|Part 8: The end of the party|
By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: In Part 7 of his series on playing with the defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, Toomay described how he failed as "Keeper of the Tooz," and how John Matuszak's subsequent problem behavior had everybody worried about the Silver and Black's chances of winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
Having failed in my duties as "Keeper of the Tooz," the job next fell to a young staffer, a street-smart kid off the streets of New York whose family connections, I believe, had landed him a marketing job with the club. I'll call him Jeff Levy. Jeff was popular with the guys, ran errands for them, hung out, and was generally well-respected. As he put it to me over burgers at a greasy spoon near the practice field one weekday afternoon not long after the Cleveland game, Jeff had been asked to focus his attention specifically on Tooz. Jeff's task, as he understood it, was to hang with Tooz and make sure if he got messed up, he did so early in the week, so he wouldn't hurt the team on Sundays. Jeff took his assignment seriously. In fact, he performed his job so well that by the end of the season, the last thing anybody was worried about was Tooz. Tooz had settled down. We'd made the playoffs. Everyone was eager for a shot at a second consecutive appearance in the Super Bowl.
Coach Dahms called us up. As usual, the defensive linemen had assembled in a corner of the endzone. "Let's get some starts," he said. This was our customary first drill. T.D., facing us, would crouch over the football. Calling cadence, he would snap the ball. Firing out, we would sprint 10 yards before returning to do it again.
As the first group moved to the line, I was wondering how much I would play. As the regular season had wound down, opponents had adjusted to our designated rusher strategy by running quick traps and screen passes instead of throwing conventional dropbacks. We had shifted tactics accordingly, so that those blow-and-go opportunities so prevalent earlier in the year had gradually disappeared. Although I'd picked up a sack against Baltimore, I wondered what would transpire on this day. Since our last meeting with Denver, they'd cut that rookie I'd run around all day and acquired a seasoned veteran. A repeat of my four-sack performance seemed unlikely.
In front of me, Tooz was dropping down into his stance. Right foot back, he settled in, digging his foot into the turf. Abruptly, he toppled over sideways in a heap. I stared at him. At first I thought it was a joke. But it wasn't a joke. Tooz wasn't moving. He was groaning, but he wasn't moving. "Jesus Christ," said Dahms. A couple of us moved to him, shook him. Tooz stirred. Then George Anderson arrived on the scene. We got Tooz to his feet. George took him into the locker room. Get ready, I told myself.
Back in the locker room, I found out that Tooz had gotten wasted the night before, that he'd trashed his room and was just sitting there shirtless in a stupor when some of the guys came back from a movie at about 11. Evidently, he'd kept it up for the rest of the night, drinking, popping Quaaludes. What would happen now? Would we pull the switch again, with Sistrunk playing left end for Tooz while I took over Otis' position on the right side? Maybe, I thought. Certainly, that's what would happen on most teams. But then I realized the political implications of such a move. From a PR standpoint, it would be a disaster. After all, Tooz, by now, was the poster boy for Raider reclamation. Successfully rehabbing the league's rejects was one of Al Davis' biggest weapons in his ongoing battle with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. The rejected, rising up, slay the rejector. It was a powerful story, one of almost mythical dimensions. In a way, it was the story of Al himself. Would he risk besmirching it by benching Tooz? Probably not, I thought. Not on this stage. Not in an AFC Championship Game. If Matuszak could play, he would play. Or at least he would line up to play. There was simply too much at stake. For Madden, this might have been the vise critics had pointed to.
The first half was mostly a lot of sparring. All told, we ran 41 plays to Denver's 19, but we couldn't put the ball in the end zone. Denver led 7-3. The score was still 7-3 midway through the third quarter when we fumbled at our 17. Denver recovered and drove to our two. But then Bronco fullback Rob Lytle was smacked in midair by Jack Tatum as Lytle dove over the pile, and the ball popped loose. Mike McCoy, a defensive tackle who played on goal-line defense, scooped it up and was running for a touchdown when the play was whistled dead. Although replays clearly showed that Lytle didn't have possession before he dove, officials ruled no fumble. We were penalized for arguing the call. Denver scored on the next play.
But the game was far from being over. In the fourth quarter, Snake hit Ghost with a 12-yarder to make it 14-10. The defense held, but an interception was returned to our 14 and Denver quickly put it in. But Snake came back again, hitting Casper with a 17-yard touchdown pass, and we were only down 20-17 with three minutes left to play.
Momentum had shifted. You could feel it. Another Raider miracle finish was more than in the cards -- all we had to do was stop them. But we couldn't do it. Repeatedly, the Broncos gobbled up yardage by running off-tackle, straight at Tooz. Barely able to breathe in Denver's rarefied air, Tooz was more than sluggish. He seemed a count behind in every move. He could barely get out of his stance, much less shed a block. It was painful to watch him. Later, it came out that a hotel employee had tipped the Broncos about Tooz's all night pregame "party." Evidently, the Broncos were exploiting that information now. As the Denver drive continued, our players started getting on Tooz to try to wake him up, but to no avail. Finally, during one timeout, our captain begged our coordinator to get Tooz out. The coordinator, while more than sympathetic, shook his head and nodded toward the press box where Al Davis was sitting. "It ain't gonna happen," he said. And it didn't. Denver ran out the clock. We straggled into the locker room.
In the locker room, as reporters circulated, players expressed rage about "that call." For many, it was only the most recent example of an important game being decided by an official's decision rather than by players on the field. By contrast, Madden took the high road, complimenting Denver's defense, saying the Broncos earned the championship. But even Madden had difficulty restraining himself when a reporter asked about the fumble.
"Hell yes, it was a fumble," he said. "How can it not be a fumble when one of my guys comes out of there with the ball like that?"
Nearby, a TV was showing yet another replay. "I'm not saying anything else about it," Madden said. "But look at that. Twenty million people saw it. Let them make their own judgements."
While Madden appeared devastated as he fielded questions, Al Davis had gone somewhere else inside himself. Surprisingly, he told reporters that he wasn't upset with the officials' mistake. Officials are human, he said gently. He wasn't slamming Ed Marion, the head linesman who'd made the call. It's a difficult job and it has to be done by men. No instant replays. It has to be a decision made by fallible men.
"But they say things as if we were ever-loving idiots," Davis said.
By "they," Davis meant NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and his aides, who were seen conferring in the press box after Denver scored. A few minutes later an announcement was made in the press box: Lytle's forward progress had been stopped, and he was being pushed back when the ball came loose. Of course, replays showed otherwise.
"The point is, these mistakes happen," Davis told reporters. "But what I don't like is when they come up with policy explanations. The Big Lie … They sent one of their guys down and told the official what the ruling ought to be."
Whatever the validity of Davis' feelings about the Commissioner's role in the Lytle fumble (and I'm inclined to be sympathetic), something deep in the Raider heart changed that day in Denver. Raider warmth and exuberance ossified. A chill descended in its place. For those of us in its proximity, the shift felt cataclysmic.
Two moments were emblematic. One involved Dave Casper, who'd performed brilliantly that day, as he had throughout the playoffs and the entire season. After the game, Casper, while passing Davis in the locker room, uttered a typical Casper remark: "Well, we're still No. 1 for a week." By that, Casper meant we'd played hard, we'd lost, it was a tough game against a good team, Tooz had messed up, and that was the end of it, except we'd still have the title until a new champ was crowned after the Super Bowl. Al just looked at him. Uncharacteristically, it was a hostile look. Not his usual "water off a duck's back" response to irreverent comments by players. Later, when Davis traded Casper to Houston, Casper's remark would be cited by some as one reason why Casper wasn't allowed to play out his career with the Raiders. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't, I don't know. But I do know this. Something changed deep in the Raider heart that day. Suddenly, the old Raider ambiance seemed in danger of vanishing. And then, in an instant, it was gone.
It happened right in front of me. I was sitting in my locker, packing up my equipment. Across the way Snake was doing the same. By now, most of the other players had departed. Between us, Al Davis was pacing the floor, back and forth, deeply preoccupied, sucking his teeth, as ball-boy Run-Run Jones scurried around picking up towels and husks of discarded tape.
Run-Run Jones was another one of those interesting Raider staffers like Ken Bishop. He'd gotten his nickname, I believe, from his days in Roller Derby, a sport in which he'd excelled. Now retired, Run-Run worked part-time for the Raiders, keeping track of footballs during practice, generally helping with the clean-up afterwards. A squat, thick-bodied man-child with big eyes, Run-Run had a ruddy complexion and a thick mane of prematurely gray hair. As Casper once said of him: "Run-Run's never going to live long enough to look his age."
After that, everything changed. In the offseason, Al fired a popular defensive coach who refused to resign and replaced him with a disciplinarian from -- of all places -- Denver. The resulting chemistry made oil and water look like a harmonious mix. In May the spiral deepened when Madden was hospitalized with ulcers. Madden himself attributed his condition to the Lytle fumble, but one had to wonder about the pressure he was under as Raiders head coach. The following August, Madden blew away critics forever with his response to Darryl Stingley after Darryl was paralyzed by a fluke hit in an early exhibition game. Unquestionably, it was John Madden's finest hour. Not only as a coach, but as a man. But that's another story. For me, my most memorable season ever -- my first tantalizing taste of what pro football could really be like -- had ended. But it wasn't merely the end of a season. That aborted game in Denver marked the end of an era.
Coming Attractions: In Part 9 of his series, Toomay begins a two-part look at John Madden -- the man and the myth.
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.