Vito Stellino has covered the NFL for 51 years and seen it all: scandals, dynasties, broken hearts and comebacks. Here’s what the Hall of Fame scribe has learned about the game over the decades
Few can take the long view of the NFL like Vito Stellino. In 1963, he began his journalism career with United Press International in Detroit, covering the Lions. Drafted into the Army, he spent the next two years stationed at the U.S Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., before returning to the NFL beat in 1966. That was his first of 50 consecutive years covering the league, including stops in Pittsburgh during the Steelers’ dynasty years, Baltimore when the Colts bolted for Indianapolis, Washington during the Joe Gibbs era and now 15 years as the Jaguars beat writer for the Florida Times-Union. In 1989, he was honored as the Dick McCann Award winner, earning him a spot in Canton in the Hall of Fame’s writer’s wing. The MMQB talked to Stellino about his five-plus decades covering the sport, and what he thinks the future will hold.
VRENTAS: When you began your career, did you ever imagine you would spend 51 years covering the NFL?
STELLINO: I never gave it a thought. I covered the World Series before I covered the Super Bowl. I covered all sports for UPI. I gravitated toward the NFL, because back in those days, baseball writers covered every road game and it was a brutal schedule. I got lucky getting to Pittsburgh just as they started the run, then covered the Redskins during the Joe Gibbs era, and just kept going. A lot of people want to get into feature writing or different-type things, but I just enjoy covering teams, enjoy the rhythm of the season. So here I am.
VRENTAS: What was the first big NFL story you covered?
STELLINO: In 1963, I was in Detroit and they suspended Alex Karras and Paul Hornung. I was assigned to do the Karras reaction, and the league told us the decision was coming down in an hour. Of course, there were no cell phones in those days, so I had to drive near his house and call from a pay phone and find out what happened. They weren’t making big money then; he lived on a street with a bunch of row houses, bungalows, all the same. I get to the house, knock on the door, and his wife comes to the door with a little kid hanging on the bottom of her dress. And of course she was crying. He had left, so I went to the Lions’ headquarters, and that’s where he was. I still remember what he said, “Well, I can go back to the steel mills and get all the steel I can eat.” That was easily the first big story I covered. People forget Karras was the best defensive player in the league in those days. Hornung was the bigger name because he was with the Packers. But the previous year, they had played that great Thanksgiving Day game against the Packers. The Lions were two games behind the Packers, and there was no wild card, so they were not going to make the playoffs. All that frustration built up on Thanksgiving Day and they had that unbelievable defensive game with 11 sacks. He was really a great player and probably deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I don’t know if the suspension is the reason, but he’s been kind of overlooked. But anyway, Pete Rozelle was suspending the biggest defensive player, and Hornung wasn’t the best offensive player, but he was maybe the most well known—went to Notre Dame, won the Heisman, that type of thing. It was a huge story. It kind of made Rozelle’s reputation. He was Sportsman of the Year the next year. Of course, he was a great leader also. But that kind of showed he was in charge, because he was still a young commissioner in those days.
VRENTAS: The Karras and Hornung suspensions for betting on NFL games were often referenced earlier this year, before Tom Brady's Deflategate discipline was overturned.
STELLINO: And, of course, Deflategate turned out to be nothing. It’s a great example of the difference between Roger Goodell and Pete Rozelle. Hornung and Karras were actually guilty. We don’t know what happened in Deflategate. There’s no evidence anything did happen. They should have shut it down. They should have issued a statement the day the Colts complained, saying, “We have never tested balls at halftime in a game and we don’t know what happens in cold weather. We’ll look into it next year.” Everybody would have forgotten about it. Instead, they turned it into this unbelievable thing that they are still appealing. Now the NFL is comparing it to the 1919 Black Sox. The Black Sox threw the World Series. Even if the Patriots did it—and there is no evidence they did—they were trying to win. The comparison is just unbelievable.
VRENTAS: You’ve covered both men as commissioner. What are the differences between Rozelle and Goodell in your experience?
STELLINO: Rozelle was a natural leader. And he had a great sense of, We work for the teams, the teams don’t work for us. With Goodell, it’s like the teams work for him. And Rozelle would always say, “We kick off at 1 o’clock on Sundays.” He was into the football. Goodell is into the marketing and all this other stuff. There’s never a sense of what’s too much. Now, nothing is too much. He wants to play 18 games. He’s been very slow on the concussion issue, which is still a major problem. And then, of course, so many things like Deflategate; and Bountygate, which he turned into an unbelievable thing until finally Paul Tagliabue had to say enough is enough, and lifted the [player] suspensions. Rozelle had a deft touch. They had some Thursday night games under Rozelle, and he decided that was too much, and they shut it down. He kind of decided, you can’t overexpose, and you want people to anticipate things. Now it is back, and now they play every Thursday night.
Just to give you an idea of how times change: In the late ’60s, one Saturday night, they opened the season with Packers-Colts, Unitas vs. Lombardi, a great matchup. It got beaten in ratings by the Miss America contest. Monday Night Football was a tough sell. CBS and NBC had no interest at all, so Rozelle had to go to ABC and say, If you guys don’t do this, we’re going to fight your syndication. Then it became an institution. It’s just a whole different atmosphere, but it happens in life, too. We had Lincoln when we needed a president to save the country. We had Roosevelt when we needed a president to save the country. Rozelle was the right man at the right time. It’s kind of hard to duplicate that, and it’s hard to sustain something that once was built. But you have to focus on the right things. Like all these games in London. They make a lot of money, but you are taking away home games from your core audience in America. Meanwhile, you come down to Florida for the Jaguars, Miami and Tampa Bay, none are selling their stadiums, and with red zone channel, you can stay home and keep up on every game on TV and you don’t have parking problems, inflated prices, drunks in the stands. They should be more worried about the experience in the U.S. They keep saying, well, it is going to grow the games. Is it?
VRENTAS: You covered the Steelers’ dynasty in the ’70s, four Super Bowls in six years, an unmatched feat. How did they do it?
STELLINO: Well, they drafted nine Hall of Famers, and they had a great coach. And there was no free agency, so the players couldn’t leave. Today you couldn’t afford Swann and Stallworth, you would have to pick one or the other. Could you afford Lambert or Ham? And it was a great atmosphere. Joe Gordon, the longtime Steelers PR guy, called it Camelot. Art Rooney, Sr., one of the founders of the league, he was just a great guy. He would be at practice just like another guy. I remember one time, Jack Lambert got into a hassle on the sideline in Cleveland. Can’t remember if he got thrown out, or a penalty, or what. I wrote, “you can’t do that in a playoff game.” The league got mad at me, and the Steelers did also. Everyone called Art Rooney, Sr., “The Chief,” and he came up to me and said, “Oh, you got them mad at you.” He was the owner of the team, and he related more to the writers. It was an amazing time.
Unfortunately, the players didn’t make the money they make now, but that almost made winning more important. At the time, I realized what I was covering. So when they won the first two, my take was, Hey, it’s not enough to be great. You have to win at least three. They had injuries and the playoff losses to Oakland and Denver the next two years, but then they won four out of six, and to me, you just can’t match that today, because of the salary cap. Also, hey, there is some luck involved to draft that many guys. Stallworth went in the fourth round, because he played at Alabama A&M. Lambert was not a big guy and goes in the second round. They won a coin flip for Bradshaw. Things had to fall in place. Nobody wants to admit there was luck involved in all of this. But Chuck Noll was an unbelievably good coach. He said, “Hey, it’s not my job to motivate you guys.” The players took the attitude they should win every game. They tell a story about taking a bus back from Cleveland after a tough loss and someone in the back says, “What’s Vito going to say about this?” It was such a great time. Great players, great to deal with, and they didn’t get all the attention you get now. No ESPN, no cable, no Internet. I like to talk about the history of game, but I try not to get into too much about it was better then, even though it was.
But times have changed, and it’s much better for the players now. It also was kind of an innocent time. We had no idea about steroids. We had no idea about the danger of concussions. In the 1976 opener in Oakland, Bradshaw dumped off a pass to Franco Harris. Swann was 40 yards downfield, and George Atkinson comes up behind him and gives him a karate chop to the back of the helmet and gives him in a concussion … if someone did something like that today, who knows how long he would be suspended? The game was much more violent in those days—probably too much so. We just had no idea. It was a tough game for tough men at that time.
Every time they bring that board out, and strap somebody on, I think, Some mother is thinking, do I want my son playing this game? The number of kids going to soccer, lacrosse, other sports, will that ever be a problem? I don’t know. That’s another concern. The 49ers guy quit after one year. Granted, there are 1,000 guys ready to replace him. But it shows you how times change.
VRENTAS: Is health and safety awareness the biggest change you’ve seen in the game since you started covering the league?
STELLINO: Back in those days, it wasn’t even on anybody’s radar screen. Overall, concussions were just, Well, he got dinged, and he’s going back in the game. We should have been more aware. But the biggest difference today is the money. Winning isn’t as big as getting the second contract That’s the goal for the payers. And I don’t begrudge them that. The risk they are putting up, they deserve the money. Although I wish the NFLPA would negotiate contracts where they take more money out of the salary cap and put it into money they get when they are 55, bigger pensions, that type of thing. When guys blow money when they’re young, that’s a tragedy. One owner once said, way back in the in ’60s or ’70s, We were all better off when the players were all making $50,000, and we were making $500,000. No matter how much money they make now, it’s not enough. Does that extra money make anything better for the league? Most guys owning these teams now are billionaires anyway, because you can’t get into the business if you’re not.
VRENTAS: You covered the Baltimore Colts when Robert Irsay moved them to Indianapolis. That move has still left wounds in Baltimore. Seeing it firsthand, why did it hit the city so hard?
STELLINO: You’ve got to realize what the Colts meant to Baltimore. They were kind of the whistle stop between Philadelphia and Washington. They had lost the Orioles in 1903, the old Orioles who became the Yankees, before the new Orioles moved back in ’54. People forget this, too, pro football failed in Dallas in 1952. It failed. They finished the year in Hershey, Pennsylvania, because they went bankrupt in Dallas.
In ’53, they were looking for a place to put the team and some Baltimore businessmen got together, sold 15,000 tickets, and they got the team. A few years later, they got Unitas, won back-to-back championships and came close to winning four times in a row. It was such an identity in Baltimore. In those days, the players were living in the community; they had jobs in the offseason. It was the fabric of Baltimore, and then Irsay took it over and ran it into the ground. At that point, moving a team was a big deal. The Raiders had done it, but the Raiders were the Raiders. It was a shattering thing to lose the team.
And then they should have gotten an expansion team. That fall, the Eagles tried to move to Phoenix and the league tried to block that. I remember at a press conference saying, “Wait a second, six months ago, you said couldn’t stop a move, and now you are stopping the Eagles from moving?” A week or two after that, I get a phone call at home. It is Pete Rozelle, unsolicited. And he says, “I understand, and I just want you to know when Baltimore gets new stadium, they are going to get an expansion team.” But of course by time they expanded, Rozelle had retired. Tagliabue wanted to make his mark on things, so they got left out. They had such an unbelievable deal on the table, downtown stadium, next to Camden yards, fully paid for. In the end, they finally got a new governor in 1995, and he said, Hey, we are pulling funding at end of year if someone doesn’t take it now. Tagliabue didn’t get it. He said, on camera, they can use the stadium money to open another museum. They still haven’t forgotten that quote in Baltimore. By ’95, they had four teams ready to move, but there was some ambivalence at the time in Baltimore that we are doing to Cleveland what they did to us. But it was the only way they were going to get a team. Meanwhile, Baltimore has not had a game blacked out since they moved there and now it’s a great football town again. Had Rozelle been commissioner, they would have gotten a team sooner. That showed you the feel that Rozelle had for traditions in the league. You just don’t throw away all that tradition.
VRENTAS: Speaking of relocation, do you think the Jaguars will stay in Jacksonville for the foreseeable future?
STELLINO: They really lucked out with Shad Khan as the owner. It’s very interesting, if Khan had gone to St. Louis, I think he would have made it work there. The stadium in Jacksonville is the same as the stadium in St. Louis. They were built at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with the stadium in St. Louis, it just doesn’t have the bells and whistles of a new stadium. But Shad Khan created all the bells and whistles in the Jacksonville stadium. They have taken a 20-year-old stadium, which by today’s standards, they’d be tearing it down. They have refurbished it, with the world’s largest scoreboard, two pools, and cabanas on one end. Now they are going to build this futuristic indoor facility outside the facility with an amphitheater, and they are going to redo the club seats. It’s going to be a $90M project, and he’s putting $45M of his own money into it. That’s not the kind of thing a guy does if he’s thinking I’m going to move in a couple of years. And they are selling about 60,000 tickets in Florida, which is always a difficult sell anyway, because you have too much else going on, with the weather and boating and fishing. Selling 60,000, for a team that’s won one playoff game since 1999, that’s pretty good. I think they’re here for the long haul. And they are kind of a model, actually, of how to revitalize what, by today’s standards, is an old stadium. They’re not even in the conversation about Los Angeles like they used to be. And London, I don’t think anybody is going to move to London anytime soon. The logistics are just unbelievable. It would be very, very difficult. I think Shad likes this, he’s got an American team, but also a presence in Europe. He probably spends more time in London than he does in Jacksonville. He’s a worldwide businessman. I think this works for him and I don’t think they will be moving any time soon. Now, 25 years from now, who knows? But I would be surprised if they are not here 15, 20 years from now. And I think there’s probably a sense of satisfaction that he’s turned this franchise around. He said it himself when he got here, the business model wasn’t sustainable. They had some of the cheapest ticket prices in the league, because they hadn’t been winning, and then you don’t get as many sponsorships. The London thing, playing there every year, helps it be more viable because that’s like 15 percent of their revenue. I’m not wild about it, because if they ever start winning, you give up a home game every year, and that’s a minus if you are in the hunt for a Super Bowl every year. But it is very good for the bottom line. There’s no talk at all in Jacksonville about, are they going to move? He’s kind of put that to rest. If they can sell that much for a team that doesn’t win, if they ever start to win, I don’t think it would be a problem.
VRENTAS: How far away are the Jaguars from winning?
STELLINO: It’s kind of all about Blake Bortles. How good is he going to become? Right now, he’s a typical young QB, a little bit of a gunslinger, throws too many interceptions. It’s hard to say. We’ll see what happens in the second half of season. The first two years [under coach Gus Bradley], they got blown out; this year, they are playing a lot of close games but still losing them. When are they going to make that jump? They kind of think by next year, they’ll get Dante Fowler back, they’ll have another draft class, more free agents, they’ll be ready to make a move. Right now, they’d like to at least go 4-4 in these last 8 games. Whether they can do it or not, we’ll find out. They need Bortles to cut down on the mistakes and be a little bit less of a gunslinger. But he is a leader, and players follow him. They think he is going to be the guy. He’s thrown seven pick-sixes, three this year, and two in back-to-back games. One of them he came back to win, in London, against the Bills. So he’s got that typical young quarterback thing. He has got a lot of potential, and we’ll just have to wait and see. People forget Chuck Noll won 12 games his first three years. He won 6 games in 1971 with four future Hall of Famers on the team. Of course, they were young, and Terry Bradshaw hadn’t developed yet. Jack Ham was a rookie; Mel Blount and Joe Greene were in their second and third years. And then four of them were Hall of Famers in ’74. The Jaguars are not going to do that, but it tends to take time, especially when you are committed to building through the draft and trying to build a foundation.
VRENTAS: Best Super Bowl you have covered?
STELLINO: Super Bowl XIII was the best Super Bowl, because the Cowboys and the Steelers were in effect playing for Team of the Decade on the field. They had both won Super Bowls; they had met in Super Bowl X. Each team had a Hall of Fame coach, a Hall of Fame quarterback, just star-studded on both sides. The Steelers won, and they became the Team of the Decade. The Cowboys figured more of their guys would have gotten in the Hall of Fame if they had won that game. There may have been as much talent on that field as any Super Bowl ever played. People will argue that point because there have been great games lately, but for the stakes, the people playing in that game, the talent in the game, both Super Bowl winners, even the owners. That’s when they coined Dallas America’s Team, and the irony is, that helped the Steelers fan base become widespread, and then they kept winning. Any stadium in the country they play in, there are Terrible Towels all over the place. Now you have people who live in North Carolina, and one time in their life, they have to go to a game in Heinz Field. It’s like going to Mecca.
That was the best game, but the best play was the next year. The best single play in Super Bowl history, and everyone has forgotten about it. It’s third-and-8 and they are on the 27-yard-line, with about 12 minutes to go, down 19-17. So you are thinking, they need a 10-yard pass, have to get a drive going. But instead, they send in “70 slot hook and go.” Bradshaw called his own plays, but they sent this in from the sideline, a play they hadn’t worked on all week. It was a deep pass to Stallworth, they’re double covering him, and Bradshaw makes a perfect throw. The defensive back made a swipe of the ball and missed it. He hauled it in at about the 50-yard-line, and he’s the only guy on that side of the field. It was in the Rose Bowl, and there are mountains in the background, Terrible Towels waving—the panoramic scene was unbelievable. And he is running the last 50 yards all by himself. You know now, they are going to win four Super Bowls. This is the greatest feat of all time. For some reason, that play has kind of been forgotten. Also, Bradshaw tends to be underrated to this day for reasons I don’t really understand. There have been great drives, but the one play to win the Super Bowl on, a 73-yard pass in the fourth quarter, from one Hall of Famer to another, doesn’t get any better than that.
VRENTAS: You’ve covered the league for 51 years. Where will the NFL be in another 51 years?
STELLINO: I have no idea. I used to say, 15 years ago, when this whole thing was first starting to go off track, it doesn’t always have to be this way. People forget the highest-rated TV Super Bowl was Super Bowl XVI. The audience is bigger now, of course, because there are more people in the country. Things can change, and you have to nurture this. I don’t know if they have the right leadership in place. They’ve got some problems. When people would rather stay home and watch on TV than go to the stadium, that’s a problem. Making mountains out of molehills like Deflategate and Bountygate. Taking home games away from teams to play these games in London. And the way they’re handling this L.A. thing, now they’re talking about deciding next March, just keeping everything in limbo, then talking about two teams. That would be the worst idea, to have two teams out there. Fifty years later, the Jets still aren’t as big as the Giants in New York. You are going to dilute the fan base. Why don’t they just make the thing work in St. Louis? Concussions are a problem. Are kids going to continue to play? Is that ever going to be a problem? Maybe it won’t be, I don’t know. And maybe in 50 years, it will be the way it is right now. But what I am saying is, they are facing more challenges than I think they think they are. Because they are almost kind of oblivious; they think it is just going to be this way forever.
No sport ever was as big as baseball was. Baseball was the fabric of America, and it’s still very big, but it’s not what it once was. Times can change; interests can change. Horse racing was once huge. Boxing. You just can’t take it for granted. Maybe people say I am being too much of a pessimist, but there are a lot of things that have to be looked at. A lot of troubling things. Back in the day, they had people like Rozelle, and Jim Kensil, and Don Weiss, who are unfortunately all gone from the scene now. They were visionaries, and they didn’t forget: You kick off at 1 p.m. on Sundays