Dim the lights. Run your memory back to 1969. Ronald Reagan is governor of California. Curt Flood has decided to sue baseball over the reserve clause. David Archer is seven years old, in the second grade and playing flag football for the Strandwood Elementary Road Runners in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Jeff Van Note of the University of Kentucky has been drafted in the 11th round by the Atlanta Falcons.
He drives into the Falcons' Johnson City, Tenn., training camp in an orange '64 Volkswagen. He is 23, his hair is as black as India ink, his jaw is like a jug, and he weighs 236 pounds. He fills up his chin strap pretty well.
The Falcons have drafted Van Note to play middle linebacker. They already have a middle linebacker named Tommy Nobis. Van Note, who has been switched to center, is destined for the waiver wire, another life—except for the fact that Norm Van Brocklin is the Falcons' head coach. Van Brocklin is called the Dutchman, and he likes the rookie's name. Van Note is half Dutch. The Dutchman puts Van Note on the waiver wire and reclaims him. Before games, Van Note says, the coach comes in the locker room to laugh sardonically and—it's Van Brocklin's idea of a joke—spit hot coffee on Van Note's naked body. "How d'ya like that, Dutch Boy?" cracks Van Brocklin.
"Fine, sir. Just fine," says Van Note, who will make the Pro Bowl six times, snap the ball to 14 different quarterbacks, end up second behind only Jim Marshall in games played with one team (246 after this season) and straddle the eras of magnificent centers like Len Hauss, Mick Tinglehoff, Jim Otto, Mike Webster and Dwight Stephenson....
October 5, 1986
All of a sudden it's the fall of 1986. Van Note is 40 and still scuffling to play center for the Falcons. Everything but that has changed. He is the oldest player in a young man's league. "Amazing," marvels line coach Larry Beightol. "Jeff's enthusiasm allows him to continue. He's listed as a backup now, but I'm gonna play him. He's gotta play. Anytime you're 40 years old and can still line up against Tony Casillas, a Lombardi Award winner...."
Casillas, a 6'3", 280-pound nose-guard, was the Falcons' No. 1 draft pick, out of Oklahoma. He faced off against Van Note in training camp and felt a twinge of pity for the old man—a very brief twinge. "He's finessed me. He out-quicked me. A guy as old as my mother, and he finessed me," says Casillas. "I had to play hard or be embarrassed. How has he done it for so long?"
Van Note studies the question, trying to be sure of the answer. As an 18-year veteran who has missed only four games in his career, a past president of the Players Association and the boss of the Atlanta pit, he has seen it all.
"I told Tony that when Dwight Stephenson and Miami came in here [for a scrimmage] in preseason, then he'd see what life is like in this league," says Van Note. "I told him Dwight is a center who can get his hands on you before you get out of your stance. And he did."
Van Note runs misshapen fingers through his gray mane and over his craggy face. "Tony will be a great player one day, but he has to realize what the NFL is about. It's about reality. If Van Brocklin hadn't liked me, I could have been gone then. Just like I could be on the wire tomorrow. Change or die. That's reality."
In 1974 Ronald Reagan is mentioned by Richard Nixon as a possible Republican nominee for President. Curt Flood, having lost his suit in the Supreme Court, has sought solace in running a bar on the island of Majorca. David Archer is in sixth grade in Soda Springs, Idaho. Jeff Van Note, the starting center for the Atlanta Falcons, crosses a picket line set up by his fellow players outside Atlanta's training camp at Furman University.
"I didn't know anything but that I loved to play," says Van Note, sipping on a beer at his secluded home off Holly-berry Drive in Roswell, Ga. "Some of us crossed the picket line, and the others hated us for it. Not many people have gone from crossing a picket line to being president of the union. But I did. I guess I was trying to make up for that mistake."
Van Note was born in Hackensack, N.J., into a Catholic family. His father, Peter, moved his wife and family to Louisville when Jeff was two, and started an aluminum tray manufacturing firm that became a success. It is a shop that has never seen a union. Van Note's mother, Marie, died of cancer when he was 10. "I didn't face what I had missed from my mother for a long time," Van Note says. "I was introverted, lonely. My father would say, 'Boys, this is the schedule,' and that was it. There was no softening to my life. Little joy. So sports—football—took over and filled the void."
"When it's quiet sometimes, Jeff will say to me, 'Why did God have to take her?' " says Dee Van Note, Jeff's wife.
The Van Notes have three sons—Beau, 16, Ben, 14, and Blaine, 9. "I tell Jeff to hug Blaine," says Dee. "Hug him and tell him that you love him. But it's hard for Jeff to do."
"The bond between mothers and sons," Van Note says firmly, "is not an old wives' tale."
Jeff and Dee met when he was enrolled at St. Joseph Prep, 40 miles outside Louisville. He was allowed to come home only once a month. "I knew when my father liked him that he had to be a boy of character," Dee says. "Only I couldn't get him to dance. He didn't dance well, so he didn't dance at all."
Van Note got the last available scholarship at Kentucky in 1964 and played defensive back, running back, linebacker and defensive end. He was quick enough as a freshman to return an interception 84 yards for a touchdown. "I used to be an athlete before I became a lineman," he says with a laugh. "I had to bulk up. But you'd always rather have your quicks than strongs. Even today. Always."
He has lifted weights since he was 18. He knew about steroids early, but will not say if he used them. "I know a couple of guys who have died of cancers and I think it was 'roids that killed 'em," he says. "I've been around 'em [steroids] a long time. Dianabol, testosterone. Orals. Injectables. They're a dangerous business—the next big scandal." Van Note now weighs 272. He played as low as 240 in the old days, when he had to try to block middle linebackers with names like Sam Huff, Dick Butkus and Willie Lanier. "Honey Bear?" he says when the subject of the Hall of Famer comes up. "Yes, that was what they called Willie Lanier. I always called him Mr. Lanier. He was a brick wall."
There were some brick walls off the field, too. He had become involved in the union, serving as first vice-president from 1979 to '82 and as president from 1983 to '84. Peter Van Note said it was fine by him, as long as he never saw a picture in the paper of his son on a picket line. "Thirty or thirty-five percent of NFL players have college degrees," says Van Note. "We allow ourselves to be used. Our parents allowed us to be used. We needed to take control of our own lives. Drug testing is coming. We can't alienate the public. And we've got to stop paying all this money to rookies. Salaries are fine, but earn them. What do rookies know about winning in the NFL? Tilt the scale to the proven veteran."
In 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan went to Philadelphia, Miss., and told the crowd at the Neshoba County Fair, "I believe in states' rights." Curt Flood was working for the recreation department in Oakland, Calif. David Archer was the backup quarterback at Snow Junior College in Utah. And Jeff Van Note finally played on an outstanding team in Atlanta.
The 1980 Falcons went 12-4. They led the Dallas Cowboys by 10 points with 6:37 left in the NFC semifinal game. They could have gone to the Super Bowl. This was the high-water mark in Van Note's career. For years before and after 1980, the best that could be said about the Falcons was that they had the most fearsome helmet decals in the league. Van Note is the historian of a time long—some would say best—forgotten. Names like Ken Reaves, Jim Mitchell. Charmin' Harmon Wages, Dave Hampton, Dick Shiner, Bob Berry and General Bob Lee may not mean anything in the context of today's youth, but to Van Note they are football history.
"We had a great team in '80, and the coaches blew it," he says. "I'll never get over that." Van Note anchored a strong offensive line that protected quarterback Steve Bartkowski, gave lanes to running back William Andrews and was flanked by receivers Alfred Jenkins and Wallace Francis. "I had always played against the best," Van Note says. "For once, I was part of the best. We had a great offense. No way Dallas can stop us. But we sat on the ball and they scored twice." Dallas won 30-27. "That was the closest I've come to the Super Bowl."
Van Note had rammed into Fearsome Foursomes, Purple People Eaters, Steel Curtains and Doomsday Defenses. He had blocked Huff and Butkus. He had tried to block Mr. Lanier. He had blocked noseguards and defensive tackles with names like Curley and Mean Joe—and lots of others who didn't have the nicknames but who had plenty of talent. Ten years ago Van Note said, "Man, I'm getting old." In 1979, the Falcons' line coach, a fellow named Bill Walsh, said Van Note could play four more years.
Good centers play a long time, longer than anyone else. They don't run anywhere. Their work is done in a small circle of turf. It used to be that Van Note handled the middle linebacker. But the game changed. Now it's 3-4 defenses and names like the Refrigerator. But the snap will always be essential. The center first covers the ball, then gives it away. He's the father of the bride. "You've still got to be committed to play," says Pittsburgh's Webster, himself a 13-year veteran. "Jeff has that commitment. These kids coming in today are phenomenal physical specimens. The 3-4 is more wear and tear on you. Unless you want it very badly, you're done."
During camp this year, Van Note told his wife, "I think they're trying to get rid of me."
The Falcons had tried guard Joe Pellegrini and Jeff Kiewel at the center spot. Kiewel tore up a knee in the exhibition season. Van Note was one of Kiewel's first visitors after surgery. "I like the kid," says Van Note, "even though the speculation is that the only reason I'm still here is because he got hurt." Early on, Van Note had some pretty good luck with injuries; he didn't miss a game because of injury until 1976, when he sprained a knee and sat out the last four games. He didn't need surgery. Then in 1984 he played in spite of a broken ring finger. Now the finger protrudes at an odd angle.
The Falcons' starting center these days is Wayne Radloff, who came to the team in 1985 from the Michigan Panthers (later the Oakland Invaders) of the USFL. Of Van Note, Radloff says, "I have to fight like crazy to keep the job because Jeff just won't back off."
"At $300,000 per year," says Van Note, "I'm an awfully expensive insurance policy for the Falcons. Nobody knows that better than me."
It's the fall of 1986. Curt Flood is concentrating on his oil and acrylic paintings. Ronald Reagan has been President forever. David Archer is the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, who are off to an unexpectedly fine start, 4-0. Jeff Van Note is lifting weights.
"I feel amazement," says second-year guard Bill Fralic, whose destiny is All-Pro. "How can somebody 40 years old bring himself out there and play? It's funny to look next to you and see this s.o.b., who looks as old as my father, executing a block. I ask myself, Why does he do it?" Fralic pauses to place 225 pounds on the bar so Van Note can press it. Jeff does so 10 times without puffing once. "How?" asks Fralic. "Why?"
"I asked myself a long time ago why I wanted to play this game so bad so long," says Van Note. "Money? I only made $12,000 when I started. Publicity? I played on one good team. Respect? No. I play because I love it. I needed something to love. Football was it."
Fralic shakes his massive head. "Note," is all he says, softly.
Van Note replies in mocking tones, "The man, the myth, the legend." He laughs at his own joke. But Fralic doesn't laugh. Then they leave the weight room of the Atlanta Falcons, suit up and go out in the rain. They look for someone to block.