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BUT WHY ME, COACH?
George Plimpton
December 13, 1965
The pro football image last week was one of glamour and affluence, but even as highly publicized collegiate stars bargained for huge contracts some anonymous pros groped for bare security. One such was Mike Bundra, ex-lineman
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December 13, 1965

But Why Me, Coach?

The pro football image last week was one of glamour and affluence, but even as highly publicized collegiate stars bargained for huge contracts some anonymous pros groped for bare security. One such was Mike Bundra, ex-lineman

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At Chicago, George Halas used to reach out and touch a man on the shoulder, and the players, seeing him coming—if they were worried about being cut—would tend to sidle away. One day he reached out to touch a quick little scat-back, who saw the hand coming at the last second and, dodging it, dropped to the ground with a groan and began to do a series of quick push-ups. "Look," he said, glancing up at Halas, "I'm strong, too. I can do these forever." Halas was supposed to have been so touched by the player's desperation that he turned away as if it hadn't been his intention to tap him at all. He kept the player for an extra week and then came up swiftly behind him in the locker room when the player was skinning himself out of a sweat shirt and got him on the shoulder before there could be any chance of avoidance.

The reactions of released players are likely to be more consistent than the methods of dismissal—often tearful, then sullen as they think back on all the wasted effort, then a slow shift to the problems of the future. There have been exceptions. Some years ago, at the Detroit Lions' training camp on the grounds of the Cranbrook School, after two Lion players had been told they were cut they went up to their dormitory room and got mean on a bottle of rye. They came lazying out looking for trouble. They found a Cranbrook mathematics teacher in the lavatory brushing his teeth. He was wearing a green silk kimono embroidered with a red dragon. He heard them come in behind him, and he turned, smiling at them pleasantly, his mouth full of toothpaste.

"Hi, fellows," he said. "Nice practice today?"

The two players, both big linemen, stared at him, rocking slightly.

"Who's that clown?" one of them asked, pointing at him.

After studying him, the other said, "He's a Chink! A mad Chink! Look at that foam on his mouth!"

The mathematics teacher turned back to the sink. But the two players kept jawing at him. They followed him back to his quarters where they found a packed trunk (he was about to leave the school for a late summer vacation), which they hoisted out and threw down a stairwell.

If the behavior of a released player is sometimes unpredictable, almost invariably the rest of the squad is sure to ignore his misfortune. When Bundra was dropped the Giant squad, to a man, was surprised. There were a few rumors and speculations. Yet his release was discussed only briefly. Ballplayers shy away from the unpleasantnesses of their trade—indeed, they pretend such things don't exist. Being released or injured are the two most common hazards of football, both insured if one stays around long enough, and both are treated equivalently. If a player is hurt and is slow to get up after a tackle, his teammates nearby will shout, "Wipe it off! Wipe it off! Get up! Forget it!" almost as if their raillery could dismiss the concept of injury. But if a player stays down, they turn and move from him. Similarly, a released player is ignored. Bundra was well liked on the Giants. Their affection was sufficient for them to give him friendly nicknames—Big Mike the Bear, the Slovak, Boondra—and some of the players, because he had come to the Giants from the champion Browns, thought of him as a good-luck talisman. "Where Bundra goes, so goes the championship." But only two or three called him on the day of the release. Each said over the phone that he did not believe it—an error, it had to be some sort of error. They refused to accept it. Bundra said later that those who called were so positive that his release was a mix-up that in his daze from the accident and the horror of Sherman's phone call, he began to wonder if perhaps he hadn't dreamed the whole thing—that perhaps Sherman's secretary had got the wrong party on the phone. But then, almost immediately, as the three-or four-line story of his release went out over the wire services, his relatives from the Allentown area began calling. They joshed him gently. They were ex-Giant fans now. In just over a year they had been ex-Lion, ex-Viking, ex-Brown and now ex-Giant fans. One or two of them were bitter: "How can they drop you like that?"

"I don't know," Bundra had said. "Believe me, I don't know."

Just before the recent St. Louis Cardinal-Giant game Allie Sherman announced to his players at a team meeting: "If you don't do well on Sunday we won't even give you the courtesy of having you come in to face us. We'll cut you on the phone." The threat was by no means the first that Giant players had heard during the year from one or more of their coaches; nor is rule by fear a device used only by the Giants. Invariably coaches in both leagues will deny using such pressure. Sherman will say, "You never want to have someone looking over your shoulder. You cannot run scared in football." But the problem of getting a team to its peak—giving it the "juice"—is complex, and anything is utilized to heighten a player's performance. There are some who, under the threat of being released, play in a controlled terror that brings on a performance they can scarcely believe themselves capable of.

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