There was a great echoing whack when the two lines came together, and the quarterback began to go back very quickly, as though his blockers were losing their individual fights and his only thought was to throw the ball as far and fast as possible. Fifteen yards away, across the blur of red and white, the middle linebacker also was going back very quickly, reading pass, watching for an end or halfback to slip into his zone. He could hear the grunts and the cries and the feet stomping the ground around him as he searched the field for the key that would tell him what to do. Then the middle linebacker saw that the blockers were giving up too easily. Yelling "Screen!" the middle linebacker left his zone and ran toward the place where the blockers were converging.
The play was a screen pass to Houston Fullback Charley Tolar, a tough little man whose running style has been described as looking like a bowling ball bouncing over rocks. Tolar had caught the pass and was starting downfield behind the blockers when the middle linebacker came in from the side, pushed off one block and reached out with one arm to drag Tolar down after a short gain.
There was nothing exceptional about that for the middle linebacker, Sherrill Headrick of the Kansas City Chiefs. He is a good middle linebacker, and he makes those plays as a matter of course. Headrick rolled over, spoke to Tolar, got up, looked at the markers to be sure Houston had not made a first down and trotted to the bench as the special teams went out for the punt.
Breathing hard and sweating in the August night, Headrick walked over to the Kansas City trainer and said, "Hey Wayne, fix this thing up for me, will you?" Headrick held out his left hand. Wayne Rudy stared at it. The thumb hung down at a sickening angle, dangling like a sausage from a hook. Broken bones had burst through the skin. Blood poured down Headrick's wrist. Rudy had been examining the bruised ribs of Mike Garrett, the Kansas City rookie halfback who had won the Heisman Trophy for 1965 at USC, but he turned to Headrick and said, "Come on, Sherrill, we're going to the hospital."
November 7, 1966
"I didn't come here to go to any hospital," said Headrick. "I came here to get you to fix up my thumb. Yank on the thing and it'll go back into place."
He lifted his bleeding hand into Rudy's face. Garrett wanted to look away but couldn't. Headrick glanced at the scoreboard. "Yank on it, Rudy," he said.
"I'm not going to yank on your thumb," said Rudy.
"All right, then," Headrick said impatiently. "You just grab hold the end of it. Grab it and don't let go."
Rudy took Headrick's thumb at the joint. "You got it?" Headrick said. Rudy nodded, not knowing what Headrick had in mind. Garrett moved in closer to watch. Suddenly Headrick flopped onto his back, pulling down with all his weight while Rudy grasped the thumb. In the lights, sweat shone behind Headrick's helmet mask. Rudy looked down and the bones had gone back into the skin.
"Now put one of those popsicle sticks on it and tape it up," said Headrick. "Hurry."
Rudy found one of those little sticks that doctors use to mash down a tongue. He used it to splint Headrick's thumb. He wrapped a bandage around Headrick's hand. As Rudy was finishing the bandage, Headrick tore away and ran back onto the field. Kansas City had punted, it was Houston's ball again, and Headrick returned to the game without missing a play.
An hour later, when that preseason game was over and the Chiefs had won, as they have been doing regularly this year, Headrick consented to enter an ambulance. His companion on the ride to the hospital was Garrett, who was going in to have his ribs X-rayed. They rode along in silence for a few minutes, Garrett looking at Headrick's thumb, and finally Garrett said, "Sherrill, that was one of the wildest things I ever saw."
"What's that, rook?" said Headrick.
"The way you went back in there with that broken thumb," Garrett said.
"This is pro ball, rook," said Headrick. "You can't let a little thing like a broken thumb keep you out of a game."
"You can't?" Garrett said.
"Of course not," said Headrick. "Why, I played two games with a broken neck. One time Jerry Mays broke his leg, taped it up and kept playing. Chris Burford almost got his shoulder torn off, but he stuck a little old piece of plaster on it and kept playing. Johnny Robinson broke every one of his ribs and didn't even mention it to anybody."
"Why didn't he?" Garrett said.
"Broken ribs aren't worth any fuss. He took a couple of aspirins and forgot it. By the way, rook," Headrick said as the ambulance turned into the emergency-room drive, "what's the matter with you?"
"Me?" said Garrett, who was bent over in pain. "Nothing."
"Then what are you doing in this ambulance?" Headrick said.
"It was just a mistake," said Garrett.
On that ride to the hospital Headrick was, obviously, exaggerating the indestructibility of professional football players. He did it not only because one of his most pleasurable pastimes is kidding rookies, but because Garrett had acquired a reputation for durability in college. Garrett, sitting there on the stretcher, watching Headrick laugh and talk as if a compound fracture of the thumb were no worse than a hangnail, was impressed.
"The thing that has surprised me most about pro football is the general toughness," Garrett says. "It's amazing how hard the pros hit. I got hit hard in college, but the pros hit hard more often, with a high impact. You take a constant beating, and there's this stiff-upper-lip attitude you're supposed to maintain."
In Headrick's own case, the exaggeration was slight. He did, in fact, play an entire game with a cracked vertebra in his neck, an injury he received when a teammate hit him with an elbow during a warmup drill. Before one game in Denver, Headrick slammed a taxicab door on his hand, broke it, casually asked Wayne Rudy for a piece of tape and played the game.
The night before the Chiefs—then the Dallas Texans—played Houston for the American Football League championship in 1962, Headrick indulged himself in his customary feast. He does not eat at all on the day of the game, but on the previous night he sits down to a spread that would founder a troop of Cossacks. This game being in Houston, convenient to Gulf shellfish, he chose to begin his meal with several dozen oysters. Attacking them vigorously, he got a piece of oyster shell lodged in a socket where a tooth had been. He showed up the next morning looking as if he had the mumps. The socket was infected. With each impact, blood squirted from his gums. He couldn't close his mouth. So Headrick played the entire game on defense, and the game went into two overtime periods before the Texans won it on a field goal.
Characteristically, Headrick once had a hemorrhoid operation on a Monday and played against Oakland the following Saturday. "He got off the plane," recalls a teammate, "wearing his rubber doughnut like a hat." In one town Headrick won a panda doll in a twist contest. Tucking the panda under his arm, he wandered into a restaurant where he and another Chief amused themselves by staging a fake fight. The fight seemed so real that the management called the cops. Headrick ran out the door, jumped over a fence and fell down a 40-foot cliff, still clutching his panda. He did not miss a minute on defense in the next game.
One of the rare times Headrick ever incapacitated himself was in Denver a couple of years ago. He blew his nose so hard that he slipped a disk.
"Headrick is fantastic," says Rudy, who was the trainer at SMU before he joined the old Texans seven years ago, at the same time Headrick did. "I never see him during the week. He spends absolutely no time in the training room. But on game day it takes me 40 minutes to get him ready. He has to have his back stretched and his neck rubbed and a dozen other things done to him. Then he'll get his uniform on—he doesn't wear hip pads—and run onto the field, and just as the game is about to start he'll run over to me and say, 'Rudy, tape my ankles.' He'll forget to have it done earlier. Sometimes, he keeps forgetting and plays the whole game without having had his ankles taped. There's nobody like him."
Headrick has a pregame ritual of getting sick. At every game the Chiefs play, Headrick leaves the field early, during the warmups, and rushes for the locker room. A number of other professional football players—Alex Karras, for example—get sick before games, but with Headrick the act has become a ceremony. He doesn't feel right if he neglects it.
"He talks himself into it," Rudy says. "There's only one game in the last seven years that he didn't do it. He came over to me and said, 'Rudy, I don't know what's wrong with me today. I can't throw up. Do you think I'm sick or something?' "
"What Rudy doesn't know," says Headrick, "is that I came through fine that day. Got sick as a drunken sailor. I've gotten sick before every game I've played in since college. It's my nervous stomach. That's why I never eat on the day of the game. I guess I could eat, but it only makes me a lot sicker. I even get sick for intrasquad games. So on game day, all I do is sit around and drink a lot of coffee."
Headrick becomes so emotional about football that he cannot sleep the night after a game. The pros' customary day off is Monday, and the Chiefs understand nobody will see Headrick until Tuesday. "It takes him Sunday night, all day Monday and Monday night to unwind," one player says. "I don't think I'd want to see him on Monday."
There was a time, in 1960, when the Texans had decided not to see Headrick on Monday or any other day. He came to them as a red-haired, freckle-faced, 210-pound guard who had flunked out of Texas Christian University and had failed a tryout as a cornerback in Canada. Headrick grew up in Fort Worth, where he was an All-District fullback at North Side High School, an institution that produced Yale Lary, Jim Shofner and Tommy Runnels among its professional football alumni, Olympic shot-putter Darrow Hooper and the famous football coaches Matty Bell and Bo McMillin. Headrick was serious about, and very adept at, three things—football, bridge and dancing. He was not at all intrigued with literature or history, which made for his exit from TCU. When he reported for his trial with the Texans, there were more than 100 players and pseudo-players in camp. Headrick got lost in the mob, and Coach Hank Strain called him in to cut him from the club.
Headrick put on an oratorical display that day that persuaded Stram to keep him around for another look. Headrick moved in as the middle linebacker and has been a regular ever since. Now, at 220 pounds, he is one of the AFL's better middle linebackers and calls defensive signals for a unit that on occasion is the strongest in the league. The quality of the Chiefs' defensive performance rises and falls, but Headrick is a smart and steady leader—contrary to some opinions that, at least in his first few years in the league, he played purely on instinct.
"Anybody who had that impression was mistaken," Stram says. "It's true that Sherrill has great instinct for a middle linebacker. But he also reads his keys very well and is highly intelligent at picking up tendencies and tips expressed by offensive teams. He calls the right defenses at the right times.
"From a physical standpoint, he's about like Joe Schmidt. He's that kind of linebacker. What I really appreciate as a coach is that he gives himself fully during a game, and he plays when he's hurt. He has the highest pain threshold of any athlete I ever saw."
The Chiefs' front four—Jerry Mays, Ed Lothamer, Buck Buchanan and Chuck Hurston—come up with some outstanding plays. Buchanan, 6 feet 7 and 287 pounds, knocked down 10 passes in the first seven games. With Buchanan and Lothamer (6 feet 5 and 270 pounds) at the tackles, Headrick can get away with his comparatively light weight in an era when middle linebackers are becoming as big as tackles used to be. The outside linebackers—E.J. Holub and Bobby Bell—are big and fast and both have been All-AFL. That leaves Headrick to roam the middle with a certain amount of security.
"Different middle linebackers do things differently," Headrick says. "In Boston they blitz a lot, and Nick Buoniconti is one of the finest blitzers in the game. Our team plays a reading defense, so experience is the most important thing for me. A middle linebacker has to have the size to meet a guard head to head. But he also has to have the speed to cover a back, like I had to do a lot on Abner Haynes the last time we played Denver. I played at 230 pounds for half the season last year and didn't like it. You can't be too big and slow, but you can't be too little and speedy, either."
Despite Headrick's lack of size—when matched up to the generally larger linebackers of the NFL, for example, the Bears' 245-pound Dick Butkus—he prefers to play against a power team. "It's easier." he says. "If you play a team like Buffalo, they may knock you down and run over you, but you know where they're going. Buffalo and San Diego are easier to read than a team that uses a lot of deception. But you have a better chance of beating a team that uses deception, because they're doing it to cover up a weakness and all you have to do is find out what that weakness is. Like against Denver. They used the double wing, the triple wing, the triple over, the Houston and a bunch of stuff like that. But the reason was they were trying to get us into one-on-one coverage on Abner Haynes and Al Denson. We knew that was the idea, so we always had help deep on both."
As relaxation, Headrick and two other members of the defensive unit—Lothamer and Johnny Robinson—join Tight End Fred Arbanas as the instigators of most of the rookie hazing. That is mainly done in training camp and mostly consists of making the rookie stand on his chair in the dining hall and sing his school song, which was rather difficult for Halfback Bert Coan, who went to four different colleges. Sometimes the humor is cruder. "I blew up once or twice," says Garrett. "I don't like to be kidded. Some of the cracks they thought were hilarious didn't seem a bit funny to me, but I'm just that way."
To Headrick, though, nearly anything that does not involve football or bridge is funny—and of little importance. In a restaurant last year he spilled sauce all over his pants, phoned a cab and sent the driver to a men's store for a new pair. Headrick changed in the men's room, left his old pants crumpled on the floor, and went on with dinner.
It is when he can combine his fun with his football that Headrick is happiest. Three years ago he arrived at training camp early, when the rookies came in. Headrick weighed 248 and was wearing a green Beatle wig, a big hat and a bathing suit, over which his stomach protruded. He ran onto the field where the rookies were waiting and went up to Bobby Bell, the best of that season's crop.
"Come on, rook, let's get in shape right now," said Headrick.
"How can we do that?" Bell said.
"Easy," said Headrick. "We run until we throw up and then we know we're ready."