I feel like I have played in a very rough football game with no hitting above the waist.
Grandma's Marathon start reads the banner strung from two birch trees and flapping over Old Highway 61, which follows Lake Superior southwest to Duluth, Minn. No buildings are to be seen, only birch trees and pine, on this particular stretch of Old 61, which happens to be 26 miles and 385 yards from Grandma's Saloon & Deli. Behind the banner some 1,700 runners are milling in rows of yellow and red and blue. Then the gun sounds on this chilly Saturday morning in late June, and the runners begin to bounce forward, hunching up in caterpillar fashion. The ones in the rear whoop in their excitement and they barge up on those ahead of them.
Alan Page—well-muscled and 6'3"—slows to avoid a collision with another runner. He is in a gray T shirt, black shorts and a white cycling cap that is smudged with rust where the sweat has soaked through to his "Kennedy '80" button. His wife Diane, slender in the manner of distance runners, is just ahead of him, wearing blues and greens, also be-capped and Kennedyed. It is a full minute before they pass beneath the starting banner, and another minute before they are able to gain their normal stride. There. Now run, Alan, run.
At 33 Alan Page is looking forward to a football season. Behind him are those last stale years with the Minnesota Vikings, a time his wife calls "Alan's grumpy period." Behind him is last October's bitter parting, when the Vikings unceremoniously placed the eight-time All-Pro defensive lineman on irrevocable waivers; he subsequently signed with the Chicago Bears. Behind him are law school, four Super Bowl losses and the stormy period when he picketed and cajoled for players' rights. Page is wearing a beard now. He is healthy. And he is playing for a team that does things, well, a little more rationally than was done in the frozen Northland. "One of the first things I learned with Chicago," says Page, "is that you don't have to be cold to play football." Indeed, the Bears allow heaters on the sidelines when the mercury starts to retreat into its bulb.
July 15, 1979
As Page prepares for his 13th training camp—his first with the Bears—he wears the varied hats of a Minneapolis attorney, of pro football's most prominent marathoner, and of Chicago's best defensive lineman. He is also armed with a new two-year contract that will pay him substantially more than the $100,000-plus he earned last season. "Not too bad for a guy who they said couldn't play anymore," Page says.
That is what Bud Grant, the Vikings' coach, maintained last Oct. 10 when he broke the news to a shocked Minnesota press that Page, who had started 160 consecutive games for the Vikings, had been released. "Alan can no longer meet the standard he set for himself," Grant said at the time. "He just can't make the plays anymore."
It was widely reported that Page's weight—through running, he trimmed down from 245 pounds to the 222 he weighs today—was a major factor in the alleged erosion of his skills. Grant said as much when pressed to defend his decision: "Here is a man we had to take out in short-yardage situations, who was not strong enough to rush the passer. He averaged 10 tackles a game for years, and now he was down to one or two. He was not doing the job."
Although Page had also weighed 222 in 1977, when he tied for the club lead in tackles (109), most members of the Twin Cities press did not take Grant to task over this small point. If Grant said Page was through, then he was through. "In Minnesota, Bud Grant is like Mom and apple pie and the flag," Diane Page says. "It's fun to be able to sit back now and call him a turkey."
Because this time the old gobbler was wrong. There was still a lot of football left in Page, who had been the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1971—the only defensive player ever to win the award. And the Bears, whose general manager (Jim Finks), coach (Neill Armstrong) and defensive coordinator (Buddy Ryan) had all been in Minnesota with Page, knew it. They paid the waiver price of $100. "A hundred dollars more than the Vikings deserved," says Page, who responded by melding an inexperienced, injury-beset line into a strong, proud unit. Though playing in only 10 games at right tackle, Page led the Bears in sacks (11½) and was tied for second among linemen in tackles with 50. Chicago's defense surged from 22nd in the NFL to 12th, passing, among other teams, the Vikings, who dropped to 14th.
Page's presence was most felt in rushing the passer. His quickness is legend; in fact, Page is credited with pioneering the technique whereby a defensive lineman watches the snap of the ball rather than the reaction of the blocker opposite him. "Alan wires himself into that ball, and when it moves, he knocks," Ryan says.
Page's weight is simply not an issue in Chicago. One of the things that persuaded Page to join the Bears, rather than strike a deal with another team, was that Finks told Page that he wanted him to stay exactly as he was. "Alan knows better than I do when he's effective and when he's not," Finks says. Page has always demanded no more than to be treated as an individual—nor has he accepted less. He hated what he viewed as the regimentation of football in Minnesota under Grant. He hates labels—like "Purple People Eaters," as the Vikings' defensive line of Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Gary Larsen and Page was dubbed in its heyday. "I am not purple and I don't eat people," Page would say.
"One thing I have learned," says Finks, "is that whatever Alan Page tells you he is going to do, he will do. If he tells you he will run a marathon, he will run it. If he tells you he will go to law school, he will do it. When he told me he wanted to play three more years, that was good enough for me. Because he is an honest person. Honest with himself. That's very refreshing in this business."
The worst part about it was the mile markers. They could have skipped that. I missed the first couple, and after that I saw every one. When they wouldn't show up I'd go bonkers.
The leaders bound gracefully, springing like deer, their feet touching lightly. As they approach, there is no sense of speed, only of smoothness. Their effortless strides cut through distance in a great hurry, and they rush past and away. Behind them, the other runners are packed in broken rows, stretching out for a mile or more. Diane Page passes first, taking short, determined strides. A hundred yards back, her husband, paced by Don Knutson, a friend from Minneapolis, has slowed to an eight-minute-mile pace. His feet flip outward as he runs, and he comments to Don that after three miles he is not yet warm.
Two days before the marathon, Alan Page, attorney, had appeared in court for the second time—his first time out was in small claims. A graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he studied from 1975 to '78 while playing with the Vikings, Page passed the bar exam in February, on his second try, and joined the large Minneapolis firm of Lindquist and Vennum. His name is dead last on the long list on the door, painted at about knee level. In the bluntly worded release announcing Page's hiring, one of the senior partners wrote, "We don't hire jocks. He is coming to our firm as a new young lawyer who is a superb human being."
In court Page wore a double-breasted blue suit and a thin bow tie that looked too small beneath his large, handsome face. He took a seat in the back of the courtroom, waiting for his case to be called, and as he looked over his notes, another attorney introduced himself. "Good to have you in the profession, Mr. Page. Hope I never have a case against you, though. You might take it out on me physically."
Page took no offense, despite the implication that he would lose this fellow's hypothetical case, and, a few minutes later, Line 6 was called by the clerk of the court. Page went before the bench, followed by two lawyers for the plaintiff—the Pillsbury Company. "The big guns," Page whispered.
Line 6 was Pillsbury Company v. Southern Railway System. Pillsbury alleged that some $640 worth of its merchandise had been damaged somewhere between Illinois and Tennessee, and that Southern Railway was responsible. The small amount of loss claimed was misleading, because this was a case that might set a precedent. Southern, which does not operate or own a railway line in Minnesota, where Pillsbury has its headquarters, had hired Lindquist and Vennum to present a motion to the effect that the state of Minnesota had no business hearing the case in the first place. Lindquist and Vennum had selected Alan Page from its long list of attorneys to present said motion. Pillsbury sent a pair of heavyweights to court, one being its senior attorney. "You could feel the building sink when they came in," was the way Page, who had not anticipated that much opposing firepower, put it.
"Good morning, Your Honor, my name is Alan Page," he began. It was the first time he had ever directly addressed a court, and he was nervous. His voice cracked once; he paused, then referred briefly to his notecard. Soon he began to relax. Slipping his notes behind his back, Page presented Southern's position easily and forcefully, spicing his argument with legalese, citing Statute 49USC 11707D as casually as if it were a maneuver out of a playbook. When Page had finished, John H. Allen, Pillsbury's senior counsel, rose and droned on for a while, and then the judge said he would have to ponder the matter and would stay in touch. (Later, he ruled that the case could be argued in Minnesota.)
Outside the courtroom, Allen approached Page timidly. "My son wanted to come down today," he said. "Not to see me. To get your autograph."
The other attorney for Pillsbury had thus far been silent, but now he made a football-player-turned-lawyer sally. "My boss told me to keep things verbal. If I had said anything I would have prefaced it with, 'Your Honor, I bring this up with great trepidation....' " Later, the attorney suggested that the judge might give the case more careful consideration because of Page's presence. "There are not only two big companies involved in a precedent-setting case," he said. "There's a celebrity." Finally, he added, "I'd rather go up against anybody else in town than Alan Page on his first case."
Page took exception to that remark. "I'm not sure that's true about my name helping in Minnesota," he said. "The only thing I can do is downplay it and let the judge handle it as best he can. Once the novelty is gone, I hope I'm just judged as another warm body."
The excitement of his first courtroom confrontation stayed with Page as he walked back to his offices on the 42nd floor of the IDS Center, the tallest building in Minneapolis. Page had gone to law school because he felt financially trapped by football. By 1975 he was no longer playing by choice, but from need. Now, after three hectic years of classes, study sessions, football practices and games, Page had that freedom of choice again. And more. Still basking in the afterglow of his performance, he said, "What I like about this profession is that it gives you the opportunity to speak, to present yourself, to persuade."
What most interests Page is labor law, on which he estimates he spends 98% of his time. Among his first clients were a union representing nurses and another representing factory workers. Page got a taste of collective bargaining in 1974, when he was an active member of the Executive Council of the NFL Players Association. That summer Page picketed outside Northwestern's Dyche Stadium, where the College All-Stars were practicing. He carried a placard that read PEOPLE, NOT PROPERTY and wore a T shirt with a clenched fist on the front, enclosed by the slogan NO FREEDOM, NO FOOTBALL. He was trying—successfully, as it turned out—to get the All-Stars to strike the annual July game against the Super Bowl champions, that year the Miami Dolphins, in order to put pressure on the owners to meet contract demands. As the picketers' unofficial spokesman, Page addressed the College All-Stars about the need for unity. Ironically, Finks, who was then with the NFL's Management Council, addressed the same group the following morning, emphasizing the need to play the game. "They took a vote, and I came in second," Finks recalls.
Anyone who tells you there is such a thing as a flat marathon course is lying through his teeth.
A railway trestle bridges the road at the eight-mile point. The road turns sharply there and rises. A great baritone voice resounds off the metal of the trestle: "You've got to run that lonesome valley; you've got to run it by yourself. Nobody else can run it for you...."
Knutson tells Page to save his strength. They are still running easily, slightly under an eight-minute pace now. It has been all uphill, Page swears. Knutson smiles tolerantly. They pass two teen-age spectators, and as the runners pad away, one says, "You can't miss Alan Page in this crowd."
"He looks thin," says the second.
"Did you see how gray his beard was? It's mostly gray."
His friend nods. "No wonder the Vikings released him."
At the beginning of the 1978 season, the Vikings named Bob Holloway as their new defensive coordinator, replacing Armstrong, who had joined Finks in Chicago. Holloway made some major changes in strategy designed to stop the run, against which the Vikings had always been weak. Instead of bursting into the backfield, the defensive linemen would now control their blockers, detect where the play was flowing, then react. "The first day he put it on the board," Page says, "I told Jim Marshall I doubted I would ever make another play. It was a retreat to the old days of Abe Gibron or what have you, when they said, 'Here's a tract of territory, defend it.' For me to stand around and do battle with people is a waste of time and of energy. But I went along with it. And though I didn't really play very well, statistically I was still the best lineman they had."
True. At the time of his release, "based strictly on performance," Page had two of the Vikings' six blocked kicks and led all linemen in unassisted tackles with 15. For weeks there had been persistent rumors that the Vikings wanted to trade Page, but on Oct. 10, the trading deadline, Minnesota General Manager Mike Lynn steadfastly maintained that he had not made any deal. That was correct. The Vikings simply gave Alan Page away.
"Bud got hold of Alan around five o'clock," Diane Page says. Alan, who does not often interrupt, does so now. "It was 6:37. Bud told me he had released me at four. He said I probably knew the rules regarding waivers better than he did. He said, 'We started out together 12 years ago, and I hate to end it this way, but....' " Page pauses. "After 12 years they fired me over the phone. That hurt a little bit." Page had gone to the Vikings in 1967 straight from an undefeated national championship team at Notre Dame. Grant arrived in Minnesota the same year.
The morning after Page was released, it was almost as if he had never played for the Vikings. Jim Marshall and Doug Sutherland, whose lockers had been on either side of Page's for years, now found themselves next to each other. Page's nametag had been taken down, all his equipment had been removed, and everyone else had been moved one over. "That's not the usual procedure," Page says. "Usually there's just an empty locker." Bobby Bryant and Carl Eller returned most of Page's personal items to him that afternoon. The Vikings sent the rest by parcel post.
"Every time I turned on the TV, there was Bud Grant telling people I was through," Page says. "Would you pick up a guy after his coach of 12 years tells you he can't make the plays? Plus being 33? Plus my salary? Plus my union activities? I had a lot of strikes against me."
When Eller heard the news, he said, "I don't think Grant is going strictly on what's happening on the field. If they want to get rid of a player, I wish they would just come out and say so."
Grant and Page had had their problems last year. In August, the coach fined him $50 for being late for a team meeting. When the fine was taken out of his paycheck, Page, who is the type of man who will take a parking violation to court, countered by filing a grievance with the Players Association. Then he filed a second grievance, charging that Grant had not given the Vikings the required 24 hours off during a particular work week. "It's a two-way street," Page said. "If the club is going to pull the book out to fine a player, let them follow the book to the letter." Both grievances are still pending.
The last straw may have been this: In the Vikings' fourth game of the season, which happened to be against the Bears, Grant substituted Duck White for Page midway through the second quarter. Page started the second half, but before the third quarter was over he was benched in favor of White a second time, without explanation. With two minutes left in the game, Sutherland was injured. One of the assistant coaches signaled Page to go back in, and Page, who had not seen Sutherland go down, replied moodily, "What for?" Then he reached for his helmet. Grant put his arm out to stop him, and sent in another replacement for Sutherland.
Following that incident, a Minnesota writer asked Page how players could be disciplined if the system of fines was abolished. Page responded, "If a player isn't responsible and doesn't live up to the rules and regulations, a coach should ship the player out."
Eight days later, Grant did just that.
The bitter episode is not without its ludicrous dènouement. A month after his departure, Page returned to Minnesota for a game against his former teammates. Much of the pregame interest centered on Page, and whether he was seeking revenge. "You'd have to be silly to go through all you have to go through in pro football just to get some revenge," Page said. "But I'm going to prove them wrong."
The Vikings won 17-14. Page played well, making five unassisted tackles and forcing a fumble. Yet afterward, the Viking coaches awarded a game ball to Chuck Goodrum, the offensive guard who had played opposite Page. Asked if he felt he had played particularly well. Goodrum said, "Nope." And Page? He responded to this final bit of effrontery with some cold logic: "Why did they give the game ball to someone who blocked me, if I was so bad they had to let me go in the first place?"
Human beings can't remember pain. That's the only reason people run marathons again, or have babies again.
"Water! E.R.G.! Water! E.R.G!" The girls at the water station 17 miles out are holding two cups to a hand, calling at the runners, who are straggling now in twos and threes. The road sinks here. The runners come downhill into the station and leave uphill, a cool wind cutting across from the lake. The runners kick at the cups with tired feet, and the cups make a hollow, musical noise across the asphalt. Alan Page comes in just behind Knutson. "I'm hurting," he says. There is no smile. He takes off his soggy gray T shirt and puts on a dry one, then pours two cups of water over his head.
"Water! E.R.G! Water! E.R.G.!" He splashes two more cups of water on his face, then drinks one. He is walking. Knutson coaxes him on, and Page tells him to go ahead.
"I can't relax while I'm running," he says. He reaches down and touches the road with his palms. His fresh T shirt is already soaked through. "This was fun while it lasted."
"Come on," says Knutson. "I'm not leaving you."
"I don't want to feel like you're dragging me."
"I'm not letting you stop."
Page walks part way up the hill, then he nods and breaks into a trot.
Run, Alan, run.
Run, Abe, run was the cry from George Halas 21 years ago as the Bears' founder and owner watched the hefty Gibron grunting toward the tape during training camp. Gibron was a lineman who weighed 290 pounds, and Halas had told him he would not receive a contract until he shed 40 pounds and could run a mile in under six minutes. In his first 10 miles, Gibron fell victim to a swift early pace and walked down the homestretch. The 11th time he made it.
Halas was ahead of his time. The stereotype of the football lineman demands gargantuan size. Beef. If a player is good at 225, he will be better at 250. Why?
Page points out that Muhammad Ali fought at about 222 in his prime, which is what Page now weighs. At his present 250, Ali in trunks is absurd; indeed, he says he has retired. Why does a lineman need speed and stamina any less than a boxer? Why was beefy Buster Mathis never champion of the world?
Shortly after the Vikings released Page, ostensibly because his reduced weight had become detrimental to his performance, a Minnesota physician, F. Douglas Whiting, wrote a letter to The Minneapolis Star in which he said, "The notion that heavier football players are better football players dies hard...." He stated that performance correlated with maximum lean body weight (muscle, bones, gristle) and not total body weight, which includes fat. He cited studies by Dr. Donald Cooper, team physician for Oklahoma State, that showed an athlete's speed and endurance improved when he shed fat pounds, with no loss of strength. Whiting suggested that Page would be as effective with 40 extra pounds of fat on his body as he would with 40 pounds of pig iron hanging from him.
Diane Page is especially fond of this letter. It is Diane, after all, who is responsible for launching the trimmer Page. Two years ago she gave up smoking, and to occupy her lungs she took up jogging. Alan went along to keep her company. Soon the pastime became a passion. "Running is one of the few things for which I have jumped on the bandwagon," he says. "I'm not much of a joiner."
There is a lovely string of lakes near their Minneapolis home. They trained for the marathon by running around them, 60 to 70 miles a week. But Page will probably cut down to 30 miles or less once the football season begins. The house, which the Pages designed, is filled with modern furniture, with an emphasis on the practical. Four children are about: Nina, 11, and Georgianna, 9, from Page's first marriage, and Justin, 4, and Khamsin, 2, from his marriage to Diane. The large kitchen-breakfast room is the center of the home. Diane, a free-lance marketing consultant, has taped a handwritten note to the refrigerator—"Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel." On one wall is a Warhol silkscreen of Chairman Mao, the thinker. Opposite it hangs his silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe, a woman of feeling.
Diane Page looks at her husband with open pride. "Alan feels very good about Alan," she says, "I don't know anybody else who feels quite that way."
Alan, what was going through your mind as you saw the finish line?
"Not much by then."
The final six miles are within the Duluth city limits. Parts of the city are quite nice, but not the waterfront, with its warehouses and railroad tracks along the docks where iron ore is unloaded. The marathoners weave through heavy traffic, grimacing as they breathe exhaust fumes. It is downhill through here, and the pace has picked up as they race to bring the incessant pounding to an end. Alan has been at it nearly four hours.
"Come onnnn, Alan!" The crowd recognizes him, and the applause begins. He is alone now, having sent Knutson ahead after 20 miles. Diane has finished. She is wearing a Hefty garbage bag to keep warm. "I don't think any of us have any idea what it's like to carry 222 pounds that distance," she says.
"Come onnnn, Alan!" The applause grows louder. He is running more easily now, though he is clearly unhappy. "Bring it in, Alan. You can catch them!"
He cannot catch them. He is 1,113th. Still, he straightens a little and picks up the pace, his feet flipping lightly to the side.
Run, Alan. Run!