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Tuesday, September 3, 2002
Updated: October 17, 9:15 AM ET
From the ridiculous to the sublime

By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2

    Pro football is the strangest game, in many ways unknowable to all except the few who have played or coached it. And even within the strangeness that is pro football, some journeys are stranger ... far stranger ... than others.

    Twenty-five years ago, Pat Toomay made such a journey -- from the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the 1977 Oakland Raiders, fresh off an impressive victory in Super Bowl XI. The Bucs, coached by the acerbic and dismissive John McKay, were total losers, depressing and depressed. The Raiders, coached by the ultimate players' coach, John Madden, were characters, but they were also ultimate winners, and always on their own terms.

    Actually, for Toomay, his career path was even crazier than that -- almost disorienting, in fact -- because before he played for the hated McKay, he toiled for five years under the unforgiving gaze of legendary Cowboys honcho Tom Landry, the very essence of the martinet coach. It goes without saying that Landry and Madden were so different in their approaches to the game -- and to people -- that they might as well have been from different planets.

    The game has changed in the past 25 years, but one thing that hasn't changed is the difficulty of getting by in the NFL. Join Toomay this season as he takes Page 2 readers along on his strange journey of 25 years ago, introducing us to a fascinating batch of mixed nuts -- Madden, "The Tooz," "The Genius," "The Snake," "The Assassin," "The Mad Stork" -- and revealing what he learned on that weird trip ... about football, about himself, and about an "Animal House" full of the game's wackiest characters.

***** ***** *****

In July 1977, I was more than ambivalent about reporting to Bucs training camp. An 0-14 season will do that to you. Physically, I was still recovering from the beating I'd taken the previous fall. The thought of spending another season with our acerbic coach, John McKay, was more than I could stomach. Yet I was a pro football player. I was under contract and didn't want to quit. My obligation was to report.

John Madden
John Madden's humane approach to coaching was a refreshing change.
Prolonging the inevitable, I decided to drive to camp rather than fly. Flying, I knew, would get me there too quickly. So I loaded my car and headed for Tampa. For a while, everything went fine. I started to relax. I could feel myself making the mental shift. The closer I got, however, the slower I drove. It was as though I were trying to prove one of Zeno's paradoxes of motion. Sixty mph. Fifty. Forty ... On the freeway other drivers started honking and yelling. Finally, 10 miles out of Tampa, after nearly being run down by an angry trucker, I pulled over. Sitting on the shoulder, it hit me. I couldn't do this again. The suffocating heat. McKay's caustic sneer. I couldn't face any of it. The prospect of "competing" with Lee Roy Selmon was the worst thing. Lee Roy had been hurt, but now he was back. He'd been the club's No. 1 pick in the '76 draft. The coaching staff had lined him up at my position.

It wasn't the first time this had happened to me. In 1972, the Cowboys had drafted Tody Smith, Bubba's little brother, No. 1 out of Southern Cal. I'd weathered that challenge, but along came Ed "Too Tall" Jones, a No. 1 out of Tennessee State. At that point, I played out my option and signed with Buffalo. Buffalo sent me to Tampa. Hello, Lee Roy Selmon.

Driving along the shoulder, I got off the freeway and found a motel. In my room, I flopped down on the bed. Instantly, I was asleep. When I woke up, I was still feeling punk. So I decided that was it. I'd had enough.

My wife giggled when I told her the news. Her response surprised me, because I thought she'd be upset. After all, we had a family, a mortgage. I was scared about the future. I had no idea how I would handle the obligations.

"So you think this is funny?" I asked.

"You've been traded to Oakland," she said.

"What?"

"Can you believe it? They called this morning. You've been traded to the Raiders!"

I started laughing, as images of the Raiders tumbled through my mind. When I was with Dallas, we occasionally played the Raiders during preseason, usually up in Oakland. The weather was always so cool there, even in the dog days of summer. Before one game both teams were walking side-by-side down the tunnel. Larry Cole, leaning over, pointed to Gene Upshaw and Art Shell, who looked massive in their black jerseys, ominous with that pirate leering off their helmets. "Jeez, they're big," Larry whispered. "They're really big!"

  The joke was that you didn't have to be a convicted felon to play for the Raiders, but it helped. As with most jokes, there was some truth in it. ... But I always felt the chain-gang rep obscured a deeper impulse. The Raiders didn't seem to give up on people. They seemed to look for the good in the worst cases ... as long as they had talent, of course.  
  

He was only half-kidding. Back then, the league had only a handful of 300-pound players and the Raiders seemed to have all of them. Shell, I knew, was over 300. Upshaw had to be pushing it. Then there was Bob "Boomer" Brown, John Matuszak, and another guy, a rookie named Charles Philyaw. They were a bunch of marauding giants. Matuszak was 6-foot-8. Philyaw was 6-9. Nor were they merely big. It was rumored that Shell, at 6-5, 315, could dunk a basketball two-handed, behind his back, from a standing start.

But their size and athleticism weren't the only things that impressed. The Raiders had a spirit that existed nowhere else in football. No group of guys ever had more fun playing the game. The previous season, when they'd smoked the Bucs 49-16, it was as if we weren't even on the field. They laughed and kibitzed the entire game, while we were yelling at each other in our huddle. They did the same thing to the Vikings in Super Bowl XI, romping to a 32-14 victory, as John Madden jumped up and down on the sidelines. Or rather Madden was trying to jump up and down. As one of the first bad-body head coaches, John couldn't exactly sky. His enthusiasm was endearing nonetheless.

The joke was that you didn't have to be a convicted felon to play for the Raiders, but it helped. As with most jokes, there was some truth in it. In the late '60s, receiver Warren Wells was convicted of attempted rape. Jess Phillips also had a rap sheet. In the '70s, Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll accused George Atkinson of being "part of a criminal element." But I always felt the chain-gang rep obscured a deeper impulse. The Raiders didn't seem to give up on people. They seemed to look for the good in the worst cases ... as long as they had talent, of course.

Matuszak was a good example. Who ever thought Matuszak would ever be able to play for anyone? In college, he punched and nearly killed a guy he suspected of fooling around with his girl. The Oilers made him the NFL's top draft pick in '73, but Matuszak hated head coach Sid Gillman so much that he walked out on the team. Playing for the Chiefs in '74, Tooz was booked for marijuana possession, then hospitalized when he overdosed on booze and sleeping pills. That same year, his wife tried to run him over in a car. Traded to George Allen's Redskins in '76, he was gone by the end of preseason. Asked why Matuszak was cut, Allen said, "Vodka and Valium, the breakfast of champions."

But then the Raiders picked him up. Miraculously, Matuszak settled down and produced. How did that happen? Was it Madden who was responsible? Owner Al Davis? Maybe it was both of them, I didn't know. But I was eager to find out. Although I lacked the requisite rap sheet, I was more than happy to join the cast of Raider misfits. If there was a ring to be kissed, I would have kissed it. Somebody up there had plucked me from pro football hell.

The next morning, as I cleaned out my locker, it occurred to me that Ron Wolf probably had something to do with the trade. Wolf was the Bucs general manager but before that he had been the Raiders personnel director, so I ducked into his office and thanked him for whatever role he might have played in the deal. Then I hunted up Bobby Moore, an ex-Raiders tight end who had come to Tampa in the expansion draft. Bob lived in the Bay Area and was close to the Raiders, so he knew what was going on with the players. He told me that defensive end Horace Jones had not come back from knee surgery and that Art Thoms, another defensive lineman, was also injured. "You lucky bastard," Bob said. "It's wide open for you."

That afternoon I headed back to Dallas, driving straight through. The next day, I boarded a flight for Oakland. A Raiders front office go-fer, a thick-necked, bespectacled kid named Leonard, picked me up at the airport. Leonard told me the guys called him "Left-lane" because that's where he never drove. Leonard had been instructed not to take any chances when ferrying players back and forth from the airport, so he always drove at least 10 miles under the speed limit, in the slow lane, no matter what the circumstances. From Leonard I learned that Raiders training camp had its headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., a small town 60 miles north of San Francisco, but since I needed a physical, our first stop was going to be Doc Fink's office in Oakland. Doc Fink was one of two Raiders team physicians. The orthopedist, Robert Rosenfeld, practiced in Beverly Hills. Apparently, Rosenfeld only showed up for games.

As we pulled up in front of an office building, I prepared myself for what I was certain would be an ordeal. In Dallas, camp physicals were conducted by an army of physicians. Urine was examined for drugs; an EKG monitored your heart; an EEG looked at your brain. Percent of body fat was measured. Joints were assessed for damage. All of that came before the physical testing, which included a vertical jump, running the Landry mile, or another kind of torture that involved lifting weights and then sprinting 200 yards, over and over, until you were near collapse. Why did the Cowboys collect all of this data? Guard Blaine Nye thought it was because the club wanted a leg up when the league went to bionic players.

In the building now, I stood in front of Doc Fink's office door, staring at his placard. The sign was my first indication that I was entering an alternative football universe. What I expected to see was the usual list of physicians in a medical practice, but what I was staring at was Doc Fink's name followed by the word "Investments." I shook my head and laughed.

Doc Fink himself was of average height, stocky, early 30s, with a shock of curly dark hair. "How do you feel?" he asked, having ushered me into his office.

"Great," I said.

John Matuszak
John Matuszak, shown with Houston Texans coach Jim Garrett in 1974 when he signed with the WFL, eventually found the perfect home in Oakland with the Raiders.
"Good," he beamed. He stuck out his hand. "Welcome to the Raiders."

After shaking my hand, Doc Fink walked around behind his desk, flopped down. On his desk was a magazine about precious metals. He picked it up, started leafing through it.

"That's it?" I asked. Because of course I was expecting at least the semblance if not the pretense of a physical.

"We do things a little differently around here," Doc Fink said. He looked up and smiled. "Good luck," he called out. Then he returned to his magazine.

Back in the car, Leonard headed north. Soon we were on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, pulling into the sprawling El Rancho Tropicana Motel. While old-line NFL teams traditionally trained at small colleges located in the hinterlands, old-line AFL teams couldn't afford that expense. So they made deals with motel owners, who turned nearby vacant lots into practice fields, thus achieving at least a semblance of NFL-style isolation. The El Rancho was just such an AFL relic. It was a one-story quadrangle of some 60 rooms. Up front was a restaurant and lounge. Out back was a small fieldhouse with lockers and showers. Two football fields provided space for practice.

Parking in front of the room that served as the Raiders administrative offices, Leonard walked me inside. Working at a desk was a wiry man with pasty skin and curly black hair. The tinny play-by-play of a San Francisco Giants baseball game drifted out of a transistor radio that sat on the man's desk. Leonard introduced me to Raiders administrative assistant Ken Bishop. "I'm a big Giants fan," Ken acknowledged, nodding at the radio as we shook hands. Then he indicated the bulging garbage bag that sat under his desk. "My hobby's collecting cans."

"Wow. Great," I said.

Just then, a high-pitched grinding whine could be heard outside in the courtyard. I looked out and was astonished to see a large, radio-controlled tank climbing up rocks to get to the sidewalk that ran by the room. This was no toy, but a sophisticated scale model replica of a German Panzer.

"Buehler wants his mail," Ken said. Under a plastic clip fastened to the turret, Ken slipped a bundle of mail. Pivoting, the tank moved off into the landscaping. Across the courtyard, 280-pound guard George Buehler stood grinning as he worked the controls.

"Sorry about the hold up." Returning to his desk, Ken produced a room key, which he handed to me. "Before you go, John wants to talk to you." Ken walked over to the door of the adjoining room. Knocking, he cracked the door. Abruptly, he backed away, as out came John Madden.

Al Davis
Al Davis liked to know what his players were thinking.
John was bigger than I thought. His meaty hands nearly enveloped mine as we shook. Generally, he had the easy bearing of an offensive lineman. This wasn't a surprise, since he'd played guard at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before being picked by the Eagles in the '59 draft. A blown knee during training camp had ended his career.

We exchanged pleasantries. I expressed my gratitude for the trade. John told me that my roommate would be Duane Benson, a 12-year vet who was the first pro player Madden had coached. It was a funny story. Madden had joined the Raiders as linebacker coach only a few days before a rookie minicamp. Of the 12 or 13 linebackers who were supposed to be there, only Benson showed. Overzealous, a rookie himself, Madden worked him to death.

Having never before had such a lengthy exchange with a head coach, I was starting to feel uncomfortable, as if I should move on, even though I was enjoying every minute. So I stooped to pick up my gear. That's when I got my second jolt of the day. The first had been Doc Fink's "physical." This one came from Madden.

A few minutes earlier, as Leonard had pulled into the parking lot, I had seen Raiders players ambling off to the fieldhouse to dress for afternoon practice; I knew I'd better get myself ready. Most organizations regard you as property as soon as you report. Whatever your individual needs might be, they're immediately subjugated to those of the team, and what the team wants is to see you on the field -- now. So you could've knocked me over with a feather when Madden said, "Look, with all the traveling you've had to do, my guess is that you're probably exhausted. So why don't you take the rest of the afternoon off."

I stared at him. Did he say what I thought he said? One time in Dallas, I'd asked coach Landry for permission to miss a meeting so I could be with my wife during the birth of our first child. While he granted my request, Landry had no idea that I was married, much less that my wife was pregnant, although he'd seen her at a team party only a few weeks before. Not only that, but my wife and I had attended countless team parties together during my five years with the club, and my wife and Alicia Landry were more than casual acquaintances. But that was Tom. Players as people weren't a primary concern for him. That Madden had actually devoted some thought to my situation without having ever even met me was more than startling.

"Are you serious?" I asked.

"Get outa here," he said with a smile.

In my room, I quickly unpacked. I was in a whirl. After playing in the league for seven years, after serving under three different head coaches, I had finally met one I liked. Finally, I'd found one I could play for. No wonder Matuszak had flourished here. Madden was unique. He was the mucilage that held this band of renegades together. For the Raiders, he was key.

If I needed further confirmation of Madden's unerring instinct about players, it came a few hours later when my roomie showed up. How Madden knew to put us together, I'll never know. But the fit was perfect. The connection between us was instantaneous. Twenty-five years later, it's still there.

A 225-pound linebacker out of tiny Hamline College, in St. Paul, Minn., Duane Benson had been the Raider's 11th-round pick in the '67 draft. After playing for the club for five years, he was traded to Atlanta, where he labored for two years under Norm Van Brocklin. Four years in Houston with Bum Phillips followed. Now Duane was back with the Raiders. It would be his 12th season. If he made the team.

"How do my arms look?" Duane asked. "Big enough, you think?" Having introduced himself, Duane was standing in front of the bureau mirror, puffing himself up like a body builder. In jeans and T-shirt, with a gimme hat tilted back on his head, he mock-flexed, posed, and I burst out laughing. I knew exactly what he was getting at. As a player ages, his body starts to sag. First, it's his butt that gets droopy. Then his gut takes on a life of its own. It goes downhill from there. Getting older is a common problem, but for pro football players the dilapidation is accelerated and obvious, because you have to shower beside the cut 22-year-olds who show up in droves every year.

"I guess I gotta work on my arms," Duane muttered. "Get back some of that bygone bulk." He started doing imaginary curls, posing, pivoting. Then he bagged it for a better idea. "What say we grab a beer?"

As we settled down in a booth at Melendy's, a nearby bar, Duane confirmed that he was the first pro Madden had coached. "He'd just come on board," Duane said. "He was only 31, so you can imagine how anxious he was. He wore me out."

In '67, by an odd series of coincidences, none of the other rookie linebackers showed up for minicamp, so Madden went to work on Duane, as if he were the entire group. He had him doing all the drills. Hitting the tackling dummies. Jumping over the tackling dummies. The ball drill. The mirror drill. Over and over, without a break. Just the two of them, alone, in a corner of the field.

"Then we scrimmaged," Duane said. "I was still the only linebacker, so Madden would stand behind the offensive huddle and listen to the call. If they were running a dive, he'd yell, 'Play middle linebacker!' If they were running right, he'd yell, 'Play left linebacker!' If they were running left, he'd yell, 'Play right linebacker!' So I was at the point of attack on every play."

Duane was a track athlete in college. When he got back to school, he had to anchor the relay in the conference meet. "I was so sore, I couldn't run out of sight in a week."

When I told Duane of my own experience with Madden that day, how he'd actually given some thought to my situation, Duane wasn't surprised. "You can tell a lot by just the questions they ask you," he said. Elaborating, Duane explained that after he'd made the team, he started getting calls from Al Davis. "Who's our best running back?" Al'd want to know. At first Duane was put off by the questioning, because he was uncomfortable judging other players. So he told Davis that wasn't his job. "My job is to play linebacker." Davis would suck his teeth and say, "F---, I know what your job is." So Duane, to be safe, would pick somebody obscure. "Larry Todd," he'd say. Davis would recoil. "Larry Todd? Why?"

"See, Al wanted to tell you who he thought was best," Duane said. "But it was more important for him to hear what you thought. Madden was the same way. 'What would you do if you were putting together a game plan for the Chiefs?' In Atlanta, Van Brocklin's question was the flip of that: "What am I thinking?" Which was a nonstarter. With Madden and Davis, you always felt like you were an integral part of things."

It was in the offseason after his second year that head coach John Rauch resigned. At the time Duane was living in Hayward, and Madden actually visited him at his apartment. "John told me that Al was going to pick a new head coach and he wanted to know my opinion. So I ran through the candidates. 'Is it going to be Ollie Spencer? Tom Dahms?' Madden kind of squeaked: 'What about me?'"

While Duane thought a lot of Madden, he was especially fond of Davis. When Duane was traded to Atlanta, Davis summoned him to a meeting. As Duane walked into his office, Al was sitting there, staring out his window. Visible below was a stretch of interstate clogged with traffic.

"Look at 'em all," Al muttered, indicating the cars. "Boy, are they sick."

Duane chuckled, shook his head, as Davis got to his feet. Turning, Davis pulled down a map. "I've always liked you," he told Duane. "You're loyal. You play hard. As long as you live here, you'll have a job."

Davis pointed at the map. Duane looked. It was of the United States.

"I guess it's every player's fantasy, to be appreciated like that," Duane said. "Who knows, he was probably bulls--ting me. But I haven't forgotten it. Hell, I'll never forget it."

I knew what he meant. As we sat in Melendy's, slopping down beer, I could feel it myself. It would take some getting used to, of course, because the thrill was accompanied by a ripple of fear. But I was never more clear about anything in my life. Finally, I was home.

Coming attractions: In Part 2 of this series, Toomay meets Raider Royalty (the three-headed leadership council of QB Kenny "The Snake" Stabler, WR Fred "Dr. Zhivago" Biletnikoff and RB Pete "Wolf of Warsaw" Banaszak), is welcomed by The Tooz, discovers that John Madden really is not your typical dictator coach, and is introduced to his competition -- a 6-9, 310-pound manchild named Charlie Philyaw, who, luckily for Toomay, is as uncomplicated as he is physically gifted.

Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. He is the author of two books, The Crunch and the novel On Any Given Sunday. You can e-mail him at pat_toomay@hotmail.com.