In an operating room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, the star player is watching his boss go to work. In a few hours Stan White, a linebacker who jumped from the Detroit Lions to the USFL's Chicago Blitz after 11 seasons in the NFL, will be at work himself on the practice field. But now it's 6 a.m. and the Blitz' principal owner, Dr. Edward Diethrich, a cardiovascular surgeon and founder of the Arizona Heart Institute, is about to perform a triple bypass operation. Dressed in a green hospital gown, the 6'1", 223 lb. White looks like an oversized orderly who is doubling as a bouncer at the OR door. In effect, he is getting a sneak preview of a performance that Diethrich will give before a national TV audience a few weeks later, on Feb. 23, when he will perform the first open-heart surgery shown live on television.
Having an owner who is also a surgeon does not strike White as particularly strange, because he himself is a man of disparate vocations. Off field he is an attorney—magna cum laude from the University of Baltimore's law school—who has chosen to specialize in corporate law. If there's an overlap in his two professions, it was evident during the NFL players' strike last fall when White, the Lions' player rep, was a prime mover and shaker—so much so that he's now regarded as Ed Garvey's most likely successor as union leader. He subsequently became the only NFL starter to join the new league.
Diethrich begins, and White, as intent as the atmosphere is intense, says softly, "He can't be like me. He can't say, 'Hey, don't worry, I'll get him next time.' " Diethrich works on, occasionally stopping to explain what he's doing. "See how the heart is beating," he says, holding it up for better viewing, "and now see how it stops."
White gulps and says, only half in jest, "Let me get down in a more stable position in case my knees get weak."
But then curiosity gets the better of squeamishness. "This is something that really means something," he whispers. "He has life and death in his fingers. Life is so delicate."
A few minutes later White asks another onlooker, "Would you say that heart is pretty big?"
"Yeah, I'd say so."
"Then it's not the heart of an NFL owner," he cracks. White is still bitter about the strike and dissatisfied with the settlement. He argues that the salary structures in the NFL are stacked against the players, keeping them "underpaid at the beginning of their careers and overpaid at the end."
An hour passes.
"Look at how that heart fits in that cavity," observes White. "God really had a better idea." There are complications in the operation, but Diethrich apparently gets them under control. There's speculation as to when the surgeon will be able to leave the operating room. Says White, "I don't think you come out of the game in the fourth quarter when you're only just a touchdown ahead." Diethrich stays.
During a break he comes over and explains the problems, adding, "It was kind of like making sure the wide receiver doesn't get behind the safety. You don't want that to happen, ever."
When the operation is over, White feels both drained and elated. "Seeing something like that," he says, "will make football seem easy."
It's too early to make comparisons between the NFL and USFL, aside from some obvious differences in talent, but there do seem to be fewer barriers and more camaraderie in the new league, as the operating-room scene illustrates. You for me and me for you. Among the key personalities on the Chicago Blitz—its best-known player, its better-known coach and even its owner—there's the understanding that this endeavor represents not just another chance for them in sports, but most likely a last chance.
Blitz Coach (and minority owner) George Allen has been, however much he denies it, frozen out of the NFL since 1977. White's union activities marked him as an undesirable, and his future as a player with the Lions was uncertain. For years Diethrich had tried unsuccessfully to get an NFL franchise. Add to that a whole raft of football players—the Blitz alone looked at more than 3,200—certain they could play wondrously if only somebody would give them a fair chance. Thus, there's a great incentive for cooperation. Indeed, Allen says that if the USFL should fail, it would mark the final effort at establishing a rival pro league. Says White, "In the NFL, the pie is there and everybody is fighting over the pieces. Here, we have to create the pie. There's going to be a players' union, but it has got to be completely cooperative. It's no good to have a union without the league."
White's hopes for the USFL? "Professional credibility and long life," he says as he juggles an orange in his hotel room. "This is like an NFL camp before all the veterans get in. So, the only thing we're missing is the buildup of veterans. We may be comparable to one or two of the NFL teams already, and I know we're as good as most NFL teams at the skill positions. I've been fighting against the NFL so long. Now I can really compete against them." He sighs, happily.
Ever since White agreed to terms with the Blitz on Jan. 12, the Lions have gone out of their way to say that he didn't fit into their plans for 1983. Coach Monte Clark is said to be relieved that White left because he thinks the 33-year-old linebacker is washed up. Clark, say Lions sources, probably would have been unable to cut White next year because it would have looked like vindictiveness against an executive committee member of the NFL players' association.
Citing White's long career (eight years with the Colts before being traded to Detroit in 1980), one Lion official says, "Tell me again, how many Pro Bowls has Stan been in?" The answer is none. Yet, he was the Lions' defensive MVP in 1981, when Detroit was first in the league against the rush. He holds the NFL record for linebacker interceptions in one season—eight, in 1975—and he's second in career interceptions (34). In 11 years he missed only four games to injuries. Maxie Baughan, one of Allen's superb linebackers of the past and until recently the defensive coordinator for the Lions, says, "Stan White is as heady a player as ever played the game. People say he doesn't have the size or speed, but they overlook the productivity. To get 34 interceptions, well, you can't just be lucky that many times."
Adds Lion Quarterback Gary Daniel-son, "I'm sure the franchise won't close down without him, but Stan's the type who always makes the 10 other guys play better. If you play with Stan, it helps your career." But the strike seemed to damage Detroit more than any other team in the NFL—the Lions had started with a 2-0 record but then won only two more games afterward. The bottom line is that the outspoken and contentious White could never be forgiven for his fierce union activism.
Enter Allen, who has made a habit of acquiring established and intelligent linebackers as soon as he takes over a coaching job. When Allen came to the Rams in 1966 he brought in the veteran Bill George from the Bears. When he went to the Redskins in 1971, he immediately arranged a blockbuster trade with his old team that gave him three linebackers, Jack Pardee, Myron Pottios and Baughan. Allen's veteran linebackers act as on-field coaches for his complicated defenses. Thus White was ideal—"like a first-round pick," Allen boasts.
It turns out that Allen and White have much in common. Both are advocates of clean living as a test of character. Both are excessively fond of film watching. Their happiest moments are when they rewind the movie projector to watch a play one more time. At a defensive meeting not long ago, Allen was changing film when he said to White, "Stan, we have a chance to have a heckuva defense." Linebacker Coach Joe Haering chimed in, "We're an offensive defense." And White explained, "The idea of our defense is to take away what the other team does best and make them beat us with what they don't do best."
White was the only player in the NFL in recent years to call all defenses on the field, a task he will assume for the Blitz. Allen doesn't like to make calls from the sideline because he thinks it seriously blunts the effectiveness of his famed 4-3 defense (vs. the 3-4 most other teams now use). White has to know 100 possible defensive audibles, and Allen confesses, "We have to be careful we don't become too smart and try to do too much."
When it's suggested that nobody else wanted White, Allen says, "That doesn't bother me. I wanted Stan." Then, in a rhythmic and practiced litany, he ticks off the names of the old or troublesome or unwanted players who starred for him—Roy Jefferson, Ron McDole, Ken Houston, Billy Kilmer, Pottios, Pardee, on and on. "If it's the right type of old guy," says Allen, "he appreciates it whenever someone still thinks he can contribute."
For a player to have been a union activist is actually an asset on Allen's checklist. At one time at Washington, he thinks he may have had 23 who were or had been player reps. Sitting around the hotel pool in Phoenix in a rare moment of relaxation, Allen says slyly, "It just seems every time I talk about trades, the player reps are the ones available. They can all play football, they have a good attitude, they are dedicated to winning and they have leadership. I think Detroit is going to miss Stan."
Allen himself seems mellower, as if caught up in the new spirit of cooperation. When he invited a writer for lunch the other day, he said with a laugh, "This is a first for me." Indeed, in the NFL it had always been Allen and his Team vs. the World. He even invited the writer to team meetings. "I'm just glad I can change," says Allen. On the practice field he no longer holds a stopwatch to time every punt snap; he doesn't bother clocking the hang time. He implies he has been reborn in the USFL, saying, "It's good to start over and scrape." Yet, in calling this his toughest job ever, Allen insists he can improve his already stellar pro record of 116-47-5, fourth-best in NFL history.
Allen long ago retired the trophy for spending an owner's money, which is a major reason he became persona non grata in the NFL. Diethrich claims he's not concerned. "He's a perfectionist, I'm a perfectionist," the doc says. However, when Allen told Diethrich he planned to bring 110 players to camp in Phoenix, Diethrich said, "Cut that to 85, Coach. Let's do some pre-screening." The largest salary on the Blitz is White's—reportedly $200,000 annually on a three-year contract. With Detroit last year he would have earned $140,000 had there been no strike. White is at last getting what he feels he deserves.
Born in Dover, Ohio but raised in Kent, White is the son of former professional bowler Bill White. (His father passed along those skills; Stan averages 200 on the lanes and twice won the NFL bowling tournament.) When Stan was 10, a kidney disease hospitalized him for nine weeks and kept him at home for six months. "First, the doctors told my parents I was going to die," he says, "then they said I was real lucky, but that I'd never play sports again."
In high school White became the first and only Ohio schoolboy to play in state all-star games in three sports—football, basketball and baseball. His grades were excellent. Colleges from across the land recruited him, including some from the Ivy League, but Woody Hayes lured him to Ohio State. His fellow student and future wife, Patty Welsh (they have two daughters, Amanda, 7, and Meghan, 4) checked student IDs in the campus food line. "It was always good to be friendly with the girl who worked there," says White, "because she could get you an extra dinner." However, he adds with a smile, Patty did not agree to marry him until he was assured of a job in the NFL.
At Ohio State, White was already becoming something of a headache as a football player. Because he wanted White to work harder and live up to his potential, Hayes reminded him continually, "You're not staying the same. You're either getting better or getting worse." White seemed intent on going in the latter direction—he bounced from position to position until, when White was a junior, Defensive Coordinator Lou McCullough tried him at linebacker as a last shot.
McCullough, now athletic director at Iowa State, told Stan that he was too good not to be a starter. "If you ever play yourself down to second team," McCullough warned, "just go on home." Then McCullough set about teaching White how to play linebacker, including emphasis on "how to make a punishing tackle by running right through 'em." White caught on. Subsequently, McCullough gave the linebackers a test of 220 questions, covering not only what they were supposed to do on each play, but what everyone else was supposed to do. White made a place for himself in the lore of Ohio State when he answered all 220 correctly.
Chosen as a 17th-round draft pick in 1972—meaning that 437 college seniors were judged better by the pros—White was so humiliated that he sat in his dormitory closet for an entire day after the draft. But by the beginning of his second year at Baltimore, he was a starter. Seven years later the Colts got precious little for him—an eighth-round draft pick—when they sent him to Detroit, a trade that was made, surprise, the year after he became the Colt player rep. In the meantime he had acquired a law degree by going to school at night, graduating sixth in his class of more than 200.
White has never felt appreciated until now. "The problem in the NFL," he says, "is that the owners look at their success as a tribute to their management. They consider the players interchangeable. Here they realize how important the players are. There's more of a symbiotic relationship than in the NFL. There are a lot of players who will come to this league, where relationships are better."
When White tells the younger players on the Blitz to do something, he also explains why. "Get wider on that coverage," he shouts. "See, you've got help on the inside." As much as they respect his leadership, though, his teammates aren't afraid to get on him. "Hey, Stan," one yelled, after White was delayed in getting to practice by a photo session, "Are you late or are we all early?"
White often sits out the drills to observe, a luxury he can afford because he's still in shape from the NFL season and because he doesn't have to prove anything to Allen. Standing alongside the parched practice field at Glendale Community College, White says he believes that "the older you get, the better you are. But I also know the quickest way to get into trouble is to think I can just walk through this new league. That's not true. Look at these young players. They're bigger, faster and stronger than I am. So I have to use my experience and the abilities I have left to keep my job. Fortunately, it's not just a physical game."
Now he wanders over and stands next to Allen. They converse frequently, Allen explaining how some technical aspect of the game was handled when he was at Washington and then asking White how it was done in Detroit. Both squint against the desert sun, a matched pair. White points at a young player and says, "He's very tentative, waiting for something to happen. Most of them are."
Meanwhile, Diethrich is saying, "Stan can advise us. We've all got to work together, and he can make the difference. We need to prove ourselves this first year because if we are a first-year failure, there will be no second-year success." Which is to say, like a critical bypass operation, the USFL has got to get it right the first time.