The score was 31-0, Kansas City over Oakland, and on the Chiefs' sideline, No. 58, their center, was acting like a madman. "Don't let them breathe!" Jack Rudnay kept yelling. "Don't let them breathe!"
The Chiefs, winless in their first four games this season, unable to score more than seven points in any first half, had run up 31 points in the first 30 minutes against the Raiders. Was it a coincidence that this was Rudnay's first game back after four weeks on the injured list?
"No coincidence," said K.C. Coach Marv Levy after the Chiefs beat the Raiders 31-17. "Jack Rudnay is our inspiration." Indeed, with Rudnay in the lineup, the Chiefs are 4-0 this season.
Undersized, underrated, underpaid, Rudnay is the kind of guy whose name pops up on the Pro Bowl roster every now and then—he has played in four Pro Bowls in his 10-year career—and you say, "Oh, yeah, Jack Rudnay." Occasionally you will see his name in a preseason scouting report: "The Chiefs' offensive line is unsettled, except for Jack Rudnay at center." Rudnay has always been an "except for," but it has never bugged him too much. You make a decent wage, you give a decent day's work, and if you get hurt, you get yourself taped back together and go out and work some more. Until this season Rudnay had missed only one start, but he hobbled in and played in that game anyway. Once, in 1977, he fractured the little finger on his snapping hand—the bone popped out through the skin—but he missed just three plays while the finger was being taped up. He has played on knees that were shot and with back spasms, but it wasn't until this year that the law of averages caught up with him.
November 3, 1980
"I popped a hamstring in the exhibition season by going against one of my most important rules—don't do any extra work after practice," Rudnay says. "I was running some extra sprints, and it just popped. I'd never had one before. I thought it was a cramp."
Rudnay tried sitting in the press box the next game. No good. People wanted to talk football with him. He tried sitting next to his wife in the stands. "That was even worse," he says. A few weeks later Levy got Rudnay back into uniform—a coach's uniform—and put him on the sidelines so he could hand out advice to his teammates.
That's one side of Jack Rudnay, No. 58. There's another side. Around the locker room everyone tells Rudnay stories. They talk of the way Rudnay got even with people he thought had wronged him; they talk of how he copes with the world's madness by outloonying it; they talk of his flair for parody. In K.C. they still talk about the TV short Rudnay did on fishing for bass in the city's Volker Fountain, a parody of the death-and-deliverance struggles of the fish and the fisherman.
Without his credentials on the field, Rudnay would be just another zany in a business full of them, another transitory oddball who came and went, an anecdote. As he marches along in tune to his own band, indulging his love of hilarity, pursuing his profession with a high level of proficiency and an extraordinarily high pain threshold, Rudnay will occasionally stop and take a long look at the world around him. And that's when the laughter stops and another emotion—an overwhelming feeling of sadness—comes in. He will see children in anguish—the suffering, the crippled—and he'll give of himself, and yes, he'll cry, too. Tears are very much a part of the total picture. But we're getting ahead of the story.
I had heard Jack Rudnay stories before—everyone around the game has—but until one bright, sunny day last May on Interstate 70 on the way to K.C.'s Arrowhead Stadium, I hadn't seen anything firsthand.
We were moving along smartly in Rudnay's 76 Jeep Cherokee. Rudnay was heading for the weight room for a final workout before beginning a two-week family vacation in Yellowstone Park. Weights aren't his thing. "I've seen guys who could lift 500 pounds but couldn't block anybody," he says. But the book says everybody goes through the program, and Rudnay draws paychecks from the Chiefs.
He pointed to an area beyond a bank that rose steeply from the highway's right shoulder. "I lease orchard land up there," he said. We were about to talk peaches and apples when the air was filled with the vrrroooom! of two motorcycles bumping along the crest.
Rudnay swore under his breath and jerked the wheel of his Cherokee violently to his right, and we shot off the Interstate, down through the ditch—kawhump!—up the near-perpendicular bank, up, up.... And now we were riding the crest, and it was a chase. Banjo music, please. Burt Reynolds, where are you?
The two kids on the bikes looked over their shoulders. The Jeep was gaining. Their eyes widened. They wheeled and stopped—and waited. Rudnay skidded to a halt and was out the door. I reached for my .45. Oops, forgot to bring it this trip. There was a conversation I couldn't hear. The kids turned their bikes and drove off slowly, all the while looking over their shoulders. Rudnay watched them until they were out of sight.
"Just wanted to scare 'em, to keep 'em out of the orchard," he said. "Actually, they weren't doing anything wrong; that strip they were on is public land. There's trouble if they go in the orchard, though; there have been thefts. Now they might think twice about it. I mean, here they are, riding their little cycles, and they see some maniac racing off the highway like that. I think I sent 'em into shock."
People who know Rudnay say it's typical of his style. Controlled lunacy, seemingly irrational behavior, but always with a master plan. Stanford Coach Paul Wig-gin, who coached Rudnay and the Chiefs for two and a half years, puts it another way. "Jack Rudnay," he says, "lives in the bizarre."
Retired Defensive Tackle Tom Keating, a teammate of Rudnay's for two years, tells this story. "The year is 1974, the strike year," he says. "The rookies are in camp, we're out on the picket line. Jack is one of the leaders of the Kansas City strike faction. David Jaynes, the All-America from Kansas, is the No. 1 quarterback in camp. We read a quote of his in the paper. 'I will lead this team to victory.' Uh huh, we think.
"Now the strike is over, and we're on the field for our first practice. What does Jack do? He takes a scissors and cuts the crotch out of his football pants. Jaynes is the first man to take the snaps, Rudnay is over the ball, Hank Strain's in the tower with his bullhorn. Jaynes is trying to impress the coach. He looks left, he looks right, he calls his signals in a clear, authoritative voice. 'Brown left, red right, 23, ready, set.' He reaches down for the ball.... 'Whooo!' He jumps. The ball goes flying.
" 'What's going on down there?' Stram says from the tower.
" 'He won't take the snap, Coach.' Jack says.
" 'O.K., let's get another quarterback in there.' That's the beginning of the end for David Jaynes."
The story is related to Rudnay. Quarterbacks have never been his favorite people. Nor kickers. He favors those who slug it out in the trenches. In practice, he has been known to reach back and grab a quarterback's fingers as he is about to take the snap, but this one's a new angle. He listens. His face is trying to smile, but he controls it. It's the face of a zany. Full beard and mustache, long black stringy hair, big nose. Rasputin must have looked like that as a young man. There is something deeper in the eyes, though. Intelligence, compassion—but not necessarily compassion for rich rookie quarterbacks.
"I've heard mention of the alleged incident," Rudnay says, "and let me ask one question. Are there any pictures?"
These are favorite Rudnayisms: "alleged" and "pictures." Let the jury note, Your Honor, that the prosecution has failed to produce tangible evidence. It's the way he responds when some of his other escapades—make that alleged escapades—are brought to light: the time he and George Daney, a guard, climbed up into the network of pipes overhanging a team meeting room and hosed down the players with a fire extinguisher; the flock of live chickens that mysteriously appeared in the room of Bobby Yarborough, the equipment man; the bag of ostrich and camel manure that turned up under the desk of Promotions Director Russ Cline; the time an assistant P.R. man was taped to the weight machine, naked, with a straw sticking out of his mouth; the dead crow that appeared in the helmet of Kicker Jan Stenerud.
Rudnay doesn't travel along prescribed routes. Pretension is his great enemy, and in his desire to do things his own way he makes some people uncomfortable. Years ago he heard the cry of helpless children, the terminally ill, the retarded, and he committed himself to them. He spends hours in their hospitals; he buys up blocks of tickets for them for every game and he brings them into the locker room afterward. But organized publicity campaigns for charity and organized fund-raising leave him cold.
"I often wonder," Rudnay says, "how much of that is genuine compassion and how much is merely self-serving."
For the last two seasons Rudnay's Chief teammates have nominated him for the Justice Byron (Whizzer) White Award, which the NFL's Players Association gives annually to a player for doing charitable work. But Rudnay never filled out any of the forms.
"Frankly, the idea of polishing your own apple doesn't appeal to me," he says. "Filling out something like that not only is insulting to the people you work with, but...." He starts again. He's used to being misunderstood. "Look, I don't question the motives and integrity of the people who give that award. It's just a personal thing with me."
Pretentious manners and dress are other Rudnay targets. He is fond of showing up at team functions in a Stroud's Restaurant T shirt and a battered Red Man chewing-tobacco cap. Two years ago the players' wives decided to hold an end-of-season farewell party. "Tell Jack that the Hunts [Lamar Hunt owns the Chiefs] and the Steadmans [Jack Steadman is the president] will be there, and we want everyone to be dressed appropriately," one of the wives told Jack's wife, Polly, herself a bit of a free spirit. She couldn't wait to give Jack the message.
He took a long look at the situation The Chiefs were closing out a 4-12 season, which came on the heels of a 2-12. He'd been through it all, the good years and now the dismal aftermath, during which he has been one of the few bright spots on the team with his four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. He had played with torn cartilage in his knee and rib cage, with torn tendons and dislocated fingers. He had bled plenty for the Chiefs. He had kept them together in the dark years. Appropriately dressed? We'll see about that.
He showed up at the party in Levi's and an electric-blue tuxedo jacket he'd bought cut-rate at a shop that was going out of business, a ruffled shirt, a blue-and-white flowered cummerbund ("I wanted the flamenco look") and a black satin hat he'd gotten from a band in Aspen, Colo., the satin setting off a red sequined apple surrounded by seven rhinestones. Lamar Hunt's wife, Norma, was fascinated by the hat with its seven jewels.
"She asked me, 'Are those genuine?' " Rudnay says. "I said, 'Yes, ma'am. Genuine rhinestones.' "
The son of a baker, Jack Rudnay grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 26 miles from Cleveland, and his only early brush with fame occurred when he doubled his high school record by performing 2,000 sit-ups. "I didn't get that tired," he says, "but it wore all the skin off my butt."
He was a bright kid and heavily recruited by the Ivy League, but he finally settled on Northwestern and three losing seasons. The Chiefs drafted him in the fourth round in 1969, but before he could get a taste of the NFL he was totaled for the year when he suffered three cracked vertebrae during a college All-Star practice.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the first time the 5'7" Stram met Rudnay and checked him against his program height of 6'3", he said, "You're smaller than what I expected," and Rudnay replied, "So are you."
"Not exactly true," Rudnay says. "I didn't say it, but I thought it."
The Chiefs were a Super Bowl team that year. The nucleus was made up of grizzled AFL veterans, massive, hulking people—6'6", 275-pound Jim Tyrer, 6'9", 290-pound Ernie Ladd, 6'7", 287-pound Buck Buchanan. "I thought all NFL teams looked like that," Rudnay says. "I didn't talk for a year. I was of the school that says when you're a rookie you pack your lunch, pedal your bicycle and keep your mouth shut."
The breakthrough came in 1970. E.J. Holub, a veteran of 10 seasons and nine knee operations, and the man whose job Rudnay would take midway in the season, came to his room one evening at camp. Jacky Lee, the reserve quarterback, and Jim Lynch, a linebacker, had mixed up the wires running from the distributor to the spark plugs on Holub's pickup truck.
"Rook," Holub said to Rudnay, "these guys have gone too far. A man's truck is sacred. I need some help. I need a commando. Think of something good."
"Well," Rudnay said, "in college we had something we used to call the Doomsday Bomb."
"I don't know what it is," Holub said, "but it sounds right."
"All it is," Rudnay said, "is a giant tube of toothpaste with a one-inch firecracker in the mouth of it. You light it, toss it in the room and boom! I'll tell you, you can still walk in that room today and it smells like someone just brushed his teeth."
"It's very tough to get even with Jack," Ed Podolak says. "He had something called Rudnay's Law: whatever you do unto me, I shall do unto you—worse."
We are in Rudnay's house on Lake Lotawana, Mo., 25 miles south of Arrowhead Stadium. The area is rich in history. Oldtimers will tell you stories about Cole Younger and the James boys, whose descendants still live in the area. The Lone Jack Civil War Trail runs 400 yards from Rudnay's house. A short path from the house leads down to the lake.
On this May morning the Rudnay household is learning to play in pain. Jack is stretching out his sore back, which plagued him for most of the '79 season. Polly Rudnay, slim and vivacious, is a little stiff from her last session with the weights, a miniprogram she has started. Buck, the 8-year-old English pointer, is suffering from a recent attack by a roving gang of three German shepherds. Mandy, the Rudnays' 8-year-old daughter, nicknamed Bonesy, seems O.K., but her 6-year-old sister, Wendy, or Spike, has picked up another bump. Her left ear is bandaged; there is a black-and-blue mark on each arm and another one on her forehead; the left knee of her jeans is torn; and there are scratches on her nose. Wendy is the kind of person who has a tough time with stationary objects. They keep bumping into her.
"I hope I never have to take her to the hospital," Polly Rudnay says, "because they'll take one look at her and they'll never let me leave. They'll call the police. They'll say, 'Here's a classic case of child abuse.' "
Rudnay, his stretching exercises complete, walks over to a glass tank and studies his fish. The house is very water-oriented. There is a functional stone well in the living room—that's right, a real well. "The man who had the house before us enlarged the room," Rudnay says, "and there was this well right outside. There was nothing to do except include it in the addition."
Inside the fish tank is a 2½-pound bass, named Mr. Bass. He has a bruised tail, a memento of the time the cat knocked the tank over. Other people have goldfish, Rudnay has a bass. He studies it. He feeds it crawfish from an adjoining tank. Rudnay's bass-fishing exploits are legendary; MacArthur Lane, a former Chief running back, talks of Rudnay's "almost magical" ability to catch fish.
It's no mystery. Rudnay produces a journal containing the jottings of two years, much of it bass lore. A drive through the countryside with him is often interrupted while he checks the terrain—"See that? Hedgerows. Bass love to feed there"—and makes entries in the journal, just in case the area is flooded someday.
Later, we are at Arrowhead, and Rudnay starts through his weightlifting program—four sets of everything, top speed, the only real loading up coming on the hip-press machine; he lies on a three-quarter incline and pushes great masses of weight with his feet. He does 10 repetitions of 800 pounds. He has done 10 reps of 880. The club record, held by Tom Condon, a guard, is 900—but that was a one-shot. Rudnay is opposed to sheer bulk lifting, to packing bunches of muscle on your body. But he wants his legs to stay strong.
His game is speed and finesse, which is the normal way to operate when you play at 240 pounds. The crab block, the head fake, the scramble block, trickery and misdirection—all the skills of a bygone era—are his weapons, and at this game no one is better. "Sometimes, Jack seems to play by the seat of his pants," Wiggin has said. Rudnay considers it a point of honor not to indulge in holding.
"I'm not enchanted with upper-body strength," he says. "Some of those muscle guys who play center, guys who can push over buildings, well, you know one thing all that strength is good for? It's good for this..." and his fingers squeeze an imaginary middle guard's jersey.
Kansas City Offensive Line Coach Joe Spencer says, "I don't think I'll ever coach another guy like Jack. He didn't miss a game in 10 years. You can't get him off the field. Last year he sprained his ankle so badly that on Monday he couldn't get a shoe on it. He was on crutches. By Tuesday he was down to one crutch. By Wednesday he was using a cane. On Thursday he walked through the practice. On Friday he took some snaps. On Sunday he played. I've never seen a guy come off crutches and play like that."
Pain has been Rudnay's constant companion in another, deeper sense. Anyone who has ever come out of the locker room with him after a home game can understand it, because this is the time he devotes to what his daughter, Wendy, calls "our special people." He buys 50 tickets a game for children who are crippled or retarded or terminally ill, and he spends time with them afterward. "That's the most important thing, really," he says. "The game doesn't mean that much. It's the visit. And it's going back. These kids can see through a handshake and a goodby. It's coming back to see them again and again that's important."
Usually, Rudnay will bring some teammates out with him to meet the kids. He says he'll remind the players about it in the locker room, but generally "only five or 10 show up. No hard feelings. I'm not a missionary. It's not my place to dictate to anybody."
Seven years ago the Chiefs were playing in Denver, and some of the players went to Craig Hospital to visit Pat Bickle, a Kansas City high school player who had been paralyzed in a game. A doctor told Rudnay, "There's another Kansas City boy here. Would you like to see him?" So Rudnay and Podolak dropped in to see Jeff Walker.
"He'd been in a car accident," Rudnay says. "Both his parents had been killed, and he'd been left paralyzed from the waist down. He was all by himself, and it struck me as kind of cruel. Here's a 14-year-old kid who lost practically everything in one shot—his parents, the use of his legs—and because he wasn't a football player, no one made a fuss over him."
Through the years Rudnay became very close to the boy. He'd take him to Arrowhead Stadium and teach him how to use the weights; he'd bring him home to spend time with his family. A commitment began to grow—not to the big, well-funded charities, but to individuals, to the forgotten.
"One year Polly was trying to find a charity group that would bring kids to a party the wives' club was giving," Rudnay says. "We called all around to all the big charities. They were all booked up. Then I found one. It was listed just under the name of one person, Marie Lucas. I went down to see her. She was an old black woman who took care of severely retarded children. Some were completely bedridden; none were easy. All the children had parents. Sometimes they'd send toys, but they were no good. Some parents didn't realize how badly retarded the children were. Marie Lucas had one lady working for her full time; they were the staff. No one knew about this place. No one ever went. I've never known a parent to visit there."
Rudnay's friends say that his commitment is part of the overall picture of the man. High hilarity, great compassion; the whole spectrum thrown into focus by an overriding sense of honesty.
"You know," Podolak says, "you mention Jack Rudnay to NFL people, and they'll say, 'Oh, yeah, that funny guy on the Chiefs.' But there are dozens of families who don't know that side of him at all. All they know about are the hundreds of hours he has spent with their children."
"You can relate what he does to the way he is as a player," Wiggin says. "Off the field, all you have to do is put somebody out there who's hurting a little and Jack will be right with him. On the field? Well, the hardnoses will tell you that this idea of inspiration is overrated, but I know one thing about the time I was there: Jack Rudnay was our strength."