|Part 4: A 'little death,' a lotta Tooz|
By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: In last week's episode about Pat Toomay's adventures with the defending Super Bowl champion 1977 Oakland Raiders, Toomay discovered the soft sides of two Raiders whose enduring images are anything but -- Jack Tatum and Otis Sistrunk. Sistrunk provided Toomay with a touching highlight when he voluntarily gave up his position for a key pre-season game. The lowlight followed soon after, when Toomay's roomie, Duane Benson, was cut.
I felt bad as I watched Duane Benson heading for his car. He'd played for the Oakland Raiders for five years. He'd been in the league since 1967. For the duration of my first camp with the Raiders, an arduous 47 days, he'd been my roommate and now it was all ending as I watched Duane climb into his car. He'd been waived on that warm, late summer afternoon in August 1977 and he was leaving. Watching him drive away, I thought of something novelist John Updike said about athletes, how retirement for an athlete was like a "little death." Yes, I thought. Updike had it right. And I knew, because not long ago, I'd been on the cusp of quitting the game I'd played since childhood. Earlier that summer, as I'd sat on the freeway outside Tampa, the thought of playing another year for the appalling Buccaneers had pushed me to the brink of walking away. I'd felt the pang of the ending that had been forced upon Duane. Watching him, I was sure, he was feeling "a little death." Because it was all so fluid. You were in, you were out. You were here, you were gone. All in the blink of an eye. A "little death." As in life itself. Would Al Davis bring Duane back if somebody got hurt, as he'd promised to do? Pete Banaszak had called Davis the Messiah. The Resurrector. Would Davis use his powers? Would I ever see Duane Benson again?
That night, as I sat alone in our empty room, the muted tube was flickering with the wrapup of a San Francisco Giants baseball game. As the broadcasters ran through the summary, the camera panned the empty center field bleachers, pausing to focus on a lone figure clutching a garbage bag as he moved among the vacant seats, occasionally stooping to pick up a discarded can. Suddenly, the camera zoomed in on him, and I bolted up in my chair. For this lone figure was no refugee from the homeless shelter or straggler off the janitorial crew. No, it was Raider administrative assistant Ken Bishop. I stared at him, as he roamed the dimness. Sure, I thought, remembering how when he'd checked me in on my first day of camp, Bishop had confessed his hobby of collecting cans. But at midnight in the empty centerfield bleachers of Candlestick Park? Who could have anticipated anything like this.
As the image of Ken rummaging for trash in an empty stadium merged with the sadness of Duane's departure to dump me further in the doldrums, the telephone rang, and I grabbed it up, desperate for a diversion. It was my wife, wondering what was going on. I hadn't talked to her in a while, and she wanted to know whether we were we in or out, alive or dead. "We're alive!" I nearly shrieked, clicking off the tube, glad to be rid of the disturbing picture.
"You mean you made the team?"
"I made it," I told her.
Of course, my wife was thrilled and her enthusiasm buoyed me. After all, things weren't so bad. I mean, I'd made the Raiders, man. The reigning world champs. Not only that, but I was slated to see action in the opener the following Sunday against the Chargers. Really, all told, it was a remarkable reversal. From the s---house of Tampa to the penthouse of Oakland in only a few short weeks. Hell, forget about Duane, I told myself. You were the one who was resurrected. You were the one who was raised from the dead. See what's in front of you, man. Capitalize! Perform!
After surviving the emotional rollercoaster of that tumultuous night, everything started falling into place. Finding housing, which could have been a problem, was solved the following morning when word came that Art Thoms, who'd been traded to Philadelphia, was looking for someone to rent his Alameda bungalow. I took a peek at it. The house was pretty much a bachelor pad with a mirrored ceiling over a deluxe waterbed in the master suite. Okay, so I'd have to do a little selling on that point. And there was another issue as well. Art wanted his tenant to occasionally drive "The Limo," as it was called. "The Limo" was a hearse a few players bought from a funeral home to use as their stadium transportation on game days during the early '70s. Only Raiders would have the gall to do such a thing! The hearse was parked in front of Art's house, where it more less permanently sat. The guys didn't use it much anymore. Art was going to sell it after the season. A hearse. A bachelor pad. It wasn't the greatest environment for raising a young family. However, the rent was modest, so my wife was only mildly distressed when I described the setup. "It's the Raiders, honey," I explained. She pretended to understand.
As far as the team was concerned, spirits were soaring as we approached the opener. The Super Bowl lineup was pretty much intact. As in the previous season, Stabler, Branch and Biletnikoff would provide the aerial fireworks, while Dave Casper would compliment the deep game with possession receptions underneath. Up front, Upshaw and Shell would continue to anchor the monster line. On defense, linebackers Phil Villapiano, Ted Hendricks, Willie Hall and Monte Johnson would support veteran linemen Dave Rowe, Otis Sistrunk and John Matuszak. Jack Tatum and George Atkinson would once again be the enforcers prowling the secondary.
I laughed, thanked him for the invite. "Appreciate it, Tooz," I said. What I didn't tell him was that I'd already decided I wanted nothing to do with Tooz and his nightlife. The endless hunt for football-player starved women, the booze, the dark, the glare, the barking, wailing and screaming that I imagined roused by Tooz and his wanderings was something I felt I'd lost the capacity to survive, let alone seek out. I already knew it would never happen.
After paging through the rest of the magazine, Tooz sighed, rolled over, switched off his lamp. For a long time he lay in the darkness, breathing deeply, exhaling through his nostrils. Then he sort of snorted, as if something important had suddenly drifted into view.
"I hate the Chargers, man," he muttered. "Not as much as the Chiefs. But I hate 'em. And we're gonna kick their ass."
"I think you're right, Tooz," I said.
"You're gonna eat Billy Shields' lunch," Tooz added.
Billy Shields was San Diego's left offensive tackle. He was tall, agile, out of Georgia Tech. Not overwhelmingly strong, but skilled at holding. Vulnerable at the corner if you could get a jump at the snap.
"That f-----. What an a------," Tooz mumbled. And with that, he started to snore.
The game itself was a 24-0 blowout. Riding the tide of a delirious reception by the Raider fans, we broke it open early when rookie Lester "The Molester" Hayes blocked a punt and another rookie, Randy "Nose" McLanahan, took it down to the 10. Snake rifled a quick one to Cliff Branch and the rout was on.
As a defensive player, when you play for a poor team, like Tampa, you rarely have an opportunity to pin back your ears and just go. As far as sacking the quarterback is concerned, it's always an advantage to play for a good team, because good teams build leads, leads limit offensive possibilities -- inevitably, they're forced to throw. One of the first clubs to realize the importance of sacks -- at least as a statistical indicator of success -- was the Dallas Cowboys, who began tracking them in the early '60s. In fact, as a Dallas rookie in 1970, I'd had an incentive for sacks in my contract that paid a bonus if I got over seven in a season. Seven sacks in 14 games was one every other game. So my goal as a player was to try and get one in every game. That way I would not only earn my bonus but might also garner some post-season honors. Of course, I'd never been able to do it. But as we jumped on the Chargers early, I realized that here, with Oakland, I might have a chance. Because everything was perfectly aligned. Thanks to the success of our preseason switch, when Otis moved to the left side, allowing me to play my natural position, the coaching staff had made the "designated rusher" strategy an integral part of our game plan. I could see the advantages immediately. Because I was only on the field in passing situations, I was always fresh. I never had to take the pounding of a ground game. When I was in, it was gravy time. Always. Time to blow and go. So that's what I did, getting to quarterback James Harris twice for sacks. A third time, as I came around the corner, I simply reached out and whacked at the ball. Obligingly, Harris dropped it. We covered it and the turnover led to another score. The "designated rusher" strategy was more effective than anyone had imagined.
Madden's populist touch, his willingness to play the role of "good father" to this band of renegades strengthened the sense of "family" that existed on the club, however "weird" the family, in its constituent elements, might prove to be. And with Charlie around, and "Doctor Death," and Ted "Kick 'em in the Head" Hendricks, who, on Halloween, would show up for practice wearing a pumpkin for a helmet. With an owner who wore black all the time, who drove a black Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham with black tinted windows and no license plates. With an owner who sported a garish, black-onyx bracelet with "Al" spelled out on it in diamonds. According to rumor, it was a gift from gambler Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder. And the rumor inside the rumor was that "Al" had not been inscribed with Al Davis in mind, but rather that the bracelet had first belonged to Al Capone. Well, with this group, things could get pretty weird indeed. Thankfully, Madden was there to hold it all together. Actually, he was working his magic now, as he schmoozed the guys. Just his attention galvanized everyone. Of course his efforts weren't entirely altruistic. With the hated Steelers coming up -- Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, no less -- we needed all the togetherness our coach could muster.
Coming Attractions: In next week's Episode 5, the Raiders travel to Three Rivers to do battle with the hated Steelers, where they win the battle but lose the war. And something terrible happens to Duane Benson.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.