|Part 3: Behind silver, black façade|
By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: In Part 1 and Part 2 of his series on the "Birth of the Raider Nation", Pat Toomay described his relief at being traded from the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to defending Super Bowl champion Oakland. The former NFL lineman has been getting acquainted with Raiders royalty, such as Ken Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff, and is contemplating aiding his competition, Charlie Philyaw.
The idea of a coordinated defense also eluded him. If the middle linebacker called, "Pinch," the end had to charge inside or the 'backer would get slammed and a big hole would open in the line. Charlie seemed to regard the call as random noise, rarely heeding it. But that was typical of a young player. All of these shortcomings could be corrected by experience. "Just keep working," I told him.
Off the field, Charlie continued to astonish with his intractable innocence. One episode involved cornerback Skip Thomas. Skip was known as "Doctor Death," because of his tendency to let himself go to the extent that he looked like "death warmed over, swallowed down and spit back up," as tackle Bob Brown once put it. Late one night "Doc" was lounging in his room, when Charlie knocked at his door. That afternoon, Charlie had stepped in a hole on his way to practice and sprained his ankle. The trainer had told Charlie to see the Doc. So here he was. Taking off shoe and sock, Charlie showed Skip his swollen ankle. "Trainer says to get the whirlpool from you." Charlie was dead serious. "Doc" slammed the door in his face.
Charlie roomed next to Duane Benson and me, and one of the enduring images of camp was Charlie trying to feed his tiny pet parakeet. He called the bird "Lil' mo-fo." Late at night, we could hear him through the walls. "Time to eat, Lil' mo-fo. Lil' mo-fo, eat the rest of this now ..." And one time we saw it: Charlie holding a tiny gob of food in his giant fingers, gently pushing it down the little bird's throat.
Such a naked expression of tenderness, particularly here, in a pro football training camp, made me worry about Charlie. More than once I found myself wondering if he would survive in the wider world.
That there was a huge discrepancy between the Raiders' ferocious image and the actual personalities of players became clearer to me as I got to know everyone a little better. Certainly, Charlie was one example of it, but the most dramatic example was Jack Tatum.
At first glance, with his slanty eyes and Fu Manchu mustache, Tatum appeared fierce, even sinister -- Genghis Khan with an afro. But Jack was quiet and affable, with an easy laugh. He had a kind of inner calm that was unusual to find in anyone, much less a professional football player. As I watched Jack, I began to realize that his reputation for personal ferociousness had been inaccurately extrapolated from the ferocity of his hits. What everyone had missed about Jack, I realized, was the importance of his physiology.
See, Tatum was a knot of muscle. He was 5-foot-11 and weighed 215 pounds. Late in his career, he could weigh as much as 225. Strong safeties, who must force the run, are often large, but for a free safety, Tatum was an unprecedented physical specimen. Quite literally, he was a linebacker roaming the secondary. A linebacker who could turn a blistering 4.38 in the 40. His ferocious hits, then, were not due to any innate ferociousness, but rather to the laws of physics. All Jack had to do was break on the football. F = ma. Do the math.
By contrast, the Cowboys' Cliff Harris -- another free safety with a big-hit reputation -- weighed only 195 pounds and could drop to the high 180s by the end of a season. Cliff, who was my roommate for five years, was far more ferocious on the field than Jack ever dreamed of being. Cliff had to be ferocious because his survival depended on it. Meeting a John Riggins head-on as he rumbled into the secondary with a full head of steam was annihilation for Cliff unless he could muster every ounce of ferocity he possessed. In this respect, the game for Cliff was life or death. Triumph or humiliation.
Tatum, on the other hand, because of his considerable physical gifts, never approached this level of desperation. Tatum could match a Riggins almost pound for pound. And he could neutralize a Riggins by simply accelerating. For Tatum, it was all in his body. He had no need to be ferocious. And he wasn't. It simply wasn't in him.
Another player who belied the Raiders' ferocious image, although he seemed to embody it, was Otis Sistrunk. My impression of 'Trunk had been formed by that "Monday Night" sideline shot over which Alex Karras told us that Trunk had matriculated "from the University of Mars." There he was with that Buddha belly. No college. No hair. That menacing scowl. But Otis was anything but menacing. He had a sweet nature and a huge heart.
I found out about Trunk's heart the last week of preseason, as we got ready to play the Rams. Things weren't going that well for me, although I'd avoided facing the fact for weeks. My first hint that my stock with the Raiders wasn't as high as I thought was the absence of press about the trade that brought me from Tampa. Nothing about it had appeared in the newspaper. None of the usual build-up that spelled out the club's expectations of a new acquisition. It wasn't a good sign. From a PR standpoint, if the club had nothing invested in me, then they had little to lose if I didn't pan out. I attributed the lack of publicity to sensitivity about the Wolf-Davis relationship. That the Bucs might be a Raiders farm team was not something the club would be eager to draw attention to.
Harder to ignore, however, was my lack of playing time during the early exhibition games. A few garbage minutes with the rookies was all I got, and I knew that wasn't going to cut it. I needed to be out there with the regulars if I was going to make an impression. Yet it wasn't happening. Nor was it likely to happen. As with most Super Bowl teams, the lineup seemed set.
But then I caught a break. Sort of. Early in the week of the Rams game, both Charlie and Tooz turned up lame. As mentioned, Charlie, on his way to practice, stepped in a hole and sprained his ankle. The next afternoon, in a tackling drill, Matuszak ripped a hamstring. By Thursday, when neither had improved, assistant coach Tom Dahms told me that I would be playing a lot against the Rams, probably the second and fourth quarters. Although Charlie and Tooz would see action, they would be used sparingly, to minimize risk of further injury.
I was less than enthusiastic about the opportunity. In fact, it seemed like my death knell. True, I would be playing at least part of the time with the regulars. But I also would be playing out of position. While Charlie and Tooz were left ends, I had played right end my entire career. Switching sides was no small task when your synapses were wired the other way. For a right end, playing left end was like shooting a left-handed hook in basketball. My big chance and, at best, I would look like a fool.
As we trudged out of our meeting that night, I was muttering about the situation when Otis overheard me and pulled me aside. He told me that he was comfortable playing left end, as he'd played there earlier in his career. "I'll switch with you, Pat," he said. "They'll never know the difference."
I gave him a look. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the offer -- I did. Very much. In fact, I wondered if I would do the same for 'Trunk if our situations were reversed. I doubted it. Nevertheless, the suggestion gave me pause. As a second-year player in Dallas, I had recruited several guys to take my place on special teams when I was slated to start a preseason game for an injured veteran. I wanted to be fresh. I didn't want to be dragging from covering kicks. But it was a bad idea. I had usurped authority, and the undressing I got from coach Tom Landry was in front of the team. I'd never forgotten it. But I was with the Raiders now, not the Cowboys. My career was on the line. There seemed little choice but to take the risk.
Sometimes the smallest sacrifice can have enormous impact, and this was one of those times. I don't know why Otis did what he did. I do know that as a longtime Raider, he was hard-wired to the team; on some level, he might have felt this was what was required for the greater good. Whatever his reasons, I wanted more than anything to be part of what was going on here, so I seized the opportunity with a vengeance.
Treating the game as if it were a playoff, I was all over the motley collection of quarterbacks the Rams put on the field, and everyone was pleased. T.D., rather than jumping us for switching, as might have been the case in Dallas, claimed the idea as his own and fought to make the adjustment permanent. The next week, when I continued to play well, Al Davis became a convert. "How about this guy?" he said as he walked past a group of us in the airport. "Every time he gets in, he gets a sack!"
But while my fortunes were taking a dramatic turn for the better, thanks to Otis, my roommate's luck was running out. It was painful to watch. The young linebackers were showing promise. Duane was playing less and less. Finally, during the last week of camp, he got the dreaded call.
"It's a numbers game," Al told Duane during their meeting. "But stay in shape. If anyone gets hurt, we'll be in touch."
Back in the room, Duane was somber as he packed. I helped him load his car. "Take 'er easy," he said, as we shook hands in the heat of the El Rancho parking lot. "Work on those arms, eh?"
I pretended to laugh, as Duane climbed in his car. A honk, a wave, and he was gone.
Coming attractions: In Part 4, Toomay is charged up for the season after making the Raiders, but he now has to turn a former Raider's bachelor pad into a home for his family, drive "The Limo" and get used to rooming with "The Tooz" before game days.
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 email@example.com.