"I didn't know anything but that I loved to play," says Van Note, sipping on a beer at his secluded home off Holly-berry Drive in Roswell, Ga. "Some of us crossed the picket line, and the others hated us for it. Not many people have gone from crossing a picket line to being president of the union. But I did. I guess I was trying to make up for that mistake."
Van Note was born in Hackensack, N.J., into a Catholic family. His father, Peter, moved his wife and family to Louisville when Jeff was two, and started an aluminum tray manufacturing firm that became a success. It is a shop that has never seen a union. Van Note's mother, Marie, died of cancer when he was 10. "I didn't face what I had missed from my mother for a long time," Van Note says. "I was introverted, lonely. My father would say, 'Boys, this is the schedule,' and that was it. There was no softening to my life. Little joy. So sports—football—took over and filled the void."
"When it's quiet sometimes, Jeff will say to me, 'Why did God have to take her?' " says Dee Van Note, Jeff's wife.
The Van Notes have three sons—Beau, 16, Ben, 14, and Blaine, 9. "I tell Jeff to hug Blaine," says Dee. "Hug him and tell him that you love him. But it's hard for Jeff to do."
"The bond between mothers and sons," Van Note says firmly, "is not an old wives' tale."
Jeff and Dee met when he was enrolled at St. Joseph Prep, 40 miles outside Louisville. He was allowed to come home only once a month. "I knew when my father liked him that he had to be a boy of character," Dee says. "Only I couldn't get him to dance. He didn't dance well, so he didn't dance at all."
Van Note got the last available scholarship at Kentucky in 1964 and played defensive back, running back, linebacker and defensive end. He was quick enough as a freshman to return an interception 84 yards for a touchdown. "I used to be an athlete before I became a lineman," he says with a laugh. "I had to bulk up. But you'd always rather have your quicks than strongs. Even today. Always."
He has lifted weights since he was 18. He knew about steroids early, but will not say if he used them. "I know a couple of guys who have died of cancers and I think it was 'roids that killed 'em," he says. "I've been around 'em [steroids] a long time. Dianabol, testosterone. Orals. Injectables. They're a dangerous business—the next big scandal." Van Note now weighs 272. He played as low as 240 in the old days, when he had to try to block middle linebackers with names like Sam Huff, Dick Butkus and Willie Lanier. "Honey Bear?" he says when the subject of the Hall of Famer comes up. "Yes, that was what they called Willie Lanier. I always called him Mr. Lanier. He was a brick wall."
There were some brick walls off the field, too. He had become involved in the union, serving as first vice-president from 1979 to '82 and as president from 1983 to '84. Peter Van Note said it was fine by him, as long as he never saw a picture in the paper of his son on a picket line. "Thirty or thirty-five percent of NFL players have college degrees," says Van Note. "We allow ourselves to be used. Our parents allowed us to be used. We needed to take control of our own lives. Drug testing is coming. We can't alienate the public. And we've got to stop paying all this money to rookies. Salaries are fine, but earn them. What do rookies know about winning in the NFL? Tilt the scale to the proven veteran."
In 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan went to Philadelphia, Miss., and told the crowd at the Neshoba County Fair, "I believe in states' rights." Curt Flood was working for the recreation department in Oakland, Calif. David Archer was the backup quarterback at Snow Junior College in Utah. And Jeff Van Note finally played on an outstanding team in Atlanta.