Last week in his office at 410 Park Avenue, in New York, where the lush beige carpet, indirect lighting and rich paneling bespeak prosperity, NFL Commissioner Alvin Ray (Pete) Rozelle talked of the great peaks still ahead of pro football—and the pitfalls that surround them. At the moment it was the pitfalls that had his attention. He had a problem and so did the National Football League. However, all he would say was, "I cannot go into the details of the Ernie Wheelwright case because it is still under investigation." Instead, the commissioner spoke of the game's great expectations: the expanding market, televising games to Europe, CATV. Rozelle was opening a door on the future and it had a nice golden glow. But there are two doors to the room at the top of the stairs—one in and one out. And the commissioner was also thinking of the fast-rising competition, pro basketball—and the impact of possible scandal.
In some ways Rozelle was a different man than he had been last year at this time, just before the Bachelors III-Joe Namath affair. New lines had been etched in his face by the crises—and responsibilities—of the past 12 months. At this point in history he might have been shouting for law and order; instead he was reasonable and thoughtful. "The game must have the complete confidence of the public," he said. "Some people always think the worst and if you give them any peg to hang it on you're in trouble. On the other hand, it's such a quick life for the players. Just a short term and it's over. You can't blame them for wanting to get it while they can, but—?"
Earlier in the week a bewildered Ernest Lamour Wheelwright, a 30-year-old, second-string running back for the New Orleans Saints (known to everyone, including his wife Audrey, as Wheels), sat in his newly opened bar-lounge, formerly Soul City and now Ernie Wheel-wright's Central Park South, and pondered the circumstances of his life.
Like Rozelle, Wheelwright was worrying about the future. "I'm 30 years old and for a running back that's getting on," he said. "I'm in good shape, so maybe I could play for another four years or more, but that doomsday always comes quicker than you want—and then what? I wanted to go into PR work—I worked at it in New York when I was with the Giants—but I couldn't find a job like that down here."
Wheels contends that off-season employment for black players in New Orleans is limited to manual labor. "One of my black teammates pumped gas," he said. "Imagine a man playing for the NFL and pumping gas! During the season you go to parties, and the respectable people slap you on the back and say look me up after the season and we'll talk about a job. When you do, they're out and don't return your call, or they tell you the time isn't right, the area isn't ready. Hell, they're going to the moon, they've been there two or three times, yet New Orleans isn't ready for a black man to wear a coat and tie and sit at a desk! Even a black man has to live 12 months a year."
The frustrations of job hunting in the South led to the decision to open a bar-lounge. The idea was originally his wife's. Although born and raised in Bridgeport, Conn., she likes New Orleans and wanted her husband to remain there in the off season. " 'Wheels,' she told me," says Wheelwright, " 'there's a market for a high-class black club with soul music.' "
Last February, Wheelwight began negotiations to buy the shuttered Soul City in Metairie, outside New Orleans. On April 17, before he had completed extensive repairs on the club and a month before it opened, Bernie Jackson, the NFL's security lawyer, arrived in New Orleans. "I was told to come to Vic Schwenk's office," Wheelwright recalls (Schwenk is the Saints' general manager). "Jackson was there. He tells me it's best if you walk away, Ernie. Close a dream? Walk away from months of hard work, frustration and pain? For what?"
The reason the NFL made the request (Rozelle and Jackson insist it was a request; Wheels and others understood it to be a command) is that the man law-enforcement authorities believe to be the true owner of the building, and the bar's landlord, is Carlos Marcello, known as the Little Man, the most powerful Mafia figure on the Gulf Coast. Marcello's name doesn't appear on the title: instead, A. J. Graffagnino, a lawyer who has often represented him (and, Graffagnino points out, the PTA), is the owner of record and insists he is the owner in fact. Federal authorities have learned that Graffagnino is a close personal friend of Marcello. Moreover, Jefferson Parish records are thick with documents tying the ownership of the building to the Marcellos—notably Carlos' brother Joe Jr. and his son Joe C., through whom Carlos sometimes does business. Joe C. (known as Little Joe) first appears on the records on Sept. 3, 1964, when he purchased the building from one Peter A. Rauch. A year later Joe C. sold it to Drs. Sam Weiner and Edward Lively, who ran a night club called the Alibi. But the club failed and the building was sold back to Joe C. at a sheriff's sale on Oct. 4, 1967. On June 29, 1968, Graffagnino, according to the records, purchased the building from Joe C. for $100,000. At the same time another document was filed relating to the sale of the property. It reads: "And now to these presents come Joe Marcello Jr.... He does...assign unto the purchaser...his one-half interest...which said interest is evidenced by a counter letter (dated Sept. 3, 1964)...."
That document reveals for the first time that Joe Jr. (better known as Big Joe and Carlos' possible heir) had been a partner of Little Joe all along. Big Joe Marcello is one of the lucky Mafia members who left the Appalachia conference before the raid and escaped. He wasn't as lucky a few years later when the Mafia royalty met again in La Stella restaurant in Queens, New York. This time he was arrested along with 12 other top Mafiosi. A grand jury investigated the 13 but no one was indicted.
Also among the documents is a lease between Graffagnino and the previous tenant, Soul City, Inc., that calls for the rent to be paid at 1225 Airline Highway, which is the address of the Marcellos' Town and Country Motel as well as Carlos' headquarters.