Amid the Jocks, Body Blocks and Dirty Socks: A Journal
Gil Brandt didn’t even turn to watch me walk away. Brandt is vice president in charge of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys and is the guy who discovered Cornell Green, Pete Gent and a cast of others. He’s the one who insisted a track star named Hayes could catch footballs and an Ivy League seminarian-halfback could become a high-striding pro.
He’s also the guy who refused me a tryout with the corps of rookies and free agents gathered at the Thousand Oaks summer camp to seek fame and fortune.
"Why didn’t you try out in Dallas?" he asked. "Why did you wait so long? You’re in no shape and these guys have five practices and all the language under their belts."
Brandt’s questions - admittedly good ones - came staccato, down the nose and with no space allocated for argument. We were not fast friends.
"But I drove all the way here from Dallas," I protested. "Besides, some of these bums out here can’t play. I can tell from five minutes of watchin’ ’em." It was a good shot, calculated to raise the native sadism lurking in all jocks.
Brandt didn’t take the bait. "If you could run a 4.4 (that’s seconds) forty (that’s yards), were bigger and mean as hell, it would be different. Naw." All the time he was looking at me the way a dissatisfied
The author, a free-lance writer, played for coach Dan Devine’s University of Missouri Tigers from 1968 through 1971 and was a perennial member of the second team. As a Tiger, game programs always referred to him as the "small but scrappy guard . . ." His only lasting claim is that he was the smallest defensive lineman (6’-186 lbs.) in the Big Eight.
shopper eyes a blackened banana at Tom Thumb.
"But I played for Dan Devine in . . ."
"Great," Brandt interrupted. "He’s a nice guy."
End of conversation. I’d have to find my own appeals court.
All I could do was slink away, depressed, dismissed and convinced, that my failure would find the editors of D Magazine in a less than jocular humor. I considered trying to cajole Brandt again, but when I looked back he was standing on one stiff leg, kicking at the grass with the other and, I think, spitting. Coaches do that a lot.
I recall precisely what went through my mind as I retreated from the practice field: "What the hell am I doing here?" It was no mean question considering it had taken three days and two cases of Lone Star to get from Dallas to this place where people think Willie Nelson is Ricky’s brother. The advance money the magazine had given me ran out on the east side of Abilene. I’ll probably have to pay that back, I thought.
And I thought of Bob St. John, the ruddy-faced, vengeful sports-writer for The Dallas Morning News. The thought made me a little sick at my stomach since it was St. John who set me up for all this.
He and I discovered the idea of a pro football tryout floating in a half-empty bottle of scotch one night following a Texas Ranger game. We had adjourned to the NFL lounge where the sportswriter had bored everybody to death with tales of his blinding speed and basketball free-throw ability. At closing time, we found ourselves outside in the parking lot, lining up to run a 40-yard dash - $10 to the winner. An amused pub owner graciously agreed to referee the drunken Olympics and to watch out for the cops.
Shakily, we took four point stances on the asphalt. St. John flicked his right leg into the air John Carlos-style. He slurred something about being "loose and ready."
He wasn’t. But he was game. I had to beat him four straight, leaving him thoroughly humiliated before he would loosen his grip on the ten-spot. Humbled as he was, it didn’t shut his mouth. After what I had done to him, he had to brag that he had outrun some linebacker during some training camp sometime or other. That’s what did it.
"Fireball," St. John said, "you should try out for the Cowboys. Yeah, that’s it." He rolled it over his anesthetized tongue, savoring the idea. "I’ll fix it for you."
I admit it had 80-proof appeal to me. I sprinted home, visions of a blue and silver football uniform swimming around in my head. "Just show up out there at Thousand Oaks," St. John had promised, "and we’ll get you a tryout."
I showed up at camp the day practice was to begin, but I was three days late. Because of the player strike, drills had been moved up without telling the press or anybody. Bad timing and Brandt seeing me hand out beer to picketers did not enhance my chances of becoming a "walk on" sensation.
When St. John showed up, we switched to plan B: Tell Cowboy public relations director Curt Mosher who I was - a writer - and that I wanted to suit up for a few plays. "Can’t do it," replied Mosher. "It would be too disruptive."
But after a session of intense plea bargaining, Mosher finally agreed to let me participate in some non-hitting drills. He even arranged a dorm room for me and said I could eat in the cafeteria with the players and coaches.
"Look around this afternoon," he said, "and see if you can find anything you can do." I think I heard St. John giggle to himself as we left Mosher’s office.
In my mind, I could see myself in one of those NFL half-hour TV specials. First comes the music: Bumb bumb, bumb bumb. Then comes the picture in slow motion. There’s Lance Alworth, jowls exploding, pivoting toward the mid-field stripe, reeling away from a defender and then, arms stretched skyward as the ball spirals endless seconds. Then comes the announcer’s voice, a hearty voice, serious and professional: "They call him (pause) the wide receiver (pause, ball still spiraling). His job? To catch an inflated ellipsoid (quick film cuts to inhuman catches). And always (pause) there is danger." Bumb bumb, bumb bumb. Flashes of linebackers blind-siding tight ends and defensive backs wracking airborne receivers. Bumb bumb, bumb bumb . . .
For me, those half-hour specials like, "The Dallas Cowboys Winning the Big One" and "The Over-the-Hill Gang: He Made Them Believe," always trigger moist eyes, heavy beating of the heart and an insane desire to plant the flag at Iwo Jima.
With such scenes still in my mind (I caught myself humming the bumb bumb, bumb bumb theme), I headed for a spot on the practice field where receiver coach Mike Ditka was lecturing a mountain of players. If he asked my name, I had decided to make a point early. "They called me Glue Hands in college," I would say.
Ditka didn’t ask. In fact, he didn’t even notice as I approached his bellowing lecture. "Now," the tanned former pro was saying, "we have three patterns off the fire-toss switch, right? The X cover, the wingback and the X banana wing sideline . .."
Glue Hands altered course (kind of a down and out pattern) and ambled toward the battleground for linebackers.
Linebackers are your hitters. They don’t write novels about retirement or worry much over "fire-toss switches." They are more concerned (right now at least) with the machine coach Jerry Tubbs is using to teach them how to fend off a helmet in the gut. Blow it and the ache will displace the evening meal.
"Say Jerry (I had shaken his hand earlier), you got plenty of men out here," I called. He shot me an annoyed glance. "Got more people than we need," he said.
Coaches always talk about players being "people." Perhaps they do it to avoid dehumanizing. "Yep, Kansas City has some mighty fine people at key positions," or "Our people are not discouraged about last week’s 66-3 loss to Texas. Darrell recruits good people."
Like a kamikaze pilot just refused the loan of a friend’s airplane, I again retreated, this time to walk past the defensive linemen. In the middle of the melee, number one draft choice Ed "Too Tall" Jones was swatting offensive counterparts to keep awake. Earlier in the day, I had asked Too Tall if he would perform some superhuman feat for my camera. He complied by rolling veteran tackle Ralph Neeley ("Like a tulip," Neeley later acknowledged). I missed it. Yeah, missed it. Jones knocked Neeley almost on top of me and I missed it.
It was time for my daily afternoon beer break with the picketers who continued to parade casually on a little hill well off the field. From the beginning, my position was to agree totally with the demands of the striking players while in the company of the picketers, and to argue eloquently the owners’ position while in the company of Tex Schramm and other management honchos. Understand, I am not a hypocrite. I’m just wishy-washy.
Two black players manned the pickets that day, placards draped carelessly over their heavy shoulders. "NO FREEDOM, NO FOOTBALL," one said. "UP THE OLIGOPSONY" demanded the other. (I made a note to look that one up along with the banana wing sideline thing.) We talked about the sloppy bunch of defensive backs in camp. "There’s a couple out there with an outside chance," one of the picketers said. "But remember, not many of them ever played defense before."
Naturally, I agreed. I asked the opinionated picketer his name.
"I’m Renfro," he said.
"Oh yeah, Mel," I flipped back as if to enlighten. I walked away non-plussed. The way I figured it, Renfro probably didn’t recognize me either.
Head Coach Tom Landry cancelled the Wednesday night meeting and we expected to see some of the players head for town and a little carousing. It didn’t work out that way for the most part. Many of them spent the time on extra sleep and another bunch wrote letters.
Pretty tame. Nothing like the 1970 camp, for instance, when one Cowboy star drove his car over the lawn and through the door of a training camp building. Because of the strike, few veterans were around to harrass rookies like Walt Garrison used to do.
Camp followers fondly remember the time Garrison sneaked into rookie Sims Stokes’ room late one night with terror on his mind. Garrison had a mouthful of lighter fluid and he struck a match and breathed fire all over the rookie.
"Sims jumped on top of Rayfield Wright, who was asleep, and Wright came up swinging," a witness recalls. "Stokes thought the devil had come to get him."
On the field the next day, I had gasped through most of the wind-sprints (an insane footrace that nobody wins) and was waiting for 1972 Olympic weight coach Alvin Roy to put me through a drill on the "Nautilus." The machine, an outdoor torture pit, forces you to pull or tighten every muscle in your body - all in the interest of physical fitness.
And all the time you are trying to rip something to please, there’s Alvin, a "cheerio" ring in his voice, urging you on. "Only 18 more to go," he bubbles. "You can do it."
Starting with the bench press, Landry, Schramm and Glue Hands went through each of the infernal contraption’s stations. Landry, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, is an impressive physical specimen, a 50-year-old with powerful sets of arms and legs. Schramm is surprisingly strong, considering what business lunches and the banquet circuit have done to his paunch.
While I’m on the subject of Landry, let me state here and now I tried - I really did - to find out about the "real man," to dig into the flesh and blood beneath the Cowboy head coach’s infamous granite exterior. I talked to players and I talked to sportswriters and I got nowhere.
One fellow summed it up pretty well. I asked him if he had any good meaty stories about Landry that would tell me something about him beyond what I saw on the tube.
He sighed long and hard. "I don’t really know any good stories about the man. He’s got to be one of the most boring men in the United States."
But I digress from the "Nautilus."
Every part of Alvin’s mechanical chamber of horrors is designed to make the worst of a bad situation. It even broke Landry. "Gosh, Alvin," he blurted out once when Roy called for more weight and 10 repeats.
On about the fourth machine, I tired and began to cheat every time I caught Roy otherwise occupied. He caught me.
"Now that won’t do you a bit of good, son," he scolded. "Do 10 more for us." He chuckled to himself just like St. John does.
With the last station finally completed, I looked back at my trail of sweat, too tired to move. Schramm, who was in far better condition, finished the route and calmly strolled away, not a single hernia showing.
Players battle the Nautilus five days a week; the offensive team in the wake of the morning half of a two-a-day drill regimen and the defense following afternoon practice. "That’s probably the worst physical part," former SMU quarterback Keith Bobo said. "You do all the conditioning drills, then you have to work out on the weights.
"Mentally, it (camp) is so hard," he said. "The quarterbacks go through the same nightly meetings everybody else does, plus another meeting at one o’clock. In college, they gave us one or two plays a day. Here, they give you a whole offense in a week, half of it in the first two days."
Bobo was the 12th round draft pick of the Cowboys and he recently bought a house in Mesquite. Being nosey by nature and profession, I bluntly asked him if the bonus he received was enough to pay for the house. "No," he said. "Maybe it was enough to buy a nice car."
Not all players in camp are bonus players, of course. I was walking with linebacker free agent Chuck Cordes when he opened his per diem check and found he had been paid less for the past four days than he got for the first three. "Look, they got my name wrong, too."
It’s a lot better for the veterans. They have contracts with some pretty big numbers on them. They get a check for 10 per cent of their year’s salary the day they report to camp.
I was still flat on my back, trying to recover from Alvin’s sadism when St. John walked up and told me what I already knew. "My God, you look pitiful," he said. "Too bad. Schramm is taking us to dinner tonight if you think you can make it."
Since I wasn’t getting per diem and all the money I once had was now spread over part of West Texas, I decided I could make it. Had to.
Schramm, Mosher, business manager Joe Bailey and Fort Worth sportswriter Roger Kaye met us at one of those exclusive shopping center-type restaurants. Most of the conversation centered around the players strike and how a few veterans are reporting to camps now that some team leaders were beginning to straggle in. St. John reminded me that everything said was off the record. Didn’t matter to me. By that time my notes were too gin-splashed to read anyway.
"Well, have you decided what to do yet?" Mosher asked me.
"Yeah. I’m going to work with the kickers."
"Great. You’ll be working with Danny Reeves," Mosher said. "Can you punt?"
"Nope," I answered. "Survive."
My memory at this point becomes rather vague. I do remember that St. John and I were plotting new strategy for getting me into pads when Dick Mansperger walked into the cocktail lounge. Mansperger is the team’s player personnel director.
We figured if we could get him mad, really mad, he would put me into pads out of spite.
Unfortunately, Mansperger was sober.
But St. John’s mouth is up to any situation. "This guy here thinks he can make the team," he says after introductions. "He’s fast and . . ."
"Yeah," I cut in. "What you need out there are more men who will stick people. Not those pansy ass-huggers ya got out there now."
Mansperger waited politely while I continued my slurred diatribe. "Well," he said politely, "if you weren’t a friend of St. John’s, I’d say you were a jerk."
"Hell, Mansperger, he’s no friend of mine," St. John retorted. "In fact, I’ve never had any use for him."
I ignored all this and babbled on about sticking people and forearm shivers and the difference between "us hitters" as opposed to receivers.
"Shut up," St. John whispered. "You’re beginning to believe that stuff yourself."
Evidently, my impassioned comments had been pretty loud. From about six tables over came the voice of a picketer, Larry Cole. "Sign him up, Dick," Cole said. "Sounds like you got yourself a real fire-eater there."
Our withdrawal took us past the table occupied by Cole and another massive defensive lineman, Pat Toomay.
"They wouldn’t be laughing if they saw me without my shirt," I told St. John. He said something about that being the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
I walked closely behind coach Danny Reeves on the way to the morning kicking practice.
"You know, it cost me $400 to go to bed last night," Reeves was saying. "I played pool with Ditka last night. Kept doubling up and he just couldn’t win. Finally, I said, ’Hell, Mike, I’m going to bed. We’ll start from scratch tomorrow.’ "
Two years ago, Reeves ranked higher on the Cowboy coaches pecking order than he does today. As the offensive backfield coach, everybody was saying he would soon be a head coach somewhere. But Reeves didn’t get along very well with special assistant Sid Gillman.
"... and the Duane Thomas thing wasn’t a lot of fun, either," Reeves told me.
Reeves left the backfield job and spent a year in the real estate business before he saw an opportunity to get back into football as the Cowboy kicking coach. Despite it all, Reeves has what is generally lacking at camp - a sense of humor.
Reeves keeps a gambling spirit going with his kickers and he usually wins. But it’s never money. It’s pushups - somebody else’s pushups. Reeves simply hates to lose.
"I don’t care if you’re playing mumblety peg or kicking 40-yard field goals, team members will pay more attention and do a better job if you make the situation competitive, play to win," he said.
Consequently, it’s not unusual to see kickers challenging the linebackers in passing drills with 100 pushups at stake.
Kickers are not like most football players. They are refreshingly strange. Fred Lima, for instance, is my kind of guy despite the cute ballerina-type shoe he wears. "They won’t let me kick barefoot," said the Chile-born former Colorado kicker. "The new rule says we have to have a shoe we can buy in a store. So. . ."
Fred lives out in Hollywood somewhere. He is something of a movie star, earning screen credits of sorts as a dead man in Save The Tiger and as an ape in one of those Charlton Heston flicks.
While Lima was filling me in on his movie successes, Henry Abadi was trying to decide which leg to kick with and Reeves was asking Toni Fritsch for some personal information.
"Hey, Fritsch. How do ya spell kraut?"
The kickers were wanning up and secretly wagering six-packs on each try when Reeves motioned for me to follow him to another part of the field. "Come on," he said, "let’s see how you are at pushups." I was getting set up again; I could feel it coming.
What Reeves had in mind was a simple passing drill. Receivers would run ten yards from the unopposed offensive linemen and cut toward the sidelines. The rules (Reeves’ rules) say anybody who drops the ball has to hit the grass for a mess of pushups.
I was last in the line of would-be receivers and had giggled now and then as runner after runner juggled the ball before really latching on. Then my turn came.
Reeves rifled the ball low (Bumb bumb, bumb bumb . . . "and always, there is the danger"). It hit me squarely in the groin, but I held on - uh, to the football. The next pass struck me on the right pinkie, made a little popping noise and the football dribbled off somewhere. It was not until a few days later that I learned the finger was broken. Typical.
After another dropped pass, I bet Reeves 15 pushups I could run a deep post pattern and catch the ball one-handed. "I’m basically a deep threat," I offered. He took the bet and threw one that hit me in the armpit, caromed off my fingers and into my face mask. But I caught it.
Members of the kicking corps were so impressed by my work, they invited me to join them for a mile and a half jog up one of the surrounding mountains. I politely passed up the opportunity, explaining that my injured digit would seriously impair my jogging tempo. Bumb bumb, bumb bumb.
The whole thing ended as it had begun - with a bet. Schramm, Mosher, Bailey, St. John and I each wagered we could name the ten rookies most likely to stick on the 47-man roster. As I’m finishing this, two of my picks had already been cut and another "rookie" I banked on turned out to be a two-year veteran. It figures.