It was another of those infernal afternoons, loaded with free agents, rookies and other new faces, currently threatening the sanity of equipment men in the National Football League. Jack Geyer, a Los Angeles Rams public relations man, had called Don Hewitt, the team's locker-room quartermaster, to find out which jersey numbers would be assigned to a glut of new arrivals at the team's Fullerton, Calif. training camp. Hewitt, for whom the bloated rosters and number switching caused by the players' strike has been a personal affront, went down his list and finally exploded. "Damn musical-chair idiots! I'm gonna give the next guy No. 110!"
Apart from the numbers game and a memorable practice that produced 11 fumbles between a quarterback and center, the Rams did better than most teams during the 42 days of picketing. Other clubs experienced insults, vindictive trades, fistfights and a bitterness that threatens to extend into the regular season. None of those evils befell the Rams, who boast of a concept called "The Rams Family" and talent enough to take the next Super Bowl. Were their professional existence more harsh, their future less bright and Carroll Rosenbloom a tyrant rather than the game's most benevolent owner, it would be easier for the Rams players to hard-line it. As it is, those who believe the players' strike has been broken point to the Rams as prima facie evidence.
When the team's veterans reported to camp for the 14-day "cooling-off" period, management and the local press alike felt they were there for good. That opinion may have been premature, for the Rams' grievances were directed at the structure of the NFL, not at Rosenbloom, whose concern for his players made a militant union stance uncomfortable for many of them. "It would be simple," said one player, "if all of us had played for someone like George Halas." It is tempting to suggest that if every owner enjoyed a relationship with his team similar to Rosenbloom's with the Rams, there would have been no strike.
There is also the nagging feeling that for Los Angeles the ultimate cost of a protracted strike may be the Super Bowl. Under Coach Chuck Knox, the Rams won a division championship last season before stumbling against Dallas in a snake-bitten playoff game. Leading the NFL in total offense, total defense and scoring, they had a 12-2 record, the finest in the club's history.
"It's harder for a good team to fight this battle than a dog team," said Tom Mack, the All-Pro guard who is also the team's player rep. "You have more to lose. A team that isn't going anywhere can afford to stay out longer. Another thing that has been hard for us is understanding that other owners don't treat their players the way Carroll treats us. It's difficult to resist an attitude when you haven't been affected by it."
Which is not to say that the Rams have forgotten the reason for the strike and will merely write off the experience as a failed tactic if no agreement is reached by Aug. 28, when the cooling-off period ends.
"Many of us feel we may be walking out again," said Linebacker Isiah Robertson, "although no one wants to say so. Because of that, it looks as though a lot of guys who support the strike and believe in the things we want are daydreaming. I look around in practice and I see it. It's something that's hanging over our heads. It's on a lot of guys' minds."
"The fact we're in camp," said Defensive Back Dave Elmendorf, "is a show of good faith. It has nothing to do with us losing the strike. There's no way we'll play the season without an agreement."
As Mack is painfully aware, that hard-line attitude is unpopular in Southern California, which is hardly a citadel of trade unionism. The target of hate mail, Mack also suffered the defection of his children's baby-sitter after a newspaper quoted his view that the Teamsters Union could become involved with the Players Association. "When her father read that," Mack said, "he wouldn't let her sit for us anymore." Ironically, Mack is a moderate in the Players Association, whose members have sometimes criticized him for not taking a tougher stance against management.
"I'll be honest about it," he said. "The biggest thing for me is winning the championship. The only way to do that is for me to keep my team together. I knew I couldn't get them to all go in together, so I wanted to make sure I kept them all out together. I've tried to approach this thing by what is right and what is realistic."
For Les Josephson, a 10-year running back who ranks third on the Rams' all-time rushing list but saw limited duty last season, the strike may prove even more costly. The competition at his position this year includes Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti, the team's No. 1 draft choice, and 24-year-old Lawrence McCutcheon, who gained 1,097 yards last year.
"I looked at the possibility that if I went along with the strike it might cost me my job," Josephson said, "but there are other things involved that are more important, not only for me but for players in the future. I'm not knocking the treatment I have had with the Rams. It's some things inherent in the structure of pro football. Besides, I've had writers trying to replace me now for about six years. Perhaps this will be the year—I don't know. I do know I'm a good football player and I know I can play. Even so, there was no decision for me to deliberate. There was only one way to go."
For his part, Rosenbloom spoke of "the Rams tradition" and "the dignity of our concern for one another." Of the possibility of another walkout he said, "I am confident it won't happen here. I feel football players want to play football. They don't do it just for the money. As Billy Ray Smith once said in Baltimore, 'To hell with the money; I want the boasting rights.' " But the Rams' owner also noted last week that "we are not close to an agreement and we never have been. I think Mr. Usery [the federal mediator] did us a disservice by saying we were."
"I don't like to speculate," Mack said, "but another walkout could happen. I don't think it's right to say it won't."
"I hope there isn't a vote on walking out again," said 14-year veteran Guard Joe Scibelli. "Whether guys would or not, I don't know, but at this point I'm not ready to face it."
"We took a neutral position," Chuck Knox said of himself and his staff, who must have wanted to rage against some of the frustrations caused by coaching rusty or unskilled players. "We'll never mention the strike, no matter what kind of a job a guy does or what kind of shape he's in. To do so would be unfair."
The veterans' return was hardly the end of Knox' problems, as his squad suddenly swelled to 80. "Now there are five people at a position instead of three," he said. "Do you extend the practice time to make sure each person gets enough work?" Knox answered his own question the next day, when each of the two practice sessions was lengthened to two hours.
"We had a super attitude last year," Knox said, "and there's no reason why we won't again this year. We've got quality people—in character, not just in football ability. Our job is to maintain and upgrade individual performance levels. You do that and the winning takes care of itself. We call it a fine focus rather than a space focus. It's the same application as the five elements in a golf swing. If you have trouble with one of them you concentrate on improving that one and the other four just naturally follow. The football field is just an extension of the classroom."
As last Saturday night's exhibition game against Kansas City proved, the Rams are a quick study: they smashed the Chiefs 58-16. Of course, that performance might have been valued more if the Chiefs had brought their experienced troops to the Coliseum—only six veterans were with Hank Stram's traveling squad. Even so, the win placated Los Angeles fans who worried that the Rams' football concentration might be thrown off by the strike.
As for Knox, he refused to admit that the strike would affect his club's potential, or even that it has been frustrating.
"It might be," he conceded, "but if I said so, it would be a cop-out. We're going to catch up. No outside action is going to interfere with our fine focus. We're going to work. We've been waiting for this since we came off the field last December at Dallas."