When it comes to football, I am a purist. It was all downhill after 1978 when the NFL limited hits on receivers downfield. Not to mention adding two extra games (14 was fine) and two extra playoff teams (8 was fine). I didn’t even like it when overtime was added in 1974.Ever since, the NFL is slowing becoming the pass-happy Canadian Football League where teams average 54 points combined a game. In the recent Pro Bowl, there were 81 pass attempts vs. only 44 runs. That’s Arena League territory.
Of course, we often remember “Golden Ages” as the time we first experienced a sport. In the 1970s I would often spend Sundays at my friend Billy Swift’s house. There his father — a Vikings fan — would have three or four TVs set up. Watching on the big screen color living room TV, wearing his Purple People Eaters jersey while gobbling down Sue’s spaghetti and meatballs. Other black and white sets — with funky antennae made from clothes hangers — would be arranged around the house where we could shuttle back and forth to catch all the action.
The other day, I re-read Kevin Cook’s The LAST HEADBANGERS: NFL FOOTBALL in the ROWDY, RECKLESS ’70s. As much as I soaked in the nostalgia for those great dynasties — the Dolphins, Vikings, Cowboys, Steelers and Raiders — I realized one reason football seemed more exciting back then was because it was more violent.
As described by Cook, in that era, NFL gladiators playing to what seemed the point of death in Roman forums watched remotely by millions, was not just part of the spectacle but The Show itself.
Players today are bigger and stronger, but especially before 1978, every play was hand-to-hand combat. As Roger Staubach said. “If you look at tape before 1978, you’ll see guys pounded downfield on every play. Just erased.”
Today, you’ll see cameras zoomed in almost to the follicle. What you won’t see are pileups or scrums that could draw blood on any play. Like the Wild West sans sheriffs, the Bengals’s Reggie Williams described plays that whistles apparently didn’t stop:
It was hell in pileups. You’d grab the ball, but with both hands on the ball you can’t protect your eyes, so somebody’s gauging your eyes. The Raiders had pileups down to a science. They’d knee you in the nuts to get the ball. And that’s when all your biceps curls and leg curls pay off. You go into a fetal position — “head and ass in the grass,” its called — and wrap both arms around the ball. You move the ball down through all those arms in the pileup, down under you nuts where nobody can get it.
Nor will the cameras see what Roy Blount saw 30 years ago on the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers:
On the backs of their hands and their knuckles, many had wounds of a kind I have never seen on anyone else. Fairly deep digs and gouges which were not scabbed over so much as dried. Like old sores on horses.
And the hits without penalties. Like when “Hit Man” George Atkinson leveled and concussed Lynn Swann in the 1976 AFC Championship.
And, Jack Tatum, who wrote later of himself, Call Me Assassin, who left Darryl Stingley paralyzed in an August 1978 exhibition game.
Looking back, I am glad I was ignorant of the crippling damage the gladiators — whose sense of invulnerability (according to Cook) was fueled by “rat turds, steroids, and rudimentary HGH mixed with horse testosterone’ — were inflicting upon themselves and by extension a Brighton teenager who now tells students violence is not a solution.
But I’ll watch today. Not surprised if Manning ends his career the way Kelly did in 1996. But when the season ends, I will have had my fill of gladiators.
As seen in On Yogi Berra and Dale Berra and the 1973 World Series and Willie Mays. And my father. and 30 years ago when George Brett won the World Series (And Morganna the Kissing Bandit/, I am really baseball guy. In baseball I don’t have to worry whether some man is getting CTE to liven up my chilly winter Sundays.
In the summer, I umpire baseball and softball. And, just as importantly, play in the Sunday Pick Softball Game at the Brighton Twelve Corners Middle School (below). In a few short months, come join the Boys of Summer (no horse testosterone allowed).