Thursday, Dec. 29, New York City: The Checker cab rumbled through Lower Manhattan. It was a cold, blustery night, and every few blocks homeless men were huddled around garbage cans filled with burning trash. "What are those people doing?" asked Warren Moon, a veteran of six years and five straight Grey Cup wins as a quarterback with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League but a rookie visitor to New York City.
"Oh, those are street people," one of the New Yorkers in the cab replied casually. "They eat out of garbage cans and live out of shopping bags. They're just trying to keep warm."
Moon, who grew up in Los Angeles, had never seen anything like it. "They live on the streets!" he said in disbelief. "They actually survive!"
Moon was stunned. There he was, at 27, with everything a person could want: a beautiful wife, two healthy children, a thriving off-the-field business (W. Moon's Chocolate Chippery cookie shops) and homes in Edmonton, Seattle and Los Angeles. And, as a pro football rarity—a true free agent—with a rocket for an arm, out-of-this-world stats (in each of the last two seasons with Edmonton he had thrown for 5,000 yards and more than 30 touchdowns) and three leagues bidding for his services, Moon knew he was likely to sign a contract for $1 million a year or more.
He shook his head. "It doesn't seem right," he said to Leigh Steinberg, his Berkeley-based lawyer and agent. "I'm asking for a million dollars a year, and they have nothing."
New York was the third stop on Moon's four-city "fact-finding" tour of interested NFL teams. At least six other NFL clubs—and, at one time, a total of 14 in the NFL, CFL and USFL—had made overtures.
"Look, Warren," Steinberg said, "if you weren't getting that million, it's not like it would be going to them. If you sign with the Giants, we can arrange to donate some money to the homeless."
"That would make me feel better," Moon said, "although I'm not so sure I'll ever feel comfortable making this much money."
The cab ride was but another episode in Moon's odyssey, an exhausting, eye-opening, seven-week, 52,000-mile journey that came to an end last Friday night when Moon agreed to a blockbuster $6 million, five-year deal with the Houston Oilers, with much of the money guaranteed. It was a trip marked by bright lights, sleepless nights, limos, discos, four-star restaurants, three-piece pinstripe suits, oil wells, Ralph Sampson, astronauts, barrages of phone calls (an average of 40 and as many as 250 a day) and strippers.
Actually, the journey began in March of 1978 when Moon, after being named Pac-8 Player of the Year and leading the University of Washington to a 27-20 upset win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl, signed with the Eskimos rather than wait for the May NFL draft. Moon felt that, as a black quarterback, he wouldn't get a fair shake in the NFL. No NFL team drafted him that year, which meant if he ever made a bid to play in the league, he would be a free agent.
When the '83 CFL season ended in November, Moon and Steinberg made a list of eight NFL teams they believed could best use his skills. They put down the advantages of each team: Seattle (site of his off-season home, proximity to his closest friends, indoor stadium perfect for a passer); Houston (indoor stadium, needed a quarterback); New Orleans (coach Bum Phillips); Los Angeles Raiders (owner Al Davis); Tampa Bay (city accustomed to a black quarterback); New York Giants (best business opportunities); Philadelphia (fervent fans); and Baltimore (an up-and-comer).
And then the cons: Seattle (Moon's wife, Felicia, feared the city would turn on him as it had when he was unsuccessful in his early years at Washington); Houston (losing team); New Orleans (he worried about moving to the Deep South); Raiders (he'd not be likely to start); Tampa Bay (losing team); Giants (overly critical press, overly demanding fans); Philadelphia and Baltimore (too far from family and friends).
And then the odyssey really began. Dec. 19-20, Houston: Moon and Steinberg are met at the airport by throngs of reporters. They get into a limo sent by the Oilers and flick on its TV. The first thing they get is the news that coach Chuck Studley has resigned. "The reporter then said that [general manager] Ladd Herzeg would be the next to go if he didn't turn things around," Steinberg recalls. "I said to Warren, They're probably very sorry they gave us a TV in this limo.' He was disappointed. 'I came all this way to talk to a coach,' he said. 'Now, there isn't one.' "
Moon's spirits revive during a visit to the office of owner Bud Adams, whose walls are covered with huge autographed pictures of astronauts from most of America's flights.
Dec. 21-22, New Orleans: The Moons check out Bourbon Street. "Very bizarre," Warren says. "Strippers, naked ladies." Felicia is particulary fond of a woman who mooned Warren. "She was wiggling, shaking," Felicia says. "You should've seen his face."
They have breakfast with Bum Phillips. "He was very casual," Moon says, "but very straightforward." Moon would start; Kenny Stabler would relieve. Some Saints players tell Moon he'd love New Orleans, that owner John Mecom has thrown parties for players on his 103-foot yacht, that they drink together. Moon, who's a near-teetotaler, isn't impressed.
Dec. 28-29, New York: Giants general manager George Young is mired in the Lawrence Taylor-USFL contract fiasco. With the team's permission, Moon and Steinberg commandeer the Giants' limo and call on Donald Trump to talk about USFL opportunities. Later they go to Studio 54.
Jan. 10-11, Tampa: Moon talks with owner Hugh Culverhouse. "I was totally overwhelmed," Moon says. "I'd never met that kind of guy—somebody worth 300 or 400 million dollars—and had him explain how he made his money. I'm just a little guy from a lower middle-class background." Culverhouse tells Moon how hurt he was when the city's black community labeled him a racist after the Bucs lost quarterback Doug Williams to the USFL. "I started to wonder if that was part of the reason he had me in town," Moon says.
Jan. 24-25, Houston: The Oilers have now made an offer and have a new coach, Hugh Campbell, who was the Edmonton coach when Moon and the Eskimos won their five Grey Cups. Moon pays him a visit. An acquaintance of Bud Adams' says he'll give Moon "one of my oil wells" if he turns the Oilers into winners. Moon goes out on the town with Ralph Sampson. Sampson is late for practice the next morning and is fined.
Jan. 26-31, Honolulu: Moon and Steinberg are in town for the Jan. 29 Pro Bowl. On the beach at Waikiki they meet with general manager Mike McCormack and coach Chuck Knox. Knox indicates that Jim Zorn will be traded and Dave Krieg will have to battle for his starting job. McCormack tells Steinberg that Seattle's offer is $5.5 million for five years. Later, Moon bumps into Oiler running back Earl Campbell at the Hau Tree Bar. Campbell has asked to be traded. "Talk about a bitter guy," Moon says. "He doesn't think they approach things with class." Moon cools on Houston.
In three days Steinberg's hotel phone bill reaches $600. Seattle and Houston are very aggressive. Tampa Bay and New Orleans balk at Moon's price tag. The Giants refuse to talk money. Steinberg goes home to Berkeley, Moon to Seattle.
Feb. 1, Berkeley: Herzeg arrives at Steinberg's office, which is in his house, at about 7:30 p.m. Steinberg has had Houston's complicated package reviewed by five financial analysts. McCormack stays in touch by phone. The Oiler and Seahawk offers are both for five years and almost identical in dollars. But Seattle's is structured so that only about 20% of the money is guaranteed, in the form of a signing bonus. Moon fears that if he's a bust, the Seahawks might cut him just to get rid of his big salary. In the Oilers' offer, the guaranteed signing bonus accounts for 80% of the money with Moon's annual salary in the low six-figures. Negotiations go on until 11 p.m., with one major interruption. "Ladd had to watch Dynasty" Steinberg says.
Feb. 2, Berkeley: Negotiations resume early in the morning. The Seahawks won't budge. Houston ups its offer. Moon is now leaning toward Houston, but won't make a decision. Herzeg, growing impatient, watches Dynasty, which he had taped, a second time.
Feb. 3, Berkeley: Herzeg fails to show in the morning for negotiations. Steinberg, who does his best thinking on his exercise bike, hits it for 50 miles. Herzeg resurfaces shortly after noon in Houston. Wearied by flu, he had flown home. Negotiations resume by phone.
In Seattle, Moon spends the afternoon talking to McCormack, Knox and Seahawk owner John Nordstrom on the phone but the Seahawks won't increase the amount of the guaranteed money.
At 6:30 p.m., Moon calls Steinberg. "He's very torn," Steinberg says. He asks Moon to list his priorities in life. "Family first," Moon says, "then friends. And Leigh," he adds, "they're all right here in Seattle." But the question of guaranteed money weighs heavily on Moon.
At seven, Moon finally makes his decision. "Leigh," he says, "I'm going South." It's Houston.