New book chronicles Alan Page's story
It began as a routine hearing in a dispute between a railroad and the Pillsbury Corp. in the Hennepin County courthouse in Minneapolis in the early '80s. It changed after the railroad's lawyer, a tall, powerfully-built African-American wearing a brightly colored and fairly ridiculous bow tie, concluded his argument.
The response from one of the Pillsbury lawyers: "That was a pathetic presentation, exactly what you would expect from a football player."
The judge was a bit more impressed with what the football player said. He issued a ruling for the railroad and against Pillsbury.
In the corridor outside the courtroom afterward, the Pillsbury lawyers waited for the football player to emerge, and each of them asked him for his autograph.
Alan Page, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, obliged, smiling and ignoring the personal attack from moments earlier.
The incident is part of an inspiring, new authorized biography of Page that describes his path from childhood in Canton, Ohio, to stardom at Notre Dame and in the NFL and ultimately to his election as a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Recently published by Triumph Books in Chicago, the book is entitled "All Rise: The Remarkable Journey of Alan Page" and features on its cover a photo of Page in his judicial robes and another of those fairly ridiculous bow ties. The author is Bill McGrane, a former sportswriter who also worked in administration for the Minnesota Vikings, where Page redefined the position of defensive tackle, and the Chicago Bears, where Page spent his last years in the NFL.
McGrane conducted an impressive array of interviews of players and coaches who were part of Page's story, and he has sketched the highlights of Page's life. But he presents his fascinating material in a chatty and disorganized style that can be frustrating. He frequently veers off on baffling tangents on subjects such as Fran Tarkenton or Canadian football. Whatever the book's failings in form, its presentation of Page's achievements is a significant addition to the lore of football in America and its greatest players.
The list of Page's achievements is breathtaking. He led Notre Dame to a national championship in 1966, helped the Vikings to four conference titles, was MVP of the NFL in 1971, defensive player of the year in two other seasons, was selected to nine Pro Bowls and put together an astonishing series of personal statistics for a defensive tackle. He played in 218 consecutive NFL games, recovered 23 fumbles, scored three touchdowns and recorded 173 sacks (including 18 in 1976).
During his 14 years in the NFL, Page blocked 28 kicks, most of them field goal attempts, and scored three safeties.
His combination of long arms and quick hands and feet changed the offensive plans of most opponents. Neill Armstrong, who coached Page in Minneapolis and Chicago, told McGrane, "He created havoc. He just exploded off the ball. Often as not, we'd let him call his own stunt, because he had such a great feel for what was happening. For a defensive tackle to make the plays he made was unheard of. He was unique, an exception to every rule."
But as McGrane documents in a series of interviews, there were some bumps along the way. After eight years of stardom with the Vikings, Page began a running program that led him to complete seven marathons and an ultramarathon (62 miles). The running resulted in weight loss. Instead of playing at 245 to 250 pounds, Page was down to 225 pounds.
Vikings head coach Bud Grant was not happy with the idea of a defensive tackle who weighed only 225 pounds, and when Page told Grant he intended to stay at 225, the coach put him on waivers.
The release from the Vikings came at a bad time. Page had just finished the University of Minnesota Law School but had flunked the bar exam.
Page's wife, Diane, told McGrane, "All of a sudden, we didn't know what to expect. The guy who is the light of my life just got fired. We had four kids, we didn't have an income, and we had just failed the bar exam. For a wife and a mother, that is a very small, scary window."
Page recovered quickly. He passed the bar on the second attempt, and he played for the Bears for three more years. In his final game, still playing at 225 pounds, he scored 3.5 sacks and led a dismal Bears team (they were 5-10 at the time) to victory over the contending Denver Broncos.
In addition to starring on the field, Page was a leader in the NFL Players Association, taking courageous positions at a time when the NFL refused to recognize the union and union leaders were routinely traded or released. Page, along with John Mackey and Kermit Alexander, led the way in the fight for better pay, better benefits and free agency.
It is here -- Page's role with the union -- that McGrane's biography is disappointing.
McGrane worked for the owners of the Vikings and the Bears, and perhaps shouldn't be expected to describe in glowing detail what Page and union leader Ed Garvey were trying to accomplish for the players.
As Garvey explained to McGrane, the three black players knew they had no future as coaches or in NFL front offices, and they wanted to make sure they received maximum benefits during their playing careers.
Page's leadership of the union came at a time when the owners and much of the media were harshly critical of players' attempts to improve their situations. If there were a Sports Labor Hall of Fame, Page would join Marvin Miller, Garvey, Gene Upshaw and a few others as first ballot inductees, and his efforts for his fellow players are worthy of more attention than McGrane gives them. Under the Garvey-Page leadership, the union managed to accomplish some significant things, but few of them are detailed in McGrane's biography.
While he was still playing in 1979, Page joined Lindquist and Vennum, a Minneapolis law firm that specialized in labor issues. He also worked in the office of the Attorney General of the State of Minnesota.
Although he enjoyed spectacular success as a courtroom attorney, Page was interested in service as a judge. As he prepared to run for the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1992, the governor extended the term of an aging justice, eliminating the vacancy. Page challenged the governor's decision in court and won a surprising decision that forced state authorities to put his name on the ballot.
Page professes to be a bit shy, according to the biography, but he campaigned throughout the state and scored an historic triumph. He was the first African-American elected to state office in Minnesota. When he ran for a second term in 2004, he received the highest percentage of votes of any statewide candidate in Minnesota history.
Although Page as been deciding important cases in Minnesota for the past 18 years, McGrane's biography offers little on these important chapters of his life. What is Page's approach to criminal cases? What is his outlook on the death penalty? How does he view efforts to change the law of liability for medical malpractice or for other tort issues? McGrane ignores all of these questions that a justice in a court of last resort faces on a daily basis.
In addition to accounts of Page's football achievements and his success in the legal profession, McGrane describes the remarkable work of the Page Education Foundation, which Alan and Diane founded in 1988. It provides assistance to minority college students in return for service in their communities. The foundation has awarded grants to 4,100 students, who have in return given 300,000 hours of their time to young children.
The Pages' commitment to education is inspiring. For his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his hometown of Canton, Page wanted the focus to be on educating young people. He asked Willarene Beasley, the principal of North Community High School in Minneapolis, to introduce him.
To the surprise of many in attendance, Beasley did not mention Page's 28 blocked kicks or his legal successes. She described his volunteer efforts with the children in her school.
Then in an eloquent address, Page challenged the Hall of Fame audience to do something for America's children, stating, "I don't know when children stop dreaming. But I do know when hope starts leaking away, because I've seen it happen. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time talking with school children of all ages. And I have seen the cloud of resignation move across their eyes as they travel through school without making any real progress. They know they are slipping through the net into the huge underclass that our society seems willing to tolerate We must educate our children. And if we do, I believe that will be enough."
Although the book's chatty style and occasional rambles into unrelated material can be frustrating, McGrane has performed an important service in putting together the story of Alan Page. Even with the bow ties, Page is the model of the famous athlete who has used his talent, his fame and his intellect to succeed and more importantly to help others who are in need. Even as those lawyers in Minneapolis attacked him for being a football player posing as a lawyer, they knew they were dealing with someone special. Let's hope that is why they waited in the corridor for his autograph.
Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.