Matt Blair, a Vikings linebacker for 12 years, wears an interesting piece of jewelry around his neck, a 14-karat gold chain with his own front tooth mounted on a pendant. It's a souvenir from a playoff game against the Redskins in 1976.
"Calvin Hill was coming across the middle on a pass pattern and I came up to make a big hit on him," Blair says. "We both hit the ground and his shoulder pads bounced up and hit my mouth. Suddenly I was sucking a whole lot of cold air. I knew my tooth had fallen out.
"The next day at practice, Fran Tarkenton was in the middle of the field, getting ready to call a play. Mick Tingelhoff reached down to hike the ball, and he saw my tooth...."
But why did he have the tooth mounted? "I'd never had any kind of jewelry except for a watch," says Blair, who takes the necklace off only for practice and games. "I'd always wanted a necklace. This is no cheapie: It cost about $250. Besides, everybody asks me about it."
Most players are angry when they're sent to the bench. But not Bill Kenney, the Chiefs' quarterback. He was actually relieved when told that Todd Blackledge would start the five games remaining in the season.
"I never thought I would say it was time to come out of the starting lineup, because I worked so hard to get there," Kenney says. "But the way I'm banged up now and the way I'm playing, I'm not going to help this football team. I haven't been able to throw the ball effectively. Right now, the team and I would be better off with me as a reliever. I've got headaches constantly. My elbow throbs all the time. I feel like I've played a whole season already. This is a move I welcome. I don't know if I'm shell-shocked or not, but I guess that's a good word for it."
With three-quarters of the NFL season completed, some of the ex-USFL players who joined up this year have played in a lot of games—as many as 38, counting regular season, playoffs and exhibitions. No wonder fatigue is one of their favorite subjects.
•Bill Johnson, the ex-Denver Gold fullback who's with the Bengals: "When I look out of my helmet, it seems like this crossbar has been here forever."
•James Harrell, the injured Detroit linebacker, formerly with Tampa Bay, "My whole body just got tired. It couldn't take any more pounding. My back was killing me. It seems like somebody was riding on the top of my back."
•David Greenwood, the Tampa Bay Bucs' strong safety who was with Oakland: "Mental fatigue has set in with me, and I have struggled with it."
Most players say they've noticed distinct differences at the competitive level.
•Reggie White, former Memphis defensive end, now with the Eagles: "In this league you're going against a good player every week. That wasn't always the case in the other league."
•Doug Smith, former Birmingham defensive tackle now with the Oilers: "Offenses in the NFL aren't as physical as offenses in the USFL. Maybe it was the conference we were in, but we played a lot of slam ball against teams like New Jersey and Memphis. In that league, you'd better buckle your helmet on first and second down."
•Joe Cribbs, the Bills' unhappy running back who wants a trade: "I think USFL teams basically had 17 to 22 guys who could be competitive in both leagues. I thought [Birmingham coach] Rollie Dotsch was one of the finer coaches I've played for."
Coaches at Washington and Washington State believe the vertical leap is a better indicator of a player's potential than the 40-yard dash. Do National Football League coaches agree?
Says Miami coach Don Shula: "Little receivers, guys like Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, become big receivers because of their jumping ability. It ties in with all the other tests—no less, no more important."
"I like it as a supplement to everything else," says Oilers coach Hugh Campbell. "Same goes for the 40-yard dash. But I'd rather see a guy go out for a pass, turn and catch it than clock him in the 40. I'd rather see him do a football thing."
But Bears coach Mike Ditka goes along with the jumpsters. "The one thing that crops up more than any other factor is not strength or speed, it's vertical jump," he says.
Then there is coach Bud Grant of the Vikings: "I think I know who can jump and who can't. [Wide receiver] Sammy White's vertical jump is about 11 inches, where [wide receiver] Leo Lewis's is 36 inches. That's what the scouts bring back—how fast players are, how high they can jump, how strong they are. What they can't measure is heart."
Federal marshals showed up at the Chiefs' practice facility at Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 20 and arrested defensive end Mike Bell, who was implicated in a drug investigation that had its roots in a gambling probe in Wichita, Kans. Bell, 28, was charged with two counts of using the telephone to distribute cocaine (each count carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison and a $30,000 fine) and one count of attempting to possess cocaine (one year and $5,000).
His twin brother, Mark, a former NFLer who played with the Colts and Seahawks, was also among 31 people indicted by the federal grand jury in Wichita. Wichita police chief Richard LaMunyon said neither of the Bells was charged with gambling violations.
A VERY BAD BREAK
Joe Theismann is overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotion that has come his way since he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg Nov. 18. "I guess through the course of 12 years," says Theismann, 36, "you're supposed to be a tough guy in a tough business. And you go out and play and you say, 'I don't give a damn about this and I don't give a damn about that.' All of a sudden you get hurt, and literally thousands and thousands of people pour their hearts out to you and say they're sorry, 'We're going to miss you.' I never felt so much love. I couldn't leave the game right now."
Caspar Weinberger, Mike Ditka and Bill Walsh all wired wishes for a speedy recovery. The fifth-graders at Salem Avenue Elementary School of Hagerstown, Md. sent drawings. The "little Redskins" at the ACCA Daycare Center in Annandale, Va. sent a big red balloon. Pete Rozelle phoned, and so did Lawrence Taylor, one of the New York Giants who put Theismann out.
Even the Dallas Cowboy defensive backs sent flowers. Says Theismann, "The card read, 'We're sorry you've left because we need some interceptions.' "
Theismann refuses to think about retirement. He had broken his right ankle in the first game of the '72 season with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts—and played eight weeks later. He predicts he can make the Redskins' May minicamp.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
OFFENSE: Ron Brown of the Rams ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns (98 and 86 yards) and also caught five passes for 87 yards, including a 39-yard TD, in Los Angeles's 34-17 victory over Green Bay.
DEFENSE: Giants end George Martin returned an interception for a 56-yard TD and had three tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery that set up a field goal as New York defeated the Cardinals 34-3.
Sacks are a little like home runs in baseball. They can mask weaknesses—the Dolphins, for example, rank 26th in total defense—and still keep teams in the playoff chase. Here are the best sack teams in the league:
And the worst teams, the sackees: