|Part 5: A rollercoaster of an NFL week|
By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: In last week's episode about Pat Toomay's adventures with the 1977 Oakland Raiders, Toomay plays the game of his career in the Raiders' season opener -- picking up three sacks -- but is afflicted with bad roommate karma when a much-loved roommate is cut, only to be replaced by the insane and profane Tooz, aka John Matuzsak.
Incensed by the mugging, Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll accused Atkinson of being part of a "criminal element." Atkinson responded by suing Noll for slander. The ensuing trial was a circus that dominated press coverage for months. In the end, Noll was found innocent of the charge, although he was forced to admit on the stand that his players, too, might deserve the epithet "criminal" after game films demonstrated the viciousness of Noll's own "Steel Curtain" defense in that same contest.
Of course, living in Dallas and being a Buc, I was only dimly aware of the drama playing out that summer in the San Francisco Federal Building. My own feeling about violence in the game was that it would be there to the extent it was as long as the fans continued to love it as much as they did. As I saw it, my job as a player was to take that into account, and having done that, to be on the lookout for guys who pushed the brutality envelope -- guys like Atkinson, for example, or Pittsburgh corner Mel Blount, or Cardinals guard Conrad Dobler -- although I have to say that Atkinson, at only 168 pounds, was hard to take seriously as a thug.
What upset the Raiders so much was the hypocrisy exhibited by Noll and his Steelers when they publicly accused the Raiders of precisely the kind of behavior they were guilty of themselves. To a man, the Raiders were bent on showing the Steelers what was what.
Although I was only dimly aware of these issues when I joined the club, by the time I boarded our charter for Pittsburgh, I was more than up to speed on things, and I was as jacked as anyone about beating the Steelers. In addition to the trial, other factors contributing to the hype included Pittsburgh's 10-game regular-season winning streak. The game was also trumpeted as a rematch of the '76 AFC Championship, which Oakland had dominated before going on to thump the Vikes in Super Bowl XI.
"Great players make big plays in big games" was the John Madden aphorism ringing in everyone's ears. Yet another reason to get pumped. Ironically, though, as frequently happens in these situations, the bloodbath everyone expected never materialized. In fact, by four o'clock that Sunday afternoon, as the Steeler faithful exited grumbling from Three Rivers Stadium, we were dancing into the locker room with a surprisingly easy 16-7 victory. Not for a minute was the game in doubt. We were beside ourselves with glee.
While many players are acutely aware of how they're doing during the course of a game, mentally logging stats, gauging performance on every down, I was one of those guys who played first and figured it out later. Of course, it was different if I was playing poorly or if a good player was giving me problems; one had to make adjustments then, the quicker the better. On the positive side, however, if things were going well, I paid little attention to stats, I just tried to ride the flow. If you could get in there and stay in there, then the stats would take care of themselves. So it was on this afternoon. Overall, I thought I'd played well, but it wasn't until after the game that I realized I might have done something special. My first clue was the throng of reporters who'd gathered in front of my locker. Because of the trial, the game was nationally televised. It had attracted sportswriters from across the country. Many of them were from NFC East cities, guys I knew from my days in Dallas but who'd lost track of me when I was exiled to Tampa. One reporter, columnist Dave Kindred of the Washington Post, was keen on playing up the resurrection angle.
"Boy," he said. "Three sacks. At least one, maybe two, forced interceptions. A bunch of miscellaneous tackles, all in what was supposed to be one of the biggest games of the season. That's a far cry from anything you experienced with the zip-and-14 Bucs, Pat, am I right?"
I laughed. "I guess so, Dave," I said. "But run that by me again. Three sacks? Can that be right?"
As Kindred dug out his stat sheet, Al Davis walked over, grabbed my arms, gave me a vigorous shake. "Way to play," he said, looking me dead in the eye. That was my second clue that I'd done something good.
After showering, I boarded the team bus for the airport. At the airport, we were told that our flight had been delayed. As is customary in such situations, everybody headed for the nearest bar. Madden, who wanted to join us, was waylaid by fans in the concourse, so he stayed behind, taking a moment to chat them up. Meanwhile, inside the bar, we ordered beer, rehashed the game. Needless to say, spirits were high. Everyone was thrilled with the victory. However, the fizz went out of the party when in hobbled linebacker Phil Villapiano, his knee wrapped in ice. "Foo," as Charlie called him, was followed by offensive tackle John Vella, who was on crutches, his knee also wrapped. Both men had suffered serious injuries and would be lost for the season. "Damn," muttered offensive line coach Ollie Spencer upon hearing the news. Sitting nearby, my head began to spin. How would we adjust?
Generally, players don't concern themselves much with personnel decisions unless they're directly effected. Being "on the bubble" for so many years, though, I'd been conditioned to pay attention, to try to understand how management was thinking, whether I was effected or not. It's funny how fear can expand the scope of your thinking. In any event, a principle I'd learned in Dallas was that good teams could count on a loss for every rookie they started. On bad teams, it didn't matter if rookies started -- they were going to lose anyway. On a good team, however, when everyone was talented and knew what they were doing, a single screwup could cost a team a division title or a shot at making the playoffs. Inexperience was the chief culprit of such catastrophic screwups. Hence the dictum: Avoid starting rookies.
Applying that principle here, I figured the club would go with highly touted three-year vet Henry Lawrence for Vella at tackle. Although Lawrence hadn't played much, if he was as good as everyone thought, at worst he would be an adequate sub. However, Villapiano's injury presented a more difficult problem, because there were no experienced backups at linebacker. Immediately, I thought of Duane Benson. I wondered if he would get the call. For selfish reasons, I hoped Davis would come through on his promise. While Tooz and I were doing OK together, at least so far, I would have preferred rooming with Duane. We just had more in common. Would Davis do it? I knew he had a history of being loyal to his guys. He'd supported Atkinson financially by furnishing lawyers for his suit against Noll. He'd frequently gotten other players out of jams. Surely, I thought, he'll bring back Duane.
The following week, when the club signed veteran linebacker Floyd Rice to take Villapiano's spot on the roster, my estimation of Davis plummeted. He was a bull artist like the rest of them. He didn't have the goods. He would say whatever he needed to say to get what he wanted.
But then I realized I might be overreacting. After all, Duane could have caught on with somebody else. Give him a call, I thought. Find out for sure. So I did.
Duane's story was more than harrowing. Yes, Davis had called, as promised. Davis had come through. But Duane was in no condition to play. In fact, when Davis called, Duane was in the hospital with a fractured skull and a broken collarbone, a hundred stitches zippering his shattered face. When Davis called, Duane had just regained consciousness after being in a coma for two days.
As best as I could put it together, the accident happened on the night of the game. It was all too weird. From Duane's perspective, as quickly as an opportunity to play presented itself, it was just as quickly annihilated. One couldn't help but feel the archaic resonance of Fate. I recalled John Updike's comment about retirement for an athlete being like a "little" death. Maybe so. But it wasn't so little for Duane. The vortex of that transition had damn near thrown him over the edge.
Back in Minnesota after being waived, Duane had busied himself with his farm. He had horses, cows on a few hundred acres. He took carpentry work as he waited for a call. Any team would do. Duane just wanted to play.
When the season opened, Duane found it difficult to watch the games. He would squirm, fidget. He would yell at the tube. He got frustrated because the camera would only follow the ball when Duane was more interested in the action away from the ball, what the tight end was doing, say, or the backs as they circled into the secondary. He couldn't give up his on-the-field perspective for the abstracted view of the TV. After a while, Duane's wife suggested that he find something to do outside on Sundays because he was making everyone else so miserable. Duane complied. Outside activity on Sundays became part of his routine.
On this particular Sunday, Duane and his brother were scheduled to begin reroofing their mother's house. They wanted to get an early start, so Duane got up before dawn, grabbed some breakfast, loaded his tools into the back of a recently purchased '54 Chevy pickup. On his way to his mom's house, the truck conked out. Duane pulled over, braking to a halt in the shallow ditch that ran alongside the country road. Beside the ditch, also running parallel to the road, was a granite outcropping, a huge rock cliff.
Duane tried to get the truck running, but it wouldn't start. He hitched a ride to Chatfield, a nearby town, where his brother picked him up. They spent the day working on their mother's house.
It was dark when they got back to the truck. Approaching from the north, Duane's brother crossed the pavement and parked in front of the truck so that the two vehicles sat nose to nose. The headlights of Duane's brother's car were kept on so that the truck's engine could be seen when the hood went up.
They got out of the car. While Duane raised the hood, his brother climbed into the cab. Duane looked over the engine, wiggled some wires. His brother turned the ignition. Nothing. Duane fiddled with the carburetor. Meanwhile, from the south, a car full of kids was approaching. The kids had been drinking. They were confused by the headlights. Were they driving on the wrong side of the road? Suddenly, they veered. At an angle, they smashed into the rear of Duane's truck.
The collision whipsawed Duane's brother, slamming the back of his head against the rear of the cab before shooting him forward to whack the steering wheel with his chest as the truck lurched forward to smash Duane's brother's car. Inside the cab, Duane's brother was bruised and shaken but OK. Outside, Duane was like a piece of shrapnel flying off an exploding grenade. Caroming off the truck's right front fender, over which he was leaning, Duane was a projectile launched head first into the rocky cliff. The blow fractured his skull and split open his face. He was unconscious when the paramedics found him. A bloody mess. He was lying in a heap at the base of the cliff 100 feet from his crumpled truck.
It took me a long time to digest Duane's story. It had a deep resonance for me. A powerful pull, as if I were a candidate for the same kind of event. I didn't know why or what I could do about it, so I put the feeling out of my mind. Duane was OK. That was the important thing. He'd survived the vortex. He was alive, healing up. Now he could begin living his real life. I knew it would be my turn soon enough.
Coming attractions: Unexpectedly, Toomay has his best season ever, leading the AFC in sacks and helping propel Oakland to an 11-3 regular-season record. After the final game, he catches an eye-opening glimpse of the dark side of the Raiders.
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.