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Still on the Outside
David Remnick
October 05, 1987
Nearly two decades ago Dave Meggyesy took on the NFL in his scathing book. Now as a union man his struggle continues
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October 05, 1987

Still On The Outside

Nearly two decades ago Dave Meggyesy took on the NFL in his scathing book. Now as a union man his struggle continues

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But after years of getting over football and then ignoring it, Meggyesy has returned to the game, a prodigal son not so much chastened and humbled as intent on making football a thing worth caring about. For the past six years he has been the western director of the National Football League Players Association ( NFLPA), a union man who spent the first week of the strike in the San Francisco and Washington offices explaining issues to players, gathering support from former players as well as other unions, and offering whatever help possible to the pickets. "Some of them are being very creative on the lines," he said with relish, referring to an incident in Cincinnati in which quarterback Boomer Esiason lay in front of a bus carrying the scab players to practice, and to one in Cleveland in which striking players drove cars at three miles an hour in front of the bus that brought in the substitute players. It took the bus about 20 minutes to go just one mile.

Meggyesy is remarkably well preserved. He's 45 years old, trim, muscular and as clean-shaven as a plebe. Gone are the beard and the sleeveless T-shirts and the scruffy boots. Meggyesy wears an alligator shirt and jeans around the house and a tie when business calls.

But for the photograph on Patrick's wall, there's hardly a clue in the Meggyesy house of Meggyesy's incarnation as No. 60. No trophies, no plaques, no game balls. The modest house is what you might expect of a nostalgic, educated flower child. A visitor passes under a front-door sign that reads: MAY PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH. Back issues of CoEvolution Quarterly are piled in a corner. In the small backyard, there are lemon trees, birds of paradise and the thick wine-smell of roses. By the picnic table, Meggyesy's wife, Stacy, is breast-feeding their 2�-year-old daughter, Erin.

Meggyesy twists open a beer and says, "The truth is, I've never been a big fan of the game. I probably didn't watch a game from the time I wrote the book until 1977. The only way I got back into it was I started working as a carpenter, and on a Sunday I'd take a break and watch a football game. I watch now because I know guys who are playing and I admire their abilities, but I've never really understood the whole fan vibe.

"Being a professional athlete was so strange. The real beauty of the experience is the actual play, the exhilaration of it, physically and emotionally. But because you have fans, millions of fans who get so crazy about the game and feel so deeply about it, you have all these secondary and third-level industries surrounding the game—the press, especially. You have people dissecting your every move and thought. It would be so amazing if the experience were for its own sake. But 10 minutes later there are microphones all over the place, and everyone wants you to explain things: 'Why did you screw up?' 'Why did you hit that hole instead of the other one?' 'How does it feel?' And you have to respond to all these people who never knew the first thing about what it feels like. It's not necessarily wrong, it's just so strange and removed from what could be the purest kind of experience. It's like making love and having to explain it to someone every time."

In the 1960s and early '70s nearly every institution, from the Pentagon to marriage to sports, had its iconoclastic opponents. Rebellion came late to football. At some schools, players faced off against antiwar protesters. But when football finally got its comeuppance, it was fitting that, in an era when the mining of the Haiphong harbor and the renewed bombing of North Vietnam was called Operation Linebacker, a real-life linebacker did the job.

It was one thing for students to protest the war, but here was a ballplayer sniping at the game that "made" him. In the locker rooms and boardrooms of the NFL, says NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, "Meggyesy was looked on as a guy with two heads, a guy that had to be watched."

Rozelle saw that Bowie Kuhn had attracted unwanted publicity when he summoned Bouton to his office in 1970 to chew him out for writing Ball Four. Rozelle knew better. He ignored Out of Their League, and to this day he refuses to be interviewed about Meggyesy. Small wonder. Meggyesy wrote that it was Rozelle's decision to play NFL games two days after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 that first "began to disillusion me with the pros." And those were the nice things he said. David Harris, who wrote The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL , in 1986, says, "Meggyesy was the first to come along and say that Pete Rozelle's attempt to portray the league as a wholesome, all-American engagement of sportsmen was incomplete. That, on one level, it was a business and a meat factory, was not something Rozelle cared to have mentioned."

Meggyesy's lexicon was sheer '60s, and his political insight was often dreamy and half-baked, but his credentials as an honest, intelligent witness made people think. The book sold 30,000 copies in hardcover and 650,000 in paperback. "No one athlete had as much cultural impact," says Robert Lipsyte, who wrote several columns about Meggyesy for The New York Times . "He had such passion. That energy that went into making him a killer jock—all that reflexive obedience to authority—was transformed into anger when he felt betrayed and lied to."

At about the time the book came out the Meggyesys had something much tougher to deal with: personal tragedy. In 1968, Stacy gave birth to Sarah, who was born microcephalic and was institutionalized all her life. She died at age 15. "Dave's critics could be heartless," Stacy says. "We got nasty letters all the time. In the book he admitted taking LSD, and one person wrote him that we deserved to get a retarded child after using drugs. It was brutal at times."

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