a few mean drunks lurking around to punch anybody who tried that … and by the end of the third quarter of any game, regardless of the score, there were always two or three huge brawls that would require the cops to clear out whole sections of the grandstand.
But all that changed when the 49ers moved out to Candlestick Park. The prices doubled and a whole new crowd took the seats. It was the same kind of crowd I saw, last season, in the four games I went to at the Oakland Coliseum: a sort of half-rich mob of nervous doctors, lawyers and bank officers who would sit through a whole game without ever making a sound — not even when some freak with a head full of acid spilled a whole beer down the neck of their grey-plastic ski jackets. Toward the end of the season, when the Raiders were battling every week for a spot in the playoffs, some of the players got so pissed off at the stuporous nature of their “fans” that they began making public appeals for “cheering” and “noise.”
It was a bad joke if you didn’t have to live with it — and as far as I’m concerned I hope to hell I never see the inside of another football stadium. Not even a free seat with free booze in the press box.
That gig is over now, and I blame it on Vince Lombardi. The success of his Green Bay approach in the ’60’s restructured the game entirely. Lombardi never really thought about winning; his trip was not losing. …Which worked, and because it worked the rest of the NFL bought Lombardi’s whole style: Avoid Mistakes, Don’t Fuck Up, Hang Tough and Take No Chances. … Because sooner or later the enemy will make a mistake and then you start grinding him down, and if you play the defensive percentage you’ll get inside his 30-yard line at least three times in each half, and once you’re inside the 30 you want to be sure to get at least three points. …
Wonderful. Who can argue with a battle-plan like that? And it is worth remembering that Richard Nixon spent many Sundays, during all those long and lonely autumns between 1962 and ’68, shuffling around on the field with Vince Lombardi at Green Bay Packer games.
Nixon still speaks of Lombardi as if he might suddenly appear, at any moment, from underneath one of the larger rocks on the White House lawn. … And Don Shula, despite his fairly obvious distaste for Nixon, has adopted the Lombardi style of football so effectively that the Dolphins are now one of the dullest teams to watch in the history of pro football.
But most of the others are just as dull — and if you need any proof, find a TV set some weekend that has pro football, basketball and hockey games on three different channels. In terms of pure action and movement, the NFL is a molasses farm compared to the fine sense of crank that comes on when you get locked into watching a team like the Montreal Canadiens or the Boston Celtics.
One of the few sharp memories I still have from that soggy week in Houston is the sight of the trophy that would go to the team that won the Big Game on Sunday. It was appropriately named after Vince Lombardi: “The Lombardi Trophy,” a thick silver fist rising out of a block of black granite.
The trophy has all the style and grace of an ice floe in the North Atlantic. There is a silver plaque on one side of the base that says something about Vince Lombardi and the Super Bowl … but the most interesting thing about it is a word that is carved, for no apparent or at least no esthetic reason, in the top of the black marble base:
That’s all it says, and all it needs to say.
The ’73 Dolphins, I suspect, will be to pro football what the ’64 Yankees were to baseball, the final flower of an era whose time has come and gone. The long and ham-fisted shadow of Vince Lombardi will be on us for many more years. …But the crank is gone. …
Should we end the bugger with that?
Why not? Let the sportswriters take it from here. And when things get nervous, there’s always that smack-filled $7-a-night motel room down on the sea-wall in Galveston.