Preston Dennard, wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, is sifting through scraps of paper he keeps in a blue accordion file. There are pieces of newspaper, dog-eared notebook sheets, a faded diagram from college days of BYU's kickoff coverage, a slip of Howard Johnson stationery. It has all been scribbled on. He comes across a wrinkled bag from an Albuquerque music store called "Budget Tapes & Records." On the back side Dennard has written:
I am what I am
You are what you are
But I am the one
Who is the star.
And now he is laughing at his own whimsy. "Football is poetry," says Dennard, "and I consider myself poetry in motion." Dennard has reason. Last year he was the leading receiver for the Rams with 43 catches for 766 yards (an average of 17.8 yards) and four touchdowns. L.A. Coach Ray Malavasi says blissfully, "His future is all ahead of him."
And this is a guy who just a couple of years ago was considered too slow and too fragile for employment in the NFL. When he was ignored by all 28 NFL teams in the 1978 draft, Dennard became uncharacteristically gloomy, and wrote:
July 13, 1980
My heart's been thrown down in the dirt,
Guess that's what you're worth, here on earth.
But the Rams thought Dennard might be worth a look as a free agent. If he could dust himself off and shine up his heart, they said, they'd pay him $25,000—that is, if he made the team. You could have gotten better odds on his ousting Pete Rozelle in a bloodless coup. But, says Preston, "I thought, 'Ooooh, big money.' " The Rams cut Dennard in August of 1978 but then re-signed him a month later. He played 11 games that season, catching just three passes, but became L.A.'s main man in 1979. This season he will be paid $100,000.
Says Dennard, 24, "I'm never going to look at football as a job. The Rams are paying me to do something I would do anyway for free. I consider myself a little kid in a big man's world. I enjoy doing what I do, and people enjoy watching me. It's too bad a lot of people don't associate football with pleasure. I do."
Indeed, Dennard associates everything with pleasure. He is level with ecstasy. He is so cheerful about everything that it's enough to make the average working-man—fed up with his job, wife, kids and car—throw up. Most of all, he is full-throttle joyous about his poetry.
We are the same
With two eyes to see
The only difference
Is I believe.
Oh, does he believe. In his ability as a football player? Sure. In his ability as a writer of verse? Heavens, yes. His buddy, Michael Cooper of the NBA-champion Lakers, says, "In a violent sport, it's hard to think of a guy being so gentle and kind deep down. It's like when Preston leaves the football field, he can become, well, a human being again with his poetry."
Back home in Tempe, Ariz., Dennard's mother, Marion, says, "Everything about him is poetic. He's a peaceful person who doesn't like violence." For his part, Dennard admits to loving things like "old pennies, the crackling sound of popcorn and being lost in whirlwinds of idealization."
And so he composed this verse, called These I Have Loved:
Round glaring models in all sizes and colors;
Rainy days; and baby brothers;
Hard, gusty winds; thick, rich massive clouds;
And diamond-shaped Christmas trees
Peering to the top of the ceiling;
Loud sensations of hot baked bread;
Noises; busy highways; street ball all day;
And chapped lips, with feelings of hard crusty shells;
Oriental foods giving off roaring smells.
Boiled down to the basics, Dennard wants to be perfect in everything. "All the time I was growing up," he says while sprawled alongside his wife, Jackie, and his 16-month-old child, Ryan, in the family room of his Fountain Valley, Calif. home, "I used to wonder how to be the perfect child. I wanted so bad to be perfect. Didn't you? Oh, well, I did. I thought, 'O.K., I won't go out at night so my mom won't worry. I'll take care of my brothers. I'll show respect for my sister.' Everything I did was so Mom would praise me. I'd clean up the kitchen. Guys would come by and want to play hoops. I'd say, 'Naw, I'm writing poetry.' My dad would find me in my room with the lights off, ask what I was doing and I'd say, 'Just sitting here thinking.' " And writing poems such as Alone:
I saved my dreams last night
And woke uninspired
With raw blues of intimate laughter
And naked with the cold edge of loneliness.
"It got so my parents would try to make me go out, and I thought, 'Gosh, they don't think I'm normal. How can I be perfect if I'm not normal?' "
Much of Dennard's growing up was done in rugged South Phoenix, where he attended South Mountain High School. "The kids there carried weapons," he says. "They used a lot of things and did a lot of things. I was very timid. There were two major race riots at the school. Somebody shot at me through a window. It seemed all I did was run a lot, and I remember thinking, 'I don't think kids are supposed to go through this.' "
Dennard subsequently transferred to mostly white Marcos de Niza High in Tempe for his last two years. For that, he was taunted by blacks at South Mountain, one of whom chided him, "You just want to go over there and play with all those white guys so you can be a star."
But how can anybody fault someone who entertains lofty thoughts, then commits them to paper, and at no time even considers throwing rocks at streetlights? Says Dennard, "I love writing because I can create anything I want to. I can be a millionaire or a little white kid or a sailor. Someday, maybe someone will think one of my poems is a masterpiece."
but my songs are not heard
steadily I drown
but who will listen
but there's no one there to tell them.
It all started in sixth grade when various friends, well aware of Dennard's ability to express himself, asked him to ghost love letters for them. Dennard would wax rhapsodic about a girl who was "as exciting and fresh as the first day of spring, as beautiful as sunlight over a bowl of ice cream." That excitement turns to dullness, that freshness fades, that sunlight turns to shadows and that ice cream melts are not sentiments on which Preston dwells.
Through those growing-up years, Dennard suffered predictable ridicule. But things improved at Marcos de Niza, where he would sit in the courtyard writing his poems. Curious—or nosy—students would ask him to read; they liked what they heard. Says Dennard, "Society builds barriers. People think of poetry as feminine. People think of a poet as some guy with a long beard who hasn't bathed in 50 years. I wash and condition my hair every day."
But when a fellow is a football star (in the 1974 Arizona all-star game, Dennard caught three passes for three touchdowns and 128 yards), he can get away with unusual behavior. A number of universities sought Dennard's services in a variety of sports, although both Arizona and Arizona State looked the other way.
Dennard was definitely troubled by this and wrote:
My mind is puzzled of not knowing what to do
The more I think, it becomes tougher to choose
I never figured that I'd be greatly wanted some day
My mind is fully captivated by the words they say
God knows the pressure I'm in at this time
Though pressure is what I live for, it's still blowing my mind.
Dennard selected New Mexico, but he had a grade point average of only 0.6 in a 4.0 system in his first semester. "I cried," says Preston. "It wasn't me that failed. It was my attitude." Dennard says a coach appeared at his side and told him that for $75 he could get him six hours of A's in correspondence. Said his would-be benefactor, "We're going to get those grades up real quick."
Sadly, many athletes jump at such a chance; Preston declined. "I felt funny," he says. "Why should I buy hours? The idea is to learn." The next semester he had a 3.3 average and, though 12 hours short of graduation, left New Mexico in 1978 with a cumulative 3.1 average—and a school-record 142 pass receptions.
Pat Smith, an assistant English professor at New Mexico, says, "I remember watching Preston play football and I thought, 'Somebody who runs like that and with that rhythm should be able to write poetry.' " Soon Dennard was in her classes. "A lot of his stuff is just plain not bad," she says. Her favorite is A Touch of Black:
Want a touch of black
I mean, he touched her and I never felt it
The iron steams as Mahalia Jackson's voice fills the house
On a warm afternoon
I mean, it was hot, but I couldn't sweat as my ancient
Slave brothers and sisters did for me
We learned of Columbus all through school
And he never touched me
I mean, I was blind and couldn't see through or out
The window which was fogged
And Nikki Giovanni never wrote a poem
Which I couldn't understand
And why was it that I loved her body of silk blackness
And I couldn't touch her
I mean, I've always loved ice cream and chocolate chip cookies
As I imitated chocolate soldiers trampling across snow
Yet, they never touched us
I mean, Rev. Oliver told me I was successful
Yet I never met him, my reach is too short
And they told us we were incapable
But Martin Luther King proved them all wrong
I mean, you never told me what my black crusty body meant
Till I heard my brother cry for freedom
I thought I was free
I got all the peanut butter sandwiches
And I never touched him
I mean, no one ever touched me
The way you touched him when he cries
I wanted to touch you
Where you touched him
Cause it would make me feel good too
And touching is my blackness
...Want a touch of black.
For his part, Dennard says, "Poetry is whatever you consider it to be. It has rhythm but not necessarily rhyme. Pat taught me that."
People don't seem to know what to make of Dennard's poetry, mainly because there's always the danger of going overboard whenever an athlete displays even a modicum of ability or talent outside his sport.
"It is unusual for a football player to write like that," says Bill Mondt, Dennard's coach at New Mexico, "but it was just right for him." Says Malavasi, "We have a lot of guys on this team who do strange things." L.A. Running Back Wendell Tyler says, "I don't know nothing about his poetry or anybody else's poetry." Another Ram snorts, "He's the poet who thinks he knows it." Which doesn't bother Dennard. "If I weren't writing poetry," he says, "they wouldn't say anything to me at all."
Before Super Bowl XIV between the Rams and the Steelers last January, Dennard, who caught two passes for 32 yards in the game, was in a pensive mood as he wrote what he calls I Once Met You:
Reaching is a part of you
I'm almost there
Touching is a part of you
I almost felt it
Asking is a way of you
I wished I knew
Reminiscing shapes a sequence of your life
I'm part of yesterday
Beauty, wisdom and happiness is you
I once knew them
Didn't I meet you somewhere?
Dennard understandably defends his work, saying, "I'll come from outside the guidelines, beyond the boundaries. The important thing is that poetry is my way. It gives me a chance for my say in society. People can read and say, 'Hey, he's talented.' And I like to think of myself as a creative person. Like in football, I create my success or failure. I don't play because of brute strength and force. I'm a weakling. [He's 6'1", 185 pounds.] So I have to be creative enough to adjust, and intelligent about what I do."
Thus, when Dennard got his chance as a free agent at the Rams' camp in 1978, "He was very alert as to what was going on," George Allen, the head coach at the time, recalls. Among the goings-on was the fact that the veterans were always looking for an excuse not to run; Dennard looked for an excuse to run. While the veterans let off-target passes go uncaught, Dennard dived for them.
"I love to practice," Dennard says. "I love to sweat. I'd do something and George Allen would say, 'Who is that?' " Preston remembers relaxing between the Rams' two-a-day workouts and scribbling on the back of some motel stationery:
I believe in love
And I believe in me
I believe in truth
That I will succeed.
Dennard has a long stride and loves to run post-corner routes; he even loves the wide receiver's nightmare—catching a ball in the middle among ferocious linebackers and defensive backs. Mondt marvels at Dennard's "grace, timing and feeling."
So what is special about your hands, Preston?
"I don't know. They've always been there."
What if you start dropping passes?
"Then I won't play wide receiver in the NFL."
What's your football philosophy?
"If somebody throws you the ball, catch it."
What's the key?
"Be confident with your feet. You make sure everything is perfect, then you open up and perform."
He is just as determined to be perfect in signing autographs. "Other guys just sign their names," says Dennard. "I try to outdo them. Besides, I want people to remember me. I consider myself unique, so why should I write something typical?" Thus, he inscribed to a fan named Mildred: "May you prosper in all your endeavors as well as letting the beauty of life enhance the setting of the sun at your feet. Enjoy life beause it enjoys you best. Best. Preston J. Dennard."
"Yeah," Dennard says, "I know. When I sign my promo pictures, I often end up writing right across the face. But this may turn some youngster on to writing someday, and at the least, I'm sure to gain fame."
And he wants the fame, but not, he says, for the money. "If I were to be nationally known, I could change the world and then it really could be a dream world," he says.
A perfect world?
Can you help others to have such a sunny view?
"If you are not joyous inside, I can't make you joyous outside."
Dennard collects chess sets, not so much for the love of the game, although he does play at every opportunity, but because "It's one of the classiest games. It's fun, but your mind is at work." There are 11 chess sets scattered around his home. Dennard also has 2,000 record albums, many of them classical jazz—"because it has class."
So, what's class, Preston?
"It's what you do. Lynn Swann has it. It's not hidden. It's professional, polished confidence in what you're all about. It's playing chess instead of cards, running an extra lap, poetry. It's the real thing. Nothing false. Class is me."
Heights unknown to man
Distances never reached
The heavens never touched
A song never sung.
Melodies never heard
Bird with no flight
Wishful thinking with no hope
A bell never rung.
Touching with no emotion
Days never seen
A player who can't play
And a love never tasted.
As a senior, Preston told his high school newspaper that his goal in life was "to work as a technical typing clerk for a large telphone company." But the dreams are bigger now. He contemplates building a ranch house in Arizona or New Mexico, where he would have lots of land all around, a Great Dane at his feet and his poetry at hand. And a view? "Naw, I can create my own view."
There is a slight chill in the Southern California night air, and Preston has lit a fire in the fireplace. As it flickers, he muses, "When I wake up, I always say, 'Well, thanks a lot. I'm here another day.' Too many people don't feel the joy of life. I'm excited because it's so much fun. I just can't understand why life is so hard for some people. I'll be hurt and disappointed sometimes, but then I'll be happy. I come down but I never hit bottom and I always go back up. What I want is to appreciate what I have now because it can so easily be taken away. I'm a good example of somebody trying to make a difference. I must be doing something right."
Together in life's displeasures
Rearrange them in fashions of sparkling treasures
As my creativity sparkles with the setting sun
The ways of tomorrow have just begun.