In the 10 years that Dan Dierdorf, the former St. Louis Cardinals offensive tackle, squared off against defensive end Too Tall Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, they never said a word to each other. Not "Hello," not "Good day, sir," not even "I'm gonna beat your backside." They never spoke until the end of the second Cardinal-Cowboy game in 1983, Dierdorf's retirement year. They found each other and shook hands. "I'm glad you're quitting," Jones said.
"Me, too," Dierdorf replied.
On first impression, Dierdorf, who starts his rookie season in the Monday Night Football booth with Frank Gifford and Al Michaels on Sept. 14, is the ultimate hail-fellow-well-met, a locker-room backslapper with a party-time laugh. But as evidenced by his battles with Too Tall, when it comes to his vocation, Dierdorf is all business. He was that way throughout a 13-year playing career, which probably will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his hometown or canton, Ohio. He has been that way as a broadcaster, a restaurateur and a pitchman for a real estate developer and a car dealership in St. Louis. And while he'll have a good time in the booth, he'll no doubt be that way as the third man on Monday Night Football.
Will the 38-year-old Dierdorf conquer Monday Night Football, as he has just about everything else? Or, like Jack Youngblood of the Rams, the only defensive end who had Dierdorf's number, will Monday Night conquer him? It's an interesting face-off.
On the one hand, you've got an irresistible force, the 6'3" Dierdorf, who weighs virtually the same as his playing weight of 290 pounds has been immensely successful since 1971, when he left Michigan, where he was a mediocre history student and an All-America. "I've incredible roll," he says amazement. "I've made more money and bettered myself every since I 21 years old. If my life were a graph, it would be one continuous line at a 45-degree angle, pointing up."
On the other hand, you've got an immovable object in Monday Night Football, which is the second-longest-running prime-time program (behind 60 Minutes) on television. It has chewed up and spit out O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath, among others. By joining the rapidly slipping Gifford, who has become a chatterbox and an apologist for the players, as an analyst on the show, Dierdorf is boarding a leaky boat. Although ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson says that Dierdorf was not hired because of any dissatisfaction with Monday Night, his addition is, in effect, a slap at Gifford.
Gifford says that he enjoys Dierdorf's humor and that he is sure everything will turn out hunky-dory. But Gifford is a proud man, and no one is sure how he will react. Will he turn up the talk meter to compete with Dierdorf, or will he retreat into a shell? Moreover, it was widely rumored last year that dissension plagued the Monday Night Football team, which then consisted of play-by-play man Michaels, Gifford, producer Ken Wolfe and senior vice-president for production Dennis Lewin. Batten down the hatches, mates.
"I think Frank feels victimized," says Dierdorf of Gifford's 1986 move from play-by-play to analysis. "He hasn't aired this to me, but I think he'd still rather be doing play-by-play. But Frank has nothing to fear from me. If I were stupid, I could approach this with the attitude, If I could only upstage Frank, think how good that would make me look. In that case, what I'd be doing is affecting the three of us as a whole.
"Let's face it. I've been hired to make Al look good, I've been hired to make Frank look good, I've been hired to create interaction among the three of us. I think I can say anything to Al, and I'm either going to get a laugh or get it right back, which is fine, because I can take it or give it. I'm not sure about that with Frank yet. I do know one thing. It's obvious to the viewer whether the people in the booth enjoy each other's company. It's awful hard to hide animosity."
The first NFL analyst hired by ABC as much for his broadcasting ability as for his marquee value, Dierdorf will make $600,000 this season on Monday Night. That's significantly less than the reported $850,000 ABC paid Namath each of his last two years (only one of which Joe Willie worked), but a far sight more than the $185,000 Dierdorf earned as the No. 2 NFL analyst behind John Madden at CBS last season. It also beats the $250,000 Dierdorf commanded in 1983, his final year in the trenches.