It's like sitting in an autumn glade somewhere in New England, all orange and brown and gleaming yellow. The boles of the trees are gray in the moted light. A burble of soft rock music fills the air—it could be a trout stream running over stones. Houseplants aspirate: feather fern, wandering Jew, the grasping green legs of an herbaceous spider.
The illusion shatters. This is a dentist's office, the off-season habitat of William Edward Lenkaitis, 6'4" by 250 pounds by 31 years of age, better known to the sporting world as center for the New England Patriots. His hands, bigger than most men's feet, look as though they could disjoint a mandible with one minor slip. And he's about to clean your teeth!
O.K., relax. Finger for finger, Bill Lenkaitis is probably the most talented young dentist in Foxboro, Mass. Certainly he's one of the nation's most calming. His autumn-woods wallpaper, the big windows that let light into his spacious suite on a quiet side street of the small (pop. 14,218) town and the gentle FM music that he plays reinforce an image of self-assured competence—and put to rest the deep fears of going to the dentist.
July 10, 1977
The ultrasonic vibrator whines against your ivories. "I'm a bit heavy-handed sometimes," says Lenkaitis, "so I prefer not to use the scaler. You know, that little hook thing that a lot of dentists use to scrape away the tartar. If you slip, it's Bleeding Gumsville. And who needs that?
"I hate that sterile music you hear in most dentists' offices. If I'm going to have to be here from nine in the morning to nine at night, as I often am, I should feel like I'm at home. It's tough to get started in dentistry anywhere. You go around to the grade schools and ask if you can have the honor of showing kids how to brush their teeth. You work long hours on your feet, concentrating, trying to keep people calm, trying to help them. You join the Jaycees. Wider there, please. Fine.
"I had orthodontia as a kid," Lenkaitis says, "braces for I don't know how many years, and it got me into this. I mean, everybody has to go to the dentist, but do they have to think of it as a visit to the Bastille? I hope not. After pre-dent at Penn State, I was a part-time student at the dental school at the University of Tennessee from 1969 to 1974. Opened this office on the day of our first league game last season. It's building, slowly but surely, but it's building."
Lenkaitis steps back from the chair. His wide, calm face brightens in a smile. He has good teeth.
Later he works on an elderly woman named Caroline Duesing, 83 years on the planet and all of them in New England. Still, you can sense her tension. Lenkaitis bends over her and whispers sweet nothings, an instrument moving in micromillimeters, big hands flexing with surety.
"Didn't hurt you there, did I, Caroline?"
"No, you didn't hurt me."
"It's not exactly like going to a charity ball, but...."
A teen-aged girl comes in—emergency, she says—and Lenkaitis puts her in the chair near the window. He probes and peers, gives her mouth about a quarter of an hour of close scrutiny. Nothing wrong. No, there's no need to pay.
"Twice a month, regular as clockwork," he says, laughing. It's clear he's pleased. "She comes by with a dental emergency, I look at it, and there's nothing wrong. A crush, I guess. But I kind of like it."
He might have called it The Forearm Smash or The Busted Skull—that is, he might have, if you believe the exaggerated accounts of his ferocity that are rehashed every season. Instead, the sign on the plate-glass window says simply: ATKINSON'S LIQUOR STORE. Old ladies with their arms wrapped around bags of groceries trudge uphill on the sidewalk that passes the window, flinching every now and then as they avoid the kids on skateboards whipping past them. A warming sun burns through the endemic Oakland haze. Black voices rag and jive on the corners, and smart black men in colorful hats strut past, grinning and faking punches at one another. Soul music wails through the grunt of traffic.
A German shepherd lies in the sun just inside the open door of the liquor store. His head rises and the yellow eyes stare balefully.
"Hey, Prince, hi, boy," says George Atkinson, bouncing through the door. He reaches down in passing and grabs the dog by the muzzle for a playful shake. Prince—all grave and hard-eyed guard dog till now—jumps up from his watch post and wiggles along at George's side, staring up and grinning, his tail going a mile a minute. When George comes in to tend store, he can stop being a wolf and start being a puppy again.
Atkinson pauses at the cash register to kiss his mother, a large, serious woman, and crosses to the back room behind shelves upon shelves of gleaming bottles.
"Ahhh," Atkinson sighs, sinking back into a worn, sprung, but eminently comfortable arm chair and flicking on the television. "That old Prince is a good dog," he says. "My daddy taught him Spanish. I bought this liquor business for my folks to run. Mainly I mess around in real estate—foreclosures, fixing places up nice that wasn't nice before, buying and selling, keeping it moving. I growed up in Savannah, Georgia, just like my folks did, and it wasn't ever very nice for us down there. But up here they got their own place now, and the store, and they much happier with it. It's a good life."
If you don't weaken. George Atkinson, 30, slim, six feet tall, clad today in a spiffy pink suit with purple stripes and an open-collared shirt of muted incandescence, seemed scarcely the "Mad Dog" of NFL safeties that he has been made out to be. Perhaps the best pass defender in the game right now, and certainly the most intimidating, he is a fierce competitor once he pulls on his helmet. "But I got to be a hard hitter," he says. "I'm not that big. What I lack in size I got to make up for in how fast I'm going when I hit them. It's not as easy as it looks. If I goof up once, I get squashed by them big ends and backs." Atkinson's philosophy has paid off, at least to the extent that although he weighs 180 pounds and has rather frail bones he has never missed a game in nine years as an Oakland Raider.
"Come on," he says. "I want to show you a property I just bought. It's up on the hill overlooking the lakes."
The gray stucco apartment house on a hillside back street in a quiet neighborhood is not much different from those that flank it. But Atkinson is exultant. He parks his Cadillac Seville in the driveway and points out its features.
"Look there, you see that like alleyway between my house and the one next door? I put a gate on that to keep the sneak thieves out, and then I hire somebody to give her a new paint job all over. Maybe I install a new kind of door on the main entrance, where you need a special key to get in, or maybe even get me a doorman. Then I raise the rent and get rid of the riffraff. All these places here, they got riffraff in them. You got to get rid of the riffraff. Just raise the rent and they run like rats. But to raise the rent, you got to make some improvements...."
A young black man in flash clothes comes out of the building, spots the Seville blocking the driveway, and swings down toward it, smiling widely. He leans in the window and beams at Atkinson.
"You the new landlord?" he asks.
"Nope," says Atkinson, grinning back just as affably. "Just looking it over. I heard it was on the market, so I thought I'd take a look. Sorry to hear it's been sold."
"Sure," says the young man. "I heard the new landlord was a younger dude like you so when I seed you here I figgered you was him." He keeps on smiling.
"No way," Atkinson says, laughing. "I just wanted to look it over."
Finally the young man goes away.
"That was one of the riffraff," says Atkinson. He drops the Seville into gear and drives off.
It's a rugged life up at Anneliese von Oettingen's ballet camp in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State. Her students rise with the roosters, bend and stretch and point their toes for a minimum of three hours a day at the bane and bed down again, dead beat, shortly after sunset. No booze, no smokes, no sugar. Why, it's almost as tough as a pro football training camp. And at least one of Anneliese's students is in a position to make the comparison. Brad Cousino (pronounced Kooz-no) is not only a dancer but also a reserve middle linebacker and special teams member of the New York Giants.
While the other dancers imagine themselves twirling as magnificently as Makarova or Baryshnikov, the 24-year-old Cousino's reveries have him slamming down backs and blocking passes with the verve of a Nick Buoniconti or Lee Roy Jordan. Small for a linebacker (6 feet, 200 pounds in his leotard), Cousino was a Football Writers' All-America at Miami of Ohio but was passed over in the 1975 draft. A free agent with Cincinnati and Chicago, he was released by the Bears last July for self-admitted prima donna tendencies. "They wanted me on special teams and I thought I was too good. I acted like a baby." He found his way to the Giants when John McVay took over as coach, and began to find himself as well. In one game he had four unassisted tackles, recovered a fumble and blocked a punt on the four-yard line that led to a New York touchdown.
"Anything you keep telling yourself has to come about," says Cousino. But he also knows that it takes more than positive thinking to recover from football injuries. Scar tissue from a torn hamstring, which reduced his flexibility, sent Cousino to the Von Oettingen School of Ballet in Cincinnati, where former Bengal Linebacker Ken Avery (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) had gone for repairs of his own. Anneliese developed a special program of intense stretching exercises for her football-playing students, and even installed a second barre for Cousino when he was unable to balance with only one hand. "You should have seen him when he started," says Anneliese. "Six months ago he could scarcely bend enough to touch his knees. And he gave up when the stretching hurt too much. Now he can touch his toes easily."
He is also able to complete full pliés with something approaching grace and looks almost delicate as he accompanies a budding ballerina in a sous-sous penché or an arabesque. The newfound balance should help him with his lateral movement along the line of scrimmage, and already he claims he is running faster than ever. "If I ever have a son," says Brad Cousino, "he's going to start ballet at a very early age."
Deer Creek, in the mother-lode country of northern California, is a clear stream full of boulders, brown trout and hope. The last is based on a fact that became evident to many men in 1849 and has drawn human beings ever since to the mountains of that region: every mile of riverbed in the mother-lode country contains a million dollars worth of gold. The trick lies in locating it.
Elmer Collett, the burly right guard of the Baltimore Colts, yanks a clump of squaw grass from a crevice in the rocks beside Deer Creek and drops it in his pan. Then, squatting beside a riffle, he lets the force of the water go to work. "It all comes down to panning in the end," he says, swirling the big black dish around and around as the dirt washes clear. "Just the same way the forty-niners and the sourdoughs did it. You have to let the water clean out the lighter stuff—first the soil, then the rocks and sand. Now look here."
After a few minutes of work, all that is left in the bottom of the pan is an ounce or so of dark grit. "The black sand is heavy, so it stays," Collett says. "There's a lot of platinum and other heavy metals in there. You look for minute specks of gold—there, like those!" As he sloshes the mix of black sand and water, pinpoints of yellow flicker and disappear, almost like stars on a moonless night. "That's 'color.' Not much, maybe, just tiny, tiny nuggets. But it shows that this section of the creek hasn't been worked in a long time." He looks up from the pan and grins under his dark mustache. "Sort of gets you fired up."
Collett's partners on this prospecting expedition are Tinsley Stetson, a 32-year-old mailman and ex-Marine from nearby Grass Valley, and Richard (Kiki) Polo, 28, a friend of Elmer's from Stinson Beach, Calif., where Collett lives during the off-season.
"I've had the bug for a long, long time," Collett says. "It got into me back in the eighth grade, when a prospector came to our school and gave a little talk on gold mining. Playing football and all, I've never had the chance to give it the time it deserves, so I've never found enough gold to do more than defray some of the expenses of the hunt. But for me it's the best recreation in the world—sunlight, running water, beautiful country, hard physical labor. And there's always the chance of finding a big nugget, anywhere from five pounds to as much as 40. The rivers are constantly replenished with gold as erosion and rockslides work on the mountains."
The principal tool of the modern gold prospector is the dredge, a kind of out-sized underwater vacuum cleaner mounted on an inflated truck-tire inner tube and powered by a small gasoline engine. The suction hose attached to the motor is directed against gravel-filled crevices in the stream bed to remove the "overburden" of small stones, sand and (with luck) bits of gold. The overburden runs into a sluice box mounted aft of the dredge on another innertube. Heavy metals collect in the sluice box's riffles, to be panned later.
After they assemble their two dredges, the three men put on wet suits and go to work.
"We're going to start on the downstream face of this big boulder," Collett says. "Because gold is heavier than any other mineral in the stream, it falls straight down when it's tumbled over a rock by the runoff. The longer it's in the stream, of course, the deeper it sinks, so we want to work clear down to bedrock. Sometimes I've found gold under eight or 10 feet of gravel."
For an hour they strenuously work in hip-deep water, shifting small boulders and the larger rocks that would jam the dredge hoses. Then Collett pulls on his face mask, attaches a hose from an air pump to his regulator and, belly down in the cold water, begins moving gravel. With his broad back gleaming wet and black in the diver's suit, Collett resembles a giant seal hunting for fish. Goldfish? Gravel tumbles down the sluice box and a tailing of tan murk spills downstream.
"Good smoke," says Tinsley, who has climbed out of the water to warm up. "The discoloration from the mud and clay—the 'smoke,' we call it—means that this stream hasn't been dredged in a long time. I just hope when we get down to bedrock it won't be slick. Gold won't stick on a smooth rock surface. There have to be crevices to hold it."
All day the partners work the dredges, coming out of the water only to warm themselves when their lips turn blue. Meanwhile, a campfire has been kindled, tents erected and supper is cooking—hot chili, beans, hunks of spicy linquica sausage, whole-wheat bread and a gallon or two of steaming black coffee. Toward sunset the partners emerge, still not at bedrock. Kiki, his lips almost black with the cold, shivers beside the fire. Collett boils some milk, then adds honey and brandy. "St. Elmo's fire," he says. They toast one another and the river.
At dawn there is hoarfrost on the sleeping bags, and after a few quick gulps of breakfast the men are back in the water. By midmorning bedrock is in sight. Collett, shifting a 400-pound boulder, almost gets his foot trapped when it rolls out of his grasp.
"That's why you always want a partner," he says. "Guys who've gone dredging alone have been trapped underwater by falling boulders. When you remove the overburden, the rock is unsupported. It can tumble without a warning, no teetering or groaning—just slam, squish."
The hole below the boulder, hip-deep when the partners began, now yawns 12 feet deep. The bedrock gleams pale and shadowed under the rippling water. Collett dives down for the moment of truth. For long minutes his black-clad body moves slowly over the bedrock, his hands probing the crevices, poking, pulling, scraping. Then he emerges.
"Slick as a banana peel," he says, pulling off the face mask. "Nothing."
After panning out the sand that had collected in the riffles of the sluice boxes, the partners estimate they have dredged up perhaps $50 worth of gold. Elmer stretches out on a bankside boulder, sipping a cup of St. Elmo's fire. He hardly seems defeated.
"Ah, well," he says at last. "So we didn't find the Big Nugget. Maybe we never will. Who cares? This is what it's all about, anyway—the sun and the water and the pines in the wind. When you're hunting for gold, or anything else of value, there's always tomorrow."
On his first day at work on the new job this year, Randy Gradishar spilled some beer on the floor of the office. Actually, it was quite a bit of beer. A whole forklift load of Coors. It must have been quite a sight: the cases piled twice as tall as a man, teetering at first, then toppling with a horrendous, foaming crash on the concrete warehouse floor. You might think that such malfeasance would earn Randy a pink slip, but it didn't.
"It's not unusual," says the massive young middle linebacker from Ohio State who now plays for the Denver Broncos. "Nearly everybody comes close on their first day driving a forklift." And besides, Gradishar was just filling in temporarily in the warehouse. Coors was on strike and, as a management trainee during the past two off-seasons, Gradishar, like all the others on the management side, pitched in. Because at 6'3", 230 pounds he is bigger and stronger than any five other Coors executives, trainee or otherwise, Gradishar was assigned a night shift on the forklift at the warehouse on Denver's industrial southwest side.
"I majored in 'distributive education' at OSU," he says, "and Coors distributes things, so I figured, when they approached me about the program, why not? People will always be drinking beer. I mean, they've been doing it at least since the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs and they'll probably keep right on doing it. Until the strike, they had me in charge of the Hospitality Room. Coors gets from 300,000 to 500,000 visitors a year—some years we have to turn away as many as 100,000—and they all get a sip of beer and some pretzels and cheese in the Hospitality Room. I also take VIPs around the plant on guided tours. The tours take 2½ hours apiece. Helps keep the legs in shape."
Gradishar is scheduled to report for forklift duty at midnight, but right now he and his wife Janet are relaxing over dinner at their favorite restaurant, The Forum. Pierre, the owner and ma√Ætre d', hovers over them with anxious eyes, twitching his pencil mustache like a caricature of a French headwaiter. Gradishar is cautious as he studies the menu.
"Randy was a meat-and-potatoes guy until he met Pierre," says Janet.
"That's not so," says Randy. "Norris Weese taught me to eat an oyster."
"Don't you mean, 'taught me to eat oysters'?"
"Nope. I only ate the one. That was enough."
Now Pierre is bringing forth from the kitchen a plate of delicacies that fairly steams with exoticism: succulent kebabs, braised sweetbreads, fried eggplant, meats covered with rich, thick, dark sauces. This is Pierre's "mystery plate," aimed at educating Gradishar's palate—samples from many of the menu's offerings, each cooked or at least superintended by the master of the house. Gradishar's fork probes among the morsels, skewers something new and brings it to his jaws. He chews. His eyes grow thoughtful. His brow wrinkles. Then he smiles slightly and swallows.
"Heck," he says, "that was only chicken. But the sauce had me fooled for a bit."
"Raspberry Plain" is not a Baskin-Robbins flavor. It is a 1,200-acre horse farm located in the rolling, wooded hills of Virginia about an hour's drive northwest of Washington. On a recent spring afternoon, three men and a feisty dog named Speedy Gonzalez lolled in the shade of the stable. The men were talking horses.
"Doc looks at him and shakes his head, kind of slow and sadlike," says George Prout, a tall black man with a humorous glint in his eyes. " 'He'll be dead by morning,' says the doc."
"Hoo boy," says Ellis P. Gibson, a white trainer of thoroughbreds. "Them docs, they're always giving up."
"Well, we went to work on him soon as the doc drove away," continues George. "A great big dollop of milk of magnesia down his throat, and a gallon of soapy water from the other end. He stood there for a while just a-rumbling and a-sloshing like an automatic dishwasher and then Katie-bar-the-door. Next morning he was nickering for his oats like the rest of them."
The third man, a husky, compactly built Tennessean, nodded at the end of the yarn but his mustachioed young face remained impassive. Eddie Brown, 25, is the Pro Bowl kick returner and backup strong safety for the Washington Redskins, and this was his first day on the job at Raspberry Plain. When he stops playing football Eddie hopes to become a veterinarian.
"I studied pre-vet when I was at the University of Tennessee," he says, "but in those days they didn't have a vet school there. Now they do, and I'm going to begin studying part-time next year during the off-season. Right now I'm trying to pick up all the practical knowledge I can. I want to be a large-animal doctor. My wife's father has a farm near Chattanooga and I've helped him part-time for four or five years, learning about cattle and hogs. Last year and earlier this off-season I worked eight months for a small-animal vet in the neighborhood, getting to know things about cats and dogs. Then Fish—that's Pat Fischer, our cornerback—asked me if I'd like to help out with his horses. He's got about 20 thoroughbreds, and he keeps most of them here."
Brown will help Ellis Gibson and George Prout—mucking out stables, cleaning hooves, walking hots, administering rubdowns and watching the vet work. The following morning Brown is scheduled to assist in the gelding of a stallion.
"On the farm I've helped cut a lot of pigs," he says. "Sometimes 50 to 75 a day. A running back falls a lot easier than a six-week-old shoat, believe me. A forearm shot doesn't work."
Brown watches the exercise riders move out, up the green meadows, under the budding tulip trees, the long light of the afternoon glinting on the stretching muscles of the thoroughbreds, the long, slim legs reaching to grab earth and then spurning it behind them. He shakes his head in awed approval.
"Can you imagine being able to run like that?" Brown asks. "It must be magnificent. I could never work with house pets now, I don't think. There's so much silly stuff connected with house pets in this day and age—the pampering, the cashmere sweaters and the jeweled collars, all those ridiculous TV commercials for new kitty tidbits. You look at animals like these"—the horses were now into full stride, grace belying speed—"and they have purpose, power, beauty and a wildness to them."
The workout finished, Eddie Brown scrubs the horses with buckets of warm water, rubs them down, one by one, and walks them around and around the long barn. One of the horses rears, but Eddie checks it neatly, forearms bulging against the reins. Then he pats the horse's neck, talking to him in a low, soothing voice, his hand firm down the long, strong neck. It is an image to remember the next time you see him stiffarm a would-be tackier on his way to a run-back touchdown, or slam a pass receiver to earth with a well-timed tackle.
To understand what American automotive engineering is all about, it's best to visit that vast expanse of heat and highway called Texas. Buy yourself an ice-cold six-pack of Pearl, climb into your off-white Cadillac Coupe de Ville with the Naugahyde zebra seat covers, cock back your Stetson, flip the air conditioner and the stereo to full volume, turn the wheel in any direction and tromp hard with your Gucci cowboy boot. You're set for a day at 90 per. Whipping down those arrow-straight roads that seem to lead to infinity, with Margaritaville buffeting your ears and suds tickling your sinuses, you suddenly realize that the gas-guzzling dinosaurs of Detroit make perfectly good sense.
"Last week I sold four Caddies," says John Fitzgerald, "and I was just fooling around." John Fitzgerald is not the run-of-the-lot car salesman. During the "real" part of the year—from July through, he hopes, the Super Bowl in January—he is the starting center for the Dallas Cowboys, a post he has filled with distinction for the past six seasons. The rest of the time you can find him kicking tires and pitching performance figures at Sewell Village Cadillac on Dallas' affluent north side.
"This is my second year selling cars," Fitzgerald continues. "Carl Sewell, the young fellow who owns the agency, was at a Cowboys' game with a mutual friend. Everybody knew I was looking for an off-season job and Carl invited me aboard. It's the perfect job for a football player. Plenty of flexibility. I can work out on my own schedule, come in for an afternoon and sew up my sales, or forget about it completely during the season if I want to. Being associated with the Cowboys certainly doesn't hurt when you're trying to make a sale, either."
The 6'5", 260-pound native of Southbridge, Mass. majored in business administration at Boston College—"a smattering of everything, accounting, cost analysis, sales, you name it." He relishes the front-line combat of automobile salesmanship. "This is some type of sales." he says with his Massachusetts twang. "Highly competitive. There are two other Cadillac dealers in Dallas, so the cars don't just sell themselves—not at the price they go for. It's a great teaching tool. When I'm through with football, or it's through with me, I'm going to have a whole life to live out. This job is teaching me what to do with it."
Thus far Fitz has proved a quick study. The Sewell agency moves between 1,700 and 2,000 Cadillacs a year, and during this off-season alone Fitzgerald sold 40. "It's not the high-pressure, fast-talking bit you customarily associate with car sales," he says. "Most of my customers are football-oriented people and friends I've made over the years here in Dallas. Many of them are repeats. You can sell a Cadillac darn near anywhere—on the golf course, at a cocktail party. The trick is to know what the competition is up to, just like in football. You have to anticipate. That's what it's all about anywhere, in anything, isn't it?"
The newsroom of WTOP-TV in downtown Washington is scarcely the set of the late Mary Tyler Moore Show. This is working journalism (electronic division) with squashed cigarette butts on the floor, old newspapers stacked high and haphazard beside the battered typewriters, wire-service tickers chattering in the corners, a drinking fountain that, when it's working, often as not squirts you in the eye, the walls covered with the wise-cracking graffiti and goofed-up newspaper clips that adorn most city rooms. Camera crews in short-sleeved sport shirts and prefaded Levi's come and go; harassed editors and newscasters sweat over copy in halos of tobacco smoke, ties loosened and shirtsleeves rolled up against the downtown heat, their ears oblivious to the clangor and laughter around them.
In a stuffy, dark cubicle along one wall of the newsroom, Gino, the new sports guy at this local CBS affiliate, is cutting an interview from three minutes to 1½. In his other life, Gino is Jean Fugett, a tight end formerly of the Dallas Cowboys and now of the Redskins. He lights up a Kool and squints at a videotape machine.
"That's Mitch Kupchak," he says, "the rookie forward for the Bullets." Fugett leans back, undoes the top button of his open-collared, wild-striped sport shirt and squints through the cigarette smoke. Onscreen, natty in suit and tie, he is asking Kupchak for what seems the umpteenth time about his shooting percentage ("57%, but I feel I should have 75%, with all those layups"). Gino gestures impatiently with his free hand, a ducklike opening and closing of fingers, and shakes his head. "Too much talking," he says. "They don't like the talking heads." He points to the editors outside the cutting room. "I learned about that on my first day here."
During the 1976 off-season Fugett had been a hard-news reporter for The Washington Post. This is his first crack both at sports reporting and at electronic journalism, and it isn't coming easily despite the fact that he is an Amherst graduate.
"It's a whole new world," Fugett says. "But satisfying. When you write a piece for a newspaper, you feel maybe that you're cramped for space, but you've actually got room to write a dictionary compared to this. Also it's a whole new way of communicating—not in a logical, linear manner, where you can string ideas together along with flashes of color and counterargument to reach a well-rounded conclusion, but rather in a kind of burst of image and sound and action. Just a short burst, because that's really all the audience can handle on a television news show. You do it with winks and shrugs and legerdemain. It's a hard adaptation."
Later, over drinks and dinner at the Dancing Crab, Fugett talks about his dedication to journalism. "I know I can do things for black people here, in the world of words and pictures, that I can't on the football field. I did a piece on TV recently on the lack of proper medical care and treatment for playground and high school athletes, most of whom are black in this area. That makes you feel good. At first I didn't want to leave the print medium for television, especially for sports. But they made it awfully good for me and promised that next year I could go into straight news reporting if things worked out.
"I don't know," he continues, "I'd kind of like to do my own 'Roots.' I'm already most of the way there, with a paper I did at Amherst in American Studies on my own family. My great-grandfather was a runaway slave from Mississippi. One day he took some apples down to the railroad to sell to the Union troops when Grant was fighting in the northern part of the state. He got on the train and headed for New York. There he became a blacksmith and married an Iroquois Indian girl, bought 200 acres of land in the Finger Lakes region. He sent his son—my grandfather—to Cornell to learn agriculture and help him with the farm. But my granddad pulled a switcheroo and headed down to Tuskegee Institute, where he worked with Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Later he became principal of a high school in West Chester, Pa. Just a few years ago they named the school for him. That's a long way to come from slavery."
"In football you have it only on Sunday," Virgil Carter says. "Here you have it all through the week."
Up on the steps of the worn wooden octagons, men and women flail, gesticulating in something like the sign language of the deaf, or maybe the Plains Indians. Light streams in through the high windows; computer boards flash. Soybeans. Corn. Wheat. Silver. Hogs. Gold....
"From anyplace in the world," says Carter, "you can trade any amount of these commodities in two minutes."
This is the Commodities Exchange trading room on the fourth floor of 141 West Jackson in Chicago, the cockpit of the world when it comes to soybeans. Carter, 31, who has played for four different teams in a 10-year pro football career and now is a backup quarterback for the Chicago Bears, glows like a rookie.
"You've got to do it with hand signals when the trading gets heavy," he says. "When they turn the palm in. that means they're buying. Palm out, selling. Fingers held vertically tell you the number of contracts involved. Fingers horizontal, the price. A forearm in the act only amplifies the price. The whole scheme dates back to the late 1800s when they didn't have bullhorns or calculators, but it works. And it's traditional."
Carter got into the commodities game two years ago when a friend, over for coffee one morning, made a phone call from his apartment in the 70-story Lake Point Tower apartment complex on Chicago's North Side. The friend was checking out the price of beans. To Carter, it sounded intriguing.
"I took an MBA in mathematics—statistical analysis—at Northwestern." Carter says, "and in a way numbers have always meant more to me than football. Oh, the numbers in football are O.K. The challenge is there as it is in chess—a kind of muscular chess, when you're a quarterback. But I got fascinated with this commodities trading. I bought a seat. They cost about $50,000 three years ago and now they're going for as much as $170,000. Good investment."
Carter isn't trading today, so he ambles along through the chaos of flashing hand signals and sprinting runners like a man on a Sunday stroll through the park, explaining the workings of the market. "Each contract involves 5,000 bushels of soybeans, an 18-wheeler load, worth about $30,000." He points to the board, where soybeans have jumped one cent. "Say you've got a limit position of three million bushels. That penny move up there either just made you $30,000 or cost you the same amount. There's enormous leverage, and unlike, say, poker, you can set your own risk reward." He talks as he strolls—"chartists" vs. "fundamentalists," "day traders" vs. "scalpers," "speculators" and "brokers." all the jargon of the trade. There's something almost Dickensian about the cool, bustling gloom of the old, high-ceilinged wooden room. A nattily dressed old man goes past, swinging a walking stick with a jaunty air. He peers through thick spectacles at the distant board.
"That's Julius Frankel," says Carter. "He's been in the market forever—a fundamentalist and a limit trader. Very clued in. He can't see the board anymore and has to ask one of us what's happening, but actually he's been around so long that I'm sure he can feel the price changes." He stops to chat with Frankel.
"I'm 83 years old," Frankel says proudly in a Yiddish accent, "and I've been in the market 62 of those years. Loved every minute of it. Made many a fortune and lost many a fortune. But I've still got my health—why, I swim 54 laps a day, even yet—and I still love the place. This is the greatest racket in the world. You got to get up every morning and find out what's happening all over the place. London, New York, New Orleans, everywhere. Keeps you on your toes, doesn't it, Virgil." He claps the quarterback smartly on the shoulder and strides into the melee.
A gong sounds—five minutes of trading left. Elbows, fingers and pencils fly faster. Another gong and they accelerate even more frantically.
"You can get hurt in there," says Carter. "Elbowed in the gut, toes crunched underfoot, even lose an eye to a flying pencil point. The two-minute warning"—he laughs, glowing—"I love it. For whom the bell tolls. At 30 grand the penny. I'd like to retire from football soon and devote full time to this. Old Julius there, he's the Johnny Blood of the Commodities Exchange. The Sammy Baugh. I want to be one of those guys someday. Yeah, I may retire."
A few weeks later the Bears acquired veteran Quarterback Mike Phipps from Cleveland. Then they selected USC Quarterback Vince Evans in the draft.
After analyzing those moves, Virgil Carter decided it was time to retire. He notified the Bears that he would not be reporting to training camp.