Above his bed 14-year-old Patrick Meggyesy has tacked up a black-and-white photograph of his old man. It's not one of the angry images of Dave Meggyesy that people dimly remember from nearly two decades ago: the inflamed, bearded jock raging against the bullet-headed lords of football, the radical linebacker who announced to the world that "when society changes in the way I hope it will, football will be obsolete." Nor does the picture show the man who called football a militaristic "rationalization" for the war in Vietnam, a racist sport "that is one of the most dehumanizing experiences a person can face." In the picture over Patrick's bed, his old man is an earnest St. Louis Cardinal about to dehumanize a Dallas Cowboy on a distant Sunday afternoon.
"I love that picture," says Patrick. "It makes me proud of my father." Patrick is a wispy, intelligent kid who wears his hair tied back in a ponytail; he's just the sort of youth you would expect to find living in Berkeley, Calif. He talks about a "nuclear-free Berkeley," reads Carlos Castaneda and goes to a junior high school organized on the principles of A.S. Neill's progressive school, Summerhill.
"Patrick is into consciousness-type stuff," Dave Meggyesy says. "He's about a thousand miles ahead of me when I was at that age."
"But I like football, too," says Patrick. "I sort of like the violence."
Patrick was not yet born when his father quit the NFL in 1969 at the height of his game and wrote Out of Their League, the scathing indictment that stunned Pete Rozelle into silence. The football bosses thought they could ignore and isolate Meggyesy, but his book changed the way we think about the most popular spectator sport in the country. Patrick is proud of the way his father fought for the things he believed in, and yet it seems so long ago. Patrick can't possibly appreciate the fact that back then tackling the institution of football was a great deal harder than stopping Jim Brown in the open field.
"I'm gonna play Pop Warner next year for the Berkeley Cougars," Patrick says. "Dad says he wants to talk to the coach first. I think he wants to find out about the kind of football they play. And he wants to make sure I'm ready. He's worried my muscles aren't developed enough yet. But he's not against it. I think Dad still loves the game. He's just always wanted to make it better."
If there was ever living evidence of the importance of play in life, it's Dave Meggyesy. Football has been everything to him. "It opened the world to me," he says. "It gave it shape."
When Meggyesy was a poor kid growing up in Glenwillow, Ohio, and his widowed father beat him for "being just a stupid lefthanded kid," he found escape and solace in football. He found mentors who would praise and teach him. He found a road to Syracuse University, where he hung out with the hip and learned to read something more than play books.
As a pro with the Cardinals he earned a good living and the respect of his coaches. The people of St. Louis cared intensely what Meggyesy did with his Sundays. There were days when the game was pure pleasure. "I remember having an unreal afternoon against the Colts, stopping John Mackey," he says. "We'd played together at Syracuse. I wasn't out to kill him, but when the day was over, I just knew I had done the absolute best I could do. It was the feeling that I'd worked for all my life."
Then came the matter of leaving football after seven years in the NFL. Rejecting football was more painful than any injury. When Meggyesy grew disgusted with the game, he divorced it, thought hard about what he'd been through and, a year later, wrote a polemical book that made Jim Bouton's Ball Four seem as tame as The Red Grange Story. Meggyesy wrote about alumni boosters contributing money under the table to college athletes, team doctors shooting up players with painkillers, coaches pushing athletes to play despite serious injuries, players cheating on their wives and organizing orgies, sadistic coaches treating players like dray horses, teams divided along racial lines. His candor did not make him loved. Of Meggyesy and another NFL "dropout," Oakland Raiders linebacker Chip Oliver, New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank once said, "They fell for Communist hogwash and quit football. They joined organizations that will just cost us more taxes. These are the things that poison our young youth."