SI Vault
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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Mike Bundra is, or was, a defensive tackle with the New York Giants—a heavy-jowled, slope-shouldered, soft-spoken 250-pounder in his fourth year of play in the National Football League. He is originally from the football-player spawning grounds of Pennsylvania—a little town called Catasauqua, not far from Allentown. His people are Slovak, and the rough texture of their tongue often crops up in his own speech. He refers to his position as "defense tackle." He has played "defense tackle" with four NFL teams—coming up as a sixth-draft choice for Detroit in 1962, then in 1964 with Minnesota and also Cleveland, where he finished the year and earned the right to wear the heavy-cut championship ring.

Playing second-string tackle, Bundra had performed very rarely—not much more than 10 minutes of game time in those three years. Defensive tackles are durable and, once established as starters, they are difficult to supplant. Bundra always remained a backup man. But the Giants have had a considerable problem at the tackle position this year, and when they traded with the Browns in September for Bundra he got his chance. He opened at tackle. Lack of experience marred his play, but he had his good days; in the first Cleveland game of the season the sportswriters awarded him a Bulova watch as the outstanding Giant defensive player against his old teammates. He began to make plans. He and his wife, Evelyn, an attractive girl with thin features and heavily penciled eyebrows, moved out of the Concourse Plaza Hotel near the Stadium into a furnished apartment. With them went their nervous, popeyed chihuahua, Ginger, which Bundra kept to pools of shadow while walking it at night lest some of the other Giant players living in the vicinity catch him with a dog that he could set, trembling on its thin legs, in the palm of his hand.

In the second Cleveland game last month Bundra had troubles, particularly in the second half, when the Cleveland center—working cleverly and gauging Bundra's responses perfectly—kept him out of a succession of power plays up the middle. Bundra was replaced, and when he reached the sidelines he exploded into 10 or 15 seconds of self-recrimination, during which he threw his helmet, kicked it and swore his anger out before finally slumping down on the bench.

That night he comforted himself on his poor play as he walked the chihuahua by remembering Head Coach Allie Sherman's dictum that the Giants were a young team and that they would make mistakes. He often repeated that to himself: "There'll be mistakes, but we're learning all the time. We're a young team."

The next day—a day he will not forget, Bundra's Blue Monday—he was driving westbound on the Cross Bronx Expressway in his 1963 Chevrolet, when a trailer truck going east in the opposite lane lost its spare tire. The tire, rolling at a 40-mile-an-hour clip, jumped the expressway divider and sailed down at Bundra's car. This sudden apparition gave him just time to throw up his arm to protect his eyes before he heard the double impact of the tire crumbling his front fender, then slicing up over the hood and crushing the windshield frame so that the convertible top came down around his ears. He was able to bring the car to a stop, and he sat shivering for a while in the quick silence. He could not remember a closer escape, ever, and he began thinking about his luck—how perhaps it was pretty good, considering.

That afternoon he was telling his wife about the accident, perhaps for the fifth time—when the phone rang. It was Allie Sherman's secretary asking for Bundra. The coach wanted to speak to him.

Remembering it, Bundra said, "He came right to the point. He said, 'We've decided, the coaches and I, to put you on waivers.' He and the rest of the coaching staff, they were sorry. That was all there was to it. I said to him, 'You got to drop me all the way down? You can't put me on the taxi squad?' He said, 'No, we can't.' I said, 'Why, what did I do wrong?' and he said he was sorry. I said I was just one year away from the five years you need for the pension. What about that? What would the other clubs think—my being dropped right out the bottom? He said he was sorry. I would do all right. He said I had good experience. I was young and strong.

"So that was the end. I kept thinking, 'What a day, Blue Monday.' I lost my car and my job. I was surprised my wife didn't leave me—except she was too angry at what she'd heard: she had too much to say. So she stuck around. 'What could it have been?' I kept asking myself. Maybe they was just mad, and they use me for a guinea pig. It's no joy for them to lose, either. I just didn't know the answer. I couldn't figure what they had on their minds."

Football coaches say that releasing a player is the toughest part of their job. The coaches hate it because it is hard to do cleanly. There have been procedures in the two leagues that are difficult to believe. Some years back, at Buffalo in the American Football League, the coach would cut a player by having the equipment manager clear out his locker. When the player arrived in the gym to dress for afternoon practice, he would sit down on the bench to work his shoelaces loose and suddenly find his locker empty, not even believing it at first, staring up at the locker number and then into the lockers on either side, the hope beginning to fade as his teammates, now no longer teammates but acquaintances, looked away from him embarrassed, and stared down at their own socks.

It was an experience all players went through as rookies—cutdown time, often called the Night of the Turk, or on some teams the Night of the Squeaking Shoes, to signify the emissaries coming along the dormitory corridors to fetch the players over to the office to be officially let go. At Cleveland during the training seasons when Paul Brown was the coach, he would wait until the players were all in their quarters at night. On those occasions when a cut was due, the rookies would collect in one room and, to keep their spirits up, they would put on twist records and practice the dance steps that were the rage at the time—the twist, the chicken, the mashed potato—the volume up high and the feet pounding, until Paul Brown from the floor below complained that there was so much noise he couldn't keep his mind clear to decide who to let go. Eventually the door would open anyway, and Brown's envoy would point at the unfortunate through the crash of music and the players turning in the dance patterns.

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