"In the year 2000, there won't be any contact below the waist." —Bum Phillips, Head Coach, Houston Oilers
This is an article from the Sept. 3, 1979 issue
"The 25-yard end zone is the single greatest thing that could change the game. The whole concept of goal-line defenses would change with that." —Marv Levy, Head Coach, Kansas City Chiefs
Sure, open it up.
"Players will look a lot different: lighter equipment, more formfitting shoulder pads, a different type of helmet, soft rib pads." —Dan Rooney, President, Pittsburgh Steelers
"By 2000 there'll be pari-mutuel betting on every play in every game in the NFL." —Byron Donzis
"There'll be a little metal fleck in the football, so you can tell for sure whether the guy with the ball got over the goal line or was pushed back." —Tex Schramm, General Manager, Dallas Cowboys
You bet, that's a can-do.
"Everything will become more specialized. On defense, you'll get pass rushers and run defenders, first-down and third-down defensive ends. You'll see relief quarterbacks." —Tom Flores, Head Coach, Oakland Raiders
Looks inevitable, yeah.
"I think you'll have a lot of women playing quarterback by 2000. For one thing, they have a higher threshold of pain." —Byron Donzis
"I don't think there'll be a franchise in a poor-weather area without a domed stadium. And you won't see franchises moving into 50,000-seat baseball-oriented stadiums." —Tex Schramm
"Maybe the football players will come from someplace else. The best lineman in the country might be on the streets of L.A., and not at USC—and we'll find a way to find him." —Bum Phillips
You betchum, Red Ryder.
"It's a very tough, very hard game, and I think more and more it's going to be played by the so-called underprivileged. It's too tough, too physical a game for a society that's become so affluent. Kids can get the same great cardiovascular exercise from soccer." —Marv Levy
"The quarterback will have a calculator in his helmet. It will be on his Lexan visor, so he'll be able to see readouts based on percentages and statistics to determine the ideal play to run." —Byron Donzis
Where did you come from, Byron Donzis?
"The coaches will begin to dress alike, and maybe there will be a machine out there doing the coach's job. It'll be second and four, the guy will punch a button on his chest and—wonk, wonk, wonk—he'll say, 'O.K., run off tackle.' " —John Madden, Former Coach, Oakland Raiders
"We'll see equipment that will be supportive of body functions. I'm visualizing devices that will allow a player—a receiver, say—to jump two or three feet higher than he does now. Or we'll put a strong enough biomechanical device on a quarterback's back so he can pass 150 yards, which will be important, because the field will have to be that large by then." —More Byron Donzis
"Or a power-pack device on a running back's legs, so he can drive through the line. And we'll need smarter players, too, because you won't be able to use these charger devices except for a few specified number of times each game. If you're a defensive back and you waste your spring action on a play that doesn't require it, then the receiver can spring up six feet high next time, and you won't be able to deal with him. And think of the excitement in the stands when the odds on the pari-mutuel boards reflect this." —Typical Byron Donzis
"Football by 2000 is going to need more logic and brains and much less violence, because look at the generation growing up today. They're all playing computer games, calculator games. Football as it is today is just not going to be entertaining and challenging enough for them. You're simply not going to get anyone to play the interior line positions much longer. This generation won't tolerate such positions. The NFL is working on making the wrong rule changes. First, they've got to figure out ways to make more of the positions more glamorous. The field must be divided into different colored zones. There's got to be more strategy put into football. It's got to be more of a war game. I'm really very concerned about football because I've loved it all my life, and if it doesn't move ahead, we are going to be a country of soccer players in 2000." —Vintage Byron Donzis
"All the stadiums will have seats that will collect power from the sun. The field will be blown up, a large air mattress, so you can change the air pressure, depending on who is playing, to make it safer. The pros might play on a surface with seven pounds per square inch, while a bunch of junior high school kids would play at 2 1/2 psi. The athlete will be trained by new types of computers, and there will be more than four downs—all with different names, of course—and the equipment manager and the trainer will be as important as...."
Byron, stop, stop. Who are you? Where do you get off saying these things about a sport in which the last original statement—made 19 years ago—was: We will draft the finest athlete irregardless of position. Credentials, Byron.
O.K., try this for size. Remember the guy who snuck into a Houston hospital room last fall with a friend and a baseball bat. That guy was Byron Donzis. In bed in that room was Dan Pastorini, the quarterback of the Oilers, who had been maimed that particular Sabbath past. Pastorini was in the hospital with broken ribs. Donzis introduced himself, and then his friend hauled off and whomped Byron across his ribs. With the baseball bat. Pastorini flinched. Donzis did not. Then Donzis showed Pastorini how he had on this dandy little inflatable vest. Soon, Pastorini was back in action, wearing one of Donzis' so-called flak jackets, and the Oilers went to the playoffs. Now the National Football League has taken Donzis under its wing and agreed to underwrite much of his research that pertains to gridiron safety.
Donzis is an inventor. Just that. He is 47 years old, with a high school diploma, and he has been inventing for the past quarter of a century. He got his first patent—for an X-ray device—when he was toiling on an oil pipeline in the middle of Texas. "That's where I learned to be innovative, out there with nothing around you," he says. "When something breaks, you've got to figure out how to fix it. That's why I'm so excited about the period just ahead of us, because all these crises are going to have the advantage of forcing Americans to think for themselves again. The dependence on government is going to have to slack off, and we're going to have to be more self-sufficient. Innovations are going to become fashionable again. The wrong people—like athletes—are getting all the ink now, but the media are going to start to praise the innovator. Wait. We're about to enter the most exciting educational period in history."
Donzis, you should be cautioned, is something of an optimist. But then, why shouldn't he be? On April 21, 1976 he was dead broke. The foam tennis court he had invented had developed problems (not of his doing, incidentally), and, as a consequence, various spoilsports had sued him into bankruptcy. That day Donzis was left with the minimum that Texas law allows: his house, his tools, his truck and his dog, a bulldog name of Gus. In liquid assets Donzis had $5.16.
And how do you define an optimist? An optimist is a guy with $5.16 to his name who gets up the next morning and, first thing, goes to purchase a plant, cash-and-carry. Donzis thought this was one way to put a brighter face on things, and so he picked out one in his price range, 59 cents. While Donzis was waiting to pay, he heard another customer inquire of the florist if he knew anyone who could build her a deck. Well, the foam tennis courts had been built on decks, and so Donzis spoke up, and by that afternoon he and Gus were back in business.
To make a short story shorter, within the year Donzis was grossing $400,000 building decks. He had 37 carpenters in his employ, but he was bored to tears because he preferred to invent things rather than construct dandy decks for the gentry of suburban Houston.
Donzis especially wanted to get back to work on his inflatable running shoe. He had started that project in 1972 because he had gained 42 pounds after he had gotten interested in baking. So he had taken up tennis and jogging in order to lose the 42 pounds, and that had led, perhaps inexorably, to inventing foam tennis courts on the one hand and inflatable shoes on the other. It was his tinkering with the latter that, in turn, got him interested in all kinds of inflatable sports gear and led to the fateful visit to the unsuspecting Pastorini.
"Football equipment hasn't changed since the turn of the century," Donzis says. "The problem is that it wasn't profitable to prevent injuries, and so there hasn't been any money available. As early as 1903 air-inflated football equipment was designed—now those people must have really been bright—but the materials weren't there for the job."
The basic material of the Pastorini jacket/vest is nylon, coated with urethane. What makes it crunch-resistant is a valving effect that helps cushion blows by spreading the impact. Still, notwithstanding the favorable publicity he has received, and despite the support and blessing of the NFL, Donzis has attracted little real interest from sporting-goods companies. Fortunately, the league has been a magnificent angel for Donzis—but even the NFL won't get involved in his helmet research because injury suits are so rife in that area.
Indeed, the whole question of what pro football will be like in 2000 may be moot if more sophisticated safety devices and insurance umbrellas aren't created. Just as municipalities now subsidize the game by building great coliseums, so may it be necessary for the Federal Government to create some kind of insurance pool, which will encourage manufacturers to risk making more advanced (and safer) protective gear.
The equipment Donzis is designing may be something of a double-edged sword. It is so light and pliable that even bigger players will be able to move even faster and hit even harder wearing it. At the same time, there is the potential for even greater damage to limb if not life. But Donzis is confident that technology can keep a step ahead of the destructive force of the human body, that valved urethane-coated nylon can save the players from themselves.
All his Buck Rogers pigskin devices must be viewed in context. They are not merely fascinating futuristic wonders, idle brainstorms. They are meant to improve the game, not overwhelm it. They are devices that will be controlled by the men (or women, for that matter) who wear them. It isn't just that the quarterback can use his power pack to hurl the old pigskin 135 yards on a line to a receiver jumping six feet in the air. He has to determine when to throw the power-aided ball. For his part, the receiver has to decide when to push his spring button. Or do we cross up the defense and throw to the left guard, who is no longer just a blocking drone? The wise fans, the ones reading the computer readouts off the scoreboard, might bet on that.
"I can't wait for today's kids to grow up," Donzis says, "not only the ones who can play football, but the ones who will understand it. You're going to have to be so much more involved in the game."
Donzis' visions of football 2000 are, obviously, far beyond what those in the game foresee, but no one disputes that pro football will be a more computerized sport. What most distinguishes Donzis from these other observers is his belief that the game will become more humanistic as it becomes more sophisticated and automated. NFL executives and coaches interviewed by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED fear the opposite—that computers will turn the players into "robots on the field," as Dan Rooney says. Warns Dallas' Tom Landry, who functions in the most computerized organization in sports, "We'll continue to fight the mechanization of football." And so on. Only Donzis sees mechanization as the salvation of a game that is threatened by brute animal instinct.
And what else do the NFL seers envision for 2000 A.D.? Nothing drastic, really. Strategy? Well, the consensus is that as soon as the offense gets too far ahead of the defense, the defense will catch up. Also, vice versa. The feeling is that rosters will grow, but the schedule will not (you believe that?), and that the NFL won't expand abroad because the foreigners wouldn't be sufficiently interested in an American game played by Americans. No, even in 2000 the referees won't use TV replays to assist them in making their calls.
The belief is that by 2000 most football fields will have been returned to God's own green grass—or perhaps a better strain of artificial turf will have been developed. There will be some form of legal betting, at least in certain areas of the country. Just about everybody interviewed thought that Pete Rozelle would still be commissioner come the turn of the century; he'll be 74 then. (Tom Flores was the lone dissenter. He thinks Al Davis, now 50, will be the commissioner in 2000. Al Davis just hired Tom Flores to be coach at Oakland. Thanks, Tom.) Everybody interviewed has it as an article of faith that football will be safer. Miami Coach Don Shula believes he will continue to "see the same lessons in football as I do in life." The officiating will be better, although nobody is quite sure why. And you can be sure, in 2000 they will draft the best available player irregardless of position.
"There won't be any more old scouts sitting in the stands watching a practice. And there'll be no mistakes on draft choices," says Dallas' Schramm. The players the computers select will be faster and larger, for sure. A minority opinion holds that at a certain size the physical specimen could become a kind of dinosaur in an environment too small for him. John Ralston of San Francisco thinks football players may be bred rather than leaving such things to chance. "You get to thinking about Swedish mothers, the Danish stock of people, raising bigger, stronger people," he says. "I kiddingly once said that football players would be bred in the future, but now I wonder if that's such an impossibility."
Such a master gridiron race aside, those polled believed pro football would increasingly be played by the disadvantaged, that by 2000 it could become a game performed by gladiators. Again and again, whenever soccer was mentioned, the response was that it was no threat to football in terms of spectator appeal, but that the brutal nature of football might increasingly repel middle-class American kids, driving young athletes into safer activities, such as soccer.
Indeed, increasingly, pro football is referred to as "basketball with helmets," because of the high percentage of black stars—especially in the glamour positions of running and catching the ball. It is interesting that the NFL is precisely midway between the Colts-Giants overtime championship game of 1958—the most significant game in history—and the first year of the 21st century. Whenever that "greatest game ever played" is mentioned, the smaller size and salaries of the participants is brought up, but the racial turnover has been just as dramatic. In 1958 not only the quarterbacks but almost all of the running backs and receivers—all the heroes—were white: Gifford and Rote, Ameche and Dupre, Berry and Mutscheller, Marchetti and Huff. When the Steelers and the Cowboys met in the most recent Super Bowl, virtually all the Giffords and Berrys were black: Dorsett and Swann, Harris and Pearson, DuPree and Stallworth.
But as pro football has become more a black game on the field—some 50% of the players are black—it has done little to accommodate blacks in positions of authority. No one in the game has even suggested there might be a black head coach in 2000.
In sum, pro football as the century turns will be more specialized, perhaps more gladiatorial and played by bigger individuals, a larger proportion of them black and/or "hungry." What cannot be discerned is the reaction of the future fans now in Dr. Demons. As popular as the sport seems likely to remain, maybe it will in fact require drastic Donzisizing. Can it endure such an overhaul?
"You've got to remember we're dealing with an entirely new generation," Donzis says. "Sure, football can change. Everything is achievable to these kids today because television says it is."