According to John Riley Brodie, the millionaire, a gambler is one who recognizes a situation that is loaded in his favor and takes advantage of it in a reasonably sporting manner. The Brodie definition further specifies that one is not known as a gambler unless one is good at it; the bad ones are geese. Brodie is himself a gambler, a good one, at cards, golf, ping-pong, most any game—though not, of course, professional football, except on the field in a tactical sense. By recognizing a situation that was not only loaded in his favor but cried to be exploited, John Brodie, 31, a handsome fellow with shy eyes in a heavy face, has in the past three weeks become the highest paid team sports athlete in the United States.
Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays earn more per year at basketball and baseball than Brodie gets as quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, but their contracts lack the tenure and overall richness of his. It was only a year and a half ago, when the talent war between the National and American Football Leagues was moving into its final agony, that Joe Namath became a celebrity by signing with the New York Jets for $400,000 and football rather than baseball became unquestionably the bonus sport. After last season Tommy Nobis went to Atlanta for $600,000, Donny Anderson accepted $711,000 from Green Bay and owners in both leagues clapped their foreheads and asked where this would end. The owners hope, perhaps forlornly, that it has ended with John Riley Brodie, who has a new contract that makes Namath's sound like pocket money and even Anderson's seem oddly puny.
Brodie became wealthy by taking advantage of professional football where it was weakest. If the way he did it does not come off as exactly sporting, it was at least a fair game, and it required nerve. What he said, in effect, was pay me or fight me. With that choice, pro football paid him.
Despite the still far from settled merger between the National and American Football Leagues, Brodie is not likely to be the last athlete to sign for a large salary. The Canadian League will remain in the bidding, for whatever that is worth, and maybe one of the minor leagues will emerge as a competitor. There is still the option clause that allows an athlete to play out his contract with one NFL-AFL club and jump to another, though the effectiveness of that clause is lessened by the rule against tampering. But when and if the merger is accomplished as fact, Brodie may well be the last to sign for such an enormous sum. How Brodie became a millionaire—considering the totality of his contract—is a tale of intrigue that built logically toward the payoff, although it may have been difficult for casual observers to patch together the chronology of it in the confusion of daily reports.
At this time last year John Brodie was a good quarterback for the 49ers, a team that had never won a championship. He was the third quarterback San Francisco had employed for any length of service. Like his predecessors, Frankie Albert and Y. A. Tittle, Brodie had been vigorously booed by fans at Kezar Stadium and blamed for the team's failures. But he had also been a competent quarterback and a very good passer. Last year he was paid $35,000, which is about the going rate for any NFL quarterback who does not participate in championship games and who entered the league before the AFL began. Brodie and many other veterans were caught in the old situation: start cheap, stay cheap. Bags of money were being shoved into the faces of rookies who hardly knew the name of the coach, but the veterans were settling for small raises. The NFL was following its policy of ignoring the AFL in public and contesting it bitterly in private, a policy that contributed much to the trouble pro football got into. There had been some discussion about merging among the more alarmed owners in both leagues, but this was dismissed as dinner-table talk, and that was really all it amounted to.
The two leagues were carrying themselves toward an intolerable state of affairs. They knew it but could not seem to stop it. Anderson and Nobis got their bonuses and may prove worth the investment. Ordinary players, however, were asking for incredible contracts. Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills of the AFL, walked into a cocktail party last December shocked from a conversation he had just had with a rookie halfback. Wilson, a very wealthy man with a large number of corporations under his control, is not that easily shocked. "A couple of years ago this guy would have been lucky to sign for $15,000," said Wilson. "He can't run 15 yards in a straight line without falling down, and everybody on our coaching staff is faster than he is. So he tells us he wants $200,000. I have to believe that most of the owners are businessmen at heart, and when prices get that unreasonable the businessmen are going to have to act."
That feeling was spreading. So was a fear that it might be too late, that the quick money might have damaged the structure of the game more than the owners realized. At that winter's draft, one rookie running back's lawyer had chalked on a board: "The talking starts at $300,000." The veterans felt betrayed. There were a number of cases like that of Sonny Gibbs, who got $100,000 from the Dallas Cowboys in 1962 and for them threw one pass, which was dropped. Although television money was flowing in, it was also flowing out, and the veterans thought it was flowing in the wrong direction.
Four events finally broke open the problem. One was the signing of Nobis and Anderson. Another was the announcement by Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison, veteran defensive linemen at San Diego, that they wanted big raises—so large as to amount to bonuses—before they would renew their contracts. The third was the AFL's hiring of Al Davis as commissioner. And the fourth was the New York Giants of the NFL's signing of Buffalo's side-footed place-kicker, Pete Gogolak.
In the demands of Ladd and Faison the owners of both leagues saw a dangerous precedent. If veterans could insist upon and receive bonuses equal to those being given rookies, then every team would be full of veterans who were playing out their options and would have to be dealt with. After some wrangling, Ladd wound up in Houston, where he got a substantial raise that no one would call a bonus, and Faison wound up back at San Diego. They might have been forgotten by most veterans. But none could forget the case of Gogolak.
Gogolak played out his option with Buffalo, where he kicked for 115 points last year while the Bills were winning their second consecutive AFL championship. Ordinarily he would have hung around for extensive dickering and would have then signed a new contract with Buffalo or would have been traded. But the Giants, who suffered from poor kicking last season, wanted Gogolak and signed him.