History Lesson of the Week
Most people think Jim Plunkett, when he failed with the Patriots after being the first overall pick in the draft in 1971 NFL Draft, was dealt to Oakland. Not so. New England traded him to San Francisco first, and after two years with the Niners, he was released and got picked up by Oakland. The Raiders won two Super Bowls with Plunkett at the helm.
The Carson Palmer trade this week got me to thinking about the Plunkett deal, and about the subsequent deal the Niners made for O.J. Simpson two years later. And it caused me to reassess my opinion of Bill Walsh, and to think of him as greater than I'd thought of him over the years -- and my opinion of him already couldn't have been much better. Let me explain.
Thirty-five years ago, front offices in the NFL obviously had much different views of draft choices than they do today. In 1976, Plunkett was a 28-year-old quarterback who had bottomed out in New England. Still, San Francisco traded quarterback Tom Owen, two first-round picks in 1976, and first- and second-round picks in 1977 for Plunkett ... and released him after he went 11-15 in two seasons.
If it's possible, the Niners made an even worse trade for the battered and used-up O.J. Simpson in 1978, even after the Plunkett trade stripped them of the chance to pick four top prospects. For Simpson -- who would be 31 when he took the field for the Niners, and shot after a career on the artificial turf in Buffalo -- the Niners dealt second- and third-round picks in 1978, first- and fourth-round picks in 1979, and a second-round pick in 1980. Simpson wound up struggling behind a bad line and gaining just 1,018 yards in two years before retiring.
So for two players who essentially helped the franchise regress, this is what San Francisco paid in a four-year period:
First-round picks: 4. Second-round picks: 3. Third-round picks: 1. Fourth-round picks: 1.
Walsh arrived in 1979; he must have been in agony seeing the first overall pick go off to Buffalo because of the mind-blowingly expensive trade for Simpson. (The Bills had their own problems in the front office; linebacker Tom Cousineau was Buffalo's pick, with that top pick acquired from San Francisco, and he never played a snap for the Bills. He signed in Canada. He later had his rights dealt for the pick that became Jim Kelly, so it wasn't a total washout for Buffalo.) Forced to improvise for a quarterback on draft day 1979, Walsh picked Joe Montana in the third round. Finally back with a full load of picks in 1981, Walsh took Ronnie Lott in the first round. I find it amazing how quickly Walsh restocked a bad team and made it a champion.
Ode to the Everyman
Former Bills center Kent Hull, 50, died of internal bleeding Tuesday at his home in rural Mississippi. After an 11-year career that spanned the Bills' glory years, he retired to his childhood town of Greenwood, Miss., and tended to 800 head of cattle on his ranch. He had been ill for a while with a form of cancer, but his death, at far too young an age, stunned his teammates and hit them hard. "Thurman [Thomas] called to tell me,'' Steve Tasker told me Saturday, "and it was hard to understand him. He was bawling like a baby.''
I write about this mostly anonymous man because players like Hull are the bedrock of so many good teams, past and present. Hull did his job and never sought glory. If glory came, as it did in the form of three Pro Bowl nods and two All-Pro selections, he would deflect it. He was the perfect Bill Polian/Marv Levy player. Do your job, be responsible, lead when needed, care only about winning -- and be smart.
I am confident in saying he was one of the five or six most valuable players on those four Buffalo Super Bowl teams, because of what he meant to the team in making the line calls on the fastest-moving offense in football, and for what he meant as the last guy out of the locker room ... after every game, after every practice. If a problem needed to be solved, he'd help. If someone just wanted to talk, he'd talk. Part of his football life included being there if anyone needed him; someone usually did.
I remember lots of big-talking (rightfully so), boisterous players on those Bills teams, on and off the field, and I remember Hull, with a dip between his lip and gum, accommodating teammates, reporters, fans, and never being too big for any of it. He'd do it quietly. He loved Levy's trademark, "Where would you rather be than right here, right now?'' He lived that. Being a cog in the wheel was his thing.
Hull and Jim Kelly were signed by the Bills after the United States Football League folded in 1986. When they arrived in Buffalo, Kelly got in a limo and was cheered by nutty fans on highway overpasses and on the sides of roads on his way to the Bills' offices. Hull got in the back seat of the Bills' equipment van, with his and Kelly's luggage.
In Hull's first practice with the team, offensive coordinator and line coach Jim Ringo confused him with another player, a guard, and ordered Hull to get down in his guard's stance for a drill. He had never played guard, but he tried to get down in a stance like a guard, and it wasn't quite right, and Ringo blistered him for being in an NFL camp and not knowing how to line up. "Coach, I'm sorry. I'm a center,'' Hull said. Soon, Ringo and Marv Levy realized that Hull was the kind of technically perfect player and peerless engineer of blocking schemes that made the K-gun no-huddle offense work. Kelly was Lindbergh, and Hull the airplane mechanic.
"Someone figured out once that, on average, there were 16 seconds between every play in our no-huddle,'' said Tasker. "Jim would be able to look over the defense and call the formation we'd get in, and make the play call. Then Kent would figure out our blocking assignments and call them out just before Jim would get the snap. Sometimes, Kent would know Jim had made the wrong call for the defense they had out there. Once, Jim got down to get his hands between Kent's legs for the snap, and there was Kent, turning his head around from his stance, shaking his head. Like, 'No, no, no.' And Jim would change the play call. And it got done. No big deal. It just got done.
"And off the field, you know, in an NFL locker room, you cannot hide. Guys are in there talking about politics, personal hygiene, world events, whatever. Discussing, arguing, everything. I can't tell you how many times Kent would be in there, just listening, and then you'd hear him give his opinion, and then you'd hear a few guys say, like, 'Yeah. That's what I think.' That's the kind of presence he had.
"What a teammate he was. And from being at the funeral [Friday in Mississippi], it was the same in his personal life. He had intelligence, his heart was always in the right place. Nothing in his football career or his life was about him. It was about the guys, it was about the team, it was about winning. Period."
That's value. Bruce Smith and Kelly -- you're not winning without them. Thurman Thomas too. And Darryl Talley and Andre Reed: vital players. After that, who? Hull, I'd say. The man who was always there for everyone else.
In retirement, not much changed. When one of his herd was slaughtered, Hull often would take 20 or 30 pounds of the prime beef to a community kitchen that served the less fortunate. "Don't tell anybody,'' he'd say.
That's a man right there.
Jeff Pearlman shouldn't be criticized; he should be praised for a great book.
When the furor over the Walter Payton biography Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton surfaced last month, I told you I'd pass along my thoughts when I'd read it. Now that I have, I can tell you it's terrific.
The painstaking detail is what makes this one of the best sports biographies I've ever read. Such as this: Payton was a senior at Jackson State when Archie Griffin was running away with the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State, and Payton had intense Griffin envy, according to Payton's old college roommate, Rodney Phillips. Pearlman wrote: "Whenever Ohio State was on national television (a common occurrence), Payton watched, his veins bulging with each word of praise from an announcer. 'Look at this garbage!' Payton would yell. 'The holes they're opening for him are enormous. I'd run circles around this guy.' ''
Phillips, who's now a firefighter in Jackson, told Pearlman that Payton had a "controlled rage'' when it came to how Griffin overshadowed him nationally. Pearlman also interviewed a Jackson State trainer, another teammate of Payton and Griffin himself. This is why you should read this book. The research is exhaustive, the anecdotes eye-opening.
Pearlman found out the Cowboys went right down to the wire about whether to pick Payton in the 1975 draft, and they went with Randy White because they thought he'd last longer, not because he was the better player. He found out how disappointed Payton was to be picked by the Bears. He wrote how seriously the Bears questioned Payton after a poor rookie year.
"As the Bears prepared for the 1976 season [GM Jim] Finks and [coach Jack] Pardee continued to question the halfback's drive, work ethic and durability. He found out how many of his teammates in the early years hated him; he once locked the locker room door on the entire team, forcing them to stay outside for a few minutes during a heavy rainstorm, and he once threw a lighted M-80 into a full locker room. He found out about the daughter of a Chicago assistant coach, Dale Haupt, baking him cookies and making a quilt for the Paytons' son -- and Walter buying her a gold bracelet and fawning over her for her kindness. He found out the games Payton played with awe-struck Bear ball boys. Pearlman found out he had to do community service at a local high school for a few months -- and stayed for four years as a volunteer basketball coach. And Pearlman found out about the surreptitious meeting between Payton's wife, Connie, and the woman he had a long affair with, and quoted Connie as saying to her, "you can have him. He doesn't want me or the children.''
You pass judgment on whether a book about a beloved figure that both glorifies and tarnishes him should be written. My judgment is it should. Payton was a superstar, a public figure of national significance for 25 years. Were we demanding to know he used drugs and philandered and at times was a bad teammate with the Bears? No. But figures of renown are subjects of books all the time, and Payton's life, as it turns out, is beyond interesting. It's compelling. It's most often riveting, particularly the parts about his formative years in the Deep South. It's real history, not the gauzy stuff.
Oh. And the prologue of Sweetness ... The first page of the book is jarring. It can't get better than Pearlman's meeting with Walter Payton. But the rest of the book lives up to the promise of the first page. It's that good.