With his shaved head, black beard and mustache, Dave Costa, the Denver Broncos' defensive tackle, looks like an Eastern heavy. Actually, he is a Western heavy, at least to the opponents of his off-season basketball team, which is composed of fellow Broncos. Last winter Dave Costa's All Stars, a stellar attraction, drew more fans than the Denver Rockets of the ABA for a single game, and next week another sellout crowd of 6,000 is expected in the Denver Coliseum when the All Stars play Roman Gabriel and his high-flying Los Angeles Rams.
Bronco fans turn out not just to see their heroes in the flesh (of which there is considerable) but also to watch the kind of basketball that only pro football players could play. It is sometimes wildly brilliant, often wildly bruising and almost always wildly confusing, featuring action that would amaze the Globetrotters. Not that the players are clowning. They are in dead earnest, but their collective mélange of skills and ineptitude makes for a performance reminiscent of Chaplin traversing a glacier. When Bobby Howfield, the English kicker now with the Jets, was on Costa's All Stars, he would, in the heat of play, rebound with his head.
After a game ends, the All Stars do not run for the locker room. Instead, they gather at the bench to sign autographs. Eagerly. The bright lights shine all too rarely on the Broncos. "We're grateful for our fans, and we're very close-knit with them," says Costa. "I'll worry when they don't ask me to sign programs."
This February the All Stars made a 340-mile trip to play in Gordon, Neb. (pop. 2,106). "We stayed overnight," Costa says. "Just to meet these people in small communities is a ball. I enjoy people. It's a different world in Gordon."
Playing basketball in the off season is nothing new for pro football players—the 49ers are supposed to have had the first team back in 1953—but in the last couple of years the sport, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, has boomed. The Vikings, who have a professional booking agent, will play a 65-game schedule this year, up 23 from 1971, and the Redskins, who are managed by a high school coach, are in such demand that they field two teams. By contrast, Costa's All Stars are strictly a mom-and-pop operation, with Dave as the coach and his wife Lori, vice-president of Denver's Hel-Lo Goddess dress shops—her partner's name is Helen, dig?—the general manager and booking agent.
Perhaps because of their amateur front office, the All Stars have come up with the roughest schedule in NFL (basketball division) history. Just getting to the site of a game, be it a mining settlement miles up in the Rockies or a blizzard-bound Wyoming cow town, is somewhat akin to assaulting Everest. One day last winter, on the long drive from Denver to Glenwood Springs, Colo., which necessitates crossing two high mountain passes, Costa and three teammates ran into a snowstorm at 11,000 feet. The road had no guardrail, and their car went into a wicked skid. It finally came to rest in a snowbank on the edge of an abyss. "Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" Costa yelled. Each time he tried to get up and out, the car rocked back and forth. He had forgotten to unbuckle his seat belt.
Costa finally got unhooked, opened the door and found himself staring down thousands of feet to the nearest level ground. But the players were in luck. An enterprising tow-truck driver, scouting for business, turned up and offered to pull the car out for $10 or drive it out for $5. The All Stars went for the $5 offer. However, as Costa says, "Before the guy got into the car, we took our uniforms out of the trunk. If he went over we still would be able to play the game."
Costa, the Denver player representative, started the basketball team three years ago "to build up unity for the Broncos." The team is called Dave Costa's Ail Stars not because Costa wanted to be a big cheese but because the then Bronco general manager and coach, Lou Saban, preferred that the name Denver Broncos not be used—perhaps for esthetic reasons. Any member of the Broncos can be on the squad—the last thing Costa wants is the football team divided into basketball and nonbasketball cliques—and at present 17 of the players take turns. Going to and from a game, Costa insists that they change cars to get to know one another better. "During the football season it's as though the offense and defense were separate teams," he says. "I get a real kick out of talking to an offensive lineman."
The bulk of the receipts goes to charity—next week's game against the Rams is for the American Cancer Society, and other recipients have included Little Leagues, high school gyms and local fire departments—with the players getting $50 a game apiece. There are no practice sessions, but players may be fined if they miss a game or fail to bring a complete uniform. The fines go into a party fund, and at the end-of-the-season festivities the All Stars present their MVP award, a battered eagle perched on a dented basketball. Last year, when Costa gave the trophy to Walter Barnes, a defensive end whose name had been scratched on the base with a beer opener, the ball fell off.
Costa is just the man to keep the ball rolling. Now 30, he was born in Yonkers, N.Y. where he left an academic high school in his freshman year and enrolled at Saunders Trades and Technical to major in carpentry. The other pupils could hardly wait to get out or be kicked out—"A real garbage-can collection," says Costa—but he hung on, sawing wood and playing quarterback. He made All-Westchester County and got one scholarship offer—from a brand-new school, Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo. Costa accepted. The Northeastern uniforms were green and white because, Costa explains, "All the stuff was Army surplus. We even went to the games in an Army truck. I remember my first game. It was at night. We put on our uniforms and got into the back of our canvas-covered truck. When we reached the fairgrounds, a voice on a microphone shouted, 'The Northeastern Junior College Plainsmen!' The truck backed up, and we piled out into the night. The day before there had been a rodeo, and we had to dodge land mines to get across the field."
After playing fullback and defensive tackle at Northeastern for two years, Costa moved on to the University of Utah, where he met and married Lori, the daughter of a Mormon rancher, and majored in offensive tackle, center, linebacker and defensive tackle. He was drafted by both the Rams and Raiders, and after signing with the latter received a memorable peptalk from Al Davis. The coach called Costa into his office, and with jaw jutted and eyes staring resolutely at an imaginary horizon, he announced, "Costa, there's a great Italian player on the other side of the bay."
"Yeah!" shouted Costa, all aquiver. "Leo Nomellini!"
"Correct," said Davis. "I see you as an even greater Italian player."
"Wow!" said Costa.
"Furthermore," Davis went on, increasingly orotund, "you are going to be so great they'll have to build another bridge to handle the crowds that come to see you play."
"Oh, boy!" said Costa, who was so fired up he went out and became runner-up to Billy Joe as AFL Rookie of the Year. Before the next season Costa, who had signed for $12,000, went to see Davis about a raise. Davis offered him a $500 increase. "Gee, Coach," said Costa, "are you saving the money to build the bridge?"
Costa was traded to Buffalo in 1966 and to Denver in 1967, and three years later the All Stars were born. Lori became general manager by default. "When I tried booking games," Costa says, "all the guy on the other end of the phone wanted to do was to talk football."
Costa takes his coaching duties lightly. So do his teammates. "We play a zone," he says, "and if the other guys start shooting well from outside we play man-to-man. We run a lot because we've got to get into condition."
Recently the All Stars beat Kansas City 80-73 at Denver, but the score was of considerably less interest than the players. Warren McVea was a quick, breakaway scorer for the Chiefs, pouring in 24 points, which is perhaps to be expected of a speedy running back, but by contrast All-AFL Defensive Tackle Buck Buchanan, the tallest man on the court at 6'7", was useless, even as a rebounder. He served more as an auxiliary backboard, the ball caroming off his elbows and shoulders.
Costa inserted himself into the game sporadically. For a 250-pounder, he was very quick, but he soon proved himself a master of the Nabokovian nonplay, slickly coming downcourt with the ball, circling around Chief defenders and then deftly passing to no one, not even a Chief, the ball soaring splendidly out of bounds. In one rousing spree, the Broncos and the Chiefs traded the ball four times in lightning-fast action replete with unbelievable steals and dazzling interceptions—but nobody came close to scoring a basket.
Toward the end, Costa added another distinctive touch, a foul against McVea in which Costa spun around like a man awakening from a dream, his whirling belly dealing McVea a stunning blow.
The pro football version of basketball has proved so fascinating to those who have seen it that last year there was a report a national TV network was planning to fly 20 teams to Hawaii for a tournament. True or false, Dave Costa is not keen on the idea. "If we let the game out of our hands," he says, "people will think we were trying to take advantage of them. We want it done right. Playing for people gives you a great feeling. I remember once after I finished signing autographs at Laramie, I stopped by the scorer's table and asked how the gate had been. They said they had raised enough money to buy 37 baseball helmets. That's the reason why we play this game."