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How I fell in love with NFL

Page 2 columnist

I have seen the new XFL at play, and if this is the future, then for once I think I prefer to live in the past. It is third-level football -- mostly taxi-squad players hoping for one last break -- married up with young women who seem to have wandered over to NBC from the Playboy Channel.

Jason Kaiser, Latario Rachal
No matter how it's packaged, the XFL is still a league made up of practice-squad players.
It is produced and brought to us by people who clearly believe that we as a nation know little about either football or erotica. The league has promised and delivers live coverage from inside the players' dressing room, but I suspect that to be a success it will need to have live coverage from inside the cheerleaders' dressing room instead. Stay tuned, that might be next.

It is, like all too much of American culture these days, deliberately coarse. That seems to be the bet on us as a nation: that there is no way to underestimate the level of national sophistication -- or at least of young American males from 14 to 34, about whom today's Madison Ave. marketing geniuses believe coarser is better.

So it is that NBC, a network that should know better, has given us the XFL, and Budweiser, a company that should know better, has given us beer commercials featuring Cro-Magnon young Americans -- are they deliberately chosen to be as unattractive as possible? -- who grunt, rather than speak, to each other. And so it is that Saturday Night Live has slipped in one generation from Steve Martin doing his wild and crazy guy routines to Adam Sandler simply being crude. Can things get worse? Probably.

As I write, the ratings for the XFL are headed toward the South Pole. The truth, I believe (or more accurately, I hope), is that the XFL is failing because the product is not just bad, it is artificial. Its prospects, I think, have nothing to do with whether the NFL is sufficiently violent -- it is plenty violent, given the size, speed and power of today's athletes and the nature of the game.

The problem with the NFL is that there are too many teams (like other pro leagues, it drastically over-expanded, and probably the ideal number of teams was somewhere between 18 and 24), too many games, too many playoff games, too many commercials, and too long a season. The product -- week in and week out --has been diluted.

The core football season, which once went from October and November through late December, now seems to begin in late August and threatens to last until February. Too few teams have an identifiable character. The game was at its best when, even if your own regional team was not playing well, there was a game on that Sunday between two very good teams -- two teams you knew so well, you could look forward to the outcome. More often than not, that's gone.

Clearly, the problem with Monday Night Football is that most of the games are between boring teams no one cares very much about, not whether the nation needs more or less of Dennis Miller as a commentator (I would vote for less).

I was fortunate enough to be a witness to those remarkable years when the NFL came of age as a national sport, roughly from 1957 to 1960 , about the same time as the coming of national television, which wired the entire country together visually.

The networks themselves benefited -- suddenly, they had a national audience. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement, who were challenging segregation in the South, benefited -- they now had dramatic new film clips for the networks' evening news shows, which were very hungry for drama. And pro football benefited, moved instantaneously to parity with Major League Baseball.

Jim Brown
Television captured the power and grace of Jim Brown.
At the moment just before this happened, pro football, in terms of the national agenda, was something of a minor league. Unlike baseball, which was well-suited to the medium, it was not a good radio sport. If anything, a few colleges -- like Notre Dame -- had a greater hold on the nation's consciousness.

But it was a very good game, with great athletes who played at a level well above those of the college game. All in all, it was something of an aficionado's sport; the people lucky enough to have a team in their region -- and own season tickets -- knew how good it was; to the rest of the country, it was something of a secret. The moment it was married up with network television, it became a huge success.

People instantly knew how good the product was. There was no need for hype, no need for a comedian in the broadcast booth. The camera caught, as radio never could, the speed, power and ferocity with which the game was played. More, unlike the college game, it offered continuity. Instead of roughly a third of a team graduating (or finishing their eligibility) each year, only a small number of players retired. Teams had definable characters.

To understand the sheer magnetic pull of it (hard for anyone to do who was born after the '60s and grew up with professional football as a birthright) think of what we had to contrast it with: Most of us who were avid football fans had seen a great many high school games and a few college games where there were at best two or three pro-quality players on the field at a given time. Even in the Southeastern Conference, whose games I regularly watched in the '50s , there was nothing like it in speed or talent. For most football fans getting a first look at the NFL on television, there was no prologue.

In those years when the NFL burst on the national scene, I was working as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, 23 in 1957 , making $90 a week; I was 26 in the fall of 1960 when I left Nashville, by then making $125. Neither I nor any of my friends owned a television set -- I would not own one until 1967, when I returned from Vietnam.

Almost without anyone saying anything, ours was a small football-watching community which simply evolved of itself, a few of us gathering faithfully each Sunday afternoon at a local bar to watch the games. It was all very new. There was no color, no satellite, no instant replay, no Fox channel, no cable. Only CBS carried the games; NBC got into the picture with the coming of the American Football League in 1960. Pat Summerall was still a placekicker with the New York Giants.

Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas emerged as a superstar at the same time the NFL was developing as a TV sport.
We were, I recognize now, a beer commercial before there were beer commercials about people like us. The regulars in our group were my roommate, Fred Graham, then a law student; John Nixon, a college classmate of mine, also a law student; and one of his high school friends, Richard Hawkins, who was an insurance adjustor.

The bar was called Rotier's, which was its technical name, though we still called it Al's Tavern, which was the original name. It was located just a few blocks from Vanderbilt, near 24th and West End in Nashville. The name had been changed from Al's to Rotiers, because Johnny Rotier, who owned it, had done a lot of business with Vanderbilt students, and often cashed their checks from home there.

Apparently, their parents did not like seeing "Al's Tavern" stamped on the back of the checks. Thus the name change to Rotier's to make it seem to the folks back home that the young scions of the South were behaving better. Only a few blocks away was Dudley Field, where Vanderbilt played its SEC games, and where, when I left Nashville in 1960, no black football player had ever played.

I do not think it is fair to say that Al's was seedy, but it wasn't entirely high class either. Certainly there were not a lot of Vanderbilt coeds around. It was an old fashioned '50s bar, pleasantly dark, and it smelled, as well it should have, of beer both drunk and spilled over the years. There was not much decor; my friend John Nixon recalls a painting of Custer's Last Stand, which was apparently sent free of charge to all taverns by the grateful Anheuser Busch people.

Johnny Rotier was a quiet man who always wore a sweater. (Some years ago, when he died, his wife laid him out for his funeral in his best suit, but then decided that wasn't Johnny, and he departed us in an open sports shirt and sweater, Nixon reports.) A man named Moose Malteni was the bartender; he had a golden tooth. Mrs. Rotier did the cooking. Nashville was still quite segregated in those days, and so the only black man allowed in was Johnny, a partially crippled man who cleared tables but was not allowed to serve food. The television set was medium size -- small by comparison with today's sets -- and, of course, black and white.

Al's Tavern served Bud on tap; Jerry's, a competing tavern a few blocks away, had the Pabst franchise and served Pabst on tap. Apparently, if you had one tap beer, it was considered an exclusive franchise. My memory of the beer is that it was 25 cents a bottle; John Nixon agrees, although he thinks somewhere in those years it might have gone to 35 cents. You could also get a large schooner of tap Bud for 45 cents. We tended to be schooner guys.

Cheeseburgers -- I was not much of a food critic in those days, but they seemed more than serviceable -- were 45 cents. If you were splurging, you went for the T-bone steak and French fries for $1.25. Blessedly, we could spend much of an afternoon there, eat a meal, drink generously and still depart with a tab of only two or three dollars.

We went religiously every Sunday. The games were very good. We were stunned by the way television caught the power and the fury of the game, the sheer ferocity of the hits. It was not by surprise that, as television became an important part of the equation, the defensive players became stars for the first time; they were the ones making the great hits.

Sam Huff
When Time magazine put Giants linebacker Sam Huff on its cover, it showed that defensive players were finally being noticed.
So it was that Time soon put Sam Huff of the Giants on its cover -- unheard of a few years earlier, a pro football player making the cover of Time, and a defensive player at that.

Certain players still stand out from that time. In those years, Johnny Unitas was on the rise, cool, confident, above all audacious -- the gunslinger as pro football player --coming out there in the late minutes of a game, his team behind, with that slight stoop, working to perfection what would become known as the two-minute drill.

Jim Brown came into the league at almost that exact moment, and he was something completely new, his combination of sheer power, speed and moves, the ability to run outside like a halfback and then inside the tackles like a fullback, on occasion choosing to plow into defenders, and never choosing to run out of bounds. I don't think we had ever seen a running back quite like him before, and I am not sure I have since -- which is not to say that there are no running backs who might be as good, or perhaps better, bigger, faster and perhaps even stronger, but I have never again seen a running back who was so much better than everyone else who did what he did at the time he was doing it. He dominated his field in his era like few athletes ever have, perhaps matched only by Babe Ruth and Bill Russell.

No wonder the game took off nationally in those years, and no wonder, with the NFL so limited, there was soon a second league, and it too was successful. We did not need cheerleaders, or hokey camera shots, or too many announcers to tell us what we were seeing and how good it was; the game spoke for itself, and it soon outdistanced the college game, which on occasion when you went in person looked like it was being played in slow motion. We who fell in love with it knew how to find the others among us who also loved it; that is what forms community, of course.

These days I think fondly of those years, and the inexpensive steak and the 25-cent beer, and of the informal community we constituted. I live in New York and still as I did then root for the Giants. Fred Graham is an anchor for Court TV, lives in Washington, roots for the Redskins and occasionally we can still watch the game together. John Nixon is a federal district judge in Nashville, newly advanced to senior judge status, and he roots for the home town, because Nashville, unlikely though it might have seemed 40 years ago, has its own professional team now, and a very good one.

We have not watched a game all together in years, though we still talk about the game over the phone. Our friend Richard Hawkins died tragically some years ago when he was cutting down a tree, and the tree fell on him. Rotier's, which was, I guess, a sports bar before there were sports bars, still exists in a new, milder incarnation today -- what is called a family restaurant. Ironically, the most popular sports bar in town is owned by Eddie George, a young black millionaire who, Judge Nixon reminds me, would not have been allowed to play against Vanderbilt in those days. Nor, for that matter, to wait on tables in Rotier's.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, will write bi-weekly columns for Page 2.

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