Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartkowski was talking retirement last week after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his right knee, which is almost devoid of cartilage because of previous operations. "I don't know where I am physically right now. I need some time alone," says Bartkowski, 32. "I've thought a lot about my boys [Phillip, 4, and Peter, 1]. I think about being able to play Wiffle Ball with them or throw a football. I think about being able to function like a normal human being when I'm out of the game, without having to use crutches, without being in somewhat of an invalid state. I don't want to put a burden on my family like that. I certainly want to enjoy my boys. They're a great gift from God, and if I weren't able to take them camping or wading in a stream, that would break my heart."
Get this. Donald Trump, the owner of the USFL's New Jersey Generals, says he wants to negotiate an arms-control treaty with the Russians. "Some people have an ability to negotiate," Trump told The Washington Post. "It's an art you're basically born with. You either have it or you don't."
As for missiles, Trump says, "It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles...I think I know most of it anyway."
Some pro football experts predict that Trump would start by persuading the Russians to move May Day to the fall.
After calling 12 penalties on the Bengals and only three on the visiting Seahawks in a game at Riverfront Stadium Nov. 18, it was only natural that the officials would be the least popular folks in the place. A bit embarrassed, Bengal coach Sam Wyche went to the end zone and asked the fans to desist from pelting the beleaguered zebras with snowballs and nasty words.
The situation got even uglier as line judge Jack Fette was leaving the field after the game. Hearing the taunts of a fan, Fette screamed, "Come down here, you——." When the fan attempted to climb over the guardrail, he was restrained by stadium police. Referee Gordon McCarter, the crew chief, grabbed Fette and shoved him toward the officials' dressing room. How about 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct?
Over the years, some pro football people have complained that Cowboy president Tex Schramm gets too many things his way. One example critics have cited is Dallas's annual Thanksgiving turkey feast at home. After beating the Patriots 20-17 last week, the Cowboys were up to 13-3-1 in that one. Well, now it's Schramm who has found something to squawk about. It seems the Cowboys must play their last regular-season game, in Miami on a Monday night, only six days before a possible wild-card playoff game. "If we have to play the wildcard game, we get screwed," grumps Schramm, who knows some potential opponents could have a two- or three-day edge in preparation. Wonder how much sympathy Schramm will get?
"I know when my birthday is," says Viking kicker Jan Stenerud, the oldest player in the NFL—and the only player in the league older than his head coach (Les Steckel is 38). "My birthday is definitely November 26."
But what year? A check of Kansas City media guides from 1967-74 shows Stenerud was born on that date in 1942. But in the '75 guide, Stenerud's clock gets turned back, and his birth date becomes 11/26/43. And there it has stayed.
Time to come clean, Jan. "I told the p.r. guy in Kansas City to do me a favor and lie," Stenerud says. "Jerrel Wilson told me that you're never under oath in the NFL to tell your age. So I subtracted a year. I never thought I'd be kicking when I was 41—er, ah—42. Hell, I just thought I could stay in my 30s for an extra year. What's so awful about that?"
Coach Mike Ditka, whose 9-4 Bears have clinched the NFC Central Division title, should feel secure in his job. But instead, Ditka, who's in the final year of his contract, finds himself in a precarious position. "You've got to understand that I didn't come here hired by the people who own the ball club now," said Ditka on his Nov. 19 radio call-in show. "And there probably is a good chance that I probably won't be back next year."
Team president Michael McCaskey, who took over last fall after the death of his grandfather, George Halas, has a Harvard M.B.A. approach to running the team. Even though the Bears are winning, McCaskey says he won't review Ditka's contract until the end of the season. He has reservations about Ditka, a headstrong man given to fiery, self-destructive outbursts. As one player says, "Maybe there are other factors besides winning games. Let's face it. Ditka makes an ass out of himself sometimes. That might have something to do with it." Ditka, meanwhile, has reservations of his own about McCaskey, whom he views as a non-football man.
"It's premature to say he won't be head coach next year," McCaskey says. "I hope this issue doesn't turn into a bonfire."
Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's contract also expires at the end of the season. Although it's hard to imagine that McCaskey would fire the coordinator of the league's top defense, Ryan is even less of a McCaskey-type spit-and-polish team man than Ditka.
Most recently, Ditka has tried to dampen the controversy. On a Nov. 24 radio show he said, "I probably shouldn't have said anything about the possibility of being dismissed because it gave the impression I would not be back. I'd say it's about a 50-50 proposition right now. As far as wanting to stay, I do."
Last year, Houston's Tim Smith led all NFL wide receivers with 83 catches. But when AFC players and coaches marked their Pro Bowl ballots, they chose four other players. This season Smith is turning it on again—he leads the Oilers with 49 catches for 797 yards (a 16.3-yard average). But a recent NFL press release referred to him as John Smith. Says Smith, who's resigned to his lack of recognition, "I guess Tim is too hard to spell."
Dick Vermeil is saying thanks but no thanks to rumors that he wants to coach again. "So far this year, I'm supposed to be going to Florida, Louisville, Tampa Bay and now Notre Dame," says the former Eagles coach. "I'm not going to state I'll never go back, because then if I did, I'd have told a lie. But now, I have no intention of going back."
The fact is, Vermeil may not have the stomach for coaching anymore. After watching his former team lose to Miami 24-23 on a blocked extra point with 1:52 seconds remaining on Nov. 11, Vermeil said to his wife, "Can you imagine how we'd feel if we were there?"
Cowboys linebacker Bob Breunig has a motorized hospital bed in his bedroom because of painful back spasms that may force him to retire. "I lie in a comfortable position, put myself in traction, and I feel like a new person," he says.
Breunig, a 10-year veteran, hurt his back in training camp, jumping over hurdles. He missed two games and returned with the help of weekly painkilling injections. Then, three weeks ago, he further aggravated his back, bending over to tie his shoe. "Now it hurts to breathe," Breunig says. "Sneezing is deadly, and nobody tells good jokes around me because laughing is a killer."
Not everybody gives him sympathy—his three boys terrorize him by messing with the bed's controls. "Just when I get in the right position," Breunig says, "they sneak up and start the engine."
WILL THE REAL MELVIN BROWN...
The Minnesota Vikings may not be near the top of the standings, but they lead the league in Melvin Browns—they have two of them. To add to the confusion, the Browns are roommates, and both are on injured reserve with damaged knees.
Melvin Anthony Brown, who answers to Melvin or M.A., is a 5'11", 176-pound cornerback from Mississippi. Melvin Lee Brown, who is called Mel, M.L. or the other Melvin, is a 6'4", 195-pound rookie wide receiver from North Alabama.
"When a coach told me during the off-season, 'We're scouting another one of you,' I thought he meant another cornerback," says M.A. "You never want to hear that. But when he said, 'No, another Melvin Brown,' I couldn't wait to meet my clone." Says M.L., "We hit it off right away. We're a lot alike."
So they decided to become roommates. And on occasions it can really get confusing. Like when the phone rings. Says M.A., "The voice will say, 'May I please speak to Melvin?' And I'll say, 'Which Melvin?' And the caller will say, 'Melvin Brown.' Then I'll get 10 minutes into the conversation and realize the caller wants M.L." Or, when the mail arrives. Says M.A., "If it's addressed to Melvin Brown, we usually open it together." Says M.L., "But if it's a bill, I tell Melvin, 'Definitely, it's for you.' "
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
OFFENSE: San Diego's Charlie Joiner became the NFL's alltime reception leader (651) as he caught six passes to break the record of former Redskin Charley Taylor (649) in a 52-24 loss to the Steelers.
DEFENSE: St. Louis middle linebacker E.J. Junior had 17 unassisted tackles and sacked quarterback Joe Pisarcik once and broke up a pass as the Cardinals came from behind to beat Philadelphia 17-16.
When Green Bay center Larry McCarren missed the Packers' 31-28 loss to Detroit on Thanksgiving Day because of a pinched nerve in his neck, his consecutive-games streak ended at 162. And who moved into the Top 10 NFL Tough Guys list but Joe Theismann, one of those not-so-durable quarterback types. The leaders: