I didn't want to see the press. Not now. Where would those pencil-wielders be lurking? In the lobby? The hotel bar? Not the bar, because the reporters would know that we players weren't allowed in there. On the first day of camp some NFL dropouts had set up there, and that night in his first speech George Allen had told us to get our alcohol elsewhere, for the good of "the club's image." Allen is not only the coach but also a co-owner of the Chicago Blitz, and he wanted us to be the cleanest team in the U.S. Football League.
I walked cautiously down the hallway of the Phoenix Westcourt Hotel toward the front desk to check out. As I turned the corner someone called my name. It was Brian Hewitt of The Chicago Sun-Times, standing with another writer. Did I want to join them for dinner? No? "What's up?" Brian asked. "Nothing," I said. "I've retired." They were the first reporters to know I no longer played football.
Of course, Hewitt put it in the next day's paper. Maybe the other writer did, too. It was sports news, after all. So why did I care? Originally I'd planned that when my fling with the Blitz ended, as I knew perforce it would, I was going to get as many reporters as I could into one place, probably by enticing them with vague hints of suspicious goings-on, and then, through tears or clenched teeth or laughter read a lengthy statement announcing my separation from the sport. Why? For fun, for power, for the thrill of exercising that last privilege of the notably failed—the calling of a press conference. But now the feelings of disgrace were too strong, and I didn't want to.
I'd felt something similar 11 years before, when Hank Stram, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, called me into his office. He was tanned and wore a toupee, but I wasn't thinking about that. It was the summer of 1971, and he was putting me on waivers. He had the power—arid the ring; K.C. had won the Super Bowl in 1970. I slunk out of camp that night with the other Chiefs' cuts, including my roommate, a safety from Texas who liked to sit on his bed reading Louis L'Amour westerns, chewing Mail Pouch tobacco and spitting into a Tastee-Freez cup. We were the used-up, the discarded. "Adios, cowboy," my roommate said. We wanted to be seen by the other players even less than they wanted to see us.
I'd thought about that rejection for years, and it still churns inside. Even though I made my own terms this time—retiring on the fifth day of the Blitz camp, before they could ask me to leave—I couldn't laugh it off. I'd briefly traded hats, writer's for football player's, but it still wasn't easy to get the football hat off.
When the Blitz first came after me last October—and they did come after me, not I them—my wife, Judy, took it as lightly as I did. She wondered if our baby daughter could be the team mascot. "What's a Blitz?" she asked me. "Why not her?"
Allen named the team. Actually, he chose the name from entries sent in by Chicagoans, selecting it because it was "tough, hard-hitting and aggressive, like the team will be." The Blitz logo, which he helped design, looks a little like the emblem that was worn by the SS. Allen is clearly the big name in the USFL, a man with a past in a league without one. His .705 winning percentage for 12 years as an NFL head coach—five with Los Angeles, seven with Washington—is fourth-best in the league's history, better even than Tom Landry's. Yet when Mike McCarthy, the Blitz' director of college scouting, called me and asked me if I wanted to try out for the team, I told him to forget it. I was 33, and I didn't care to entrust what remained of my body to a coach once described as "Nixon with a whistle." Besides, it was all just a gimmick, wasn't it, a p.r. device? Not really, said Mike. Northwestern, from which I graduated in 1971, was one of the five schools in the Blitz' territory that were protected, from which other USFL teams couldn't sign players. The Blitz was contacting every player from those schools who'd been drafted by the NFL since 1971.
When Mike called again, this time offering me a contract and an invitation to a mini-camp in November, I thought about it hard and then agreed. The challenge of getting in shape, of following through on something this wild appealed to me. Allen was many things I disapproved of, but he was serious about football. I was 6'1", 192 pounds, the same as in 1971. And I thought of something else: Whatever his flaws, Allen loved veterans.
I began working out in late October. I hadn't let myself fall apart in the past 11 years, but I hadn't played much football, either. Basketball and jogging and Nautilus work are only tangentially useful to a football player. To be good at a sport, you do the sport.
In a park near my apartment in Evanston, Ill. I ran 40s and backpedaled and made cuts, and as I did my ankles and left knee hurt a bit. I'd come through my earlier football career relatively unscarred, but it was hard to know how time had affected the minor injuries. One thing I felt as I ran was that this wasn't going to be a joke. I had no desire to do a George Plimpton story, to interject myself into a discipline at which I was unskilled just to see how the thing worked. Plimpton could do that, train for a few weeks and then box Archie Moore, for instance, but everybody (particularly Archie) knew that George was there as a journalist, not a jock. I didn't want any kid-glove treatment. I'd played football. I would follow this through, and if I became an embarrassment, I would simply leave.
Sprinting one cold, rainy afternoon I felt hamstring fibers going. Meat in my right leg was pulling apart. I limped home. This was an odd sensation—new in that I'd never ripped a muscle before, old in that the pain revived memories of past injuries. Football, after all, has to do with a player's accommodation of pain, observing it, validating it somehow. It's different from the pain you get in an accident. Accommodate enough of it and you've accomplished something. Two days later the back of my injured leg turned purple from mid-thigh to upper calf in a bright show of confirmation.
As I healed, people told me how crazy I was. Well, O.K. But something about their attitude bothered me. They all loved to watch pro football, but they didn't respect pro football players. In fact, they thought pro football players were fools. Had the game degenerated to that level, to freak-show status?
I signed, anyway. It was a one-year deal for $25,000, to be paid if I made the team. Mike signed me up. When I walked into his office he was holding a paper cup near his chest and spitting into it. "I have a disgusting habit," he said right away. "I chew."
I liked Mike. He was in his late 20s, and looked very harassed. "A madhouse," he said. "Why am I signing players? That's what a general manager does."
For Chicago the general manager is 26-year-old Bruce Allen, the coach's son. He also chews, and dips snuff. Ed Buckley, the Blitz' director of pro scouting, smokes immense cigars. Tobacco in its various forms seems to fuel the Blitz' front office—at least when George Allen, an abstainer, and the club president. Dr. Ted Diethrich, a heart specialist, are not around. The reason so much paperwork fell into McCarthy's lap was that Bruce Allen was often out, pursuing players for his father.
I asked McCarthy for a signing bonus. "We aren't giving them," he said.
I'd negotiated my salary up $5,000 from the original "about $20,000" he'd offered. Now I asked for more.
"We don't have the money," he said, almost sadly. "We can't pay like the NFL does."
I thought of my NFL contract negotiations with Stram years ago, an occasion that may have set a standard for player timidity. Stram was surrounded by championship trophies, and I was a terrified eighth-round draft pick. Still, I left his office that day deeply distressed that the paltry figures we were discussing—$14,000 for the first year—could mean so much to his organization.
McCarthy reached into his desk and pulled out a chart that showed how much the Blitz was paying by position, and $25,000 for defensive backs was, indeed, top of the line. Some positions, like quarterback, were getting a little more. Of course, there was big dough for star rookies like Trumaine Johnson and Tim Wrightman, and for Stan White, an NFL veteran, but the average USFL player wouldn't get any of that.
Later, at camp, I often lined up behind Shafer Suggs, a muscular, 29-year-old strong safety who'd played five years for the New York Jets, the last few in great bitterness. "It was the first contract that did it to me," he told me one day. "I was probably the lowest paid second-round pick in the history of the NFL. I knew it was a bad contract, but I just wanted to play. They knew it, too."
Such laments are almost universal. It's always the same: You get screwed on your first contract, which keeps your salary down for years. Then, by the time you know what's going on, you're damaged goods and they don't need you. "It's a perfect trade-off," the former Dallas Cowboy flanker, Pete Gent, wrote a while ago. Management makes money off the game but gives little of it back to the players in the form of salaries "because deep down we all know they'd do it for free."
It's raining hard at the Logan Correctional Center outside Lincoln, Ill., but George Allen walks through the muck with vigor. Twenty-five people surround him—guards, the warden, writers, cameramen, McCarthy, Blitz public relations chief Kay Schultz and me. I've been given permission to come along.
We walk into a small building at the far end of the prison compound. It is a weight room, and on a bench sits 6-foot, 225-pound Michal Sifford, who's doing 12 years for armed robbery. Sifford, 23, wrote to McCarthy in July asking if he could try out for the Blitz. He would be eligible for work release in January, he said, and he was in great shape. He'd played one year of small-college ball and been named MVP on the Stateville penitentiary team before getting transferred to Logan last year. And he wanted it bad. "Sir," he wrote, "I can dunk a basketball, move like a man 175 pounds. I love football, sir."
"Let's start," says Allen.
Of course, this is for publicity. The story will make the wires, and on a dull sports Thursday in November it'll run in a lot of places, which is good for the Blitz and the league. But it's also a real tryout. Hungry for any advantage, the Blitz will cover the earth seeking players. Before camp starts the team will have tested more than 3,200 prospects and signed 340—I was the 171st. Allen would die if he passed over someone who then played somewhere else.
Sifford's parents are in the room, having driven 200 miles from their suburban Chicago home. They both smoke, and Mrs. Sifford, an attractive, gray-haired woman, looks nervously out the window at the rain as her son bench-presses 220 pounds 15 times. The parents visit their boy every two weeks, but it's hard to tell how much they miss him. Mike dropped out of college in 1978, fell in with bad people, participated in some robberies, and this is what it's come to. What does a mother think?
"Football weather," says Mrs. Sifford. "I remember always washing grass-stained uniforms after days like today. I remember using too much bleach and putting holes right through Mike's game jerseys."
Sifford has already lifted weights for two hours this morning, not believing that the coach would really come. But he runs his drills in the rain now with no complaints, his blond hair plastered to his scalp. Sifford has quick feet and a massive chest. But he's primitive. His moves are raw and uncoached. He has been locked up for five years, and beaten, stabbed, humiliated. Who can say what he'll be like on the outside?
On the plane back to Chicago, Allen ponders what he has observed. Pleased with the media turnout, Schultz says, "Coach, when they do your life story and Ronald Reagan plays you, this will be an historic moment."
Allen half smiles. "I project him as a linebacker," he says. "The kind of linebacker who, if you don't give him too many responsibilities and don't make him think too much, but just turn him loose, will disengage the runner from the ball."
It was after, or maybe during, the one-day mini-camp in November at Blitz Park in Des Plaines, Ill. that I first started to feel afraid. My hamstring hadn't quite healed, and I could only perform some of the drills. But I felt I was doing all right, not embarrassing myself. I couldn't run the 40 because of the pull, but my 27-inch vertical leap put me near the middle of the pack. My three consecutive hops totaled 27 feet—not terrific, but I hadn't cheated like a lot of the others.
During the coverage drills, as I stood in line waiting to go against a receiver, I heard noises on another field. The offensive and defensive linemen were over there, going one-on-one against each other, the offensive player protecting a stand-up dummy, the defensive man trying to reach it. It was a normal, if rough, full-contact drill, but they were doing it without pads. The sounds were of bodies slamming together and wild cheering. After a few minutes an ambulance drove slowly down the perimeter road, through the parking lot and onto the field. It picked up a lineman from the drill and left.
A friend of mine named Kerry Reardon called me a few days later. Kerry and I had gone to Kansas City together as defensive backs. He'd made it and played six years for the Chiefs. He wasn't big, just fast. I asked him how badly he thought I could get hurt.
"Bad," he said. "Pretty bad."
"A lack of talent, and age. Just that hamstring you were mentioning. I pulled mine and it will bother me the rest of my life. I did it on Monday night TV, covering Golden Richards. I was just running across the field when a shotgun blast hit me in the back of the leg. I played another year, but I could never reach down again."
Reardon had been a reserve with the Chiefs until Cornerback Jim Marsalis hurt a kidney during a game. Standing next to Marsalis in the bathroom at half-time, Reardon saw Marsalis passing blood. Reardon immediately began loosening up, knowing his chance had arrived. Near the end of his career Reardon was kneed in the side during a game. He went to the locker room and stood at a urinal and passed a thimbleful of urine that was black as coal. "I couldn't go another drop." he said. He spent the next 10 days in a hospital, nauseated, literally wanting to die.
And yet, "I never worried about getting hurt," Reardon said to me on the phone that day. "Never." And neither, until now, had I.
As I ran my leg back to health, I found I was having doubts. The NFL strike was over and the games were back on TV, and their images were haunting me. It wasn't the violence as much as the way it was dispensed, the way it was accepted—even by its victims. Punt Returner Leon Bright of the Giants, after being nearly decapitated by a vicious cheap shot from the Lions' Leonard Thompson, says he doesn't mind, that "it's part of football." Dolphin Safety Lyle Blackwood, a born-again Christian, says that he and his brother, Glenn, the other Dolphin safety, "never hit people to hurt them. We just like to make people hurt." Does football promote such garbled logic? Only in this game is the head—the center of reasoning—covered with crash-resistant plastic and used as a weapon. Do the pads and armor (and the rules) give a football player too" much freedom—the freedom to commit unreasonable violence?
Even quarterbacks are getting in on it. I watched Dan Fouts get flagged for unnecessary roughness—for spearing an opponent, for burying his helmet into a downed, helpless player. I don't think I ever cheap-shot anybody when I played, though there were times, I know, when things got murky. If players begin to embrace those moments of murkiness, to revel in them, isn't there something wrong with them?
I came in from a run and sat down to watch the Lions play the Vikings on TV. Ahmad Rashad was running a crossing pattern. The moment the ball arrived, Detroit Cornerback James Hunter hit Rashad in the back, helmet first, brutally but legally, the way defensive backs are taught. Rashad, who suffered a broken bone (a transverse process) in his back, had to be carried off the field. A few series later, Hunter hit Minnesota Receiver Sam McCullum on a sideline pattern. The tackle was the same—head-first and reckless—but this time it was Hunter who did not get up. A stretcher was brought out, and doctors cautiously slid it under Hunter. His helmet was left on his head and taped securely to the stretcher. Four days later I read that the Lions' doctors had told Hunter to retire or risk permanent spinal damage. Rashad, though less seriously injured, had already decided to call it quits.
We eat breakfast at 5:30 and then climb onto a school bus for the ride to the Arizona Heart Institute, where we'll take our physicals. Training camp has begun. No matter that this is a Sunday; we're on Allen Time. There aren't any Blitz veterans here, nobody to make somebody else stand up and sing his school's fight song. Cliques haven't formed; nobody knows anybody.
I sit down in the dark next to a small, bearded black man. The only sounds on the bus come from the seat in front of us. A player wearing earphones is bouncing, snapping his fingers, singing high, happy disco. A ball of wadded newspaper hits him in the head, but he keeps on. That must be a wide receiver, I think. Later, I found out it was Marcus Anderson, a receiver who'd been with the Chicago Bears in 1981.
The player beside me sighs. He's looking at the landscape beneath purple desert sky. "This I know," he says. "I should not be a farmer." Several miles go by. "I'm Rolland Lawrence," he says, extending his hand. "Nice to meet you."
Lawrence played eight years of cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons. He's 31 years old, trying to make a comeback from a torn hamstring that kept him on injured reserve for the entire 1981 season. Like most everyone else here, except the rookies, Lawrence is damaged goods, a football suspect. I am reminded for a moment of Australia, which was settled by British convicts and outcasts. This could be a bus to Australia, I think, plowing into a dark and barren new land.
"I never stretched much," Lawrence says after a while. "One night I was playing Ping-Pong with my girl friend's father, and I could feel the muscle ready to go. It went during practice. Up high, near my butt. What position do you play?"
"Safety, maybe some punting," I say. "I don't know how I'll do. I just wanted to try again."
The bus swerves around a bend. Lawrence nods in understanding. "Hey," he says, "you'll never know unless you shake the stick."
Cornerback Dennis Bishop, a rookie from Illinois, sits across the aisle. He got two interceptions in the recent Liberty Bowl game and feels good about that. Sturdy, somber and a little bit cocky, he seems to have the proper personality for a defensive back. I notice his Liberty Bowl watch, a stylish thing with no numbers on its face. "I bet it's hard to tell time with that," I say.
"I can tell time with it," he replies.
In other seats are Bob Fletcher, a 27-year-old kicker-punter from Canada, and Don Schwartz, a 27-year-old safety who was cut by the St. Louis Cardinals in the middle of last season after four years in the NFL. Fletcher is amusing because he ends half his sentences with "eh?" and sounds like one of the McKenzie Brothers of the Great White North. Schwartz is reserved, polite and a trifle glum. He gave up a new job in real estate in Seattle to try out with the Blitz. If he makes the team, his wife will have to leave her job as a designer for a Seattle ski-wear company. I tell him that I've probably watched him play on TV. "I'm nobody," he assures me.
As we wait in line for our physicals, we talk. Isn't it weird to be on a team that's never played a game? What are the other teams like? Won't it be bad for the league if one team is much better than the others? Is the money for our salaries really there? Trumaine Johnson says he has heard that the Blitz must average 23,500 tickets per game to break even. Other players nod, some apprehensively.
The results of the physical exams hold no surprises for most players. But for me they do. I have 20/15 vision, which is nice. But X rays of my ankles show that both are debris-laden and arthritic. I can't point my toe properly when I punt because a bone chip is in the way. My left knee hurts because it's loose. There is, says the doctor, "crepitation" under the kneecap.
What he means is that I'm getting old, reaping a delayed harvest. It's too late to wonder if football has been worth it.
At our first team dinner the players are introduced to the Blitz staff. Dr. Diethrich stands behind the microphone and tells us how he has "wanted to win" his whole life. After dinner and a few words from Allen, we separate by position for meetings with our respective coaches. The defensive backs crowd into a conference room with too few chairs. There are 18 of us, and as Secondary Coach Dick Walker looks us over, he shakes his head and says, "Men, we're only keeping seven or eight of you."
The players glance at one another. A lot of them had believed that the level of skill in the USFL would be little more than semi-pro and that they, even with their limited dossiers, would tear it apart. I'd thought that, too, way back. Then I realized there are more football players in America than 10 new leagues could handle.
Everything suddenly takes on new importance. Who can appear to be the most alert? The coach lectures about technique and then glances at Dennis Bishop. "Bishop ran a 4:42 in the 40 today," he says. "He's got great potential, but he doesn't look at the quarterback through the receiver. And his footwork is lousy...." Bishop sits ramrod-straight in his chair, trying to be worthy of this near praise.
At the end of the meeting Walker picks up two bananas and holds them like guns. "Men," he says, "these are the greatest source of potassium there is."
It seemed that every time I ran into Bishop after that, he was carrying a banana.
At our first full-scale practice at Glendale Community College, everyone spontaneously claps and whistles. A circle slowly forms around Allen as the din increases. He lets it build, smiling in response. The outburst is in honor of the occasion, in the belief that this is, as the coach has so often stated, a great moment in sport, a great moment for everybody.
The novelty fades, though, to be replaced by the familiar rhythms of all training camps—wake-up calls, tapings, showers, meals, meetings. The two-a-day practices are bearable. We have read that other USFL teams in their Arizona and Florida training camps are already into heavy contact, but Allen keeps us in helmets and shorts. No pads. "We're professionals," he tells us, meaning the emphasis at this stage is on subtleties, not on head-knocking. The coaches are looking for quick feet, soft hands and the like. It's assumed that all 85 of us, even the kickers, will hit.
Very quickly leaders emerge, and in the secondary they are the veteran cornerbacks Virgil Livers and Holland Lawrence. Both are 5'9", stocky, talkative and frayed at the edges. Between them they have played in 186 NFL games. I like Lawrence particularly. I need the winks and nods he gives me, because I'm screwing up. In the recognition drills I'm sometimes unable to find the strong back in time to make my formation calls. In the footwork drills I feel unsteady, and my ankles hurt with every cut. In the tip drills, those critical exercises that teach you how to turn deflections and overthrows into interceptions, I miss balls that you don't have to catch, but "you damn well better," as Walker says.
My partner in the buddy drills is Cornerback Henry Williams, 5'11", 195 pounds, one NFL year with the Oakland Raiders. We face off for form tackling and pop each other firmly, but carefully. Henry, I know, has his own problems. In November he'd been washing dishes at home when a plate broke and sliced his right wrist, severing muscle, tendons, nerves, artery. Williams had about three minutes to save himself, and he did so by bending his hand so far forward his right palm nearly touched his forearm, stanching the blood. "I just didn't think it was my time to go," he tells me. But now his right hand is very weak and it distracts him. He'll be among the first defensive backs cut.
Before and after practices I work on my kicking with the other punters, Scott Turner and Fletcher. Thanks to the chip in my right ankle, the sweet spot on the bridge of my foot has been reduced to postage-stamp size. Without a perfect drop, I spray balls wildly.
"You're kicking well for just using your leg," says Fletcher one afternoon. "But you aren't getting your body into it, eh? Your left foot doesn't leave the ground."
We kick a few balls, and Fletcher looks pensive. "I don't mean to be telling you what to do," he says. "You tell me if you see I'm doing something wrong, eh?" We kick a few more. "I'll shut up if you want," he says.
But I don't want him to shut up. I don't want anybody to shut up. David Mays, D.D.S., a 33-year-old black quarterback from Texas Southern, comes over to punt with us. Mays left a successful dental practice in Los Angeles to try out with the Blitz. I go down to field his punts, which are quirky and hard to catch. This, I finally realize, is because he kicks left-footed. Oddly, he's a righty when he throws. "Which hand do you drill teeth with?" I yell from 40 yards away. Dr. Mays raises both arms.
The talk and the people are what make a pro camp. I even begin to look forward to Allen's lectures after dinner. With a blackboard and his boys instead of reporters and a skeptical public, the iron man grows human. He becomes somebody to trust, a player's friend. Indeed, every Blitz player I've talked with has cited the chance to play under Allen as his major reason for signing with the team.
For me, though, the bottom line right now is covering people. For a strong safety, that means tight ends. I line up on Marc May, out of Purdue, shading him to the outside. May runs straight at me, fakes left, then right, and is gone. He gathers in a 50-yarder with which he could have run to Mexico.
It's Wrightman's turn. An All-America tight end at UCLA last year, Wrightman was the first college star to hook up with the new league. He jilted the Bears for money and George Allen. Tall and muscular, Wrightman is tricky but not fast, the kind of receiver I used to prefer to cover. I watch as he confers with the quarterback. You just can't keep running long patterns in football, and so I prepare for something other than a bomb.
Wrightman runs straight at me. He fakes once and then puts his head down. He is going long. I wheel and am instantly reminded of those terrible dreams I have, in which I must run through sand. Wrightman is a step ahead of me, but the ball is overthrown. We both turn and jog back to our lines. Now, for the first time, I feel something new—anger. Just smirk and run him deep, is that it? God, I wish you could've seen me 12 years ago.
I sit at the lunch table, dreaming. Rock Richmond, a cornerback, sits across from me. Rock is skinny, tiny almost. On the field, his helmet rides sort of sideways on his head. "Don't worry, I'll get bigger cheek pads," he tells concerned teammates. But he doesn't.
Rock has been in numerous NFL camps. He's going to enroll in the Los Angeles Police Academy if things don't go his way this time. Rock injured his shoulder diving in practice, and it prevents him from sleeping well now. He sighs. "It's so hard," he says. "Over and over, from the bottom. I was 19th-string in high school, just like I am here. Actually, fifth-string. Then one day the first two corners went to play offense. The fourth-string corner quit, and the third-string corner missed practice. Suddenly...first team!"
The lunchroom is empty now, except for the two of us. The afternoon bus to the stadium leaves in less than an hour, and it's too late to do anything but just sit here. God knows why Rock plays football. God knows why anyone does.
Rock tests his sore shoulder and then yawns. "I'm tired," he says. "If I went to sleep now, the season would be over when I woke up."
I quit that afternoon. I told Walker and Allen I was leaving and thanked them for their patience. My legs hurt, and I was beginning to embarrass myself. One thing I did before I left was to find out where Michal Sifford was. He was in a work-release program, said Kay Schultz. Under the terms of the program he couldn't leave Illinois, which ruled out training camp and away games. Allen was thinking about putting Sifford on something called the "developmental squad," however. For the future.
Already I missed the guys, but I intended to slink out of Phoenix the way I had out of K.C., under cover of darkness, like a criminal—the way I felt.