In this most peculiar of professional football seasons, one of the oddest facts of all in the flibbertigibbety scramble for league honors is the terrible publicity the game has been getting. Never have the pros played better, more exciting ball. Never have division races been tighter nor games more unpredictable. Yet hanging like a pall over the otherwise brilliant play are two nasty words: "dirty football."
The charge is not a new one. A year ago the Cleveland Browns' Otto Graham told SI readers in a signed article (Oct. 11, 1954) that both college and professional football were "getting too vicious." Three weeks ago, in a game against the New York Giants, Graham came up with what he felt was proof enough of his contention. He received a brain concussion which he thinks was purposefully administered, although the point is denied vehemently by Giant Coach Jim Lee Howell and all the players involved. In the ensuing debate Graham was backed unexpectedly by Detroit Lion Halfback Doak Walker who modified an earlier stand (SI, Oct. 3): "More and more players," said Walker, "are wearing face guards every year...They're chiefly interested in protecting themselves against dirty football."
For every Graham and Walker, however, there are slews of professionals who say it just isn't so. Sammy Baugh, the old Redskin, who spent 16 years as pro ball's greatest star—and should therefore have been considered a prime target for young men bent on mayhem—gives the answer that is offered by most players. People pay to see the best football and that is what they get: vicious blocking and teeth-rattling tackles. Baugh says he was "slugged lots of times," but he never thought the bombs tossed his way were with malice aforethought. "The line-men were supposed to knock me down, and I felt like I ought to pat them on
the back—they were just doing what they were supposed to do."
Don Paul of the Los Angeles Rams is a man Baugh would have beaten black and blue on the back, complimenting him. In his own words, Paul is a "villain," or one of the select group of defensive players who delight in harassing the opposition so incessantly that before the day is out they will prefer sentinel duty in Siberia to a Sunday afternoon of football. It is the development of villainy, Paul thinks, that is responsible for the misconceptions about pro play that are upsetting so many people right now.
"VIPERS" ARE DIFFERENT
Villain is Paul's own word, but it describes the rough but legal tactics that Paul and defense men like him are using with increasing effectiveness against offensive backs. Paul has another word, "vipers," which he uses to describe "dirty players." "Only a couple of vipers show up in the league each year," he says, "and generally they don't stick around very long. It's not too healthy for them. The pros are rough, but not dirty."
By way of distinction, Paul claims villains use a combination of brains and brawn. "We learn to rile backs methodically and slip in the last cuff, the last shoulder, or the last billy goat without getting caught. I guess you'd call it a coldly calculated plan of discouragement."
Not many people who watch pro football games are able to detect villains in action. Concealment is the essence of their operation. But to passers, receivers, blockers and ball carriers their presence is constantly felt. Villains are skilled technicians, Paul insists; and he includes Len Ford of Cleveland, Art Donovan of Baltimore, Hardy Brown of San Francisco, Chuck Bednarik of Philadelphia and Ed Sprinkle and George Connor of the Chicago Bears among the best.
It is Paul, however, who is generally accepted as the National Football League's most distinguished villain, an honor he is tendered in every opponent's dressing room. The linebacker, captain and eight-year veteran of the Rams is not the least ashamed of his reputation, although, like Lili St. Cyr, he feels at times both he and his artistry are misunderstood.
Away from football, Paul is the antithesis of his reputation. A graduate of UCLA and owner of a new restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, he is a gentle, jovial sort with curly hair, chubby cheeks and even dimples. He scarcely would pass, while walking down the street with his two children, as the league's most notorious rough guy. Indeed, Mrs. Paul describes Paul as a meek husband. "After all the things he endures in a game," she says, "nothing at home can be worth an argument."