- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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There is an old story that has been told, most recently in HBO's documentary "Namath," about a legendary quarterback with bad knees and a league full of opponents unwilling to exploit it. Fred Dryer doesn't understand why people make such a big deal about it. Back in the 1970s, Joe Namath had bad knees -- everyone knew he had bad knees -- but Dryer, a tough defensive end who went on to be a badass on a 1980s cop show, never took a shot at them. It didn't seem right, Dryer said. Around the league, defensive players would pull up when tackling Namath.
"There was a moral code to how you played the sport," Dryer said.
"I would hate to play today."
There is a legion of old football players who are passionate and angry right now, and perhaps that is somewhat of a surprise. When commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down on the Saints last month for running a bounty program, there was a sentiment, voiced loudly in New Orleans and whispered among a few young defensive players, that Goodell was once again sissifying football. That the stuff former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said to jack up his players has been said in locker rooms for decades.
It hasn't. At least that's what Dryer and a number of other retired NFL players said in interviews this week. Many of them expressed disappointment at what they heard in the audio clip released late last week that featured Williams, the day before a January divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, imploring his defense to "kill Frank Gore's head" and target receiver Michael Crabtree's ACL.
Dryer mainly expressed disgust. For nearly 40 minutes, with his voice reaching high decibels, Dryer vented his anger at a league that he says is reckless and at a reality that so many of his friends are stumbling through their later years with concussion issues and battered old bodies. Dryer said he supports Goodell's decision to suspend Saints coach Sean Payton for a year and ban Williams, the team's former defensive coordinator, indefinitely.
But Dryer said the league needs to "send a message right now" by also suspending the players involved for a year.
"I've met Roger, and I have a lot of faith in him and his leadership," Dryer said of Goodell, who's still considering player penalties. "He's got a long road to hoe here, and we're all rooting for him. This is a very dangerous sport. You can get paralyzed, killed, maimed for the rest of your life playing the sport. So there's an inherent responsibility for one another. That's lost today. They all get together and they kneel down and hold hands and give thanks to God and then they behave this way. The arrogance and the narcissism that has run rampant in this sport is just beyond the pale.
"You've got these players, these idiots, now taking complete control over the sport, acting out. And these idiot owners, these lobster-guzzling owners, they sit up there in their press box and just look and realize, 'Gee, we're making a lot of money from our TV package, and we really don't care as long as people are watching.'"
Filmmaker Sean Pamphilon's website has glossy slideshows at the top of the page and venom at the bottom. On a corner of the page is a spot for reader comments, and Pamphilon has been peppered with F-bombs and called disparaging names. It's happened over the past few days, since the Gregg Williams audio was released. Pamphilon's intentions, some say, were noble. He was in the Saints' locker room that day in January filming a documentary on former Saints linebacker Steve Gleason, who has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), when Williams unloaded the speech. Gleason has been retired for four years but is so close to the franchise that he -- and Pamphilon -- were there when Williams addressed the defense. The speech made Pamphilon uncomfortable, and eventually he was compelled to release the video. Maybe, he thought, this behavior might someday seep into youth football if he didn't do something.
The audio most likely had no impact on Goodell's decision to uphold the suspensions Monday, but it did resonate with many others. A half-dozen retired NFL players known for their toughness were interviewed for this story, and all of them said they were taken aback by Williams' words.
One player, former Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Brown, said he was initially willing to give the Saints and Williams the benefit of the doubt. Brown knew all about Goodell's initiative for safety and how he occasionally made examples of people. In Brown's playing days, from 1993 to 2007, he received a few $15,000 fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and sometimes rolled his eyes over his perception of the league's heavy-handedness.
But Brown quickly changed his mind on the Saints' situation after hearing the tape.
"It crossed the line," he said. "There's a player code. It's definitely unspoken, but every player knows when you go on the field, particularly a defensive player, you're going to hit as hard as you possibly can, but you never intentionally try to injure people. I want to rob your will to play the game; I don't want to rob your ability to walk."
Even the nastiest players, such as Conrad Dobler, are aware of the code. Dobler, who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in the 1970s with the title "Pro Football's Dirtiest Player," never wanted to take away a man's livelihood. He knew his opponents had families to feed, too. By the way, the former offensive lineman was making a quiche Saturday when he answered the phone. For a minute, it took some verification to make sure the person on the other end was indeed Dobler, especially after he said, "I use some heavy whipping cream so it puffs up real nice. It's fabulous."
Then Dobler liberally referred to a few of his old opponents as "jerk-offs" and waxed on about leg whips and his battles with the late Merlin Olsen, and things were back to normal.
"What he said in that meeting, I've never heard a guy say that," Dobler said of Williams. "I've had coaches before say, 'That guy's a real jerk; you've got to do what you have to do to neutralize him.' Now what does that mean? Every time he comes near a ball, we knock him down. He's not a factor.
"I wanted to embarrass the hell out of him. That's more important to me than hurting the guy. If he's hurt and leaves the game, then I can't embarrass him anymore. I want to have a couple of chances to make him look like a jerk-off."
They weren't exactly saints back in the old days of professional football. Dobler used to gouge eyes, spit and punch at throats. He drew the ire of Olsen, which apparently was an accomplishment because Olsen was widely known as a mild-mannered defensive tackle. Olsen once said that someday someone was going to break Dobler's neck, and Olsen wouldn't send flowers when it happened. It never happened. Dobler said he was too tough for that.
Dobler said that one team, the Raiders, hated him so much that they put a $100 bounty out on him.
"You might not think $100 is a lot of money," Dobler said, "but we didn't make a lot of money back then. A hundred bucks, especially with the Raiders ... they'd murder somebody in their family for it."
Dobler isn't the only one who says bounties were going on as far back as the 1970s. Floyd Little, a Hall of Fame running back for the Broncos who played during Dobler's era, said he was casually told by his friends, who happened to be opponents, that their teams had bounties out on him, too -- $1,000 to knock him out of the game, and an extra $500 if he didn't come back.
"They had a coach who would pay them in the locker room after the game," Little said. "Fifteen hundred dollars was a lot of money for us. That was a tremendous incentive. I was a No. 1 draft choice, and I signed for $10,000.
"It was something we all knew. It's been going on forever. But I didn't think it was still going on today. Guys make so much money. So yeah, it was a surprise to me that guys who make millions would be [motivated] by $1,000. That a player would try to hurt another player for what would be considered beer money. It doesn't make any sense to me."
Little figures it's probably just motivation in a testosterone-charged locker room. But he firmly believes that back in the '70s, players didn't want to hurt their opponents. Many of them were friends in those days. Little would train with the men who tried to chase him down, and went out to eat with some of them the night before games.
As they parted ways, he recalled his friends would say, "Don't let me make the money on you tomorrow." They never did. It was a different era. Opposing players knew each others' families and attended each others' functions. It's not like that anymore, Little said. Players are too distracted.
"They have agents," Little said. "Their whole lives are controlled by going here, going there, all these promotional opportunities, commercial opportunities. It's big business."
In 1979, Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood played the entire postseason with a broken fibula in his left leg. His opponents did not go after his leg, and when the Rams lost in the Super Bowl, Steelers right tackle Larry Brown stopped and found Youngblood.
"You played one hell of a game, buddy," Brown told Youngblood.
Youngblood, who is in the Hall of Fame, was in immense pain but never worried about someone taking a cheap shot at him. He said he was appalled and insulted by the news of the Saints' bounties, but Youngblood is sedate about the issue compared to his old teammate, Dryer.
There was a defining moment in Dryer's career, and it happened in a preseason game in 1972. Ray Jamieson, a rookie running back for the Raiders, collided with punt returner Eddie Phillips, and they hit with such force that both lay sprawled out on the field. Dryer was three feet away. Phillips got up; Jamieson did not.
"I knew right away he was hurt," Dryer said. "I was staring at him when they rolled him over gently, and I looked at his face and I saw it. A kid paralyzed for the rest of his life."
That's what makes Dryer's blood boil when he hears about coaches telling players to go after a man's head. They obviously aren't thinking about what lies ahead. Andy Russell, an early member of Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense in the 1970s, estimated he's had at least 10 concussions. Youngblood, who's taken a number of hits to the head himself, has struggled remembering what he had for breakfast.
But they know they're lucky. They're still around to talk about the way it used to be and about the NFL they hope to see someday. Dobler has had 36 knee surgeries and nine knee replacements. Brown is only 41 years old, but he's had more than 55 X-rays since he filed retirement papers in 2008.
"I just got back from a retired players' meeting," Brown said. "I saw a lot of guys walking around on artificial knees and hips. My generation is better off because of the things they did to change the game and make it better. Now this next generation of players can be made safer by essentially eliminating the type of language Gregg Williams used.
"I don't think that type of language has a place in football. Do I think Gregg Williams is an awful guy? No. Do I think he lost perspective? Yeah."