The years show in his face: tired, watery eyes with crow's-feet, a forehead with a deep latticework of wrinkles and a scalp that has lost most of its thatching. As the uniform is peeled off, the body of an old warrior emerges: knobby, scarred knees and a midsection without elastic. By all appearances, Fred Biletnikoff has had it as an athlete.
Ah, but not quite. At 37, after a year out of the game, the former star wide receiver of the Oakland Raiders is again running his celebrated, finely calibrated pass routes, feeling the slap of leather in his sticky hands once more, calmly rising to go back to the huddle after another hit by an embarrassed cornerback. The fourth-leading pass catcher in NFL history, Biletnikoff now plays for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
In three games he has caught six passes for 75 yards and no touchdowns. He started fast, with five receptions in the first game, but since then, with defenses stacked against him and a quarterback, Joe Barnes, who is bothered by good pass rushing and a sore arm, the ball has been everywhere but in his hands.
Last week Biletnikoff was shut out as the Alouettes scored all their points in a rainswept fourth quarter and beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 17-14 for their first victory of the year. When the winning field goal was kicked with eight seconds remaining, the players stormed the field. All except Biletnikoff, who before joining the celebration, stopped to congratulate Coach Joe Scannella.
"He knew how much it meant to me," said Scannella. "I told him, 'I'm sorry we can't throw you the ball, Fred. But we're going to get it to you yet.' "
Last year when he was dropped by the Raiders, Biletnikoff, who once earned nearly $200,000 a year, faced life without football for the first time in 14 years. At home in Valley Center, Calif., outside San Diego, he enjoyed being with his family, drew $400 a month in unemployment benefits and waited for the telephone call that never came.
Then early this year Biletnikoff phoned Scannella about two young prospects Biletnikoff had coached at a football camp. Scannella was the special teams coach for the Raiders when Biletnikoff was named Most Valuable Player in the 1977 Super Bowl. Scannella listened and said, "I'd rather have the teacher than the students." Biletnikoff thought it over and, a month later, signed.
Now he lives with his second wife, Jennifer, and 2-year-old daughter, Tracey, in a Montreal apartment. He does extra running every day to keep in shape, and he is still experimenting with playing on the larger Canadian football field. "To me he looks the same as he always did," says Scannella. "He's really taken to the team. The older guys love him because he's older than they are. They see themselves playing until they're 37. That's what they want in life. Nobody ever wants to quit football." "I know what it's like to be out," says Biletnikoff. "It's lonely. One of the reasons I'm here is because I was told I couldn't play anymore, and I didn't believe that. And, also, it gives me a chance to be a human being again."
On the field Biletnikoff is a perfectionist, and he's a player who's ruled by well-established habit; who has found equipment that's right for him and sticks with it. After every series of downs, equipment manager Gordon Batty sticks three pieces of chewing gum in Biletnikoff's mouth and hands him a cup of water and a towel. Fred keeps his hands sticky by touching the blobs of a gummy substance he has smeared on carefully selected places on his uniform, and he uses shoulder pads that are so old he doesn't know their true age.
Biletnikoff has a special niche on the Alouettes—part teammate, part tutor, part legend. He volunteered for preseason rookie camp, mostly to get in shape, but also to let people know he cared. Last week, after the Alouettes' win, he sat at his locker, sucking on his ever-present cigarette, in the midst of youthful enthusiasm, a man still playing a kid's game. His teammates chanted and sang. Biletnikoff may be an old face in a new city, but clearly he's in familiar surroundings.