I was given a mini-vacation in honor of Thanksgiving, thus I did not have a chance to weigh in on a topic near and dear to me. Fights. Fights with fans, with other players, with writers. Unruly behavior, in other words.
Thus you were spared one more hand-wringing editorial on the horrors of modern warfare. But I wasn't going to write much about that, anyway. I just wanted to share a few personal experiences -- as usual.
Anyone who has ever played in the semi-pro football circuit knows all about fan behavior. And riots. And all sorts of juicy stuff like that. I hate to say this, but it was part of a dying tradition, and it provided me with many stories to tell. An example:
We're playing the Boonton (N.J.) Bears in Boonton. It's been a nasty game, a nasty crowd. After the game, after we've beaten the hell out of them, what do I see but the worried little face of Frankie Ferro, our road secretary, which means he's the guy who arranges to pay the bus company
"Get your stuff out of the locker and get on the bus in your uniforms," he's telling us. "We'll dress when we get home. We're getting out of here. I don't like this crowd."
They've started rocking the bus, when we jump on it. A couple of rocks are thrown. Mean, ugly faces, I see through the window, as we begin to move through this surge of humanity. I pick out one big fat guy, lean out the window, and yell, "Hey fatty! Go tell your wife to _______ ______ ____ ____."
He's screaming now, 400 pounds of fury. "Oooh, did you hear dat!" The bus is pulling away, he's running after us on his fat little legs. I lean out and give him the Italian salute, the high-yup-and-over. Guys on the bus are slapping fives and laughing like madmen. Those were our road trips. Wonderful, wonderful memories.
There have been writer-player confrontations of a physical nature. I was never roughed up, but other guys were. The worst thing that ever happened to me was having a bucket of ice water dumped on me in a Jets' locker room. Hot day. It felt good, actually.
I was the beat man for nine years, covering the Jets for the NY Post. I had my ups and downs. One year the Jets drafted a 6-6, 280-pound defensive tackle named Carl Barzilauskas in the first round. He had a terrific rookie season. Next year his play fell off.
I was in the visitors' locker after one game and Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Langer, left guard and center for the Dolphins, respectively, said that they thought big Barzo had been reading his press clippings, that he wasn't doing the things he did as a rookie. I wrote it as a sidebar.
When I showed up at practice the following week, Barzo went wild. "You rotten son of a _____! Trashing me out like that!"
Eventually it blew over, in fact I even got another story out of it, telling his side, but for a while things were pretty hairy. The night that Barzo yelled at me, I had to call the coach, Charley Winner, for some reason. Charley was a terrific guy, a wonderful character, but unfortunately the season was coming apart on him.
I asked him what I had to, and then he said, "What was all that with you and Barzo this afternoon?" I told him I'd written something he didn't like.
"I hope nothing came of it," he said, and I just couldn't resist. The devil took my tongue, and I said, "Well, Charley, I'm afraid I'm calling you from Roosevelt Hospital."
"Oh my God, oh my God," he said. "What happened?"
"Well, I'm afraid I have a broken clavicle. I'd let it go, but the lawyers at the Post want to ...."
"Oh no, oh my God no," said poor Charley. I mean this was all he needed, on top of everything else.
"Say you're kidding, please say you're kidding."
"I'm kidding," I said, and he was so relieved he didn't even get mad at me. "Thank God," he said.
The guy who followed me as beat man on the Post, Steve Serby, was very critical of the quarterback, Richard Todd. The situation grew and grew, getting uglier every day, and finally the normally mild mannered Todd exploded, and heaved Steve into an open locker. I mean he actually flew through the air. There was no aftermath. Things were patched up, but the next day the players had drawn a chalk figure on the floor, with a sign, "Where the body lay."
The late Willie McDonough of the Boston Globe actually had a punch-up with a Patriot player, Raymond Clayborn, a cornerback. I wasn't there to witness it, dammit, but the best information I could piece together (no one actually gets it completely right when recalling a fight) was that Clayborn landed the first punch. McDonough, of the fighting McDonoughs of Boston and a former player at Northeastern, retaliated with either a punch or a push or both, knocking Clayborn into an equipment cart. And there it ended.
If that happened nowadays, the lawyers would be thick as locusts, and you can bet there would be money exchanging hands.
At the Cowboys training camp there are little golf carts the players drive around. I was down there one year when Deion Sanders' wife, or maybe it was his girlfriend, drove her cart, at about two miles per hour, into an off-duty bus driver, who was on foot.
There was no news forthcoming from the Cowboys. It was all very hush hush. But in the locker room, the players were doing imitations of the incident. Nate Newton, the guard, pretended he was the driver, getting struck, falling on his back, looking up at the heavens and murmuring, "Lottery."
Do you really want my take on the NBA melee and Clemson-South Carolina, at this late date and after all the opinion pieces you've read? Well, I'm pretty foggy on the football riot, except that from what I saw of it, it was like the old John Wayne movie, Seven Sinners. In the big fight scene, identifications were made easier because the two sides wore different colored shirts. It was the same in the football thing, and you could, say, track one character and see if he were a puncher or a punchee. The NBA thing was different because fans were involved.
When my two kids -- older girl, younger boy -- were little, my method of dealing with their fights was to bore them silly by holding a lengthy investigation. They'd roll their eyes. OK, punish us already, but just end this thing. Wait a minute, not so fast, I've got to get to the bottom of it.
One day we were all in the living room and Michael, aged around eight, was trying to read and Sarah, a year and a half older, was at the piano. Not really playing, but just going plink, plunk, plink, plunk, in a very annoying manner.
"Will you stop it? I'm trying to read," Mike kept telling her. "Will you stop it?"
Plink, plunk, plink, plunk, without comment. I was getting pretty annoyed myself, and finally Michael screamed at her, "Just stop it!" And she said, "Oh, all right," quit for about 10 seconds and then gave one more plink. That set him off and he jumped her and the fists flew.
Enter Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The verdict that came down was equal punishment for both.
"That's not fair!" my daughter howled. "He threw the first punch."
Ah, but who made him do it? Who started the confrontation? I'm not an NFL official who takes the easy way out by merely acting on the final view. We must examine motive and instigation.
The question I never heard answered was why Ron Artest decided to lay down on his back on the scorer's table in the first place. Why, deliberately, make yourself a target? Fans, players, equal punishment, I say, and I just hope they can identify the fans who did the most damage.
They managed to get IDs in Giants Stadium a few years ago when they threw snowballs and iceballs out of the stands, and clocked poor Sid Brooks, the Chargers' equipment man. But again, I don't think they really addressed the root of the problem. The fans were wild and nasty because the Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority had done such a lousy job clearing out the snow and ice before the game. In fact they didn't bother to do it at all.
How would you like to show up at your seat and find piles of snow and ice there because no one cleared it away? Yeah, I know, it's no excuse to act dangerous, but still, why should the stadium people assume none of the blame?
OK, I've bored you enough with this moralizing. The old stories are more fun.