Work in Sports
Show of Appreciation
Paul Zimmerman has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for the past 10 years. He sizes up each member of the Class of 2000.
I'll begin with the Seniors candidate, 49ers outside linebacker Dave Wilcox, because no one knows much about him. As a member of the Seniors Committee I've been trying to get him on the ballot for two years, finally succeeding last summer.
Last year I picked an alltime team for Sports Illustrated. Make that an alltime squad; it's impossible to line up 11 players on each side of the ball because the requirements are so different. Linebacker is the toughest position. There's the open side backer, the space player, gifted in coverage -- Jack Ham was my man there. For overall play in all aspects of the game I chose Ted Hendricks. Lawrence Taylor, naturally, was my rush linebacker. That left one position, one that has been neglected of late because sacks have become the criterion for judging linebackers, and that was strong side backer -- the guy who performs all the grubby jobs of the position, who controls the tight end, who stops the run. There never has been anyone as good at that as Wilcox.
At 6' 3", 241, he was an oversized linebacker for his era, quick rather than fast, blessed with farm-boy strength. Tight ends simply didn't get off the line against him. Mike Ditka once said that Wilcox was the reason that he retired when he did. Mel Phillips, the 49ers strong safety, said that Wilcox prolonged his career by at least three years because he didn't have to worry about the tight ends. They'd seldom get a clean release off the line. J.J. Johnson, the Hall of Fame left cornerback, said he could concentrate on his coverage without concerning himself with the run because no one ever got much on a sweep to Wilcox's side.
It was a point of honor with Wilcox not to get hooked inside by a tight end or back. I see outside linebackers getting hooked so often nowadays that it makes me want to cry. No one seems to care. Wilcox cared.
"We could have blitzed Wilcox if we had to, and then he would have made the Hall of Fame about 10 years sooner," Mike Giddings, Wilcox's linebacker coach, told me last year when I was trying to round up support for Wilcox. "But we didn't need him for that. One day we had people hurt, though, and we blitzed him. He got two sacks and set up two interceptions for touchdowns. We said thank you and sent him back to playing the tight end."
I did a two-part series toward the end of Joe Montana's career, and one thing intrigued me. What happens to you, I wanted to know, when you get into one of those extreme pressure situations, such as the last drive against the Bengals in the Super Bowl, or the one at the end of the Cowboys' championship game in the 49ers' first Super Bowl season? How do you manage to lift your game to a new level?
He just stared at me. He hadn't the faintest idea. He mumbled something about, "Maybe my concentration is higher," and shrugged. I realized then that asking him such a question proved that I really didn't know the first thing about him. It would be like asking Picasso why he painted so well.
It was natural with him. You do what you have to do. Extreme pressure means extreme performance. You don't reach that level, you don't win. Not enough arm, they said about him when he was up for the draft. Crummy attitude. Which just proves that the scouts were as puzzled as I was.
Montana was a natural, a football genius, a child of God. John Unitas, who ranks with Joe as the greatest I've ever seen, wasn't a genius. He was a tough, hard-nosed competitor with a nasty streak. His personality reflected it. He always seemed on the verge of a snarl. Montana's personality?
"Pretty much a zero, huh?" Matt Millen said when he joined the Niners at the end of his career. "Shocked me, too. Here's the greatest quarterback I'm ever going to play with and he's got a personality like a stone."
Montana had some bad times in San Francisco, when he was battling injuries and drug rumors, when his game seemed to have gone south and the fans were hollering for Steve Young. He wasn't well liked in his home town of Monongahela, Pa. Didn't return often enough, didn't do enough for the town, was the grumbling you heard. Kind of a cold fish, actually.
"Let me tell you something about Joe Montana," said Harris Barton, the right tackle in Joe's era. "When I was in the hospital with my knee injury, the first two people who showed up were my parents. The next two were Joe and his wife.
"Look around the 49ers organization. How many of those people you see sitting in their offices, how many of those secretaries, owe their whole way of life to Joe Montana? He changed a lot of peoples' lives around here."
HOWIE LONG, Defensive
Howie Long was the guy Al Davis called at two in the morning to go and find Todd Marinovich and get him out of some drug den on the beach. How many times. Too many to count. He'd get dressed and get in his car and find him and drag him out.
Long was the guy assigned to be the strong man on the defensive line, to play the power side and hold the point against the double team, to go inside on passing downs and cover for the sack specialists such as Greg Townsend or Anthony Smith.
He was the tough guy, the enforcer, the man who kept order on the club. That's what Howie Long meant to the Raiders.
How he hated the open side pass rushers, the guys who did their thing in space and chased quarterbacks while he was getting slugged in the mouth. "Just one year," he used to say, "just once, I'd like to spend a whole season doing nothing but going after the quarterback. I'd like to see how many sacks I'd get. The guys out there, they don't even know what it's like to try to stop the run."
Oh, he'd get after the quarterback, with his power rush and rip move. He probably created more sacks for other people -- "inherited sacks," Weeb Ewbank used to call them -- than any player in the game. Howie'd flush 'em, someone else would sack 'em. "He'd have a million sacks if he were just a better tackler," the late Lyle Alzado used to say. "It's a shame, really."
Once, toward the end of his career, I asked one of Ronnie Lott's teammates what was the difference in his game.
"He used to need only one ammonia cap to bring him around," the teammate said. "Now it takes three."
Nobody ever kept count of his concussions, but I'll bet it was up near the Steve Young level, if not greater. People make a big fuss about it, if a quarterback is involved. But Ronnie? Just par for the course. Never changed his game, though. He was still flying in there, crashing into those receivers and ball carriers with the same fury, right up to the end.
Lott wasn't what you'd call a finesse cornerback when he first came up. He was more of a muscle corner, a feared guy, an intimidator in the style of Freddy "The Hammer" Williamson or George Atkinson, except that he was a lot better. But the grain of toughness that Lott and the other two rookie DBs brought to that first 49ers' Super Bowl team was enough to change it from a patsy to a dynasty. Rookies aren't supposed to lead veterans, but the role just slipped into Lott's hands, and he was so tough on the field and so single-minded in his desire to achieve that he made it work.
I can't point to his work in the Steelers organization and say that it's of Hall of Fame caliber. He's pleasant to be around. He never puts on airs. He's a Pittsburgh guy who's always been loyal to the city. But you can't say that anything really dynamic has happened to the club in the last 10 years or so.
What got Dan Rooney into the Hall of Fame, though, was the fact that he is one of the few league guys among the roster of owners, someone who can look at the whole scope of football and the NFL and say, in all honestly, even though this isn't the best thing for my own team, it's best for the league.
Contrast that, please, with the current crop, whose dedication seems to be to themselves and personal wealth and little else..."fiscal responsibility," the Cowboys' Jerry Jones calls it. Not much loyalty there. Sue the league, break its rules, threaten to move your club if the city doesn't build you a new stadium to replace the one that went up 20 minutes ago, charge your fans a four-figure premium for the right to buy tickets. Nope, Rooney never has gone that route. The idea would be repulsive to him. Ralph Wilson, Wellington Mara, Lamar Hunt, here and there a few others, but that's it. Plus, of course, Rooney, who still understands what the game and the league are all about.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com. To send a question to Dr. Z's Mailbag, click here.