The National Football League was born in an automobile showroom in Canton, Ohio, on Sept. 17, 1920. Alan Page was born in that city nearly 25 years later--on Aug. 7, 1945, in the 72 hours between the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He entered the world 22 days after the first atomic bomb was exploded near Alamogordo, N.Mex., and the world he entered was defined by that explosion. "We knew the world would not be the same," the bomb's father, J. Robert Oppenheimer, said of that first A-test. "A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: 'I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'"
"Born between the bombs," affirms Page, the former Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears defensive tackle and 1971's NFL Most Valuable Player, now seated in his office in St. Paul, contemplating the era of his birth. "It's interesting, isn't it, given the significance of those bombs? It's funny you ask, because I have thought on occasion about what it all means. I haven't yet come to any conclusions." Page has the disarming habit of saying "I don't know" when he doesn't know the answer to a question. It's a quality rare among star athletes and unheard of in elected officials. For most of his adult life Page has been one or the other: a gridiron luminary enshrined in 1988 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame--which was under construction in Canton when Page attended Central Catholic High there--and an off-the-field overachiever elected in November 1992 to the Supreme Court of Minnesota, on which he still sits.
"There's a danger for judges to assume they have all the answers," says Page, who seldom submits to interviews, explaining his reluctance to pontificate. "There's a saying one of my former colleagues used quite a bit in talking about this court: 'We're not last because we're right. We're only right because we're last.' I think that's something that you have to keep remembering."
When Page does speak, his words carry greater moral authority than those of more heliocentric celebrities, the balls of hot gas around whom the world turns. He has the aura of an oracle, an effect heightened by his soft voice (the listener leans on every word) and black robe (from beneath which peeks a pair of Doc Martens). Page tackles subjects, as he did ballcarriers, from unexpected angles. To his way of thinking, the more unsavory NFL players of today--Rae Carruth, Ray Lewis, Mark Chmura, et al.--are quite useful role models for American youth.
"One of the frustrations for me is that this whole role-model business works two ways," he says. "There are models to look up to and models who demonstrate clearly what we should not aspire to. But we don't use those latter models for that purpose. In fact, there's an odd transference: We end up glorifying those people."
I haven't yet told Page that he was my childhood hero, or that we have met before, nearly 26 years earlier, but I have come here to do just that--to St. Paul, hometown of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."
"I've never understood the phenomenon of athlete worship, of how we get our athletic heroes," says Page, 54, when Fitzgerald's line is recited to him. "I can remember from the beginning, by which I mean my sophomore or junior year in high school, being looked on as a good football player, yes, but it went beyond my ability as a football player." People who had never met Page nonetheless began to admire him, and he found this profoundly disquieting. "I like to think that I was a good human being," he continues, "but people couldn't know that from watching me play football. So I kind of rejected the whole hero notion early on.
"There were times," he adds, a trifle unnecessarily, "when I didn't sign autographs."
You couldn't buy a number 88 Vikings jersey in Minnesota in 1974. You could buy the 10 of Fran Tarkenton or the 44 of Chuck Foreman, but if you wanted the 88 of Alan Page your parents had to find a blank purple football shirt and have the numbers ironed on. As far as I know, my parents were the only ones who ever did. The jersey became my security blanket--what psychologists call a "transition object," the item that sustains a child in moments away from his mother. I wore the shirt until it simply disintegrated in the wash and blew away one day like dandelion spores.
I grew up in the town in which the Vikings played their home games, in the decade in which they played in four Super Bowls. Yet even in Bloomington, Minn., in the 1970s, I was alone among my schoolmates in worshiping Page, who was fearsome and had a reputation for brooding silence, a reputation that I scarcely knew of as an eight-year-old. I knew only that Page had gone to Notre Dame, that he was genuinely great--the first defensive player to be named MVP of the NFL--and that his Afro sometimes resembled Mickey Mouse ears when he removed his helmet. I at once loved Alan Page and knew nothing whatsoever about him.
Then one unfathomable day in September '74, the month in which I turned eight, a second-grade classmate named Troy Chaika invited me to a Saturday night sleepover at the Airport Holiday Inn, which his father managed and where the Vikings, as everyone knew, bivouacked on the night before each home game. I could meet the players when they checked in and, if I asked politely and addressed each of them as "Mister," get their autographs, a prospect that thrilled and terrified me in equal measure. So every night for two weeks, toothbrush in hand, I practiced my pitch to the bathroom mirror: "Please, Mr. Page, may I have your autograph?"
Time crawled, clocks ticked backward, but, after an eternity, Saturday came. My mom--God bless her, for it must have pained her beyond words--allowed me to leave the house in my 88 jersey, now literally in tatters, the kind of shirt worn by men in comic strips who have been marooned on a tiny desert island with one palm tree.
So I took my place in the Holiday Inn lobby--Bic pen in one damp hand, spiral notebook in the other--and recited my mantra rapid-fire to myself, like Hail Marys on a rosary: "Please Mr.PagemayIhaveyour autograph?PleaseMr.PagemayIhaveyour autograph?PleaseMr.Page...."
Moments before the Vikings' 8 p.m. arrival, my friend's father, the innkeeper, cheerily reminded me to be polite and that the players would in turn oblige me. "Except Page," he added offhandedly, in the oblivious way of adults. "Don't ask him. He doesn't sign autographs."
Which is how I came to be blinking back tears when the Vikings walked into the Holiday Inn, wearing Stetsons and suede pants and sideburns like shag-carpet samples. Their shirt collars flapped like pterodactyl wings. They were truly terrifying men, none more so than Page, whose entrance--alone, an overnight bag slung over his shoulder--cleaved a group of bellhops and veteran teenage autograph hounds, who apparently knew to give the man a wide berth.
Page strode purposefully toward the stairwell. I choked as he breezed past; I was unable to speak, a small and insignificant speck whose cheeks, armpits and tear ducts were suddenly bursting into flames. It was to be an early lesson in life's manifold disappointments: two weeks of excruciating anticipation dashed in as many seconds. Still, I had never seen Page outside a television set and couldn't quite believe he was incarnate, so--my chicken chest heaving, hyperventilation setting in--I continued to watch as he paused at the stairs, turned and looked back at the lobby, evidently having forgotten to pick up his room key.
But he hadn't forgotten any such thing. No, Page walked directly toward me, took the Bic from my trembling hand and signed his name, Alan Page, in one grand flourish. He smiled and put his hand on top of my head, as if palming a grapefruit. Then he disappeared into the stairwell, leaving me to stand there in the lobby, slack-jawed, forming a small puddle of admiration and urine.
Page listens to the story in some suspense, visibly relieved at the outcome. "My sense, for a period, was that it's mostly an intrusion," Page says of autograph requests. "It's never at the right time or the right place for me. The problem is, for the person seeking the autograph, it's the only time."
He pauses in judicial repose, folding his enormous hands in a church and steeple. "But I came to a conclusion," he says at last. "What I figured out is this: Just sign 'em. Sign 'em all. It's just easier to sign. Somebody told me, 'Nothing bad ever comes from being nice to somebody.' You know what? For some people, it makes their day. Absolutely makes their day! They're adults, kids, football fans, people interested in law--all of the above. Some of it is simply any-hero-will-do. But some of it is a need, and I don't know where it springs from, but there is a need among a lot of people to be part of something, or someone, they perceive as important. And signing an autograph is a pretty simple thing to do to make someone happy.
"Sometimes," he adds, "it makes me happy too."
Now that I have introduced Page to the eight-year-old that I was in 1974, he acquaints me with the three-dimensional, 29-year-old human being that encountered me in the lobby of that Holiday Inn. Page didn't play football until ninth grade, and only then because his older brother, Howard, did. Alan was instantly great, a prodigy of sorts, earning a scholarship to Notre Dame. Four years later the Vikings selected him with the 15th pick in the draft. "The conventional wisdom when I entered the league was, you've got this little square plot of ground to cover," recalls Page, "and if you take care of it, we'll love you forever. Well, that wasn't very interesting to me. Or very challenging."
Lithe and almost feline, Page went wherever the ballcarrier was, often pulling the runner down with one hand. He won his MVP award in his fifth year. "By the end of the '74 season I had been in the league eight years," says Page, "and there are only so many things you can do on the football field. I'd done most of them. I was bored. Plus, you know you're not going to play forever. So for me, it was time to go get the law degree."
His office is bereft of football memorabilia, crammed instead with Jim Crow collectibles--A COLORED WAITING ROOM sign and other reminders that everyone is equal under the law. "Long before I had an interest in football, I had an interest in law," he says. "My earliest recollections are from fourth grade, back when you don't have any idea what the law is about. It was probably a little to do with Perry Mason, but also a sense, without knowing any lawyers, that, viewed from the 11-year-old's eyes, the law is an easy life, you make lots of money, you play golf every afternoon. That looked a lot more interesting than the steel mill.
"There's also the component that the law is about helping people, about fairness, this concept we have of justice," says Page. "I was a teenager in the late '50s and early '60s, and as a nation we were going through tremendous upheaval related to issues at the heart of fairness: issues of race. That was a catalyst--not that I could have articulated any of this back then."
In his second year in the NFL, Page attended three weeks of night classes at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. "It was clear after a couple of days that I was in over my head," he says. "But it took me another three weeks just to figure out how to drop out."
It was around the time of our wordless meeting in the Holiday Inn that Page resolved to return to law school. He did so the following year, spending 13 weeks in a summer program at Texas, then enrolling at Minnesota during the 1975 season. (He would graduate in 1978 and practice law for seven years before joining the state attorney general's office.) Page read law books in the locker room. He prepared for exams on team buses. If he appeared to be "silent" and "brooding" to fans or sportswriters, he was in fact merely quiet and contemplative. He didn't refrain from signing autographs because, as I had assumed, the seeker wasn't worthy, but rather because the signer wasn't worthy. "The fact that one has an athletic ability," Page says, "doesn't mean you don't have the same problems that every other person has."
On the other hand, as he discovered, nothing bad ever came from being nice to somebody. So while the 29-year-old Page entered the Holiday Inn that Saturday evening in '74, thinking only about the numbing routine ahead--"check-in at eight, followed by team meeting, curfew at 10, 7:30 wake-up, nine o'clock breakfast, we go to the stadium at 10 o'clock for a one o'clock game"--he paused on his way to the stairwell. He spent five seconds signing my notebook and palming my noggin. Then he wearily climbed the stairs to his usual room, never to think of the moment for another quarter century.
Whereas I was so smitten by the one small act of kindness that I still wait on athletes in hotel lobbies and stadiums, hoping they'll deign to speak to me. That's what sportswriters do. It is a blessed existence--nice work if you can get it--and it's high time I thank Page for keeping an introverted eight-year-old interested in sports at a time when neither of us was entirely sure if his heart was in it for the long haul.
Page took up marathon running in his 30s, as have I. (He still logs 60 miles a week and weighs 225 pounds, the playing weight at which he retired in 1981.) He finds the NFL largely unwatchable, as do I. ("It's like watching paint dry," he says. "It's just not me. I loved playing, but watching? I just can't do it.") And, like me--like most of us, one hopes--he finds Jerry Springer an alarming reflection of American society.
"In this day and age," Page says, "when we have TV programs devoted to people yelling and screaming and fighting to no end, I think we, as a society, have changed. The more you see of that, the more it appears that that kind of behavior is acceptable, then the more people engage in it. Athletes are no different.
"We see everything here," he says of the highest court in Minnesota. "The worst of the worst of the criminal cases. It can be ugly. Some days you don't go home with a very good impression of the human condition."
Other days he goes home awestruck by "the resilience of the human spirit." In 1988 he established the Page Education Foundation, which has helped more than 1,100 minority students attend colleges in Minnesota. This past academic year 405 students received more than half a million dollars in financial aid. One of those kids is a 20-year-old graduate of Minneapolis's Roosevelt High; on his grant application, he listed his parents' address as "Somewhere in Somalia."
"He came to the United States four years ago," says Page. "He said his parents are constantly on the move as circumstances change in Somalia. You've got to be pretty tough to deal with that at age 16. My heroes are a lot of young people who have worked their way out of circumstances other people would succumb to.
"Every one of our scholarship recipients commits to going back into their community and working with young children. They must act as mentors to kids, kindergarten through eighth grade, through community-based organizations, and send the message to young people that education is important. They serve as examples of successful students--the perfect role model for young children. Here is somebody who is going to school, who can say, 'You can do what I've done.' They're the real heroes in this world."
My hero's other heroes are more predictable: His walls are filled with pictures of Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall and Robert F. Kennedy, whom Page honored at his first Supreme Court swearing-in. He received, in return, a long, handwritten thank-you letter from Kennedy's widow, Ethel. Its first heartfelt sentence reads, "Hallelujah!"
"My father was a bartender, not educated beyond high school," says Page, one of four children. "But he and my mother understood the importance of education: Go to school, do your homework, be a good citizen."
Page and his wife of 27 years, Diane, passed that simple edict on to their four children, all of whom are grown and successful. More than athletics, more than the law, education is what really interests Page--the way one good role model can have an outsized effect on an impressionable child. "I think, if I can drum up the courage, I'd like to teach one day," Page says, his mind far from his Supreme Court chamber. "When I say teach, my inclination is elementary school."
He looks me in the eye and says, "A class full of 30 eight-year-olds could be challenging, don't you think?"