THE GONK SHOW
This is an article from the Nov. 20, 1978 issue
Last week the NHL found itself in the midst of a small—but potentially widening—crisis, and for once the trouble had nothing to do with excessive violence on the ice. Over the past several years dozens of NHL players have been breaking out in a mysterious red rash, which was painful enough to hospitalize some players and serious enough to force one to retire from the game. When the rash first appeared, players tended to be stoic about it; they called it the "Gonk" or the "Creeping Crud," and used ointments and steroid treatments in an attempt to make it go away. But in most cases it didn't go away, and now dermatologists from Massachusetts General Hospital have agreed to help one team, the Boston Bruins, try to discover its cause.
The Minnesota North Stars were the first to be hit by the Gonk. Defenseman Tom Reid was stricken so severely that he finally had to retire. "In 1975 I noticed it on my hands," says Reid. "Then my skin cracked wide open all over my body and a yellowish fluid oozed out. I had to quit playing hockey because I couldn't sleep anymore. The liquid would ooze out and stick to the sheets when I slept. When I moved, it would tear my skin off. Finally I had to sleep without any clothes, sitting up in a wooden chair. I just couldn't go on living like that."
Center Jacques Lemaire of Montreal has had to go to the hospital for a few days on more than one occasion because of the rash; Detroit Forward Dennis Polonich recently spent seven days in the hospital; and Minnesota General Manager Lou Nanne has had it. Four Boston Bruins have contracted the rash this season, and Coach Don Cherry has gotten a dose on his right leg. All-Star Defenseman Brad Park had a bad case until he went to the hospital for knee surgery. "When you're not playing," says Park, "it goes away. But now that I'm skating again, it's starting to come back."
There are theories that the rash is caused by the dye used to color the pads and gloves the players wear, or that it is brought on by equipment leather, some of which comes from Afghanistan. It is even thought that the rash may be caused by the ammonia used in making ice. All kinds of skin tests have been conducted, but so far no one has come up with an explanation. The league office, perhaps hoping to insulate itself from the plague, has insisted that the problem is for the individual teams to solve. It may be time for somebody to do something rash.
Once upon a time there was a sleepy little town in Pennsylvania called Mauch Chunk, which is Indian for Bear Mountain. In 1954 the good people of Mauch Chunk voted overwhelmingly to rename their town Jim Thorpe, after the legendary athlete, as a lure for new industry and some fast tourist dollars.
Twenty-four years have passed and nothing much has happened. The tourists and industry stayed away and the town got older and more threadbare. "We were promised all kinds of things—a sporting-goods manufacturing plant, the pro football Hall of Fame, even a research hospital," said the late Jack Huber, a former borough councilman. "All we saw were dollar signs, but all we got was a dead Indian."
The dead Indian, Thorpe, was offered to the town by his widow in exchange for a pledge to build a mausoleum in his memory. As an added inducement, Patricia Thorpe was widely believed to have volunteered her support to persuade the NFL to build its Hall of Fame there. As anyone who has ever been to Canton, Ohio knows, the NFL shrine was never built in Thorpe, and nowadays residents, who have grown surprisingly bitter, make it a point to tell visitors that Jim Thorpe never lived in the town, and, in fact, never even set foot in it. And who can really blame him?
A GOAT BY ANY OTHER NAME
Live animals performing as college mascots are an old and venerated football tradition, and though the amount of livestock on the sidelines has declined in recent times, it's still a good idea to walk gingerly among the yard-markers. At certain service academies, kid-napping has a special meaning all its own.
Just before the Oct. 14 game between the Air Force Academy and Colorado State, for instance, a bunch of cadets grabbed the Colorado State mascot—a ram—and put it in a stable. The ram kicked down the door, so they moved the beast to a different stable. This time he kicked down a wall. The cadets finally realized they were no match for the creature and asked the ram to scram. Said Air Force Athletic Director John Clune, "I was glad to see him leave before he tore down the academy."
West Point cadet Garon Reeves thought it would be nice to get Navy's goat, so he did. He took Billy XXI and hid the Navy mascot on an upstate New York dairy farm owned by Tony Schleiser. Schleiser spent 23 years in the Army and is a sergeant in the reserve; he is also the father of Reeves' girl friend Lucy.
To Reeves' surprise and consternation, the Naval Academy belittled the significance of the theft and practically ignored Billy's absence as the football team put together a seven-game winning streak. "Whoever stole that goat got more than he bargained for," said 2nd Lieut. Tom Rehrig of Navy's sports information office. "That goat stinks. All goats stink."
Reeves, who violated an agreement between the two service academies that bars the traditional prank of stealing each other's mascot, made the mistake of bragging about his abduction of Billy XXI and now faces restriction to quarters, walking tours and demerits. Schleiser, meanwhile, took exception to Rehrig's indictment of Billy. "He was a very, very well-behaved and mild-smelling goat," the farmer said. "They should be happy and proud to have him back."
When the New York Yankees won this year's World Series, they thought they had earned the right to call themselves the "world champions." Not so, says John Lee Hilton, convict No. 182446 in the Hillsborough county (Fla.) slammer. Hilton is suing TV station WFLA, NBC's Tampa affiliate, for advertising this sham as a World Series. According to Hilton's $3 million in forma pauperis suit, "They only play teams in the United States."
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who lives in Tampa and usually has the mot juste for just about any situation, said his team did, too, win the world championship. "I don't know what else we could have done," said Steinbrenner. "We beat everybody that showed up."
During the first 10 weeks of the season, 170 NFL players suffered sufficiently severe injuries to be placed on the league's injured-reserve list. Counting the four exhibition games, that comes to an average of more than 12 players going down each week, or a projected 240 injured players by the end of the season. Surprisingly, none of those players—even the ones who are now healthy again—is likely to play another minute of football this season.
The NFL, like the NBA, NHL and major league baseball, used to have a disabled list on which a club could place an injured player for a specified period of time, then bring him back when he was healthy. Unfortunately, many teams saw the potential for cheating and placed promising young players who weren't going to make the regular roster on the disabled list; that way the prospect could be, in effect, redshirted for a week, a month or a season and was protected from waivers until the following year.
The NFL therefore amended that rule in 1977 so that every player placed on injured reserve is now required to remain out for the entire season—no matter what his physical condition—unless his team is willing to risk sending him through waivers.
The effect of the rule change has been to leave many teams shorthanded at key positions. The Baltimore Colts, for example, lost Quarterback Bert Jones to a shoulder injury in the preseason; Jones' replacement, Bill Troup, then broke three fingers against Denver four weeks ago. The Colts could have put Jones, or Troup, on the injured-reserve list and picked up another quarterback. But when they weighed the possibility of losing Jones for the duration of the season, they decided to go with third-stringer Mike Kirkland. The week before the Baltimore-Miami game, Kirkland not only had to run the team's offense in practice, but he also had to imitate Bob Griese for the defense. The Colts' gamble paid off when Jones returned to action on Monday night a week ago and led Baltimore to a 21-17 upset of Washington. Last Sunday, though, Jones reinjured his shoulder and had to be removed from the Colts' game at Seattle.
The Oakland Raiders are without John Vella, Terry Robiskie and Clarence Davis because of the rule, even though all three are now feeling fine. Things reached such a sorry state in the Raider camp earlier this season that Coach John Madden had to hire someone off the street so he would have enough bodies to go around during practice.
The New England Patriots lost Defensive End Julius Adams, Punter Mike Patrick and Kicker John Smith to the injured-reserve list early this season because Coach Chuck Fairbanks decided he couldn't wait for them to get healthy. Now that the players are ready to return, but can't, Fairbanks is moaning. "It's a bad rule and something should be done about it," he says. "It doesn't make sense to have healthy players just sit out and not be able to play."
Fairbanks is in favor of a short-term injured-reserve rule, and when he presents the idea at the league meetings next year he will no doubt get plenty of support from Denver's Red Miller. Miller is down to five healthy offensive linemen as a result of injuries. "We've got to do something," Miller says. "With a 16-game season, you're getting teams that are using men at less than full physical ability because they don't have replacements. We've got to come up with some way to take care of the injured and not be forced to put them back into action too soon."
Phillies Relief Pitcher Tug McGraw was asked recently to appear at his children's school, but it wasn't because they had been jumping off teeter-totters, or hanging from the monkey bars by their teeth, or for any of the other reasons parents usually get invited unexpectedly to school. It seems that each day when McGraw dropped off his 5-year-old daughter Cari and his son Mark, 6, the other young scholars began piling out of buses in a mad scramble for Tug's autograph. In the interest of safety—McGraw's as well as the kids'—the teachers asked the pitcher to visit classes and conduct autograph parties, and he agreed. But when the announcement of Tug's forthcoming appearance was made in his daughter's kindergarten class, one little girl was unmoved. "I don't know that it's so important to have Tug McGraw's autograph," she said. "It's not like he's Donald Duck or something."
It was fitting and yet sad somehow that after bringing so much excitement and invention to hockey for such a long time, two of the most glamorous players in the history of the sport should have hung up their skates within seven days of each other. Bobby Hull, 39, who popularized the slap shot and breathed life into a whole new league—the World Hockey Association—was the first to call it quits. Then Bobby Orr, 30, whose bold rink-long rushes and brilliant shotmaking revolutionized theories of what a defenseman should do, announced that his knees had failed him so completely he could not go on. Orr was the first defenseman ever to lead the NHL in scoring.
Both men's skills had been diminished by age or infirmity for some time, but it is still hard to believe that they have packed up their magic and gone home.
THEY SAID IT
•Pat Gillick, Toronto Blue Jays vice-president of baseball operations, talking about 39-year-old Rico Carty's demand for a three-year contract as a free agent: "I don't mind paying a player, but I don't want to pay for his funeral."
•Dennis Harrison, Philadelphia Eagles rookie defensive end, who is 6'8" and weighs 275 pounds, on why he thought he was passed over in the draft until the fourth round: "The scouts said I looked like Tarzan and played like Jane."