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The Mystery Man Who Helped Modernize the NFL

Behind the scenes but in the middle of everything, Joel Bussert has counseled three commissioners over the course of four decades and always championed the quality of the game. Get to know him before he says goodbye
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NEW YORK — We all know someone like Joel Bussert. Think of a cross between the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, and the no-nonsense English teacher who marked you down a full grade for one grammatical error in a five-page paper. The Joel Busserts of the world live in the shadows. They like it there. They are comfortable with their books and their work projects and going home to their very private lives.

After four decades with the league, Bussert, 69, is retiring this year as the NFL’s senior vice president of player personnel and football operations. (He was hired 40 years ago next Tuesday.) He lords over the NFL rulebook, is the man most responsible for the spate of rules to protect defenseless receivers and banning helmet-to-helmet hits, and he’s also the schoolmaster who runs Competition Committee meetings every year in Indianapolis and Florida.

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“One day a couple years ago down in Florida,” says Giants owner and Competition Committee member John Mara, “we’re about to break for lunch. It’s a gorgeous day outside. Joel says, ‘Be back at 1:30.’ I say, ‘Joel, how about giving us till 2? It’s beautiful outside. Let’s go outside for a while.’ He says, ‘Be back at 1:30. Don’t be late.’ ”

Yet 98 percent of fans in America—maybe even 98 percent of people who work for NFL teams—have never heard of Joel Bussert.

“Ninety-eight percent?” says former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Bussert’s boss for 17 years. “You’re way too generous. It’s got to be 99.99 percent.”

Bussert is the man who brainstorms rules with coaches, GMs, owners, commissioners and the John Maddens of the football world. “Isn’t it the damndest thing?” Madden says. “So many times you got the smartest guy in the room, and hardly anyone knows him.” Bussert writes and rewrites the rulebook, runs the clock on draft day and has final say on trades and waiver claims. This is the man who, Mara says, “has had as much influence over the modern game of football as anyone.”

You want to research the life of Joel Bussert, but a web search yields only one feature story. It’s from The Torch, the Valparaiso student newspaper, from May 2013.

The profile appeared on page 11. Bussert couldn’t even make the front page at his alma mater.

“Hey!” Bussert says. “Don’t belittle The Torch. I was sports editor there in 1967.”

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“You know what’s amazing about Joel?” Madden says.

Well, a lot, as it turns out. But who interrupts John Madden when he’s on a good riff?

“I grew up in California at a time when minor league baseball was a really big thing. I loved the Pacific Coast League. I followed it every day. Roy Nicely, Steve Bilko. Those were guys I followed every day. So I tried playing Pacific Coast League trivia with Joel, and he knows more about it than I do! He knows Bilko!”

“Aw,” says Bussert, who grew up in rural Illinois devouring The Sporting News. “Who doesn’t love Steve Bilko? Come on. He hit 55 and 56 homers in consecutive years in the PCL.”

(A quick check of confirms that Steve Bilko hit 55 homers in 1956 with the Los Angeles Angels—a minor league team till ’61—and 56 the following season.)

“Then,” Madden continues, “he’ll give you the answer to five more Pacific Coast League things before you know it. Then you get into football, and he’s telling me more stuff I don’t know. Over the years, I can tell you that so many of us have used Joel as the Encyclopedia of Football.”

In March, Roger Goodell spoke about Bussert during his news conference to close out the league meetings. “He has been wise counsel for three commissioners and I can speak for myself, a very important counsel,” said Goodell, who stepped back from the podium after his remarks to clap for Bussert. The media looked back to where all eyes were focused, but many reporters and camera operators had looks that screamed, Who is everyone clapping for?

Who is Joel Bussert? He was that rail-thin man with thick glasses and his arms crossed, leaning against a high wall, looking uncomfortable in the momentary spotlight.

“Unique guy,” says longtime NFL PR man Joe Browne. “Not always the easiest person to communicate with. There were times it was even tough to get a ‘good morning’ from him in the hallway, depending how he was feeling that year.

“That being said, I recall in 1989 after Pete Rozelle resigned, the owners hired Booz Allen Hamilton, the management consulting company. The owners wanted to see how our league office could be improved under whoever Pete’s successor would be. The company spoke to many of the club execs and personnel staffers. One of the findings was that Joel was rated by the club execs as the number one most helpful person in our office. I remember the Booz Allen results were divulged to a small number of us at the time. A couple of the non-football business types we had on the league office payroll in ‘89 didn’t even know who Joel was or what he did. My colleagues may not have known, but obviously the club staffs did. Joel to this day is not going to allow any of those club people to make mistakes on procedures regarding player waivers or trades that would embarrass the club or the personnel guy. They appreciate that.”

“NFL people like him because he has no agenda,” Mara says. “His only agenda is the game.”

There are two things about Bussert that will be nearly impossible to replace. First, the historian. Football fans of a certain age will remember how the Football Register was the Bible for sportswriters in the late 1960s—the only place you could get all NFL players’ career stats in one softcover place. As a college summer job in 1966 and ’67, Bussert and two longtime statisticians put the Register together for The Sporting News. He was more than a stat nerd. Bussert loved reading accounts of football games in thick, bound volumes found in libraries. Later on, lessons learned from countless hours of reading old Chicago Tribunes and Green Bay Press-Gazettes helped Bussert advance the causes of several old-time players for the Hall of Fame. (As a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, I can tell you the case of early-years quarterback Benny Friedman was made to me several times, by Bussert, in impassioned and long phone calls starting in the late ’90s. Friedman got in, finally, in 2005.)

Second, and most importantly: the institutional knowledge of the rules, and how to balance offense and defense, and how to strive (at least) to make the game as safe as possible. Bussert began going to Competition Committee meetings in 1987, when some of the legendary figures in football history ran the rules committee: Tex Schramm, Don Shula, Paul Brown, Jim Finks. He saw how they tried to balance offense and defense. One huge event, at least in Bussert’s memory, that finally swayed moment toward Brown (the leader of the offense-needs-help movement) was the opening weekend of the 1977 season.

“The scores were ridiculously low,” Bussert says, and they were: 17-6, 13-0, 13-3, 21-17, 20-17, 13-3, 30-20, 24-20, 7-0, 20-0, 16-10, 24-0, 29-14, 27-0. Not surprising, then, that baseball and pro football were in nearly a flat-footed tie in popularity in America that year.

At the time, wide receivers could be contacted by a single defender inside a three-yard bump zone beyond the line of scrimmage—and, incredibly, by multiple defenders past that three-yard zone. The next offseason, the current rule was instituted. Contact was allowed within five yards of the line of scrimmage, but beyond that, any contact other than incidental would be flagged. The game loosened up. Passing games flourished. So did the game’s popularity across America.

“I’ve never let the Competition Committee forget where we were in the ’70s,” Bussert says.

Bussert wasn’t the leader of the pro-offense movement; he wasn’t yet the keeper of the Competition Committee agenda. But I was surprised by something Tagliabue said about Bussert working behind the scenes on this rule, and others benefiting offense when the game needed to be changed. “In my mind,” says Tagliabue, “Joel was in the forefront of the switch from football being three yards and a cloud of dust to the Bill Walsh, open-up-the-offense era of football.”

‘Everything flows from the game,’ Bussert told the owners in March. ‘I would just advise you: Never take the game for granted.’

When Bussert began running Competition Committee meetings in 1997, he had his eye on something else: player safety.

“I just always felt like, especially with what we were learning in those days, that the head shouldn’t be taking blows, and [the helmet] shouldn’t be the vehicle to deliver blows,” he says. “Originally, only helmet-to-helmet contact was illegal on a receiver. But a defensive player could fly in and deliver a blood-curdling hit to the head with his shoulders. As a layman, my theory was: No good can come from a blow to the head. We’ve got to protect the head.”

Historically, the man in Bussert’s position gathers input from teams throughout the season on rules they’d like to see changed or amended. Bussert has set the agenda every year since 1997. If you ask anyone on the Competition Committee, there’s no question his biggest contributions have been in the area of player safety. A few years ago, Bussert and former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi gathered in the league office to watch NFL Films game film from the ’50s and ’60s. They both loved history, and they both thought they could learn from it. They noticed the best defensive players from those decades—Gino Marchetti, Sam Huff, Dick Butkus—weren’t using their heads when they tackled.

“Around 1995,” says Competition Committee co-chair Rich McKay, “our medical people began to voice concern about helmet-to-helmet hits. After that, it seemed every year Joel was on the committee to expand that rule, to work to take more and more of those dangerous [hits to the head] away. He has been very influential in heath and safety. Very influential. A lot of people in our league, when you start talking about taking away some of those big hits by the defensive players, will say, ‘No. What we’re doing is working. The rules are fine.’ Not so with Joel.”

In 2002, it became illegal to hit a quarterback helmet-to-helmet after a change of possession. In 2005, the horse-collar tackle was prohibited. In 2006, hits below the knee on a quarterback were banned (when the defender could reasonably avoid the hit). In 2009, defenders could no longer hit defenseless receivers in the head or neck area with a forearm, shoulder or the helmet. In 2010, defenders were prohibited from launching themselves at defenseless receivers. In 2011, defenseless-player protection was expanded to include kickers and punters during returns, and to quarterbacks after a change of possession, meaning forearms, shoulders and helmets to the neck or head area were outlawed. Also in 2011, receivers were considered defenseless until they had clearly established themselves in the field as runners. In 2013, a runner or tackler outside the tackle box was prohibited from delivering a blow with the top (or crown) of his helmet.

“He’s been a driving force in getting the helmet hits out of the game,” Madden says. “I know he watched all that old film and he came back and said, ‘Hey, Butkus, Nitschke, Huff—they didn’t use the helmet to hit people. Why should we allow it?’ ”

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ GM and a member of the Competition Committee, says those were important words to hear. He and Bussert often share book suggestions and have become close. More than football lessons, Newsome says, “I’ll miss the wisdom.”

* * *

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At the league meetings, the NFL played a video tribute to Bussert, who received a standing ovation from the owners, coaches and club employees in the room. He was then asked to say something. That’s not typically Bussert, wanting to speak to the owners, but he had something to say.

“In one of the first Competition Committee meetings I attended, back in the ’80s,” Bussert said, “I remember looking around the room and seeing Tex Schramm, Paul Brown, Don Shula, Jim Finks—the giants of the game. Bill Polian called that group the NFL’s Greatest Generation. And I remember Finks saying, ‘We’ve got the best game.’

“And we do have the best game. Everything flows from the game. I would just advise you: Never take the game for granted.”

Code words for: Don’t be so greedy that you kill the golden goose. Words that so many in the league office and so many with teams and so many fans of the NFL are praying the 32 owners heard in Phoenix that day in March.

Bussert will continue on as a part-time consultant to the league. He says he’ll do some more work with his church, and he’ll root hard for his St. Louis Cardinals, and he’ll continue to live on the West Side of New York City. I asked him what it was about football that grabbed hold of him so long ago and made him want to influence its future.

“There is a visual beauty to the game,” he says, “and of all the team sports, I consider it the ultimate team game. In football, no one succeeds without the help of his teammates. There’s something about moving the ball downfield, beating the clock, that is appealing. In the Ice Bowl, it was Vince Lombardi and his tired old men on their last march, succeeding in the end through hard work and determination. There’s something important about that. The lessons of football are not bad lessons to learn.”

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