Wherever Butch and Sundance go there's bound to be trouble," said Larry Csonka. "I wonder what it'll be this time?" He grinned hugely at the prospect. Crouched behind the wheel of his spanking-new silver Cadillac Seville, his raw-knuckled hands clenching and unclenching, eyes flashing, mustache abristle below that flattened, much-fractured monument of a nose, Csonka indeed came across as the reincarnation of a 19th century desperado heading off for some new and outrageous adventure.
In point of fact, he was. Before the week was out, Csonka, the Sundance Kid, and his pals, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, would be deeply embroiled in a serio-comic battle of wills with their new employers, the Memphis Southmen, and with the high management of the World Football League over whether to wear or not to wear some exceedingly fancy pants. Questions of taste and matters of pride would boil up in the pants dispute and there would be sharp debates about color schemes and player reflexes, a lot of bad jokes and super-heavy sarcasm. A couple of fascinating if somewhat sloppily played exhibition games also took place during the week, so that all in all one had a clue or two to the answers to questions many pro football fans have asked since Csonka, Kiick and War-field left the Miami Dolphins to join the WFL. Will the $3.5 million triumvirate be happy in their new home? Will their new home be happy with them? And will the WFL survive?
The answers: Yes. Yes. Who can tell?
At the moment, though, Csonka was driving from Memphis to Senatobia, Miss., 40 miles down the road, to rejoin the Southmen in training camp. Behind him lay 2½ weeks of hard work in the sultry sun of northern Mississippi, not to mention an ignominious defeat on the West Coast the night before in his first outing as a "Grizzly"—an alternative appellation for the Southmen, who started life last year as the Toronto Northmen but never played there. (Memphians distinctly prefer Grizzlies to Southmen.)
July 27, 1975
The 47-16 loss had come at the hot hand of another NFL transplant, the Southern California Sun's new quarterback, Daryle Lamonica, late of the Oakland Raiders, and the flashing feet of Anthony Davis, the USC hotshot whose feet were deemed not quite flashing enough by the NFL. Abetted by Lamonica's thread-needle passing, Davis scored four touchdowns and ran for 56 yards. By contrast, Csonka gained just 12 yards in four carries, Kiick a scant three in five rushes, while Warfield caught a single pass for 28 yards. The only other Grizzly with an instant identification rating is quarterback John Huarte, the 1964 Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame who kicked around as backup to the likes of Joe Namath and Len Dawson for nine years. Huarte did not have a good night with his side-arm delivery, throwing two interceptions. That, together with sluggish timing, blown blocks and tackles, plus the Grizzlies' inability to get out of their own way, caused many of the 24,610 onlookers at Anaheim to wonder how Memphis could have managed a 17-3 record last year, the best in the WFL's maiden season. Certainly the transmogrified Dolphins did not appear ready to stand the new league on its ear all by their threesome.
The team flew from Anaheim to Memphis on a one-stop charter "red eye" immediately after the Sun game, but that, it was explained, was as much to get ready for the exhibition on Saturday as to avoid an extra night's hotel bill. When it came to the amenities, Memphis turned out to be not much different from most NFL teams: the food was excellent and came in great quantities; the equipment, medication and transportation were fully sufficient; only the dormitories were Spartan. When Csonka and Kiick discovered there was no TV in their room, they went to the Western Auto store in Senatobia and bargained for a portable. "I knocked the guy down $20 on the price," Zonk said proudly. "What's more, we didn't have the cash on us. But he gave us credit until next payday. Try that in New York or Miami."
South of Memphis, the Mississippi scenery rolled by, green and undulate. Loblolly pines, soybean fields. Thick coverts awhistle with bobwhite quail. Slow brown creeks and backwaters where kids in straw hats fished for bream with cane poles. A far cry from the Miami training camp where the Dolphins work.
Csonka's silver Seville—Kiick got a brown one with beige stripes, and Warfield a conservative navy-blue model as part of the deal—cornered sedately into downtown Senatobia: a pleasant town of less than 4,000, full of pickup trucks and men in overalls with quids of Red Man in their sunburned cheeks, plump but pretty girls in (believe it or not) summer dresses, even a store called Varner's, as if Bill Faulkner had just stopped by for a cold Dr Pepper. Or something. No one paid much attention to the Caddy. Zonk maneuvered his way onto the campus of Northwest Junior College and past a building by the name of Bobo Hall. A gaggle of lovely black and white coeds gave him fluttery-lidded looks.
Outside the cool vault of the car it was 97° and humid enough to float a stern-wheeler. That scarcely discouraged young Mike and John Hilger of West Helena, Ark., who had journeyed across the Father of Waters in search of autographs. They descended on Zonk, be-freckled outriders of a pygmy mob that soon had the fullback half buried in pens and cheap notebooks. Zonk tried to keep his pleasure hidden under a deadpan gaze, but his eyes were a giveaway. It was one of the benefits not listed in the contract.
In the workout, hard and pounding in the blaze of late afternoon, the Grizzlies looked better coordinated than they had against the Sun. Coach John McVay, 44, a somber, sunken-eyed defensive expert with credentials from Miami of Ohio ("The Cradle of Coaches") and a splendid record at the University of Dayton, emanated unhappy vibes and the players seemed to pick up on them. "Coaches are all alike," Zonk had said earlier. "Shula would fine you, but that was secondary. It was the disapproval that bothered you and motivated you." Though he did not compare McVay with Don Shula in so many words, it was clear that pro football was pro football and that the same rules prevailed here, too, if on a lower, less intense key. At one point during the drill, Joe Eaglowski, the stocky, usually benign defensive line coach, exploded in wrath at a bumbled play: "Dammit, kick 'em in the cashews, anything, but get free!"
The Grizzlies listened and tried. "I blow up about once every five years," The Eagle said later, a bit shamefaced, "but today it was necessary. We've got to get better, and I think they're doing it." And the general manager voiced the lament of general managers everywhere. "I wish I had some headhunters," said Leo Cahill, formerly of the Toronto Argonauts. "A couple of guys who would run all around rolling their eyes and smacking people. I wish, I wish...."
Problems of that order faded to insignificance, though, when the Great Fancy Pants Controversy erupted toward the end of the week. It had been the intention of the WFL to experiment during a few preseason games with a new concept in color-coding aimed at enlightening spectators as to the differing roles of the 22 monsters they could see whaling away at one another on the field. The idea was to give players different-colored pants to designate their positions. Offensive linemen would wear purple trousers, running backs green, wide receivers orange, defensive linemen blue, linebackers red, deep backs yellow and quarterbacks white with colored stars down the leg. A good idea on paper, particularly for television audiences. Certainly the colorful pants would set the WFL apart from the "other" league, and might even help to attract a network TV contract—something the WFL needs.
But when the first four pairs of pants arrived at Senatobia—for Csonka, Kiick, Warfield and Huarte—good sense caught up with show biz. Warfield studied his orange bags with the black vertical stripes for a long, serious moment. "I've spent 11 years in professional football trying to build a serious image," he said finally. "I'm too far along in my career to begin playing Emmett Kelly."
"I'd look like a lime tree," said Kiick of his greenies. "Or some kind of fruit."
"Sure," said Zonk, sneering beneath his 'stash, "and the coaches are going to wear shocking pink suits with high heels and those little lace caps they like so much. Heck, these pants are what the owners wear up in their air-conditioned suites when they watch the game. They figure it's only right that we dress as nicely as they do. Reality has finally worked its way down to the football field."
He tossed the offending garment onto the floor of the locker room, among the empty Gatorade cans and the reeking socks. "Seriously," he went on, "apart from the fact that they look silly, apart from the fact that although we're told this is all entertainment—and we who play it don't want to believe that—these things are just plain dumb. Football players are trained all their lives to key on jersey colors. This color means friend. That color means enemy. The pants are always neutral. Now, what if you're a Memphis cornerback wearing an orange jersey and you're dropping back on pass coverage and out of the corner of your eye you see a flash of orange behind you. Maybe you think it's double coverage coming over to help you out. But maybe it's the orange pants of the enemy wide receiver. Bang, you're beat. Everything happens so fast, by reflex. People could start hitting their own people. Guys could get hurt. I won't wear these pants."
Another consideration, and one that some members of management as well as the working stiffs were concerned about, was psychological. After last year's financial embarrassments, the 11 WFL franchises desperately need to build credibility. They would like to appear stable, serious, capable of playing real football. The new leadership of the WFL and the arrival of such established stars as Csonka, Kiick, Warfield and Lamonica are steps in that direction. The fancy pants could very well counter that gain: they look too much like a circus ploy, a carney shill's hook.
The higher-ups in the league were smart enough not to force the issue. Fining their superacquisitions for being out of uniform would have been pointless as discipline and would have done long-term ticket sales no good at all. Dissension is not what is needed at this point in WFL history. Eventually, some tactful genius decided that neither the teams nor the fans had been properly prepared for the fancy pants experiment. So when the Grizzlies arrived at Alamo Stadium for their game with the San Antonio Wings on Saturday night, all that was at issue was football.
The triumvirate had stopped off at their apartments in Memphis before heading Texasward. The pads—three-bedroom, spacious new places that rent for $330 a month, with the Grizzlies picking up the tab—reflected the ex-Dolphins' personalities. Warfield's was neat, spare, with Braque prints on the wall. Kiick's was in the process of being re-carpeted at his demand. Csonka's was a true outlaw's warren—blue suede boots and leather jackets on the floor, a wine bottle on the sink, loose bills lying on the dresser. "He's put his fist through the door twice already," said the landlady breathlessly.
The Wings-Griz game was another of those WFL wonders—a few flashes of brilliance with some hopes of future improvement, all wrapped in a dough of dopey plays, turnovers, bad calls, weak arms. The only thing Warfield managed to do was drop two of Huarte's few well-thrown passes, one of them a sure touchdown. Warfield's routes were well run, though, and no doubt he will soon get the Mazola off his fingertips. Kiick hardly played at all, but Csonka showed that the old outlaw still has his stuff. During an 11-minute, 18-play drive early in the second quarter, Larry collected 45 yards on 10 carries before the Griz were stopped on the one-yard line. It was the Zonk we all know and love—head down, bulling, bruising, carrying tacklers, punishing and pounding.
A 79-yard punt return by San Antonio's J.V. Stokes in the third quarter gave the Wings a 7-0 victory. But there was also good news for the Griz: in the game Zonk had gained 90 yards. As the man says, there's trouble ahead, especially for anyone in his way.