January 19, 2018

Book Review: The Catch

The play shouldn’t have worked. Every time Joe Montana and Dwight Clark ran the Sprint Wide Option  in practice, they could not convert. But it only needed to work one time. That one time became one of the most famous plays in NFL history. In an instant, the 49ers changed their fortunes forever. The Cowboys had to wait a decade to rediscover theirs.

Read “The Catch” by Gary Myers because:

1. Not too long before Montana threw the ball up in the sky, nobody believed he or Clark would make any sort of impact on the football field. Today “The Catch” is one of the first football highlights that comes to mind.

Dallas could have had Joe Montana in 1979. Months before the draft, Montana toppled Houston by leading a 22-point, 4th quarter comeback in the Cotton Bowl. Tom Landry liked him, but he didn’t really like him. “If we take him, I’ll probably cut him in training camp,” the Hall of Fame coach said. Nevermind that Montana was the highest player on the ‘Boys board, and since when did Dallas not take the best available? (10, Catch)

The phone call Dwight Clark got wasn’t even for him. Bill Walsh called to see Clark’s roommate work out. It just so happened that Steve Fuller wasn’t ready, and Walsh did not want to be kept waiting. He watched Clark work out instead. Leading up to the draft, Walsh kept hearing that Clark would go undrafted. Selecting him would be a waste. Walsh listened for a while, but he eventually went against his advisors. Montana and Clark, the two afterthoughts, were destined to be forever remembered together.

2. You might as well be in the backfield during the fateful drive, thanks to Myers’ narration.

Montana’s end zone heave to Clark was exactly what every boy thinks about before he goes to bed. In San Francisco’s version, the Niners found themselves trailing by one point on the six-yard line with 58 seconds on the clock. “[Montana] was the calmest in the huddle when he should have been the most nervous,” Clark said. “The moment was not too big for him.” (216)

The Sprint Wide Option play call from Walsh never worked in practice. Heck, Clark wasn’t even Montana’s first choice. The ball was supposed to go to Freddie Solomon. That’s how it was supposed to go in the 1982 NFC Championship Game too. Instead, as the make-or-break play unfolded, Solomon slipped. Montana was well aware of Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis coming fast and furious toward him. Clark couldn’t see Montana, but the QB kept his eye on the receiver the whole time. All he could do was throw it up, wait for the beating and leave it to the crowd to tell him whether Clark made the grab.

3. Bill Walsh and Tom Landry are two legends in their own right and central to this story.

Bill Walsh was 47 when Eddie DeBartolo Jr. hired him. Walsh looked like he was 57, so he was all-too aware that the pressure was on. He didn’t start well (8-24 first two seasons.) Initially Walsh didn’t know whether to yell, bully or plead. Apparently he learned, as he’s been likened to Vince Lombardi.

Walsh became a players’ favorite. Landry didn’t allow himself to have those sorts of relationships, though the Cowboys head man made sure to let his players know he cared about them. Landry was stoic and didn’t need words to get his point across. He was old-school, Myers wrote. That, and “The Catch” were two significant reasons why Landry was relieved of his duties. Landry went from feared to misunderstood by new-school players.

Sadly, both Landry and Walsh died of leukemia. What a legacy they left, forever linked by “The Catch.”

Sam Miller is the founder of Sam’s Dream Blog.  A graduate of the University of Illinois, he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

Book Review: Badasses

Decades before Mark Cuban maneuvered his Dallas Mavericks into the spotlight, Al Davis brought the Oakland Raiders to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.






Read “Badasses” by Peter Richmond because:

1. Al Davis was a master architect.

Leading up to Super Bowl XI, Davis made himself scarce. His job was done. While the silver and black cult following had itself in a fervor with the nation watching, Davis was rumored to be scouting the Senior Bowl. Time magazine declared that the “Bad Boys of pro football,” were “led by Al Davis – master schemer.” John Madden was integral as the coach, but for the first time, an owner presided from a loftier post in the media. (310, Badasses)

“In order to run an efficient organization, there has to be a dictator,” Davis said. Davis studied military battles and football was not that far removed in his mind. For more than two decades, Davis’ teams did not post a losing record. The Raiders were the best in the world. Everyone else, take a number.

Davis was beloved by players on his good side. They knew him as “Al.” In Oakland the idea was, “pull up a chair. You’re family here.” Win or lose, the booze was on Davis after the game. No wonder Davis raised the Super Bowl XI trophy like a father lifts up his child. “People who knew him loved him, and he was a guy who’d absolutely go out of his way for his friends,” a friend said. (31-32)

2. In the 1970s, John Madden was a whole different animal.

Younger fans may think of John Madden as a peppy TV pitchman or as a commentator. Madden won 103 games in 10 seasons. His .763 winning percentage surpasses Vince Lombardi’s .738. Madden entered the NFL in an unparalleled era of coaching talent and didn’t flinch.

At practice, Madden sported polyester pants and chomped on a towel. During his tenure, Madden saw players ride on horses to practice and invite streakers on to the field. “The thing is you have a person, and he’s made up of a total package. You don’t just cherry-pick what you get,” Madden said. (76) Not all of the freedoms under Madden were fun and games, however. Madden was also free to explode in bursts of rage. Just another facet of the complex and captivating Raiders.

3. It takes exploits and star personalities to be “badasses,” and Davis’ teams from the seventies had plenty.

The book opens with the Raiders’ Bob Moore in a confrontation with police. Right away you know the Raiders aren’t your typical team. The suspicions you’ve had about them are probably true. In fact, the team exceeds your expectations. “There was no recession in Santa Rosa during Raider training camp,” Pete Banaszak said. “We were single-handedly boosting their economy. We’d show up two days early.”

Added Ken Stabler: It was just kids having fun and life being good. We couldn’t wait to get to training camp, to get away from wives and girlfriends, play some football, have a few drinks at night. (84-85)

That was only the beginning of the year and the tales to follow.

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

Let’s Get It On

Alex Karras was an Iowa Hawkeye. He almost won the Heisman in 1957.  This is rare for a lineman.  Only one other lineman came in second in the voting.  That was John Hicks of Ohio State in 1973.  The year before, Karras helped lead the team to its first Rose Bowl.  They went 9-1 in the Big Ten.  But if you’d ask Alex, his biggest college win was the season finale in 1956 versus Notre Dame.  Iowa beat them 48-8.  The Karras clan grew up not far from Notre Dame and they hated them with a passion.  That 1956 Notre Dame team won only twice.  Nonetheless, all purpose back Paul Hornung was the Heisman winner.  1957 was also a year that Chevy pumped out a classic.  Ford may have outsold Chevy that year, but hot-rodders would later revere the Chevy.  And Jimmy Hoffa took over the Teamsters that year.  George Meany responded by kicking the International Brotherhood out of the AFL-CIO.  Robert F. Kennedy was out to get Hoffa after serving as lead counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management.


Vince Lombardi couldn’t get a head coaching job in the college ranks.  He felt administrators were prejudiced against an Italian like him.  So he became the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants.  The pros were having some fun of their own.  In 1958, the championship game went to sudden death for the first time and the Colts beat New York on Alan Ameche’s TD.  It has been called the Greatest Game.  What impact did it really have?  Well, Lamar Hunt wanted to own a sports team.  He couldn’t decide between baseball (in Branch Rickey’s proposed Continental League) or football.  He wound up starting his own league.


Jack Kemp was on the Giants taxi squad in 1958.  He was cut after the season then washed out of the Canadian Football League.  He was going to hang up his cleats, but Hunt’s AFL opened for business the next year and Kemp got another chance.  Rosey Grier did play in that game along with Frank Gifford, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff, Charlie Connerly, and others.  And although New York lost the title game, the coordinators went on to head coaching jobs.  Tom Landry returned to his home state of Texas to take over the expansion Cowboys.  Lombardi went up to moribund Green Bay.


Ernie Barnes didn’t have the pedigree of such college stars as Hornung, Karras, or Cannon.  He was a fat, unathletic kid who liked art until a gym teacher inspired him to take up football.  He was good enough to get drafted by the Washington Redskins.  They repudiated the pick when they found out he was black.  The Redskins wouldn’t integrate until RFK forced them to.  Forget the morality of that policy for a moment.  Barnes played for a historically black college.  Prejudice is one thing.  Stupidity is another.  He would wind up on the Chargers along with Jack Kemp and the two would become friends.


Karras went on to the Detroit Lions and had a great career despite losing a year due to a suspension for gambling and only appearing in one playoff game.  He was a jack of all trades.  He tried his hand at the shot put, wrestling, and acting.


George Plimpton was Walter Mitty with a typewriter.  He practically invented participatory journalism.  Plimpton wrote Out of My League about facing an all-star baseball lineup.  In 1963, he went to the Detroit Lions training camp to play Jack Kemp’s role of last string quarterback.  The result was Paper Lion.  Karras was on that team, but he was suspended for gambling.  The previous preseason, Karras rode back to Detroit from a game in Cleveland in a party bus with gangster Anthony Giacalone. This led to an NFL investigation into player gambling that wound up in fines for his teammates who bet on the title game and suspensions for Karras and Paul Hornung.


Jimmy Hoffa was put away in 1964, thanks, in part to the testimony of Edward Grady Partin.  He was a baaad man.  Partin helped tamper with a jury that acquitted Hoffa.


After their glory days, the Giants fell on hard times and their players dispersed to other teams.  Sam Huff went to Washington.  Rosey Grier joined the Fearsome Foursome frontline in LA that included Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, and Deacon Jones.  Jones had a mean head slap, which, before the league outlawed it, befuddled opposing o linemen.  He also coined the term quarterback sack; like he was looting the defeated city of Johnny Unitas.  He also sang R & B with a band called Nightshift.  They would go on to become War and would sing about society and politics with a funky beat.


In 1968, LBJ declined to seek another term and the race for the Democrat nomination was wide open. RFK decided to run, but Sirhan Sirhan assassinated him after the California primary.  Rosey Grier was his bodyguard.  Grier, decathlete Rafer Johnson and George Plimpton wrestled Sirhan to the ground.  Plimpton was an old college chum of RFK.


One of Karras’ Lion teammates was Lem Barney.  Barney and Mel Farr befriended Motown star Marvin Gaye.  Gaye was depressed by the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell and decided that he wanted to become a wide receiver.  No word on whether or not he was inspired by Plimpton.  He got Barney and Farr to help him work out and beef up.   The pair of Lions wound up singing backup on “What’s Going On.”  Gaye wanted to become more relevant and recorded that song against the wishes of studio head honcho Berry Gordy.


Meanwhile, Barnes’s football career ended quietly and he returned to painting.  His work was described as neo-Mannerist.  He had an exhibition called The Beauty of the Ghetto, which was hosted by Jack Kemp along with Ethel Kennedy.


Ben Davidson was the first mustachioed football player and this was years before the Oakland A’s became the Mustache Gang.  He did some acting.  He appeared in the football game at the end of the movie M*A*S*H.  CBS would adapt it to television after their rural purge of such comedies like Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show.  They were looking for more seriocomic shows.  Gary Burghoff was the only actor from the movie cast who reprised his role in the TV show.  Alan Alda got the lead part as Hawkeye Pierce.  He broke through by playing the role of Plimpton in the movie adaptation of Paper Lion.


Besides, M*A*SH, CBS also added some shows by Norman Lear to their lineup.  Most notably, All in the Family looked at the blue collar Bunker family from Queens.  It spawned some spin-offs like The Jeffersons and MaudeMaude begat Good TimesGood Times introduced America to Jimmy Walker.  (I had a “Dyn-O-Mite” t-shirt as a lad.)  The show featured a painting by Ernie Barnes called “Sugar Shack.”  Marvin Gaye liked it so much that he’d go on to use it for the cover of his album I Want You.



Karras would appear in Blazing Saddles and later on in the sitcom Webster.


Jimmy Hoffa was last seen in 1975.  Word is that Anthony Giacalone killed him.  There used to be whispers that his body was in the end zone of Giants Stadium.


Edward Grady Partin died in 1990.  One of his honorary pallbearers was Billy Cannon.  Cannon was the 1959 Heisman winner and would later go to federal prison for counterfeiting.