Dim the lights. Run your memory back to 1969. Ronald Reagan is governor of California. Curt Flood has decided to sue baseball over the reserve clause. David Archer is seven years old, in the second grade and playing flag football for the Strandwood Elementary Road Runners in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Jeff Van Note of the University of Kentucky has been drafted in the 11th round by the Atlanta Falcons.
He drives into the Falcons' Johnson City, Tenn., training camp in an orange '64 Volkswagen. He is 23, his hair is as black as India ink, his jaw is like a jug, and he weighs 236 pounds. He fills up his chin strap pretty well.
The Falcons have drafted Van Note to play middle linebacker. They already have a middle linebacker named Tommy Nobis. Van Note, who has been switched to center, is destined for the waiver wire, another life—except for the fact that Norm Van Brocklin is the Falcons' head coach. Van Brocklin is called the Dutchman, and he likes the rookie's name. Van Note is half Dutch. The Dutchman puts Van Note on the waiver wire and reclaims him. Before games, Van Note says, the coach comes in the locker room to laugh sardonically and—it's Van Brocklin's idea of a joke—spit hot coffee on Van Note's naked body. "How d'ya like that, Dutch Boy?" cracks Van Brocklin.
"Fine, sir. Just fine," says Van Note, who will make the Pro Bowl six times, snap the ball to 14 different quarterbacks, end up second behind only Jim Marshall in games played with one team (246 after this season) and straddle the eras of magnificent centers like Len Hauss, Mick Tinglehoff, Jim Otto, Mike Webster and Dwight Stephenson....
All of a sudden it's the fall of 1986. Van Note is 40 and still scuffling to play center for the Falcons. Everything but that has changed. He is the oldest player in a young man's league. "Amazing," marvels line coach Larry Beightol. "Jeff's enthusiasm allows him to continue. He's listed as a backup now, but I'm gonna play him. He's gotta play. Anytime you're 40 years old and can still line up against Tony Casillas, a Lombardi Award winner...."
Casillas, a 6'3", 280-pound nose-guard, was the Falcons' No. 1 draft pick, out of Oklahoma. He faced off against Van Note in training camp and felt a twinge of pity for the old man—a very brief twinge. "He's finessed me. He out-quicked me. A guy as old as my mother, and he finessed me," says Casillas. "I had to play hard or be embarrassed. How has he done it for so long?"
Van Note studies the question, trying to be sure of the answer. As an 18-year veteran who has missed only four games in his career, a past president of the Players Association and the boss of the Atlanta pit, he has seen it all.
"I told Tony that when Dwight Stephenson and Miami came in here [for a scrimmage] in preseason, then he'd see what life is like in this league," says Van Note. "I told him Dwight is a center who can get his hands on you before you get out of your stance. And he did."
Van Note runs misshapen fingers through his gray mane and over his craggy face. "Tony will be a great player one day, but he has to realize what the NFL is about. It's about reality. If Van Brocklin hadn't liked me, I could have been gone then. Just like I could be on the wire tomorrow. Change or die. That's reality."
In 1974 Ronald Reagan is mentioned by Richard Nixon as a possible Republican nominee for President. Curt Flood, having lost his suit in the Supreme Court, has sought solace in running a bar on the island of Majorca. David Archer is in sixth grade in Soda Springs, Idaho. Jeff Van Note, the starting center for the Atlanta Falcons, crosses a picket line set up by his fellow players outside Atlanta's training camp at Furman University.