It’s a natural question to ask, given the antics of some NFL players in recent years — Prince Shembo’s drop-kicking of a dog, Ray Rice’s slugging of his Significant Other, etc.: Have players always been this out of control? What kinds of things did they get arrested for in the alleged Good Old Days?
Rest assured footballers have always been footballers, though their crimes of choice decades ago tended to be different from today — more typical than terrible. I’ve gathered a bunch of them so you’ll get a feel for the scope of their misbehavior. Remember: This is just a sampling. There’s plenty more where these came from.
● 1926: Jim Thorpe gets drunk in the midst of Prohibition.
This happened during Red Grange’s postseason barnstorming tour with the Bears. As you may have heard, ol’ Bright Path had a weakness for the bottle. His drinking buddy, according to the story below, was C.C. Wiederquist — a great football name. But I’m pretty sure it’s misspelled and that The Associated Press was referring to Chester Carl “Chet” Widerquist, who played six seasons in the NFL (and didn’t, near as I can tell, attend the University of Minnesota).
● 1938: Shipwreck Kelly breaks up a marriage.
Kelly, the toast (literally) of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a legendary Man About Town. Three years later he married heiress Brenda Frazier, who once graced the cover of Life magazine. What I wouldn’t give to follow Shipwreck around for a night and see where it took him. Nowadays, of course, he’d get killed by the social media. The whole world would take a selfie with him and post it on Facebook. But back then you could disappear in the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.● 1946: Double disaster.
I’m not sure the you-know-what ever hit the fan in pro football like it did in December 1946. Before the NFL title game, a fix attempt was uncovered that involved two Giants, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes. Both were banned indefinitely from the league. Before the championship game in the rival All-America Conference, meanwhile, three Browns got a little rowdy and one of them, team captain Jim Daniell, lost his job because of it. How does this compare with, say, the Falcons’ Eugene Robinson getting charged with solicitation the night before the Super Bowl?
FYI: Daniell and his two running mates were later acquitted. But then, so were the Black Sox.● 1959: Another DUI charge for Bobby Layne.
I say “another” because the Hall of Fame quarterback had one two years earlier when he was with the Lions. He managed to escape conviction on both occasions, as I posted about a while back. It’s pretty comical. The first time, his lawyer argued that police had mistaken his Texas drawl for slurred speech, and in this second instance, his lawyer said Bobby’s “extreme hoarseness, which may have led the police to suspect intoxication, was the result of a severe case of laryngitis.” (Then again, maybe he just had a shot glass stuck in his throat.)● 1960: John Henry Johnson falls behind on his child-support payments.
Fortunately for Johnson, who’s also in Canton, the term Deadbeat Dad hadn’t been invented yet. Five kids. Can you imagine how that would play in 2015?● 1972: Karl Sweetan tries to sell his Rams playbook to the Saints, one of his former teams.
Sweetan wasn’t much of a quarterback, but he gained eternal infamy for this pathetic move. Like most of his passes — 54.4 percent, to be exact — it was incomplete.
So there you have it, a sampling of off-field trouble from pro football’s first 50-odd years. Moral: These guys have always acted up. In the 2000s, it isn’t necessarily the magnitude of their misconduct that’s bigger; sometimes it’s just the microscope they’re under.
Postscript: NFL players haven’t always been on the wrong side of the law. I leave you with this story about John Kreamcheck, a Bears defensive tackle in the ’50s, who became a detective:Sources: Google newspapers, Brooklyn Eagle archives, Chicago Tribune archives, pro-football-reference.com.
Some of the NFL Draft’s best moments don’t become Best Moments until much later, after it’s established how good/bad the players are and how well/poorly teams evaluated them. That’s what this post is about: those instances when two guys at the same position are picked back to back, and it turns out there’s a gigantic gap between them. Basically, the first guy has a forgettable career (if he has one at all), and the second goes on to the Hall of Fame (or close to it).
Here are a dozen examples I dug up, just for the sake of conversation. Call them . . .
(Note: Shaw signed with the Bills of the rival AFL.)
The Vikes drafted this guy a spot ahead of Andre Reed.
Talk about screwing the pooch. After deciding to draft a particular player at a particular position, the teams on the left took The Wrong Guy — a mistake which became infinitely worse when the next club on the clock took The Right Guy. You can click on the names to look at their stats . . . and see how huge a gap there was in each case. It ain’t pretty. Cheshire, Jones and Pfeifer never played in the league, and Rogers, for one, was a drug-plagued disaster (36 catches and 4 touchdowns, compared to Reed’s 1,012 and 64 — and counting).
Would the first decade of the expansion Browns have been a little less miserable if they’d opted for McNabb over Couch? You’d think so. You’ve also gotta believe the ’70s (pre-Coryell) Chargers would have won a lot more games if they’d had Stallworth catching passes and Page chasing down quarterbacks — or am I underestimating how lousy the Bolts were in those days?
This kind of puts it all in perspective, though: Spurrier wound up quarterbacking the only 0-14 team in NFL history (the ’76 Bucs), and Griese wound up quarterbacking the only 17-0 team (the ’72 Dolphins).
It’s great to have the first pick in the NFL draft — as the Bucs have on five occasions, including this year. But it’s almost as great to have the sixth pick, believe it or not. And you’d be amazed at how much mileage teams have gotten out of the 34th pick.
Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.
Let me explain myself. I’m talking about the number of Hall of Famers each pick has yielded — its Canton Factor, if you will. That’s what everybody is trying to do at the top of the draft, right? Hit a home run. Find a player for the ages. And there’s no pick like the first pick for that. An even dozen players taken No. 1 are in the Hall, 12 in 79 drafts (with more, such as Peyton Manning, to come).
This, of course, is hardly surprising. Drafting may be an inexact science, but general managers and scouts aren’t complete dullards. Give them first crack at the available college talent, and they can usually find a guy who can walk and chew gum, sometimes all the way to Canton.
What is surprising is some of the other stuff my research turned up. For instance, the second-best pick for Hall of Famers is the sixth (11). The 34th pick (4), meanwhile, has produced more HOFers than the seventh (1!) and ninth (3)* picks and as many as the 10th. Here are the selections with the highest Canton Factor:
PICKS THAT HAVE YIELDED THE MOST HALL OF FAMERS
● 1st (12) — QB Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989), DE Bruce Smith (Bills, ’85), QB John Elway (Broncos, ’83), RB Earl Campbell (Houston Oilers, ’78), DE Lee Roy Selmon (Bucs, ’76), QB Terry Bradshaw (Steelers, ’70), RB O.J. Simpson (Bills, ’69), OT Ron Yary (Vikings, ’68), RB Paul Hornung (Packers, ’57), C-LB Chuck Bednarik (Eagles, ’49), RB Charley Trippi (Cardinals, ’45), RB Bill Dudley (Steelers, ’42).
● 6th (11) — OT Walter Jones (Seahawks, ’97), WR Tim Brown (Raiders, ’88), WR James Lofton (Packers, ’78), RB John Riggins (Jets, ’71), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, ’64), CB Jimmy Johnson (49ers, ’61), RB Jim Brown (Browns, ’57), QB Y.A. Tittle (Lions, ’48), C-LB Alex Wojciechowicz (Lions, ’38), QB Sammy Baugh (Redskins, ’37), T Joe Stydahar (Bears, ’36).
● 2nd (10) — RB Marshall Faulk (Colts, ’94), RB Eric Dickerson (Rams, ’83), LB Lawrence Taylor (Giants, ’81), RB Tony Dorsett (Cowboys, ’77), DT Randy White (Cowboys, ’75), OG Tom Mack (Rams, ’66), OT Bob Brown (Eagles, ’64), LB Les Richter (Dallas Texans, ’52), RB George McAfee (Eagles, ’40), QB Sid Luckman (Bears, ’39).
● 3rd (10) — DT Cortez Kennedy (Seahawks, ’90), RB Barry Sanders (Lions, ’89), OT Anthony Munoz (Bengals, ’80), LB Dick Butkus (Bears, ’65), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, ’64), DT Merlin Olsen (Rams, ’62), RB Ollie Matson (Cardinals, ’52), RB Doak Walker (N.Y. Bulldogs, ’49), QB Bobby Layne (Bears, ’48), DE Claude Humphrey (Falcons, ’68).
● 4th (9) — OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens, ’96), LB Derrick Thomas (Chiefs, ’89), DE Chris Doleman (Vikings, ’85), DE Dan Hampton (Bears, ’79), RB Walter Payton (Bears, ’75), OG John Hannah (Patriots ’73), DT Joe Greene (Steelers, ’69), RB Gale Sayers (Bears, ’65), QB Otto Graham (Lions, ’44).
● 5th (8) — LB Junior Seau (Chargers, ’90), CB Deion Sanders (Falcons, ’89), CB Mike Haynes (Patriots, ’76), TE Mike Ditka (Bears, ’61), QB Len Dawson (Steelers, ’57), T George Connor (Giants, ’46), WR Elroy Hirsch (Rams, ’45), RB Steve Van Buren (Eagles, ’44).
● 8th (6) — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, ’93), OG Mike Munchak (Oilers, ’82), DB Ronnie Lott (49ers, ’81), RB Larry Csonka (Dolphins, ’68), WR Lance Alworth (49ers, ’62), OL Jim Parker (Colts, ’57).
● 11th (5) — WR Michael Irvin (Cowboys, ’88), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, ’64), DE Doug Atkins (Browns, ’53), RB Frank Gifford (Giants, ’52), DT Leo Nomellini (49ers, ’50).
● 18th (5) — WR Art Monk (Redskins, ’80), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, ’64), RB John Henry Johnson (Steelers, ’53), T Bruiser Kinard (Brooklyn Dodgers, ’38), RB Tuffy Leemans (Giants, ’36).
● 10th (4) — DB Rod Woodson (Steelers, ’87), RB Marcus Allen (Raiders, ’82), OT Ron Mix (Colts, ’60), RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, ’93).
Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.
● 34th (4) — LB Jack Ham (Steelers, ’71), CB Lem Barney (Lions, ’67), DB Yale Lary (Lions, ’52), OT Mike McCormack (New York Yanks, ’51).
*The only Hall of Famer drafted seventh is C Bulldog Turner (Bears, ’40). The only HOFers who went ninth are OG Bruce Matthews (Oilers, ’83), RB Lenny Moore (Colts, ’56) and RB Hugh McElhenny (49ers, ’52).
Some other discoveries:
● The 24th and 25th picks haven’t given us any Canton-quality players — yet. In the case of the 24th, that figures to change whenever Ed Reed (Ravens, 2002) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 2005) come up for consideration, but nobody taken at 25 seems very Hall-worthy . . . or is even likely to get endorsed by the Veterans Committee. In fact, 25 has been a virtual black hole. The best selections at that spot: NT Ted Washington (49ers, ’91) and WRs Stanley Morgan (Patriots, ’76) and Boyd Dowler (Packers, ’59).
● Second-round picks might be good values salary-cap-wise, but they don’t produce nearly as many Hall of Famers as first-round picks. The breakdown:
HOFers drafted from 1 through 32: 121
HOFers drafted from 33 through 64: 32
● That said, the 48th pick yielded a Hall of Famer two years in a row in the 1980s: C Dwight Stephenson (Dolphins, ’80) and DE Howie Long (Raiders, ’81). The second round of that ’81 draft, by the way, had three players who wound up in Canton: LB Mike Singletary (38th, Bears), Long and LB Rickey Jackson (51st, Saints). By that measure, it’s the best second round ever.
● I love this: The third pick in the ’48 draft was QB Bobby Layne (by the Bears). The third pick in ’49 was RB Doak Walker (by the New York Bulldogs, though he ended up with the Lions). Both are in Canton, but even better, they were high school teammates at Highland Park in Dallas. (Another high selection who played at Highland Park: Lions QB Matt Stafford, who went No. 1 in 2009.)
FYI: The Jets are sitting with the sixth pick (good karma), the Bears with the seventh (bad karma, though they did get Turner there), the Panthers with the 25th (really bad karma) and the Bucs with the 34th (really good karma, especially since it’s a second-rounder).
Yup, Tampa Bay has the first selection and the 34th. Pretty sweet.
Now we just have to wait for Roger Goodell to say, “Gentlemen, start your draft boards.”
With women making all these inroads in pro football, I figured it might be a good time to post a story I wrote in 2000 about their oft-forgotten impact on the game — in ways large and small. I’ve brought the piece up to date in a few places, but most of it remains unchanged. As you’ll see, the role they’ve played is hardly inconsequential.
● ● ●
The NFL couldn’t agree on how to realign after merging with the American Football League in 1970. Owners spent eight months batting around various ideas without reaching a compromise. Some of the possibilities were downright scary. Two of the plans broke up the age-old Bears-Packers rivalry. Another put Philadelphia and Detroit in the NFC West.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle finally stepped in and settled the issue. He put the five most popular plans in a cut-glass vase and asked his secretary, Thelma Elkjer, to reach in and pick one. Thelma pulled out plan No. 3, the only one, it turned out, that kept the black-and-blue division (Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota) intact. Had she selected any of the other four, the Vikings would have been in the NFC East.
We tend to think of the NFL as a man’s world, and it is to a great degree. But that doesn’t mean women haven’t, from time to time, played important roles in its history. Women have had a much bigger impact on pro football — in all sorts of ways — than most fans realize. (And not just by giving birth to, say, the Manning brothers.) For instance, did you know that the wife of the Pittsburgh ticket manager came up with the name Steelers? If it hadn’t been for Mrs. Joe Carr, we might be calling them the Iron Men or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. . . .
Corinne Griffith, wife of Redskins founder George Preston Marshall, made all kinds of contributions to the cause in the ’30s and ’40s. She designed the team’s uniforms (as well as the costumes for the marching band). She planned elaborate halftime shows that became the model for the rest of the league. She even wrote the lyrics to Hail to the Redskins.
(The latter might seem like a small thing, but it became very big indeed when Clint Murchison was trying to get a franchise for Dallas in 1960. Murchison knew the Redskins were opposed to another southern team joining the NFL — they considered the South their territory — so a buddy of his acquired the rights to the Redskins’ fight song and threatened to deny Marshall the use of it unless he supported Dallas’ bid. George capitulated, of course.)
There was nothing Corinne wouldn’t do for her beloved Redskins. One year, The New York Times reported, the Brooklyn Dodgers sent “Dean McAdams and Merlyn Condit to [Washington] for Bob Masterson, Ray Hare, George Smith, Tony Leon, Leo Stasica, $2,000 and a boxer dog, Toby. Referring to that one-sided transaction — McAdams and Condit never played with the Redskins — Mrs. George Preston Marshall, whose husband made the deal, averred she didn’t mind losing the players, but hated to give up Toby.”
Which brings us to Lizette Mara, wife of New York Giants founder Tim Mara. Lizette wasn’t nearly as active in team affairs as Corinne Griffith, but she did wield a certain influence. How so? Well, after the Giants played their first game at the Polo Grounds in 1925, her young son Wellington, who had stood on the sideline all afternoon, came down with a cold. Mom was none too pleased.
“She immediately came up with a novel solution,” Barry Gottehrer wrote in The Giants of New York. “The Giant[s] bench, placed on the south side of the field, was in the chilling shade from the second quarter on while the visiting team’s bench remained bathed in sun.”
“She told Pop to switch the benches,” Wellington, who followed his father into the Hall of Fame, told Gottehrer. “It was either that or leave me home, so Pop switched benches. And they’ve stayed switched ever since.”
● ● ●
The 1999 NFL champions, the St. Louis Rams, were owned by a woman: former actress/chorus girl/nightclub singer/TV weather person Georgia Frontiere. Frontiere inherited the franchise, then located in Los Angeles, from her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, and made no friends by (a.) letting the club go to pot and (b.) bolting to St. Louis in 1995. Fans saw her as too bottom-line conscious — and totally over her head. They’d bring signs to games begging her to sell the team.
Unfortunately for them, she liked being an owner.
“It’s too much a part of my life,” she said in a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “What would I do on Sunday? There is still a certain kid in me. When I first met Carroll [who originally owned the Baltimore Colts], he used to take me to practice, and I played catch with Johnny Unitas. That was the greatest thing to ever happen.”
Many were skeptical when the Rams went to St. Louis, even though the team negotiated a sweet financial deal that included a new stadium. The city simply hadn’t supported pro football that strongly in the past. But Frontiere seemed to learn from her mistakes in L.A. First, she loosened the purse strings, giving huge contracts to Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace and Isaac Bruce. Then she got incredibly lucky when her backup quarterback, Kurt Warner, turned into the NFL’s MVP (and was rewarded with a lucrative contract himself).
The ’99 season was pure magic — and ended with commissioner Paul Tagliabue handing Georgia the Super Bowl trophy. “[This] proves that we did the right thing in going to St. Louis,” she said in her acceptance speech. Tagliabue, who had opposed the move, didn’t argue. After all, the Rams were champs, and the city they left behind had been passed over for an expansion franchise in favor of Houston.
Violet Bidwill with Cardinals coach Pop Ivy at the 1961 draft.
Frontiere, it might surprise you to learn, wasn’t the first woman to own an NFL championship team. More than a half-century earlier, in 1947, Violet Bidwill presided over the title-winning Chicago Cardinals — quite unexpectedly, I might add. Her husband, pro football pioneer Charley Bidwill, had died of a heart attack the previous spring, and poor Violet was left to run the club.
These were the glory years for the Cardinals franchise, the years of Jimmy Conzelman, their ever-quotable coach, and the “Dream Backfield” of Charley Trippi, Paul Christman, Pat Harder and Elmer Angsman. The team played for the championship again in ’48, losing in a snowstorm to the Eagles in Philadelphia, but won only one playoff game in the next six decades. Which is really all you need to know about Violet Bidwill, NFL owner.
Vi — adoptive mother of current Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill — was a nice woman, by all accounts. She was just . . . well, why don’t I let Bob Nussbaumer tell you about her?
“I was helping the Cardinals out with the draft — gathering information on players and stuff like that,” he told me. “And in those days [the ’50s] they used to hold the draft in Chicago all the time, in a hotel. So we’re sitting at the Cardinals’ table, waiting for the draft to start, and here comes Vi Bidwill with a bunch of college football magazines. True story. Honest to God. And she’s flipping through them [at the table] and saying, ‘What about this guy? He sounds pretty good.’”
Vi was approached about selling the club in 1958 — and this is where she left perhaps her biggest mark on pro football. The man who approached her was millionaire oilman Lamar Hunt, who was anxious to buy a team. When Vi turned him down, Hunt went off and organized the AFL — which gave us Joe Namath, 2-point conversions, skyrocketing salaries and a decade of highly entertaining interleague strife.
So look at it this way: If it hadn’t been for Vi Bidwill, there might have been no AFL (or at the very least, a much different AFL).
There certainly would have been no St. Louis Cardinals, which is where she took the team in 1960 after years of playing second fiddle to the Bears in Chicago. (Son Bill continued the tradition of itinerancy by packing the club off to Arizona.)
You could even argue that, without Vi Bidwill, there would have been no Detroit Lions dynasty in the ’50s. Buddy Parker, who coached the Lions to championships in 1952 and ’53 (and laid the groundwork for their title in ’57), had previously coached the Cardinals. But he left the team after a winning season in ’49 because Vi wasn’t sure if she wanted to renew his contract.
“I wanted my status established,” Parker said at the time. “Mrs. Bidwill wouldn’t give me a direct answer. She said she wanted to wait and see. I’ve decided not to wait and see.”
Instead, he joined the Lions as Bo McMillin’s top assistant and moved up to the head job the next year when Bo was forced out. Soon enough, Detroit was an NFL powerhouse
You have to admit, Vi Bidwill cuts a wide swath through NFL history, even if she didn’t always mean to.
● ● ●
Moving along . . . other women besides the aforementioned helped make pro football what it is today. Frances Upton, for instance. She was the Ziegfeld Follies girl who married Bert Bell — and gave him the $2,500 he needed to acquire the Philadelphia franchise in 1933. (Bell wasn’t much of an owner, but he made a fine commissioner from 1946 to ’59.)
Women, in fact, bankrolled several owners in the early days. The mother of Bears center George Trafton loaned George Halas $20,000 so that he could buy out Dutch Sternaman and become sole owner of the Bears in 1932. Without that timely infusion of capital, Halas might well have lost the team (or so the story goes). In the depths of the Depression, it was a significant sum.
Then there’s Kate Smith, the famous singer from the ’40s. She was the main source of Boston Yanks owner Ted Collins’ wealth — Ted being her manager. “It was a standing joke on the team,” one of Collins’ players once said, “that if Kate ever got a sore throat, nobody would get paid.”
Collins always claimed Smith didn’t invest in the club, but she was, at the very least, a loyal supporter. She sang the national anthem before the Yanks’ inaugural game in 1944 and often could be seen rooting for them at Fenway Park. The Boston Globe offered this press box glimpse of her during a Yanks-Bears game in 1947:
“When the Bears sent McAfee, Turner, Holovak, Keane and Kavanaugh into the game for their final spurt, songstress Kate Smith — seated on the 50-yard line — almost jumped into the game to stop them. . . . She rooted violently for Boston throughout the game.”
Having a celebrity like Kate connected to the league was great for its image. Pro football in the pre-television era wasn’t thought of as very glamorous and didn’t have nearly as many followers as college ball. But, hey, if Kate Smith went to the games, they must be the place to be, right?
Another high-profile female who lent her fame to the fledgling NFL was figure skater/film star Sonja Henie, wife of Brooklyn owner Dan Topping. (Sonja might even have owned a piece of the club, though there’s some dispute about that.) In 1940, when the Dodgers opened the season against the Redskins in Washington, the Norwegian ice princess was prevailed upon to throw out the first ball. The United Press reviewed her performance thusly: “Until you have seen Sonja Henie throw a forward pass, you cannot possibly realize the truth in the statement concerning the weaker sex.”
Lovebirds Glenn Davis and Liz Taylor at the beach.
And let’s not forget the Hollywood starlets who consorted with an assortment of Los Angeles Rams in the ’40s and ’50s. Elizabeth Taylor — Liz Taylor! — was once engaged to running back Glenn Davis (and Terry Moore actually walked down the aisle with him). Jane Russell, meanwhile, was married to quarterback Bob Waterfield. The stands at the L.A. Coliseum always seemed to be adorned by a Marilyn Monroe or a Lana Turner.
“Jane [Russell] would come with Bob [Waterfield] to the games in Philadelphia,” former Eagle Ernie Steele told me. “She was just a regular person. Everybody loved her. We were in the Washington Club one time after a ballgame — it used to be on Market Street — and she was just sitting at the table with us, drinking a couple of beers. One of the gals wrote on the wall of the ladies room: ‘Jane Russell peed here.’”
● ● ●
More on Corinne Griffith, George Preston Marshall’s wife-of-all-trades: In addition to her aforementioned talents, Corinne also was an author. In 1946 she wrote (with the L.A. Times’ Bill Henry) My Life With the Redskins, one of the earliest — and best — books on pro football. It’s funny, informative and full of great stories.
Example: For the Lions’ first game at Briggs Stadium in 1938, owner Dick Richards had 6,000 yellow chrysanthemums flown in from California and gave one to each of the first 6,000 women to arrive. “Soon,” Corinne says, “6,000 chrysanthemums yellow-dotted the packed the stadium, lending their clean, tangy odor to the cool, crisp autumn air.”
(Corinne never dreamed up a promotion like that for the Redskins, but she did have Santa Claus flown into Griffith Stadium in a helicopter in 1946.)
Elsewhere in the book, she says it was she who convinced Marshall to move the club to Washington from Boston. “You see,” her logic went, “there are so many displaced citizens in Washington. . . . As a matter of fact, the D.C. after Washington means: Displaced Citizen. Most of these D.C.’s are alone in Washington with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon other than sit in parks and feed the squirrels and pigeons. . . . I have a definite feeling that Washington’s D.C.’s would welcome a little more action on Sunday afternoon.”
After Corinne came Perian Conerly. In the late ’50s, Perian, who was married to Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly, began writing a weekly column for her hometown newspaper in Clarksdale, Miss., about being a football wife in the big city (and including, naturally, behind-the-scenes information about the team and her own observations about the games). The column proved so popular that it was syndicated; one of the newspapers that carried it was The New York Times. Here she is trying to stump the panel of celebrities — movie star David Niven (!) among them — on the famed TV show, What’s My Line?
In one of Perrian’s columns, on players’ “sideline occupations,” she informed her readers that “a Chicago Bear[s] end, Dr. Bill McColl, specializes in surgery and recently performed an offseason knee operation on one of his in-season opponents.” Another time, writing about game day and its attendant anxieties, she revealed: “[Giants punter] Don Chandler’s first move [after waking on Sunday] is to race to the window of his apartment, which overlooks Yankee Stadium, and check the flags displayed there. Thus he gets an immediate indication of how the wind will affect his punting.”
Then there was this gem that ended a column about the growth of pro football and the “enlightened attitude of the general public toward the game”: “I have still another criterion for measuring this evolution of attitude. It concerns tone of voice. ‘Your husband plays professional football?’ has been the stock opening line of new acquaintances since our marriage in 1949. It remains so in 1960. But the exclamation today bears not a trace of pity.”
Perian hung up her typewriter at the end of the ’61 season, when Charlie retired. Three years later, though, Joan Ryan, wife of Browns QB Frank Ryan, picked up where Perian left off in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and later, after Frank signed with the Redskins, in The Washington Star). “Backseat Brown,” her original column was called.
Joan Ryan, pen and notebook at the ready.
Joan’s writing had a little more of an edge to it than Perian’s. She made cracks about other teams’ uniforms. (“The psychological letdown of having to go into a locker room on a bleak day and don [the Redskins’] mustard-gold pants with a maroon-and-gold jersey would make me want to forfeit.”) She ripped the offensive line her husband played behind when he was with the Rams. (“The first time I saw [Frank] throw four consecutive passes standing up was the first time I saw him play for the Browns.”) She told a story about Frank accidentally cleating coach Paul Brown during warmups (and how, after the game, his teammates were “jovially patting Frank on the back . . . [and] were hopeful that Paul might miss the next game because of the injury.”)
But that was nothing compared to what she said about Don Meredith in 1966. Five days before the Browns were to host Dallas in a huge game, she called the Cowboys quarterback “a loser.” (Think that might have caused some tension in the Ryan household?) When the teams met, though, Joan came off looking pretty good. Dandy Don threw four interceptions as Cleveland coasted to an easy victory.
Do Corinne Griffith, Perian Conerly and Joan Ryan have anything to do with this?
It’s hard to believe they don’t.
● ● ●
No discussion of women and their impact on pro football would be complete without Heidi. Granted, Heidi was a girl — and a fictional one at that — but she’s the reason 60 Minutes gets delayed, if need be, so an NFL game can be shown in its entirety.
That policy wasn’t quite set in stone in 1968, when the Jets played at Oakland in a preview of the AFL championship game. With New York leading by a field goal in the final minute and the game running late, NBC switched away from Joe Namath and Ben Davidson so it could air the children’s movie Heidi, which was supposed to begin at 7 p.m.
Talk about a bonehead move. So many angry fans called the NBC switchboard in New York that it broke down. The network tried to placate them by returning to the game, but by then the Raiders had scored the go-ahead touchdown. It was, in every respect, a disaster, but something good did come of it: No network ever messed with a football game again.
So there you have it, folks, the never-before-told story of how women — yes, women — helped shape pro football. With Sarah Thomas about to join the ranks of NFL zebras, there’s no telling what the future holds. Someday, a female might grab a grease pencil and design a defense that will confound the next Tom Brady. In the mind’s eye, it’s the daughter of a football coach, a Condoleezza Rice-type, only she decides she’d rather be a defensive coordinator than Secretary of State.
This story originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Washington Times, Nov. 19, 2000.
More than a few NFLers have played college basketball — especially in the two- and three-sport eras – but only a handful have made much of a mark in the NCAA Tournament. Here are the five most notable ones (and a handful of others who also took part in March Madness):
Antonio Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.
high scorer with 22 when Golden Flashes knocked off third-seed Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. Alas, he was a tweener by NBA standards, a muscular 6-4, so he opted for a pro football career. San Diego signed him as an undrafted free agent and, 788 catches and 99 touchdowns later, he’s on his way to the Hall of Fame.
● Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs/Falcons, 1997-2013 — Gonzalez joined California’s 1996-97 basketball squad late because the football team played in a bowl game. By the time the tournament rolled around, though, he was starting at power forward — and making a major impact. In Cal’s first-round game, he scored the Bears’ final 5 points (and 13 in all) to help the Bears edge Princeton. In Round 2, he had a team-high 23 in a victory over Villanova. His future was clearly in the NFL, though, and the following month the Chiefs drafted him 13th overall. He went on to break virtually all the records for tight ends and figures to be voted into the Hall as soon as he’s eligible.
● Sam Clancy, DE, Seahawks/Browns/Colts, 1983, ’85-93 — Clancy was an even bigger bruiser than the first two guys, measuring 6-7 and bulking up to 288 in the NFL. He was the star of Pittsburgh’s 1981 NCAA tourney team, posting a double-double (22/13) in the opener against Idaho and racking up 16 points and 6 rebounds in the Panthers’ second-round loss to North Carolina (the eventual runner-up). The NBA’s Phoenix Suns selected him in the third round, but after a year in the Continental Basketball Association he turned to football and spent the next decade as a pass-rushing specialist. In 1991, his best season, he had 7.5 sacks for Indianapolis.
● Ron Widby, P, Cowboys/Packers, 1968-73 — Widby was a fabulous all-around athlete at Tennessee, good enough to lead the nation in punting (1966), win SEC Player of the Year honors in basketball (1967) and earn letters in baseball and golf. In his one NCAA tournament (’67), he totaled 43 points and 13 rebounds in the Vols’ two games. Following a brief stint in the American Basketball Association with the New Orleans Buccaneers, he punted for Dallas and Green Bay for six seasons. He was voted first team all-pro by the AP in 1969, when he led the NFC with a 43.3-yard average, and went to the Pro Bowl in ’71, the year the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl.
● Sixth man: Cornell Green, CB/SS, Cowboys, 1962-74 — Like Gates and Clancy, Green didn’t play college football. But Dallas was intrigued enough by his size (6-3, 208) and agility to offer him a contract — and understandably so. His senior season at Utah State, the Aggies made it to the Sweet 16, and he scored 27, 26 and 20 points in their three tournament games. That got him drafted in the fifth round by the NBA’s Chicago Zephyrs, but he decided to give pro football a shot instead. He wound up going to five Pro Bowls (three as a cornerback, two as a strong safety) and appearing in four NFL title games. He also gets bonus points for being the brother of Pumpsie Green, one of the great nicknames in baseball history and the first black player for the Red Sox.
Other bench players:
● Jack Dugger, T, Lions/Bears, 1947-49 — Dugger was a 6-3, 230-pound lineman who had a nondescript pro career. But near as I can tell, he’s the only NFL player to play in two Final Fours — with Ohio State in 1944 and ’45. Of course, the Final Four was different then. The semifinals were held in separate locations, the sites of the East and West regionals, after which the winners convened for the championship game (at Madison Square Garden in those years). In the ’44 semis, Dugger scored 8 points in a loss to Dartmouth, and in the ’45 semis he scored 4 in a loss to NYU (featuring the great Dolph Schayes).
● K.C. Jones, DB, Rams (training camp), 1955 — Ah, what might have been. The Rams drafted Jones out of curiosity in the last round in ’55 — the year he and Bill Russell helped San Francisco win the first of back-to-back NCAA titles. During his brief time in camp, he pretty much invented the bump-and-run style of pass defense, frustrating receivers with what can only be described as a full-court press. (And while his teammates constantly complained about his hand-checking, there was nothing in the rules preventing it.) Jones had the size (6-1, 200), athleticism, toughness and smarts to be another Night Train Lane, but basketball was his true calling, and he went on to glory with the Boston Celtics as — what else? — a defensive stopper.
Clarification: Yes, Vikings legend Joe Kappplayed hoops at California in the late ’50s — the Bears’ glory years under Pete Newell. But no, he never got into a Final Four game. While he did appear in three tournament games in 1957 and ’58, going scoreless, he wasn’t on the team in ’59, when Cal won the NCAA title. Why? “I couldn’t play basketball [that season] because of the Rose Bowl,” he once said. (The Bears lost in Pasadena to second-ranked Iowa, 38-12.)
Sources: Encyclopedia of College Basketball by Mike Douchant, The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament by Jim Savage, pro-football-reference.com, sports-reference.com.
In the second round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Tony Gonzalez led Cal with 23 points in a win over Villanova.
The Dolphins just handed Ndamukong Suh the key to their safe-deposit box: a 6-year, $114 million deal ($60 million guaranteed) that dwarfs his original 5-year, $60 million contract ($40 million guaranteed) with the Lions. (And let’s not forget: His rookie contract, under the old CBA, enabled him to earn a lot more than the second pick in the draft can now.)
In situations like this, the Albert Haynesworth Effect — a player getting buried in free-agent dollars and suddenly losing his enthusiasm for his job — is always a concern. There probably isn’t a team in the NFL that doesn’t have a horror story like that.
But an equally pertinent question is: What’s the likelihood Suh’s next five years will be as good as his first five? Because by paying Suh franchise-quarterback money, the Dolphins are saying, unequivocally: We think this player is still ascending. We think he’ll be worth more — substantially more — from 2015 to 2019 (and even 2020, if it comes to that) than he was from 2010 to 2014.
Here’s the thing, though: If you look at the top defensive tackles in recent years, you’ll see that’s rarely the case — in terms of sacks, at least. Granted, there are many ways to evaluate a player at Suh’s position, but certainly pass pressure is a big part of it. In today’s game, especially, a DT had darn well better get to the quarterback (if he wants to have much value of the free-agent market, that is).
Anyway, check out these well-known defensive tackles — and the sack totals they posted in their First 5 Years vs. their Second 5:
SACKS IN THEIR FIRST 5 YEARS VS. THEIR SECOND 5 YEARS (DT DIVISION)
Michael Dean Perry
Suh has 36 sacks through his fifth season, so I limited the list to guys who were in that neighborhood at that point in their career. I also didn’t include erstwhile Eagle Andy Harmon (38.5 sacks) — because he didn’t last much more than 5 years. At any rate, we’ve got two gainers (Randle, Thomas) and 12 decliners (ranging from -4.5 to -44) — not the most encouraging odds for the Dolphins.
Of course, every player is different, particularly in the Internal Wiring Department. Maybe Suh will prove to be one of the exceptions. But chances are better Miami will be glad that “only” $60 million is guaranteed.
The Dolphins are betting $114 million that Ndamukong Suh will keep doing this to quarterbacks.
Chip Kelly, the Eagles’ iconoclast/coach, was at it again on the first day of free agency. He swapped a quarterback for a quarterback, Nick Foles for the Rams’ Sam Bradford. Talk about something that Just Isn’t Done.
Or rather, it hasn’t been done very often in recent years. The risk is just to great — the risk of looking like a dummy if the QB you traded turns out to be better than the QB you got in return.
Here’s a factoid that might surprise you: Only 10 quarterbacks in NFL history have posted a passer rating of 110 or higher in a season. Three of them have been traded within two years of one of those seasons — while still in their 20s.
Foles, of course, is the latest. The details:
● Milt Plum, Browns — Had a rating of 110.4 in 1960, a league record at the time (and phenomenal for that era, which was much more hit-or-miss in the throwing department). Traded to the Lions in ’62. (Particulars below.) Age: 27.
● Nick Foles, Eagles — Posted a rating of 119.2 in 2013, the third highest of all time. Sent to the Rams in 2015. Age: 26.
But let’s get back to the topic du jour: quarterback-for-quarterback trades. They always cause such a stir, don’t they? Look at all the syllables that have been expended discussing the Foles-for-Bradford swap. And yet, none of these deals has resulted in an NFL title for either side (though one did lead to an AFL title). The more notable QB-for-QB exchanges over the decades:
I covered this trade in a recent post about one-for-one player swaps. Both quarterbacks were nearing the end, but Houston thought Stabler might have enough left to get the franchise to its first Super Bowl. Alas, he didn’t. Pastorini, meanwhile, broke his leg in Oakland, but that merely opened the door for Jim Plunkett (and brought the Raiders two more rings).
Winner*: Oilers (not that the Raiders suffered any when they lost Pastorini).
*We’re just comparing the QBs here. In most cases, other players and/or draft picks were involved in the trades.)
Morton looked like he might be through after winning just two of 12 starts the year before. But he revived his career in Denver, guiding the Broncos — with the help of their famed Orange Crush defense — to the Super Bowl in his first season. Ramsey, an utterly forgettable QB, was cut by the Giants in training camp.
Hadl’s two seasons in Houston — his final two seasons — were spent mostly as a backup behind Pastorini. He was, after all, 36. But Dickey, a decade younger, had his best years in Green Bay. In the ’82 strike season he quarterbacked the Packers to their only playoff berth in two decades (1973-92). The next season he led the league in touchdown passes (32) and passing yards (4,458).
In 1967 Tarkenton was traded to the Giants for the kitchen sink. Five years later he was traded back to the Vikings for slightly less than the kitchen sink. His second term in Minnesota was more fruitful. The Vikings went to three Super Bowls (though they didn’t win any), which cemented his status as a Hall of Famer. Snead went to the Pro Bowl in his first season in New York but was shipped to San Francisco in Year 3.
In Buffalo, Lamonica was stuck behind Jack Kemp, who had taken the Bills to three straight AFL championship games (and two titles). He blossomed in Oakland, going 36-4-1as a starter in his first three seasons (which ended with one loss in the Super Bowl and two in the AFL championship game). Flores, better remembered for coaching the Raiders to two titles, threw just 74 passes in Buffalo before winding up his career in Kansas City.
Amazingly, Snead was swapped not once but twice for a Hall of Fame quarterback. And while he may not have been Canton material himself, he wasn’t a bad player at all — as his 196 TD passes attest. (When he retired after the 1976 season, he was tied with Bobby Layne for 10th on the all-time list.) But Jurgensen helped resurrect the Washington franchise, which had fallen on hard times in founder George Preston Marshall’s final years. He was also one of the purest passers pro football has seen.
This deal, which I mentioned earlier, didn’t amount to much. I include it, basically, because of Ninowski’s classic response when he got the news. Jim, you see, had been drafted by the Browns in 1958 before being packed off to Detroit, where he’d finally gotten a chance to play. He was far from happy, initially, about returning to Cleveland.
“I’m pretty disgusted,” he said. “I have no intention of going to Cleveland. I’ll quit football if I have to. You get tired of being tossed around like a toy.”
Ninowski did go to Cleveland, though, and started seven games in ’62 (Paul Brown’s last year as coach). He spent five more seasons with the Browns as the No. 2 guy behind Pro Bowler Frank Ryan. As for Plum, the Lions went 11-3 with him the first year — the third best record in the league — but things went sharply downhill thereafter.
Winner: Lions. (Let’s not forget, Milt also could kick field goals.
The trade reunited Hall of Famer Layne with Buddy Parker, who’d quit as Detroit’s coach previous year and moved to Pittsburgh. Bobby didn’t add to his ring collection (two) with the Steelers, but he did bring the club some much-needed credibility (in the form of three winning seasons). Morrall, just a third-year player, was nothing special in Detroit, but he had some nice moments late in his career with the Colts (1968, ’70) and Dolphins (’72, their perfect season).
What a wacky tale this is. Garrett was the first pick in the 1954 draft (making him that year’s Sam Bradford). The Browns took him on the assumption Otto Graham, their legendary QB, was close to retirement. (Graham wound up playing through ’55.) But get this: Coach Paul Brown traded Garrett to Green Bay before he’d even reported to training camp.
Why? One theory is that Brown didn’t realize on draft day that Bobby was looking at a two-year military hitch following his graduation from Stanford. And indeed, the young quarterback spent the 1955 and ’56 seasons in the Air Force. Here’s the thing, though: Parilli, the fourth pick in ’52, was already in the service — and wasn’t discharged until ’56. So who really knows what was going through PB’s mind?
When Garrett rejoined the Packers in ’57, Brown reacquired him. Guess who he sent to Green Bay as (partial) payment? Parilli. That’s right, Bobby and Babe were traded twice for each other. But here the story gets even stranger. It turns out Garrett had a speech impediment: he stuttered. Brown had no patience for it — and ridiculed him on the practice field mercilessly. He was convinced it would keep Garrett from becoming an effective quarterback, hindering his play calling and especially his ability to check off at the line.
Paul Wiggin, the future Chiefs coach and a teammate of Bobby’s, said in 2012: “It was just a misunderstanding of what stuttering was. It didn’t solve the problem, it enhanced the problem.”
Before the preseason was over, Garrett decided to retire and join his father in the real estate business in California. Such was life in the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Winner: Tie. (Neither club benefited much.)
So ends our Brief History of Quarterback-for-Quarterback Trades. Let me know if I’ve left out any good ones. As you can see, they’re better at generating noise than generating championships, though a few have had a significant impact.
Trades don’t get any more stripped-down than that, do they? My guy for your guy — period. No draft picks. No throw-in players to balance the scales. No contingencies of any kind. Just . . . one for one. May the best man win.
You forget how unusual these deals are, especially since the advent of free agency. Teams don’t need to trade for players anymore — not as much, anyway. They just have to wait for their contracts to expire. Draft choices, not live bodies, have become the most popular form of currency. They get swapped and swapped and swapped some more until nobody can remember who got traded for what.
Which is probably how general managers prefer it. Who wants to be reminded, year after year, of the boneheaded move he made when he traded X for Y? When you exchange picks for players, there can be much more of a smoke-and-mirrors effect. Keeping track of those can be like that scene in Chinatown when Jake Gittes pores over the real-estate transactions in the Hall of Records. (“So that’s who the Bucs ended up getting for the guy — Jasper Lamar Crabb!”)
So the McCoy-Alonso deal is notable for two reasons: first, because the Eagles willingly traded an in-his-prime running back, one who won the NFL rushing title in 2013; and second, because they received not draft selections from the Bills but an outside linebacker, arguably the league’s top rookie two years ago (before he blew out his knee and missed last season).
A straight-up swap of Known Players. What a novelty.
Naturally, I felt compelled to put together a list of other memorable one-for-one trades in NFL history. You may have other favorites, and I welcome additions, but here are 10 that come to mind:
This was one of the weirder deals. Coles, after all, had left the Jets after the 2002 season to play in Steve Spurrier’s “Fun ’n’ Gun” offense in Washington. But Spurrier quit a year later, Joe Gibbs returned for a second term as coach and Laveranues decided he’d be happier back in New York. So the Redskins exchanged him for Santana Moss — and were they ever glad they did. Over the next decade, Moss caught 581 passes for 7,867 yards and 47 touchdowns. Coles played four more seasons with the Jets before they cut him and had 289 receptions for 3,439 yards and 24 TDs.
Byner needed a change of scenery after his crushing fumble in the 1987 AFC title game, which followed him around in Cleveland wherever he went. The Browns obliged by sending him to Washington for Oliphant, the Redskins’ super-speedy third-round pick in ’88. Byner had two 1,000-yard seasons in D.C., went to two Pro Bowls and was the leading rusher on the 1991 championship team. Oliphant touched the ball exactly 25 times in Cleveland (playoffs included) before his career petered out.
Brooks, a situation back behind Chuck Muncie in San Diego, blossomed in Cincinnati, making four Pro Bowls and retiring as the Bengals all-time leading rusher with 6,447 yards — a total surpassed only by Corey Dillon’s 8,061. (He also was a terrific receiver and ferocious blocker, as Boomer Esiason can tell you.) Johnson, more the sledgehammer type, had had some fine years in Cincy, but at 30 he was pretty used up. He played just one more NFL season — and just three games with San Diego before being dealt to the Dolphins, who needed a short-yardage guy for their ’84 Super Bowl run.
Stabler was 34, Pastorini 31, and neither had much left. The Oilers were hoping The Snake, coupled with Earl Campbell, would finally get them to the Super Bowl, but he threw 28 interceptions in 1980, second most in the league, and had two more picks in the first round of the playoffs as Houston lost to — of all people — Oakland. By then, Pastorini had suffered a broken leg and been replaced by Jim Plunkett, who quarterbacked the Raiders to the title (and to another in 1983).
Winner: Oilers (though neither team got what it was looking for).
Jaworski, a three-year veteran, had thrown only 124 NFL passes when Philadelphia acquired him for the unsigned Young, who had already been to three Pro Bowls. Charle never went to another. Jaworski, meanwhile, led the Eagles to four straight playoff berths (1978-81) and one Super Bowl.
In 1976, Joiner had yet to emerge as a Hall of Fame receiver (totals for seven seasons: 164 catches, 2,943 yards, 18 touchdowns). Bacon was probably considered the better player because of his pass-rush ability (in the days before the NFL kept track of sacks). Well, Charlie wound up in Canton after being teamed with Dan Fouts and Don Coryell in San Diego, where he racked up 586 more receptions. But Coy, let’s not forget, had two Pro Bowl years in Cincinnati before being traded to the Redskins (with CB Lamar Parish) for a first-round pick.
Yup, the Cowboys swapped a Hall Fame receiver — admittedly, a 31-year-old one — for a punter-kicker. But keep in mind: They had just added Bob Hayes to the roster and figured they were in good shape at wideout. McDonald had 1,036 receiving yards in his first season with the Rams, third most in the league, and was voted to his sixth and last Pro Bowl. He followed that with another solid year (55-714-2) in ’66 before moving on to the Falcons. Villanueva filled a void in Dallas but was just an ordinary kicker (longest field goal with the Cowboys: 42 yards) and didn’t punt as well as he had in L.A (40.4-yard average vs. 44.3).
On the surface, it seemed like a fair trade: the mouthy Williamson, a three-time AFL All-Star, for Grayson, also a three-time AFL All-Star. Grayson was two years younger, though — 26 to Fred’s 28 — and had more of his career ahead of him. Williamson did help Kansas City get to the first Super Bowl in 1966, but Grayson helped Oakland get to the second Super Bowl in ’67 and led the AFL in interceptions the next year. By then, Freddie was out of football and on the verge of becoming a Hollywood action star.
It’s easy, from a distance, to laugh at this trade, but Tittle was almost 35 and Cordileone had been the 12th pick in the previous year’s draft. Besides, San Francisco was experimenting with a shotgun offense, which required a quarterback who could run, and Y.A. certainly didn’t fit that description. At any rate, he had an amazing Second Act in New York, guiding the Giants to three straight championship games (all, alas, losses), while Cordileone bounced from the Niners to the Rams to the Steelers to the expansion Saints to oblivion.
Another swap of a Hall of Famer for a kicker! It just shows how much importance teams were beginning to place on the kicking game. Lane, though 32, was far from done. He went to three more Pro Bowls with Detroit and intercepted 21 more passes (to finish with a total of 68). Perry had a nice first season in St. Louis (13 field goals, tying him for fifth in the league) but was well below average after that.
You can see how dangerous these player-for player trades can be. Many of the deals were one-sided, sometimes ridiculously so. The McCoy-for-Alonso swap — which will be official next week, when the 2015 business year begins — might also prove regrettable for one side or the other. We’ll know better in a season or two.
Note: The famous Sonny Jurgensen/Norm Snead trade in 1964 isn’t listed because it involved two other players. The Redskins also got DB Jimmy Carr in the deal, and the Eagles got DB Claude Crabb (no relation to Jasper Lamar). Granted, it was essentially a Jurgy-for-Snead swap, and fans always looked at it that way, but Crabb had intercepted six passes a rookie and, entering his third season, could have made up for the imbalance between the quarterbacks. (He didn’t.)
It wasn’t always thus. In the early days, when the league and its owners were more below the radar, a team could be sold to somebody who’d spent 13 months in federal prison for bootlegging . . . and nobody would say a word.
William V. Dwyer was the somebody’s name. In 1930 he brought a dormant franchise that he turned into the Brooklyn Dodgers (who played their games at Ebbets Field, home of the baseball Dodgers). This is the same Big Bill Dwyer who’d been dubbed the “King of the Bootleggers” during Prohibition and presided over a huge illegal empire. How huge? Time magazine summed up his operation this way:
William V. Dwyer manufactured liquor in the U.S. He imported liquor from Canada, Cuba, Europe. He owned trucks, speedboats, 20 ships of foreign registry. He employed 800 men, a few women. He bribed Prohibition agents, put some of his own men into the Coast Guard service. In two-and-a-half years preceding January 1926, he had done a liquor business of some $50 million. Manhattan was the center of his activities.
From July 1927 to August 1928, Dwyer’s home was the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta. By this time he was already involved in pro sports as the owner of the NHL’s New York Americans. When he was paroled, he added the Dodgers to his portfolio and also got more heavily involved in horse racing, building Tropical Park Race Track outside Miami.
“Big Bill was a promoter on a vast scale,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1949. . . .
He also owned limitless quantities of alcohol and if, during the turbulent ’20s, you imbibed whisky that didn’t burn a hole in your esophagus, chances are it was Dwyer’s. At any rate, he obtained control of the idle borough franchise and brought in John Depler, a former Illinois captain, as coach.
He also brought in a vast array of talent — Father Lumpkin, Stumpy Thomason, Ollie Samson, Jack McBride from the Giants, Tex Thomas, Indian Yablock, and later [Hall of Fame quarterback] Benny Friedman and Jack Grossman. . . .
[The Dodgers’] average attendance was 17,000, but they drew as many as 28,000 one day. But Big Bill began to feel the Depression in 1933 and sold out to Chris Cagle and Shipwreck Kelly [for a reported price of “more than $25,000”].
(Cagle and Kelly were still active players — the last, in fact, to own an NFL team.)
After that, it only got worse for Dwyer. His financial difficulties forced the NHL to take over his Americans franchise in 1936, and three years later the U.S. government won a $3.7 million judgment against him for unpaid taxes. When he died in 1946, though, he was still living in an exclusive neighborhood in Rockaway Beach, so the tax suit couldn’t have totally cleaned him out.
Nowadays, of course, Dwyer wouldn’t survive the NFL’s vetting process. But in 1930, when the league was desperate for owners with deep pockets — deep enough to bankroll a team in a big market — Big Bill’s bootlegging past could be winked at.
Besides, public opinion toward such activities was a little different in those years. As actor George Raft, who walked in Dwyer’s world for a time, reminisced in his autobiography:
I knew that Owney Madden, Larry Fay, Big Bill Dwyer, Waxey Gordon and others were powerful in New York. They all wore expensive clothes, drove custom-built cars and lived in kingly suits.
To me, a Hell’s Kitchen kid with no education and no special talent, the Prohibition gangsters were no criminals. They were big men, the only heroes available in my crowded, violent little sidewalk world. When they patted me on the back and said, “Georgie, you’re an O.K. guy,” it was like an orphan getting the nod from John D. Rockefeller.
When you think of Lou Groza, you think of this big guy — 6-3, 240, with a bit of a belly — booting field goals forever for the Browns. Groza happened to be a fine offensive tackle, too, protecting the blind side of Cleveland quarterbacks for more than a decade, but it’s his 264 field goals and 1,608 points that are more remembered. When he retired after the 1967 season, he held the career record in both categories. By a mile.
Browns Hall of Famer Lou Groza, doing what he did best.
Anyway, you might be amused to learn that “The Toe,” as he was called, once held an NFL passing record. What record could that possibly be, you ask? Answer: For almost five years, he was the oldest player ever to throw a pass in the league.
The large and somewhat stunned gathering also saw Lou Groza throw a forward pass. The Toe, who on very few occasions in the past has had to resort to such desperation maneuvers, was trying to kick a 50-yard field goal.
The pass from center bounced away from Bobby Franklin, the holder. Lou recovered and, being confronted with nothing but purple [Vikings] jerseys, tried a pass. It was intended for John Brewer but wasn’t completed. So Minnesota took over.
The next season, in a similar situation, Groza threw another pass. This one was actually completed . . . for a 7-yard loss to one of his blockers, linebacker Vince Costello. Lou was now 42 years, 256 days old. This would stand as the record until 1975, when the George Blanda – a spry 43 years, 38 days – came off the bench to quarterback the Raiders to a 31-14 win over the Steelers. (He even tossed three touchdown passes, all of them longer than minus-7 yards.)
In the decades since, only four other players older than Groza have cocked their arm and let one fly. Here’s that list:
THE SIX OLDEST PLAYERS TO THROW A PASS IN THE NFL
Year Player, Team
1975 George Blanda, Raiders
1998 Steve DeBerg, Falcons
2007 Vinny Testaverde, Panthers
2000 Warren Moon, Chiefs
2005 Doug Flutie, Patriots
1966 Lou Groza, Browns
The record Groza broke, by the way, was held by the Giants’ Charlie Conerly, who was 89 days past his 40th birthday when he relieved Y.A. Tittle in the 1961 title game against the Packers and hit 4 of 8 passes for 54 yards. (Not that “The Toe” wasn’t capable of a performance like that, had the center and holder just botched the snap a half-dozen more times.)
Postscript: When Bob O’Donnell and I were writing The Pro Football Chronicle in the ’80s, we came across an old story about Groza in one of the Cleveland newspapers. Instead of a head shot of him, though, the paper ran a photo of his right big toe.
Bob and I thought it would be hilarious if we could include The Toe’s toe in our book, so we tried to track the photo down. Alas, it had been lost to the ages. So Bob, not easily discouraged, phoned Groza and asked if his toe would be willing to pose for us. “We’ll send a photographer to your house,” he said.
At first, Lou was up for it. “No need to go to all that trouble,” he said. “I drive right by this photography studio every day. I’ll have the picture taken there and send it to you.” But soon he began to have second thoughts, began to think it might be “undignified” for a Hall of Fame player to have his 65-year-old toe appear in a book.
If I ever run into him in the hereafter, I’m going to make another pitch to him. I still think the world would love to see Lou Groza’s big right toe, gnarly or not.