THE OLD HOME TOWN
There must be something sinister about Lake Erie. The most polluted of the Great Lakes seems to spill its bad reputation on the cities along its shores. Cleveland has been the butt of too many bad jokes, and so has Buffalo. Toledo is usually thought of for only two things—its sometime minor league baseball team, called, aptly, the Mud Hens, and the tired old song about Jones Junior High, the best junior high in Toledo. Now the city of Erie is getting it in the neck. Fred Biletnikoff, the star wide receiver of the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, is from Erie, but he makes no bones about his feeling that his home town is a good place to be from.
"I'll never go back to Erie," Biletnikoff said last week. "They can have it. I just don't like the people. I don't like the way they've treated me. They wanted me back for some special function a couple of years ago, but they wanted me to pay my own air fare and expenses to get there. That's Erie, Pa. A great town. They can drop it in the lake."
John Madden, the ample coach of the Raiders, seems to have none of the bitterness toward his background that Biletnikoff shows. The underpublicized Madden was a smash hit with journalists before and after the Super Bowl for his candor, wit and charm, and some of the things he said merit repeating.
On his childhood: "All I did as a boy was play football, basketball and baseball. I grew up in a family that encouraged sports. My father didn't think kids should have to work after school. He told us to go out and play games. He was an automobile mechanic. We never had any money, but we had a good life. My dad's philosophy was that there's a lot of work in the world and that once a kid goes to work, he's stuck for the rest of his life. So he thought we should play games and have fun as long as possible."
On his attitude toward his own children: "I tell them what my father told me. I think he was right. High school and college years are meant for school and play. There'll be a lot of other years for work. People sometimes ask me what I think about the younger generation. I tell them I have one overriding thought about kids today. They grow up too soon."
On kids going into sports because of the economic advantages, such as college scholarships and professional salaries: "That's true, but it isn't what I mean when I say kids should play. I'm not talking about mastering a sport that will take you to college or give you a job afterward. I'm talking about going out and playing after school for the sake of playing. Games are great fun. I feel sorry for kids who have to go to work early and miss so much of the pleasure and excitement of playing games."
On coaching: "It isn't work. It's a way of life. As Bear Bryant said, 'No one should go into coaching unless he couldn't live without it.' I didn't go into it to make a living or even because I enjoy it. Football is what I am. I am totally consumed by it."
On what he gets out of it: "There are two appeals, as far as I am concerned. One is the experience of competition, the thrill of competition. There's nothing like it. Second is being part of a team. You're part of a group that's bigger than you, and you're in it with people who think it's as important as you do. You're seeking to achieve as a unit, and that's a very civilized thing to attempt, very human."
WINDS OF CHANGE
John Mayer, a senior soccer player at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, may be the last college athlete ever drafted by a professional sport. And then again—cross your fingers. Pete Rozelle—he may not be.
Mayer was the final player picked in a draft conducted in New York by the North American Soccer League. It was a rather special draft, undertaken with a clear eye on the recent decision in the Jim (Yazoo) Smith vs. National Football League case, in which the NFL drafting procedure was declared illegal. That decision is being appealed, of course, and the NASL, on the recommendation of its law firm, Covington and Burling, which also represents the NFL, went ahead with a four-round draft last week. It had a significant provision: any players not signed by March 14 will go into the pool again for a second draft on March 17. This gives players selected in the first draft a chance to reject unsatisfactory offers and still be able to sign with a second team before the season starts in April. Thus, the NASL hopes to avoid the charge in the Smith-NFL suit—that a player can be denied the chance to earn a salary during a season because he is restricted to dealing on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with only one team.
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam says, "If we don't get sued before the season begins, then we will have established new guidelines. We'll just have to wait and see." You can bet they'll be waiting and watching a few blocks away at NFL headquarters, too.
There was bedlam in the gymnasium of Quenemo (Kans.) High School two weeks ago when Dee Dee Neill of Quenemo stepped to the foul line with less than a minute left in a girls' basketball game against LeRoy High and made a free throw. Dee Dee became an instant heroine. Even the referee shook her hand. No, Dee Dee's shot did not win the game for Quenemo, but it did reduce LeRoy's margin of victory from 83-0 to 83-1. "It was a relief," says Cindy Day, the Quenemo coach. "I remember thinking that if anyone could score for us, Dee Dee would do it."
Almost as relieved was LeRoy's coach, Ed Jones, who with the score 80-0 and three minutes to play had told his players to foul deliberately in order to give Quenemo a better chance to avoid the humiliation of a shutout. How much better 83-1 sounds than 83-0 is debatable, but Quenemo kept trying for that point—and missing—until Dee Dee came through.
"I kept thinking about those poor tired little Quenemo girls," says the compassionate Jones. "This is only their second season, and we've had our girls' team for seven years."
Quenemo has only 40 students, and its two tallest players are only 5'5" (LeRoy has 93 students and a six-footer). Quenemo, which hasn't won a game, has had other problems this season. Against Malvern High, only six girls were in uniform and five fouled out. Each time Quenemo lost a player, Malvern sportingly removed one from its lineup until the game boiled down to two-on-two before the referee called the game—with Quenemo losing again. Coach Day, an English teacher, says, "It's been an experience. I guess you can say that even though we aren't winning, we're having an interesting season."
After he won his Olympic gold medal in the light-welterweight division at Montreal, Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park, Md. said he was not going to become a professional boxer but intended instead to enroll at the University of Maryland where he would major in business. Nathaniel Exum, a Maryland state legislator caught up in the fervor of the Olympics and Leonard's success, promptly introduced a bill that read, "For the purpose of providing that any resident of Prince Georges County who was awarded a gold medal at the 21st International Olympiad, held in Montreal, Canada in 1976, shall be granted a tuition waiver at the University of Maryland...."
Exum's bill was to go before the legislature in the current 1977 session, but action on it now seems academic, so to speak. Sugar Ray has altered his plans, preferring the school of hard knocks to the groves of academe. Following his Olympic teammates Leon Spinks and Howard Davis (page 18), he'll matriculate in the professional ring against Luis Vega of Scranton, Pa. in the Baltimore Civic Center on Feb. 5.
When a college athlete has poor grades, he can be prohibited from playing until they improve. At Passaic County (N.J.) Community College, where six members of the 11-man basketball squad had unsatisfactory grades, President Gustavo Mellander took a more drastic step—he eliminated the basketball team altogether. The six students were put on probation, and the team, which had a 2-3 record, will forfeit its remaining 13 games.
"We are determined to keep our priorities straight," says Mellander. "Above all else, this is an academic institution. When I say we are a no-nonsense college, I mean we are a no-nonsense college."
A man of action, Mellander had previously suspended or placed on probation one-third of the student body for low grades. Nonetheless, discontinuing basketball could be a devastating blow to the school's intercollegiate athletic program. Basketball was its only sport.
Vern Rapp, the new St. Louis Cardinal manager, noting the signal success of the clean-shaven, neatly coiffed Cincinnati Reds, has told his players that long hair, beards and mustaches are out this season. Further, jackets and ties will be worn on road trips.
Rapp's drastic ruling did not sit too well with Al (The Mad Hungarian) Hrabosky, the Cardinals' star relief pitcher. Hrabosky has sported a wild mustache the past season or two, over which he liked to glare ferociously at batters before firing his imposing fastball. Now Hrabosky's face, sans mustache, may turn out to be warm and friendly, even genial, and hitherto nervous batters may be tempted to dig in, confident that such a nice-looking fellow would never throw at their ears.
Whatever happens, Rapp's theory of success recalls the old story of the agnostic fight fan who noticed a boxer making the sign of the cross just before his bout was to begin. The fan turned to a Catholic priest sitting next to him and said, "Father, will that help him?"
"Sure," the priest said. "If he can fight."
THEY SAID IT
•Darold Knowles, Chicago Cub pitcher, asked if a former teammate was a hotdog: "There isn't enough mustard in the world to cover Reggie Jackson."
•Shirley Casper, wife of golfer Billy Casper and mother of 11 children, six adopted, on her husband's endorsements in 1977: "He'll represent several clothing firms, as usual. I just wish one of them was Pampers."
•Shirley Majors, coach at the University of the South: "The biggest change I've experienced in football over the years is that Johnny used to be known as my son. Now I'm known as his father."
•Billy McKeever, a trainer who claims one of his horses became a winner after it began drinking beer: "What impresses me is he never spills a drop."