Category Archives: Recommended Reading

“In Defense of the Competitive Urge”

Let’s take a break from quarterbacks for a moment and talk about a lineman. The one I had in mind was Jerry Ford, the former University of Michigan center. Forty years ago, Ford, then the vice president of the United States, wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated in which he reflected on his playing days and the state of athletics. It’s wonderful — every last word of it — and remains relevant today.

(Little did SI know that, just a month later, Vice President Ford would become President Ford when Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal.)

Ford was a very good player for the Wolverines, good enough to be invited to the East-West Game and the College All-Star Game, the latter an annual contest that pitted graduating seniors

The 1935 College All-Stars roster.

The 1935 College All-Stars roster.

against the defending NFL champions. The Packers and Lions, he says, both offered him $200 a game — this was before the draft had been invented — but he opted to join the football staff at Yale, figuring he could get his law degree there in his off hours. You know who else was an assistant for the Bulldogs then? Pro Football Hall of Famer Greasy Neale, who would lead the Philadelphia Eagles to two titles in the ’40s.

Ford tells a funny story about Curly Lambeau’s attempt to recruit him for Green Bay. Some other sound bites that will hopefully encourage you read all of “In Defense of the Competitive Urge”:

● “It is a disgrace in this country for anyone not to realize his or her potential in any sport.”

● “[W]e have been asked to swallow a lot of home-cooked psychology in recent years that winning isn’t all that important anymore, whether on the athletic field or in any other field, national and international. I don’t buy that for a minute. It is not enough to just compete. Winning is very important. Maybe more important than ever.

“Don’t misunderstand. I am not low-rating the value of informal participation. Competing is always preferable to not competing, whether you win or not. . . . [But] if you don’t win elections you don’t play, so the importance of winning is more drastic in that field. In athletics and in most other worthwhile pursuits first place is the manifestation of the desire to excel, and how else can you achieve anything?”

● “Under [coach] Harry Kipke, Michigan used the short-punt formation, which was popular then, and as the center I fancied myself the second-best passer in the lineup. If I’m dating you, the center in the short punt or single wing is not just a guy who sticks the ball in the quarterback’s hands. Every center snap must truly be a pass [between the legs], often leading the tailback who is in motion and in full stride when he takes the ball. I don’t mean to be critical, but I think that is why you now see so many bad passes from center on punts and field goals. They don’t have to do it enough. I must have centered the ball 500,000 times in high school and college.”

● “[T]here is obviously a deep American involvement in and a great social significance to the game. No game is like football in that respect. It has so many special qualities, among them the combination of teamwork involving a large number of people, with precise strategies and coordination  that are essential if anyone is going to benefit. The athletes are highly skilled, but Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 3.54.42 PMsubservient to the team. Yet if they do their job, they give an individual an opportunity for stardom. I know of no other sport that demands so much, and returns so much.

● “The sports news is glutted with salary disputes and threats of strike, of demands and contractual harangues, of players jumping from one league to another, or owners threatening to pull their franchises out of this or that city unless demands are met or profits improve.

“[W]hat scares me is that the fan may ultimately be abused, if he has not been already. The money has to come from somewhere. Traditionally, the somewhere is the fan’s pocketbook — and in the electronic age in which we live, the advertiser’s. At what point will the fan become disillusioned? When he comes to the conclusion that the team he is supporting has no reciprocal interest in his affection, I think there will be a withdrawal of support. It might not come today, or this season, but it will surely come.”

And how’s this for prescience?

● “When I was in China a few years ago I was astounded by the number of basketball courts. They were everywhere — in school yards, outside factories and farms. Boys and girls were playing basketball at age three and four, with miniature balls and undersized baskets. The sizes and heights were graded to coincide with the age group, something we might consider here, even up to the professional level. . . . In 1972, when I received the college Football Hall of Fame award at the Waldorf in New York, I remarked on this new Chinese passion for the old American game, and I said that one day soon we would have to cope with a seven-foot Chinese Wilt Chamberlain.”

Again, do yourself a favor and read The Whole Thing.

University of Michigan center Jerry Ford.

University of Michigan center Jerry Ford.

If Pete Rozelle, one-time cub reporter, covered the NFL today

The question I’ve been wondering about all weekend is: What would Pete Rozelle, cub reporter, have written about Roger Goodell’s news conference Friday? Depending on who you’ve been reading lately, Rozelle either (a.) parted the Red Sea or (b.) landed a spaceship on the moon during his nearly 30 years as NFL commissioner.

But long before that he was an aspiring journalist at Compton Junior College whose dream job was to be sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. He even did some stringing for the Long Beach Press-Telegram while serving as the student-sports information director at Compton. Why don’t we flip through Rozelle’s clip file to get a feel for his prose style? All these stories are from 1947 and ’48, which would make him 21 or 22 years young.

Here’s Pete covering a pivotal JC football game in 1947:

Rozelle will o the wisp Negro













And here’s Pete following up Michigan’s 49-0 wipeout of Southern Cal in the 1948 Rose Bowl:

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And here’s Pete rhapsodizing about Compton, California’s own Duke Snider, who in 1948 was in the second year of his Hall of Fame career with the Brooklyn Dodgers:

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And here’s Pete sitting down with Phog Allen, the legendary Kansas basketball coach:

Rozelle Phog Allen















And here’s Pete at the scene of a dramatic JC basketball game:

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 8.00.34 PMAnd finally, here’s ubiquitous Pete reporting on high school football — reporting, in fact, on his alma mater:

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Two things are cool about this story. First, the Don Klosterman who played quarterback for Compton High is the same Don Klosterman who was later general manager of the Los Angeles Rams — the job Rozelle had when he became commissioner.

Second, Compton’s athletic teams were/are called the Tarbabes — short for Tartar Babies. Is this a great country or what?

So if we took in all this information and tried to come up with a Typical Pete Rozelle Lead Paragraph coming out of Goodell’s news conference, it might read something like this:

NEW YORK — Embattled Roger Goodell, his boyish red hair giving evidence to barely 40 of his 55 years, addressed Friday the scandal that threatens to sound a death knell to his commissionership and take a wrecking ball to the NFL’s image. Grilled by some of the nation’s top sports writers about his botched disciplining of “Rapid Ray” Rice, the Ravens’ will-o’-the-wisp Negro halfback, and “All the Way Adrian” Peterson, the Vikings’ jet-propelled, two-time rushing champ, Goodell admitted mistakes and promised to make things right during a tension-soaked session.

Rozelle took an amazing elevator ride after his byline stopped appearing in the Press-Telegram. Within a dozen years — at the age of 33 — he was NFL commissioner. The path he took:

May 11, 1948:

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Feb. 22, 1952:

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April 9, 1957:

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And lastly, Jan. 27, 1960:

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Not bad for a former Compton High Tarbabe.

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Tommy McDonald on Tommy McDonald

“I have been knocked out five times in my seven years of pro football, and at one time or another I have played with a broken jaw, a shoulder separation and assorted cracked ribs. . . . My hands are no larger than my wife’s, and I wouldn’t say hers are large for a woman. . . . Size helps but it isn’t everything, except maybe in a hog-growing contest.”

— Hall of Fame wideout Tommy McDonald

Sports Illustrated ran “The Monsters and Me” — a first-person piece by Tommy McDonald, the Eagles’ Hall of Fame receiver — in 1964. His ghostwriter was Tex Maule, the magazine’s NFL guy. If you’ve got a few minutes, check it out. It’s worth your while.

McDonald was a small (5-foot-9, 178 pounds), utterly fearless wideout who, at that point in his career, had 66 touchdown receptions. Nobody remembers today, but no receiver in NFL history had caught that many TD passes in his first seven seasons, not even Don Hutson (53). In fact, Tommy still ranks in the Top 10 in this department. Wait until you see who he’s tied with:


Seasons Receiver Team (s) TD
1985-91 Jerry Rice 49ers 93
1998-04 Randy Moss Vikings 90
1962-68 Lance Alworth Chargers (AFL) 73
1996-02 Marvin Harrison Colts 73
1996-02 Terrell Owens 49ers 72
1965-71 Bob Hayes Cowboys 67
1957-63 Tommy McDonald Eagles 66
2007-13 Calvin Johnson Lions 66
1959-65 Art Powell Raiders (AFL), 2 others 66
2004-10 Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals 65
1988-94 Sterling Sharpe Packers 65

Yup, Megatron himself.

McDonald was renowned for playing without a facemask — to the very end of his career in 1968. If you want proof, here he is in his next-to-last season with the Falcons (1967) and his final year with the Browns:

McDonald with no facemask, 1967              McDonald no facemask in last season







Occasionally you’ll see a photo of him with a facemask, but there’s an explanation for that. “Sometimes,” he said in The Pro Football Chronicle, “I’d crack mine [helmet], and the Eagles didn’t have a replacement for me. So I had to borrow one from a teammate. I had a very small head, 6 ¾. I’d take a towel, or half a towel, and stuff it in there to make it fit. That’s the only time I’d wear a facemask.”

In the SI story, McDonald mentions a scoring grab he made for Oklahoma against Texas in 1956, the year he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, that “someone said . . . was so far out in front of me I caught it with my fingerprints, not my fingertips.” Here’s the video of that, in case you’re interested:

And just think: “I have played for years,” he said, “without the tip of my left thumb. I lost it in an accident with that motorbike Dad gave me.”

In ’57 the Eagles drafted McDonald in the third round and Sonny Jurgensen in the fourth. Both, of course, are now in Canton. Can’t do much better than that. Sonny once told me he and Tommy had a drill they liked to run. They’d sit in a darkened room, back to back, and Sonny would flip a football over his head.

“Tommy never dropped it,” he said. “Not once.”

Sources:, The Pro Football Chronicle.

The most dangerous player who ever buckled a chinstrap

There’ll never be another player like Hardy Brown, the linebacker-anesthesiologist for the 49ers in the ’50s. Compared to Hardy, Jack “They Call Me Assassin” Tatum sold Girl Scout cookies.

If you need further proof of the man’s menace, read this fabulous piece by Bob O’Donnell (taken from our 1990 book, The Pro Football Chronicle). To get you started, here’s a visual: Brown — aiming high, as always — about to reduce Browns quarterback Otto Graham to cracker crumbs.

“To me, Hardy Brown was the most unique player ever. Think of it this way: What Hardy Brown was all about in football wasn’t physical. Hardy was a psychic occurrence.”

— former Giants lineman Tex Coulter

Bob’s preface:

I saw my first Hardy Brown hit while watching films of the 1951 Browns-49ers game at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A San Francisco defensive back intercepted a pass by Otto Graham and was weaving his way upfield when a sudden movement at the bottom of the screen caught my eye. It was like the flash a fisherman might see in a stream before his line grows taut. I reversed the film and watched again.

As a Browns receiver turned to pursue the play, he was struck so violently in the face that his helmet popped up on his head and his back hit the ground before his feet. Standing over him was Hardy Brown. You could almost hear him chuckling.

There isn’t much left of Hardy Brown. He’s been institutionalized in northern California with dementia, the result of years of hard drinking. He also has emphysema, and the arthritis in his right shoulder is so bad he can’t lift his arm to scratch his head.

Let’s start with The Shoulder. That’s where the legend begins. Hardy Brown played linebacker in the NFL at 6 feet, 190 pounds, and hit harder than any player before or since. His right shoulder was his weapon. He usually aimed it at an opponent’s head, and the results often were concussions and facial fractures – noses, cheeks, jaws . . . you name it, Brown broke it.

“It was early in the game,” former Eagles running back Toy Ledbetter recalls of his 1953 run-in with Brown, “and I was carrying on a sweep to the right. I knew about Brown because I’d been at Oklahoma State when he was at Tulsa. I usually kept my eye on him, but this time I cut inside a block and never saw him. He caught me with the shoulder and the next thing I knew I was on the ground looking for my head.”

The hit broke Ledbetter’s cheek. Dr. Tom Dow, Eagles team physician, said it was the worst facial fracture he’d seen. In Brown’s 10 pro seasons, spent in four different leagues, he laid low dozens in the same brutal fashion. Backs, ends, linemen, it didn’t matter. Brown was an indiscriminate maimer.

And what a mystery. No one could figure out how he hit with the force he did. In 1951, Bears coach George Halas had officials check Brown’s shoulder pads before a game. They found nothing. Nor could anyone figure Brown’s fury. He lived for the big hits. Relished them. They were his one marketable skill. Away from the game, he was reserved but friendly. On the field, he was a killer.

“I came out of the huddle at the beginning of the game and figured I’d say hello,” says ex-Giants lineman Tex Coulter, who grew up with Brown in a Fort Worth, Texas, orphanage. “I came up to the line and looked across at his linebacker spot, and his eyes looked like they belonged to some cave animal. They were fiery, unfocused. You don’t know if he could see anything or everything. I kept my mouth shut.”

Y.A. Tittle claims in his book, I Pass, that Brown knocked out 21 opponents as a 49er in ’51 – including, in the preseason, the Washington Redskins’ entire starting backfield. That might be an exaggeration; who kept an accurate count of such things? But Brown inspired exaggeration. Ex-players speak of him the way fight people speak of Sonny Liston.

“To me, Hardy Brown was the most unique player ever,” Coulter says. “Think of it this way: What Hardy Brown was all about in football wasn’t physical. Hardy was a psychic occurrence.”

Coulter knows Brown as well as anyone. They are about the same age and arrived at the Masonic Home orphanage at about the same time in 1929. Coulter is working on a book about their lives. To understand Hardy Brown, he says, you have to understand his past. That isn’t easy.

Hardy Brown’s father was murdered. Shot dead in a neighbor’s home in rural Kirkland, Texas, Nov. 7, 1928. Two men pumped four bullets into him. Hardy was in the room when it happened. He was four. Four months later, Brown was present again when a family friend murdered one of his father’s killers at point-blank range.

After the second incident, Brown’s mother sent her four youngest children to the Masonic Home in Fort Worth. Hardy was five. He claimed it was 12 years before he heard from his mother again, and then only to get her permission to enlist in the Marines.

The Masonic Home orphanage sits on over 200 acres of land southeast of downtown Fort Worth. It has its own dairy farm and school, with grades one through 12. In the ’30s, there was a matron for every 12 to 15 children. Discipline was rigid. Those who didn’t do their chores or got caught slipping off to Sycamore Creek after hours could expect to be cuffed.

Football was the great escape. It was rough, wild and (almost) without rules. Unless you were a sissy boy, you played. That was the last thing Hardy Brown was.

“Football gave us self-worth,” Coulter says. “We were orphans, but you couldn’t call us orphans. When the newspapers came out and wrote stories, they’d refer to us as ragtag kids, and that made us angry. That was pity from above, and we hated it. Football was a way to alleviate that.”

The Shoulder was born at the Masonic Home. It was the brainchild of Hardy’s older brother Jeff. Jeff reasoned correctly that human beings, like fence posts, were easier to knock down if you hit them high. So when an opponent approached, he’d crouch slightly and then spring into the player’s chin with his shoulder. In no time, everyone at the home was using “the humper,” as it came to be called.

“The city boys were frightened as hell of us,” Coulter says. “I don’t blame ’em, the way Hardy Brown was and I was, too, to some extent. The goddamn guys would be bleeding all over the place. You know, in high school ball, you just aren’t used to that. We speared, we leg-whipped, we used the humper, and I’m almost positive the man who invented the crackback block was our coach, Rusty Russell. We did all them things and didn’t think anything of it. We thought we were good, clean, rough boys.

Brown got out of the Masonic Home in 1941, enrolled at SMU and then went into the Marines, where he became the problem of the Japanese. He saw action in the Pacific as a paratrooper and, according to his sister Cathlyn, was on his way to Iwo Jima when a call came from West Point, of all places. It seems Army had pulled Coulter out of the enlisted ranks to play on its football team, and Coulter had put the coaches on to his Masonic Home teammate.

But Brown washed out of the Academy’s prep school after failing the math requirement (though a night of drunken revelry at a nearby girl’s school didn’t help). None too disappointed, he landed at Tulsa University in the fall of 1945. For the next three years, he terrorized the Missouri Valley Conference as a blocking back and linebacker.

New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks was Brown’s roommate at Tulsa and says he may have been at his destructive peak during those years.

“We’d put Brown at fullback if we wanted him to block one defensive end and put him at halfback if we wanted him to block the other,” Finks says. “There were many games when he literally knocked out both defensive ends. I think it was a game against Baylor that he put out the two ends on consecutive plays.

“He broke my nose and gave me four stitches at a goddamned practice!”

Brown got poor Toy Ledbetter in college, too. It came on a kickoff return, and Finks says it’s the hardest hit he’s ever seen. “Ledbetter lay there quivering,” he says. “Snot came out of his nose. He was bloody. He was down five minutes before they finally carried him off.”

Off the field, Brown occasionally got wild when he was drinking. He and his future wife, Betty, woke up Finks one night and shot up the dorm room with a .22 rifle. But for the most part, Finks says, Brown was “intelligent, warm and shy,” nothing like his on-field persona.

It took Brown a while to find permanent employment in pro ball. He broke in with the All-America Conference’s Brooklyn Dodgers in ’48 and went to the Chicago Rockets the next year. When the AAC folded, he wound up with the Washington Redskins, who waived him eight games into the ’50 season. Small, slow linebackers weren’t in demand.

But the word on Brown was getting around. He’d begun to leave a trail of bodies. Harry Buffington, head of the National scouting combine, was a guard for Brooklyn in ’48 and says one AAC team assigned a player to shadow Brown on the field and act as a “protector” for the other players. Tittle was with the Colts in ’50 and says running back Rip Collins told him before a game with Washington that he didn’t want to run pass routes in Brown’s area.

It was the Colts who signed Brown after the Redskins waived him, and in his first game with them he broke Giants running back Joe Scott’s nose with The Shoulder. The hit infuriated the Giants, and they tried to take their revenge.

Teams went after Brown as a matter of routine. He was a menace and could influence a game if he put a star player out. In a notorious incident in 1954, Lions defensive tackle Gil Mains jumped feet first into Brown on a kickoff return and opened a 20-stitch cut on his thigh. Brown was sewn up and returned to the game.

“I remember Hardy came up to me before a kickoff once and said, ‘How about an onsides kick?’” says CBS broadcaster Pat Summerall, a teammate of Brown’s in ’56. “It was a close game with the Giants, and I told him I couldn’t do that on my own without hearing from the coaches. He said he thought it would be a good idea. . . . Anyway, I kicked off as far as I could kick it, and here comes the whole Giant team after Hardy. They never even looked at the ball.”

The Colts went belly up after the 1950 season, and Brown found a home in San Francisco. He was the 49ers’ starting left linebacker for five seasons. It’s difficult even to estimate how many players he KO’d with The Shoulder. One a game? That’s probably too many. But you just don’t know, because newspapers didn’t devote much space to defensive play.

Game stories on a 49ers-Cardinals exhibition in ’51, for instance, state that as many as six Chicago players were put out of the game, three with broken noses. The San Francisco Chronicle added the line: “Against the Cards, Hardy Brown . . . played as vicious a line backing game as the 49ers ever had.” How many of those broken noses were Hardy’s doing is anyone’s guess.

Brown may have been most dangerous on special teams, where it was easier to freelance and there was a field full of targets. Lions linebacker Carl Brettschneider said one of Brown’s favorite tactics on punts was to line up behind an official so the opposing center couldn’t see him, then catch him with The Shoulder as soon as he raised his head after the snap.

“He broke more jaws than any guy going,” Brettschneider said.

Brown loved to talk about those bone-rattling blows. He apparently didn’t lose any sleep over the injuries he caused, either. He also missed a lot of tackles because he aimed for the head.

“I don’t think he ever went out to hurt anyone,” Coulter says. “I think Hardy was shaped a certain way. One thing about a hard hitter is that you don’t realize what it feels like to be hit. When you’re doing the hitting, when you stick someone with that shoulder, it’s a beautiful feeling. By God, it gives you a sense of power that reaches right to the back of your head. I think Hardy enjoyed that feeling.”

Age and size caught up to Brown in ’56. The 49ers waived him in training camp. He played briefly with Hamilton in the CFL and then signed with the Cardinals. At the end of the ’56 season, the Cards released him.

In 1960, Toy Ledbetter had stopped by the locker room of the newly formed Denver Broncos to visit two former Eagles teammates when he heard a high-pitched cackle behind him. Ledbetter turned to see, of all people, his old nemesis Hardy Brown sitting in front of a locker.

“How’s the cheekbone, Toy Boy?” Brown said.

Ledbetter laughed and shook hands with Brown. “No hard feelings,” Ledbetter told him.

“You asshole.”

After being released by the Broncos, Brown fell on hard times. He and his wife, Betty, broke up for a while. He held a number of construction jobs in the Southwest. And he continued to drink heavily. In 1986 he had to be institutionalized.

Family members say Brown never lost his desire to play football. At some point after he retired, he became involved with a semipro team.

The story is some young punk was giving him lip one day, and Brown decked him. Put him in the hospital.

The Speech: Paul Brown’s opening remarks at training camp

Before each of his 17 seasons as coach of the Cleveland Browns, Paul Brown began training camp with The Speech — a brief review of the Browns Way and general Laying Down of the Law. I’ve come across two versions of it, one from 1956 (after the Browns had been to 10 straight league championship games) the other from ’59 (when the Giants had surpassed them in the Eastern Conference). It’s fascinating to note the differences between them.

The ’59 speech is already in print — in my first book, The Pro Football Chronicle. This being the preseason, I thought I’d post the ’56 speech for your perusal:

“It may seem funny, but I don’t want you fellows to act like a professional football team in the old sense of the word. You will dress and act like gentlemen at all times.”

— Paul Brown

I am glad to see you veterans back from last season. The last time we were together it was a happy occasion. You had just won the world’s championship, and you realized the hard work it took to win it.

To you new fellows, we mean for you to have a pleasant experience. You probably are worried, and it is only natural. You’re no different than the old timers.

We brought you here because we think you can make the team. But you will have to listen and digest everything that is said. When you’re too big to listen you’re done whether you’re a rookie or veteran.

We anticipate some major changes in playing personnel this season. For the first time in 10 years we will be without Otto Graham. But we have had major changes in the past in administration and playing personnel.

No matter what happens, the habit of winning and being the best has got to go on. With me it’s an obsession of living.

Last year, early in the season, things looked pretty bad. We had lost two of our first three games, but we won it going away. You have to have something special to do that. It is the sign of a thoroughbred.

I firmly believe we can win again this season. I’ve never entered a football season in which I didn’t think we couldn’t win. I think we have the makings here of another championship team, and we’re going to guard jealously the factors we have [going for us] in our organization.

First, I would like to eliminate those bad starts. The last few seasons we have started out by losing several of our early games. This can’t go on. One of these years it will catch up with us.

I think we’re considered about tops in our field, and I want you to act accordingly. It may seem funny, but I don’t want you fellows to act like a professional football team in the old sense of the word.

You will dress and act like gentlemen at all times. When you travel you will wear suits or sport coats and a tie. We will eat together and say grace before meals. There will be no foul language at any time, on or off the field. You must remember that youngsters look up to you fellows.

Your conduct around camp also should be watched. There will be no T-shirts allowed in the dining room, and we have no use for ill manners at the table. Keep your elbows off the table and your face out of the soup bowl. Make meals enjoyable and take your time.

You should be in your rooms by 10 p.m., and lights out will be at 10:30. We’ve never had trouble with card playing, and we don’t anticipate any. We don’t mind a game for pennies, but no big money.

We will have a bed check, and if you sneak out after the check and we find out about it, don’t bother to come back for your belongings — we’ll send them to you.

If you’re a drinker you may as well leave now. The smoking should be stopped for your own good, but if you must have one don’t do it around here or in public. Again, you will be looked up to by youngsters, and nothing is worse for a youngster than to see his football hero smoking.

Building a football team is like building a house: the weaker the foundation, the poorer the house. With a strong foundation, there is no limit as to . . . how high you can go.

On the field, we want the right to improve not only the rookies but the veterans. You have to be an eager learner. You can’t win this thing without paying the price. It just can’t be done. Sometimes it will get rough, but don’t ask any quarter and don’t give any.

From time to time you will be interviewed by members of the press here at Hiram [College]. Treat them as you would me and answer their questions. We’ve always had good relations with the press, and the writers at the camp won’t ask you any embarrassing questions. They have been here for several years, all of them, and if you start talking out of turn I am sure they will clean it up. They aren’t interested in making a fool of any of you players.

When we are on the road there will be no radio or television appearances. We like to sneak into a city, win the football game and get out. Once in a while when we go into a city, I might talk us down [to the media]. That isn’t for your consumption. It would be better if you couldn’t read.

Remember, we’ve been in 10 straight championship games, and we’re not going to blow it now. When it comes time to pick the squad, everything and everybody is impersonal, and it won’t make any difference whether you’re from Ohio State, Great Lakes or Massillon [places Brown had previously coached]. The team comes first!

Postscript: Without their Hall of Fame quarterback, the Browns finished 5-7 that season, the only time under Brown they didn’t post a winning record. But the next year, after drafting Jim Brown in the first round, they were back in the title game again. For their coach, “the habit of winning and being the best” was still “an obsession of living.”

The first Mel Kiper

The Steelers had a personnel guy in the ’40s and ’50s who ran his family’s funeral parlor on the side. Or maybe he worked for the Steelers on the side. It’s hard to tell. His name was Ray Byrne, but he was known in the organization as Heels because he looked like Heels Beals, a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip.

As a kid, Byrne had gone to Forbes Field in 1924 to see Carnegie Tech battle Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen and come away with a severe case of footballitis. Or as a 1950 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, the game

caught his imagination and brought concentration on football records. He began buying up old Spalding guides. The hobby became a mania. He ran ads in newspapers and magazines for missing links in his series. Today his home is packed with what he believes to be the most complete collection of football records in the world. They start back in the Civil War era with an 1866 edition titled “Beadle’s Dime Novel [Book, actually] of Cricket and Football.”

In 1946 Steelers publicist Pat Livingston, who doubled as a scout, was putting together a list of college prospects and invited Byrne to his office to pick his brain. Coach Jock Sutherland overheard the conversation and was so impressed with Ray that he brought him along to the draft. Before long, the undertaker was drawing a paycheck from the club and doing a variety of jobs besides player personnel — such as keeping statistics and serving as The Turk at training camp.

But Byrne had an arrangement with the Steelers, the Post-Gazette said, that allowed him to “drop his football duties and become a mortician whenever necessary.” So there were plenty of days when he’d go back and forth between the team’s headquarters at 521 Grant St. and the Byrne Memorial Home at 701 North Negley Ave.

(Come to think of it, that would have been a great storyline for Six Feet Under. Heck, they might have been able to squeeze out a sixth season if they’d had Nate or David moonlight as an NFL scout.)

You can follow Ray’s climb up the Steelers’ ladder in their annual media guides. In 1947 he was listed as their historian. In ’48 he became a PR assistant. In ’52 his title was “public relations-player personnel,” and in ’53 and ’54 simply “player personnel” (after which he disappears from the administration page).

Those weren’t particularly good drafts for the Steelers. Indeed, the best player they picked — Hall of Fame fullback John Henry Johnson, their second-rounder in ’53 — signed with a Canadian team and never wore a Pittsburgh uniform. But give Byrne his due: He lived the dream. How many undertakers can say the same?

Click here to read the whole story. Wish there were a few quotes from Heels, but sportswriting could be like that in those days.

Those Allen boys!

A reader sent me this several years ago. He thought it was hilarious — and so do I. It’s a 1972 column written by Bill Brill, sports editor of The Roanoke Times, about the challenges faced by an old-school football coach at Langley High in affluent McLean, Va. The funniest stuff is about two of Redskins coach George Allen’s sons, Bruce (the team’s current president and general manager) and Greg, both of whom played for Langley.

They don’t write columns like this anymore. It’s amazing they wrote them even then. The headline says it all:

Rich Kids’ Coach

Langley’s ‘Bear Bryant’ vs. the Spoiled Brats

 “Mrs. Allen called recently and wanted to know when practice started. I told her Aug. 14. Then she wanted to know when Bruce should be there. I told her Aug. 14.”

— Langley coach Red Stickney

Times change rapidly in football, whether college or high school.

Ravis (Red) Stickney is a throwback to the old days, although he played fullback and linebacker for Bear Bryant at Alabama in 1960.

Red Stickney just looks like a football coach. The broad shoulders, the wide head, the short hair.

He even looks like a Bear Bryant type. The old Bear Bryant type. When Red played for the Bear, football was the reason for being in college. Classes were just something that got in the way of most athletes.

Stickney coaches high school football at Langley in Fairfax County. For an old country boy with Bear Bryant tendencies, it has been a revelation.

Langley is a rich man’s school. “Even our blacks are rich,” says Stickney. “The new cars in the school parking lot belong to the kids. The old cars belong to the coaches.”

One of Stickney’s players is Jim Rehnquist. His father is the Supreme Court jurist. There also is a senator’s son and a couple of kids named Allen. Their father coaches the Redskins.

The Allen boys are an enigma. “They are good kids,” says Red, “but they sure are spoiled.”

Whatever the Allen boys want, the Allen boys get. “Greg used to show up for practice in that new Grand Prix his father gave him.”

The Allens do not always make it to practice, or to school, for that matter.

“Mrs. Allen called recently and wanted to know when practice started. I told her Aug. 14. Then she wanted to know when Bruce should be there. I told her Aug. 14.

“So she says that’s the only time the family can take a vacation, and they wanted Bruce to go with them for a couple of weeks. I told her, ‘Mrs. Allen, Bruce plays quarterback. That’s a pretty important position. He’ll have to be there Aug. 14.’

“I even offered to let Bruce live with me those two weeks.”

Bruce, the youngest of the Allen boys, is the best athlete, says Stickney. The oldest Allen, George Jr., will be a sophomore quarterback for Virginia this fall.

The other son, Greg, was Stickney’s kicker last year and a sometimes flanker. “He’s a good kicker,” says Red. “All of the Allens can kick. They go over to Redskin Park and work out with the kickers all the time.

“Greg kicked five field goals for me and didn’t miss an extra point. But he doesn’t like contact.

“We played one game last year and this 140-pound halfback ran back a kickoff against us for a touchdown. Greg just ran alongside of him. He didn’t try to make the tackle.

“He came out of the game and I wanted to kill him. I was so mad I was throwing things. He just looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I told you I didn’t like contact.'”

Stickney coached previously at Potomac High in Oxon Hill, Md. He came to Langley two years ago and inherited a situation where the school had gone 4-46 the previous five years.

“If I coached at Langley the way I did at Potomac, I would have been fired in a week. I used to work their tails off at Potomac, but you can’t do that with these kids.

“You have to have a reason for everything you do. They’re good kids and they play hard, but their favorite word is ‘Why?’ I told the squad one day we’d work some more after practice. They asked why. I said, ‘Because you haven’t got it right,’ but they wanted to know why work after practice.” . . .

For an Alabama player of the hard-nose days, it has been a real experience for Red Stickney. “I didn’t understand them when I got there, and maybe I don’t understand them now or we wouldn’t have been 5-5 last year.

“But I’m learning. It’s tough, though, when you have to go to the Supreme Court when you make a rule.”

From The Roanoke Times, July 20, 1972

Postscript: You get the feeling Stickney wasn’t long for Langley. Sure enough, he left after that season to take the job at Woodbridge (Va.) High. Two years later, he guided the team to a 12-0 record before dropping the Group AAA final to Bethel on a last-minute touchdown. (His big star was running back Russell Davis, a Parade All-American who went on to play for Michigan and the Steelers.)

When Red died in 2004 at 68, David Fawcett of wrote that the ’74 club “put [Prince William County] on the map for high school football.” It was “the first county team to play for a state championship” and “arguably the most talented prep team ever fielded in county history,” one that included “eight Division I players.”

As for Bruce Allen, the Redskins’ first day of training camp this year in Richmond was July 24. Their president/GM was reportedly in attendance.

Art Rooney hits it big at the track, August 1937

Contrary to legend, Art Rooney didn’t buy the Pittsburgh franchise with some of his winnings from a huge score at the racetrack. After all, his nationally publicized run of luck with the ponies was in the summer of ’37. By then, he’d been an NFL owner for four years.

Still, it’s a classic tale that tells you much about pro football in that period, a time when gambling by sports figures didn’t cause nearly the palpitations it does now. The story of Rooney’s hot streak, just before training camp got underway, made the front page of the Pittsburgh Press — and was picked up by plenty of other papers around the country. Imagine a headline like this appearing today:

Art Rooney Gambling Headline


(And in ’33, remember, when the Steelers joined the league, franchises cost $2,500.)

Rooney was hardly the only owner who walked in this world, either. The Giants’ Tim Mara was a legal bookie in the days before parimutuel betting. The Cardinals’ Charley Bidwill owned a horse track and some dog tracks. The Eagles’ Bert Bell, meanwhile, routinely wagered on four-legged creatures, two-legged creatures and the occasional three-legged race (and kept it up even during his term as commissioner). It was what a “sportsman” — as so many of them were called — did in the ’30s.

The $100,000 figure — thanks to picking five winners on opening day at Saratoga — was probably just the beginning for Rooney, by the way. Most estimates put his haul at between $250,000 and $380,000. The Press story, you see, only deals with his first pass at the tracks. Being en fuego, he naturally made other visits until the streak ran its course. When he was done, the previously obscure football owner from Pittsburgh was a Known Entity (though it would be another decade before his struggling team began to emerge from the shadows).

“He likes to bet fancies, hunches, on a whim, and the man is not afraid to bet,” Frank Ortell wrote in the New York World-Telegram. “He sends it along in a fashion that recalls the days when the old plungers used to go into action.”

It took a while, but his bet on the Steelers eventually paid off as well — with four Super Bowl wins in six seasons beginning in 1974. Some guys just have the touch.

The one and only Jimmy Conzelman

“[Light-heavyweight champ] Philadelphia Jack O’Brien thought I had a future as a fighter, but I’m glad I didn’t follow up on that. As for music, I had an expert opinion from the late Eddy Duchin. We were good friends, and I used to pretend to him that I seriously thought I was in his league as a piano player.

Eddy never caught on, he couldn’t see anything funny in the idea. So I began to get people to ask him just where he would rate me among the 10 best piano players of the country. Eddy used to blow his top. He’d yell, ‘Conzelman! He’s no piano player! Look at his left hand! As a piano player Conzelman is a bum!'”

— JImmy Conzelman

If you could invite any five people from pro football history to dinner, who would you choose? My first draft pick — playing the position of: Life of the Party — would be Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman. Conzelman was a man of many talents. A fine quarterback in the 1920s with the Rock Island Independents and other clubs, he also coached two teams to NFL titles (the single-wing Providence Steam Roller in 1928 and the T-formation Chicago Cardinals in ’47), was perhaps the most sought-after after-dinner speaker of his time and could even play the piano.

Sports Illustrated’s Gerald Holland wrote this piece about Conzelman in 1961, one that captures him in all his multifaceted glory. Hope you like it as much as I did. To me, Jimmy was a combination of John Madden and Art Donovan — with some Victor Borge, perhaps, mixed in. Of course, Jimmy always said his primary influence as a speaker was humorist Robert Benchley, who had a seat at the Algonquin Round Table.

The starting 11

Those curious about the early years of pro football might want to get their hands on the following books. They’re not necessarily the best that have been written about the game’s beginnings, but they’re among the first (which is why some of them are so darn expensive, even used).

At any rate, if you’re trying to assemble a Serious NFL Library, these should definitely be on your wish list:

● Pro Football: Its “Ups” and “Downs,” by Dr. Harry A. March (J. B. Lyon, 1934) — This is thought to be the first book ever written about the pro game. The author, Harry March, helped launch the Giants as their general manager in 1925 and, two years later, put together their first championship team. (Before that, he was a physician in Canton, Ohio, home of the Bulldogs, and also served as the medical examiner — meaning he performed autopsies.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 7.08.49 PMQuite a fellow, this March. And Pro Football is quite a book, a breezy blend of fact and fable. Thus its subtitle: “A Light-hearted History of the Post-Graduate Game.” Sprinkled in are all kinds of Harryisms, such as, “You can’t carry the mail if you dally too much with the female” and “’Tis better to have passed and lost than never to have passed at all.”

Where else can you learn that “Dutch” Maulebetsch, an All-American from Michigan who played for a semipro club in Ann Arbor, was “the lowest-running back we have seen; [he] could plunge at full steam under an ordinary kitchen table without touching it with his shoulders, the arm not grasping the ball swinging like a flail to ward off tacklers or preserve his balance as would a third leg. He hit low and he hit hard” — so low and so hard that once, “intent only upon scoring a touchdown, he knocked the legs of a mounted policeman’s horse from under him, the horse, policeman and ‘Dutch’ falling in a muddled heap.” There’s plenty more where that came from.

Antiquarian note: March updated the book in 1939, not long before he died. The first edition had a blue cover, the second (pictured here) a red one.

● Football, by Potsy Clark (Rand McNally, 1935) — Clark, who coached Lions to the 1935 title (and led their ancestors, the Portsmouth Spartans, to the ’32 championship game) wrote a booklet rather than a book. Still, its 32 pages are packed with play diagrams and instructional photos that tell much about pro football in that period.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 7.12.26 PMMost interesting of all might be the 100-yard “Strategy Map” that details his offensive philosophy in the various parts of the field. For instance, when the offense is backed up to its 15 or deeper — the “Bad Lands” in the Clark lexicon — it should punt “on first or second down . . . from [the] crest of [the] field.” Upon reaching the opponent’s 40 — the “special-play area” — it should “use such short passes, trick plays or regular plays as will gain a great number of yards and save the team for the scoring zone [i.e. the red zone].”

You’ll love Potsy’s description of Shipwreck Kelly, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ daredevil, catching a punt by Giants Hall of Famer Ken Strong and kicking the ball right back. Kelly “caught a punt in his own territory, began his run, which brought his opponents toward him, and then booted without a chance of the kick being blocked. [If] Kelly’s opponents fumbled the kick, the chances for recovery by Kelly’s team were excellent, since the opponents’ attention was centered downfield and Kelly’s teammates were in the majority down where the ball was kicked.”

● Who’s Who in Major League Football, by Harold “Speed” Johnson and Wilfrid Smith (B. E. Callahan, 1935) — Before there were Sporting News Pro Football Guides and Registers (remember those?) there was Who’s Who in Major League Football. I chose the 1935 edition because it’s the best. Smith, by the way, was a former NFL player who became a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune, and Johnson edited a similar series of Who’s Who books for baseball.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 8.02.23 PMWhat makes the ’35 Who’s Who the Preferred One is the player thumbnails, which are longer than in later editions and full of fabulous trivia. You learn that Giants fullback “Lefty” Corzine, while “with the [NFL’s] Cincinnati Reds in 1933, . . . played in every minute of eight consecutive games and, while so occupied, lost 18 pounds.” You learn that against the Giants in 1930 — the pre-stats era — end Jim Mooney “punted 14 times for Brooklyn, his efforts averaging 64 yards each from the line of scrimmage.” You even learn the Bears’ home addresses. Hall of Fame tackle George Musso lived at 206 Park Ave. in Collinsville, Ill.

In the back, there are a glossary of football terms “for [the] casual fan” and bios of NFL officials. Three 1935 zebras — Paul Menton (Baltimore Evening Sun), Jack Reardon (The New York Times) and Gus Rooney (Boston Traveler) were either current or ex-sportswriters. I could go on, but you get the idea. Wish they published books like this today.

● The Modern T Formation with Man-in Motion, by Clark Shaughnessy, Ralph Jones and George Halas (self-published, 1941) — For me, The Modern T Formation was the Holy Grail. In my newspaper travels in the ’80s and ’90s, I searched every used bookstore from here to Seattle looking for a copy. No luck. Then the Internet was invented, and the search became a lot easier. It was the last of the Starting 11 I signed to a contract, so to speak.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 7.19.21 PMWhy is this book so important? Because it basically invented modern offensive football. Or rather, its three writers — Bears coach George Halas, former Bears coach Ralph Jones and former Bears assistant Clark Shaughnessy (then at Stanford) — did. In December 1940, Halas’ team, with its quarterback under center and its backs motioning right and left, had shocked the world by trampling the single-wing Redskins 73-0 in the title game. Six months later, Halas, Jones and Shaughnessy self-published their strategic masterpiece in a paperback, comb-bound edition. And the game was never the same.

Like Clark’s Football, The Modern T Formation is largely an X’s and O’s manual — only much more extensive. It’s basically the T’s first playbook, written for the thousands of coaches who would adopt the formation in the next decade and add their own flourishes. As revolutionary as the offense was, though, it still emphasized running the ball. From page 97:

“The two most important plays in the ‘T’ formation system, not necessarily from the standpoint of yardage possibilities, but because they are the key plays, are the two fullback end runs — one to the right ([Diagram] No. 17) and the opposite one to the left, on which the halfbacks in motion block in the defensive ends. The ‘T’ formation field general ‘sets up’ the defense opposing him with these two plays. If there is no adjustment on the defensive line of scrimmage or in the play of the backers-up, these fullback end runs will produce long yardage. If the defensive line and backers-up do adjust their assignments, then other opportunities will be exposed. The quarterback looks for these adjustments as he is counting while the man-in-motion is moving across the field. The quarterback’s taking of the ball from the center is merely a mechanical move and does not require the quarterback’s looking at the ball [unlike the tailback in the single wing, with its shotgun snap], and for this reason he can put his entire attention to observing the defensive changes that are being made to cope with the man-in motion.”

The “Do’s and Don’ts” section is also fascinating. In 1941, Halas, Jones and Shaughnessy were telling coaches: “DO usually pass on second and one or two yards to go.”

Must, must, must reading.

● My Life with the Redskins, by Corinne Griffith (Barnes, 1946) — Griffith, wife of team founder George Preston Marshall, was a former silent-screen star. Judging from this playful romp through Redskins history, she would have been an all-pro dinner companion — smart, funny and opinionated. (She later wrote the semi-autobiographical Papa’s Delicate Condition, which was made into a movie starring Jackie Gleason as the tipsy father.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 7.52.38 PMCorinne gives great Inside Scoop. Fullback Andy Farkas, she says, “had never made love to a girl; he had never proposed to a girl; he had never even kissed a girl!” when he met his wife-to-be, Ellen (who was his nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital when he was recovering from knee surgery). So “he had his coach [Ray Flaherty] write the letter of proposal; he had his coach buy the engagement ring; then he decided to do the kissing for himself.”

See what I mean? The woman is a riot.

One more. Corinne on sports medicine in 1946 (in this case the treatment of an unconscious player): “Doc Bohm’s assistant trainer, Kelly, arrived with his little bag of lemons. He has one of the most invidious habits I know. He is constantly rushing up to football players, cramming the open end of half a lemon against their teeth, then squeezing it. Just writing about it sets my teeth on edge. And that is assistant trainer Kelly’s whole theory. He firmly believes that a football player with his teeth on edge will fight harder, run faster and score sooner. . . . Assistant trainer Kelly squeezed his lemon just as a shot rang out. I thought maybe they were putting the poor [concussed player] out of his misery, but it was the end of the third quarter.”

● The Green Bay Packers, by Arch Ward (Putnam’s, 1946) — Lord knows why they let somebody from Bears Country, the Tribune’s Ward, write this book. But Arch does a creditable job recounting the tale of the small-market team (1930 population: 31,017) that struck it big in the NFL.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.13.41 AMAmong other things, we learn that Don Hutson, the Packers’ consummate receiver, might never have played football if a friend hadn’t talked him into going out for the team as a senior at Pine Bluff (Ark.) High. (Up to then, Hutson, a lean 150 pounds, had focused on basketball and baseball.)

After the season, the friend was recruited by Alabama, but he refused to go unless they also took his buddy Don. Tide coach Frank Thomas finally agreed. Two years later, the friend dropped out of school — and Hutson went on to become an NFL immortal.

We also learn why the Packers threw the ball so much in the prewar years, which was hardly the norm for a Notre Dame Box offense. In 1919, their first season, they went to Ishpeming, Mich., to play a tough semipro team, and after just three running plays they’d lost their quarterback and two tackles with serious injuries. So player-coach Curly Lambeau “suggested a drastic switch in tactics — no [running] plays, just passes and punts,” Ward writes. The Packers won 33-0, proving “conclusively that that brawn could be conquered by strategy. . . . It was to become a concrete factor in Green Bay offensive play.”

● My Kind of Football, by Steve Owen (David McKay, 1952) — A fine memoir by Hall of Famer Owen, who played in the NFL in the ’20s and early ’30s, then coached the Giants through 1953, winning two championships. (One of the reasons the book is so readable, no doubt, is because of the help he got from his “editor,” Joe King of the New York World-Telegram, who had few peers as a pro football writer in those days.)

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.03.02 AMOwen barnstormed with Red Grange, tackled Bronko Nagurski and wrestled during the offseason (sometimes under the name of Jack O’Brien). That makes his autobiography a little different from those of contemporary coaching legends, most of whom never played pro ball. Steve can regale us with stories about Bronko (and others) from a player’s and coach’s perspective. For example:

“I never claimed I could stop Nagurski, any more than I ever insisted I could walk through a steel door, but I believe I did as well as any other tackle to annoy the Bronko. Tacklers to Nagurski were like flies on the flanks of a horse. . . . The Bronko was so rugged as a player that I ordered the Giants to simply avoid tackling him head on in the championship playoff of 1933. . . . What I did was assign two men to cover him, and three on certain plays. They were to throw themselves in front of him, blockwise, in hopes of tripping him or knocking him off stride, so that the rest could fall on him like a wolf pack. . . . In that way I did sacrifice a few yards now and then, but I made sure he didn’t break loose.”

● The Official National Football League Football Encyclopedia, by Roger Treat (Barnes, 1952) — Total Football and The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia, in their weighty splendor, would come much later. It was Treat who blazed the trail, though, and he provides a ton of information about the league’s first 32 years — the evolution of the game, the coaches, the players, the records, you name it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 7.32.12 PMThis was more than a decade before the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened, remember. So when perusing the “All-Time All-Star Team” — 33 players, voted on by a panel of experts — I couldn’t help noticing that five still aren’t in Canton (Lavie Dilweg, Fred Davis, Bull Behman, Ray Bray and Nate Barrager). Seems like too many. Maybe somebody should point this out to the Veterans Committee.

Treat, a sports columnist for The Washington Daily News and the Chicago Herald-American, was a great friend of the pro game. (The book jacket says he “married Gertrude Dahl, prominent Ziegfeld girl of the ’30s.”) He was also a great friend of researchers. On top of everything else, his encyclopedia has an index.

● The Story of Pro Football, by Howard Roberts (Rand McNally, 1953) — Roberts followed March’s lead by writing an anecdotal history of the game, devoting a chapter to each of the NFL’s 12 teams (and assorted other subjects). As with Pro Football: Its “Ups” and “Downs,” some of the stories are apocryphal — or at the very least unverifiable — but there’s more than enough substance to make up for it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 7.55.57 PMPro football in those years was every bit as rough as you’ve heard. Here’s Roberts, who worked for the Chicago Daily News, revisiting a particularly nasty incident between the Bears and Brooklyn Dodgers: “Bill Osmanski likes to tell the tale of a Bears-Brooklyn game in which the Dodgers’ great tackle, ‘Bruiser’ Kinard was giving him a bad time. On one play Osmanski was knocked cold, and [teammate Joe] Stydahar, picking him up, asked, ‘Who did it, buddy?’

“Osmanski said he wasn’t quite sure, but it was either No. 52 or No. 25 [Kinard].

“‘A couple of plays later, Stydahar and Kinard crashed together so hard the force of the collision opened a deep gash on Kinard’s arm, and he had to go to the clubhouse to have some stitches taken in the wound,’ Osmanski relates. ‘The officials couldn’t believe a mere collision, no matter how violent, could cause such an injury. They thought Joe must have been wielding a knife. In fact, they searched all of us for concealed weapons. They even looked in Stydahar’s mouth to see if he could have bitten Kinard! That was a waste of time if I ever saw one. Joe couldn’t bite anybody. Not without teeth.’”

● Inside Pro Football, by Joe King (Prentice-Hall, 1958) — I mentioned King earlier, as the collaborator on Owen’s My Kind of Football. Inside Pro Football is every bit as good, as much as anything because of his reporting on the business end of the game, which didn’t get a great deal of coverage in the ’50s.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 7.38.31 PMThe average NFL salary in 1957, according to King, was $9,500. When the Lions fired coach Gus Dorais after a 3-9 season in ’47, they had to pay him $25,000 a year for the next four years. The Redskins sold 916 season tickets in ’37, their first year in Washington. Within six years they were selling 22,000. The book is full of stuff like this, stuff you won’t find anywhere else.

King was as connected as any writer in that era – and in Inside Pro Football it shows. He also doesn’t pull any punches, addressing the violence issue, intraleague squabbles and the NFL’s insistence on controlling its product by “taking direct charge of announcers, cameramen and directors.” “An announcer . . . is not a critic, a coach or an official,” commissioner Bert Bell is quoted as saying. “He is a salesman for pro football.”

There are wonderful vignettes, too, like the one about Owen and Eagles coach Greasy Neale. “Neale didn’t learn until years later why Steve . . . presented him with a beautiful, costly white Stetson hat to wear for luck on the bench,” Giants scout Jack Lavelle told King. “Steve [whose vision was lousy] wanted to pick out Greasy easily during a game to try to catch his signals.”

● Pro Football’s Rag Days, by Bob Curran (Prentice-Hall, 1969) — After The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter’s classic oral history of baseball’s early years, was published in 1966, several writers came out with a pro football version. Curran gave us Rag Days, Myron Cope followed with The Game That Was (1970) and Richard Whittingham added What a Game They Played (1984) to the pile.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.18.32 AM All three books have their merits — and their different voices. Curran’s makes my list because, well, he did it first.

Jack Cusack, who managed the Canton Bulldogs in the Teens – before the NFL was formed – talks in Rag Days about one of his players dying of injuries suffered in a game. “In making a tackle,” he says, “[Harry] Turner’s back was fractured and his spinal cord completely severed.”

Hall of Famer Benny Friedman, pro football’s first great passer, reminisces about how he helped sell the young league to a not-always-receptive public. He and the Cleveland Bulldogs PR man, Ed Bang, “used to travel a day or two ahead of time to the city we were going to play in. Ed would buy two bottles of whiskey and we’d walk into a newspaper office. He’d hand one bottle to the sports editor and the other to the sports columnist, he’d introduce me, and then we’d kibitz. That was the way we got our publicity.”

Curran also sat down with Dutch Clark, Mel Hein, Sid Luckman, Whizzer White and other legends. It was Clark who told him about the time he went to the Portsmouth Spartans treasurer to collect — with some insistence — a substantial amount of back pay. He was handed “600 single dollar bills,” straight from the box office. “I had dollar bills crammed into my pants pockets, my overcoat pockets, my suit coat pockets and every other place I could find.”

● The Twelfth Man (in case one of the others pulls a hamstring): The Public Calls It Sport, by Harry Wismer (Prentice Hall, 1965) — This is more of a dirty-laundry book about behind-the-scenes dealing in the NFL and AFL, but hey, who doesn’t love a dirty-laundry book? Wismer was a famous sportscaster who owned pieces of the Redskins and Lions before founding the AFL’s New York Titans (now the Jets) in 1960. By the time he wrote The Public Calls It Sport, he was struggling financially (and physically) because of his disastrous Titans venture and, clearly, had some scores to settle.

The Public Calls It SportIf you can work your way past that, though, Wismer’s view of various events — and the men who orchestrated them — is intriguing to say the least. Consider his take on the NFL’s institution of the college draft, which has always been thought of as Bert Bell’s baby:

“In February 1936, when it was finally adopted, . . . Bell spoke long and argued forcefully for the draft, couching his appeal in terms of its overall advantages to the league, but his personal prestige and strategic position were not particularly high then. His franchise was one of the poorest and weakest in the league, and he was vulnerable to the charge of self-seeking. . . . [Lions owner Dick] Richards’ support of the plan was critical. As one of the ‘haves’ who stood to lose heavily if the draft was adopted, he was open to no such selfish charge. He may have been influenced originally by a desire to humble his archrival, [George] Halas, but he would not have willingly seen his own club weakened simply to bring down the Bears.”

Never looked at it that way before. But think about it: In 1936 the NFL had nine teams — five “haves” (Giants, Redskins, Bears, Packers, Lions) and four “have-nots” (Dodgers, Eagles, Pirates, Cardinals). That meant the “haves” ran the show unless one of them broke ranks. In this instance, Richards did — and the league, to its lasting benefit, took a major step toward being better-balanced and more competitive.