When the first world bowl turned out to be a dog, with the London Monarchs whitewashing my team, the Barcelona Dragons, 21-0 at London's Wembley Stadium, Brent Musburger filled some dead air in the fourth quarter by talking about me for 37 seconds. (My dad, Rex, has since put a stopwatch on the videotape.) "A great human interest story" is how Brent described me during ABC's live' telecast of the World League of American Football title game on June 9.
How I savor those words—"a great human interest story." Among family and friends I am better known as a good-natured hard-luck case; a risky person to whom to extend a loan. Brent's characterization, I think, comes closer to the essential me.
Three days before the game, around midmorning, I was at home in Boston, working on the Globe crossword and puzzling over how I would pay July's rent. I like to complete as much of the crossword as possible before plunging into the want ads. I was between jobs, a circumstance to which I have been no stranger since graduating in 1988 from Boston College, where I had played defensive tackle and snapped on punts and field goals.
A brief glance at my employment history: August '89, cut by the Detroit Lions in the preseason; June '90, laid off by Bay Shore Seafoods; December '90, laid off by the The Lynn Daily Evening Item; March '91, cut in the preseason by the Barcelona Dragons.
June 23, 1991
As I cast about for a three-letter answer to the clue "Peer Gynt's mother," the phone rang. It was someone claiming to be Terry McDonough, Barcelona's assistant general manager. A special-teams calamity had struck the Dragons an hour earlier, when their center on long snaps twisted his knee. Could I take a red-eye to London that night and play in Sunday's title game?
This was the work of the Kwitcher. Had to be. On more occasions than I care to admit, my erstwhile Boston College teammate Jim Kwitchoff has successfully duped me over the phone, posing, at one time or another, as a local television reporter, as an NFL general manager and as an abusive offensive lineman I would be facing in an upcoming game. You know you've been had by the Kwitcher when you hear gales of laughter in the background. Jim is generous and prefers to put his victims on speakerphone, the better to entertain large groups.
It wouldn't work this time. Still, I gave the Kwitcher full marks for creativity. I could just see myself at the British Airways counter, trying to claim a nonexistent prepaid ticket, insisting that there must be some mistake, that my teammates, the Dragons, were counting on me. I could see the people in line behind me becoming impatient. I could see it finally becoming necessary for the ticket agent to summon airport security. I would be cuffed and stuffed into the back of some black and white.
"Nice try Kwitcher," I said. "How's your sex life? Still oh-for-the-'90s?"
McDonough was not amused. "Murph, I'm not kidding," he said. "There's no way Sign will be able to play. His knee was contorted severely."
Now I was convinced the call was genuine. Kwitchoff would never have known that the name of Barcelona's long snapper was Bobby Sign. Nor would he use the verb "contort" under any circumstance.
McDonough said he would call back when the deal was definite but told me to get packed in the meantime. It looked as if I would be going to London. I whooped loudly, but not as loudly as Rex did when I phoned to give him the news. "Don't get too excited," I told him. "It's not a sure thing yet." He ignored me and suggested I keep a journal.
Thursday, 6:50 p.m. EDT: I arrive at Boston's Logan Airport for a nine o'clock flight. I am confirmed and seated at the gate by 6:55.
Friday, 8:30 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time: I disembark at Heathrow Airport and am flattered to see that McDonough has come to meet my plane. I shouldn't have been. "Murph," he says, "have you met my girlfriend, Michelle? She was on the flight." WLAF spokespeople have claimed they will survive longer than the ill-fated USFL by holding down costs. How determined are they to be frugal? Very determined. On the way out of the airport, Terry leads us past the cab stand and into the London Underground. We're taking the subway to the hotel.
10 a.m.: My first and only practice. The long-snapping comes back easily. The WLAF ball is a tad narrower than the NCAA model and thus easier to control. After practice Barcelona coach Jack Bicknell, who had been my coach at Boston College, brings the team together at midfield and introduces me to my teammates, several of whom I'd played with in college. I say hello to Mike Ruth, the All-America nosetackle who had punched me in the kidney during my freshman year There's my buddy Eric Lindstrom, a balding linebacker who is dating a Dutch model. She understands very little English, which, as we see it, is a boon to Eric. There's Jeff Oliver, a guard who was on the field for one play in 1989 as a member of the New York Jets. Ollie took the opportunity to blindside a friend, San Francisco 49er linebacker Bill Romanowski, another Boston College alum. Tailback Jim Bell seems pleased to see me and shares with me his easy-to-remember slogan for pedestrian safety in London: Look right or die.
Friday evening: Bell is my guide on a tour of Piccadilly Circus. Dehydrated after nearly three quarters of an hour afoot, we duck into a public house for liquid sustenance. Behind the bar, an ornately carved tap seems to be beckoning me. It dispenses Murphy's Irish Stout. I order a pint, and the publican pushes a jar of what appears to be Mobil 1 toward me. "Tastes better than it looks," he assures me. He is right, but just barely.
Having mulled over the culinary options available to Londoners—sweetbreads, shepherd's pie, fish and chips—we make a beeline for the first Taco Bell we see and feast on burritos.
Saturday, 11 a.m.: I set out with a group of linemen to inspect the Tower Bridge. We find it not unlike other bridges. More impressive is the Imperial War Museum, which has old Messerschmitts suspended from the ceiling, tanks that were used to defeat Rommel in North Africa and a V-2 rocket that landed in London but never exploded. I decide to show off a little. "These V-2s are the chief metaphor in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow," I say. "You guys read that?"
"Give each of us 10 pounds immediately," says Oliver, "and we won't tell anyone else on the team you just said that."
Sunday, 10 a.m.: Team breakfast, though the kickoff isn't until 5:30. In between, the team owns you. The hours leading up to game time are always nerve-racking and empty—and that's with cable TV available. Today, the best fare that Britain's four over-the-air television channels can offer is a cricket match. The homeboys from England are taking on a side from the West Indies. Upon learning that the bowler is allowed to bean the batsman at any time, we watch the game with added interest. Time passes more quickly.
I am assigned jersey number 87, a receiver's number, a moderate embarrassment for any self-respecting "hog." Every time I go on the field I'll have to approach the line judge and say, "Eighty-seven ineligible." I'm snapping well in warmups, not serving up any of those wild pitches that plagued me in college and led to my becoming known as a very long snapper. I introduce myself to Brent, and we hit it off. Then the Moody Blues, looking, as my Uncle Gib would say, as if they've been "rode hard and put away wet," belt out God Save the Queen with surprising vigor. I think of their latest hit, which includes the lyric, "Once upon a time in my wildest dream," and I have to smile. Today, it speaks to me.
We lose the toss. That means I'll see action later rather than sooner. But what's this? The Monarchs fumble the opening kickoff! Dragon ball on the London 18. Just a matter of time now. Three plays later the field goal unit is called. I jog onto the grass at Wembley Stadium for my first play in three years, my first professional play ever.
A word here about London nosetackle Roy Hart. I doubt Roy remembers it, but we met in February, at the WLAF scouting combine. Even more than his build, which resembled that of a bank safe, Hart's coiffure had impressed me. He had several hearts shaved into the back of his head—a big heart, filled with several hearts in descending sizes.
Those hearts fail to make me think of love. Hart has been named to the All-World team. Now, as I bend over the ball and peer backward at my upside-down world, he is grunting and pawing the earth in front of me. Forget about him, I think. My whole world becomes the midpoint between the outstretched hands of the holder, Louis Aguiar. I whip the ball backward and am bludgeoned and then trampled by my old friend.
The partisan crowd roars with delight. I'd blown it. I wonder if the ball has stopped rolling yet—indeed, if it has landed yet. I picture our kicker, Massimo Manca, scrambling for his life, reprising the panicky dance of Garo Yepremian. I slink to the sidelines. Out comes Bicknell to meet me. "Good snap," he says. Aguiar mishandled it. It wasn't my fault! Being the team guy I am, I blurt, "Thank god!"
The field goal unit gets another chance at the end of the quarter. Another good snap, another good head rush as Hart clubs me over the medulla, driving me so far back that I nearly block the kick with my butt. Manca pushes the kick wide to the right. Mercifully, the kick is not replayed on Wembley's stadium TV.
Because we turned the ball over four times that day, we ended up punting only twice. Both my snaps were on the money. When the game ended, we had lost, I had hit no one, I had been clobbered twice, and I had played in my first, and, likely, last pro football game. So, why couldn't I stop smiling? As my pal Brent told a national TV audience, I would be getting $2,500, the loser's share—"not bad for a day's work." Not bad at all.
True, I'm back in Boston now, filling out crosswords and circling want ads. But my rent is paid through August.