SI Vault
John Underwood
September 20, 1971
Tim Rossovich of the Philadelphia Eagles wants to be the best linebacker in the NFL. Great, but why does that entail jumping naked into birthday cakes and setting himself on fire?
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September 20, 1971

He's Burning To Be A Success

Tim Rossovich of the Philadelphia Eagles wants to be the best linebacker in the NFL. Great, but why does that entail jumping naked into birthday cakes and setting himself on fire?

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"But listen," said Meredith, "did he really—"

"Whatever you've heard about Ross is true," said Medved.

"I'll be damned," said Meredith, and shook his wet head.

Rossovich is the first to admit that his reputation may have escalated in recent years. "Little things," he says modestly, "are built up to be greater than they are." But he does not deny any of it. Whenever the credibility of this episode or that is strained, it is usually a matter of mistaken locale. If it did not happen in one place, it probably did (or will eventually) in another. Rossovich says he is more subdued now than he used to be. As a star football player with responsibilities, including a wife and daughter, he says he is more mature. He sets fire to himself less frequently than you would think. "It is not something you do every day," he says.

On the other hand, Steve Sabol will tell you that Rossovich is actually expanding as a personality. Last spring Sabol tried to compress the essential Rossovich into a 25-minute film for national television. It so happens that Sabol has more than just a passing put-out-the-fire interest in him. He and Rossovich and Gary Pettigrew, the Eagle defensive tackle, have shared apartments in Philadelphia, charring the walls. Sabol has become Rosso's "second," always arriving in the nick of time to put out the fire. He found in Rossovich a kindred spirit, a character he could appreciate, there being still left in Sabol a lot of Sudden Death. ("One thing I can't stand," Sabol once said, "is not being noticed.") He enjoys talking about Rossovich almost as much as he used to enjoy talking about himself. He liked the cut of Rosso's tie-dyed clothes, his Emperor Ming glasses, his Aladdin shoes with bells on the toes. He also saw in Rossovich the football player he could only fantasize being at Colorado College—big, tough, talented.

Sabol says he decided on Rossovich for the TV show because of these things and because he felt Dave Meggyesy, the pro football dropout, had taken a cheap shot at the game in his book Out of Their League, and he wanted to make a film about a "contemporary guy—a guy with long hair who did far-out things but who was a believer in football and didn't think like Meggyesy." Some owners, he says, objected to the format. They were fearful of the image. "I told them what I had—Rosso on Manhattan Beach in California, leaping around, imitating a flamingo and making psychedelic candles in the sand. 'Psychedelic' scared 'em. I had to explain that these were candles, that Tim wasn't going to trip out on camera or anything. Some of them still didn't take it too well. What I needed was more than 25 minutes. I needed a couple hours."

The show was called The New Breed, but what it depicted in Rossovich was a breed apart. Credit Sabol. The Rossovich he portrayed (discovered!) was more than just a pretty flake. He was actually three Tim Rossoviches residing cooperatively in the large, sculptured Rossovich superstructure, which is topped by that singular Slavic head. (It has been pointed out that Rossovich is three-quarters Italian, and Yugoslav from the neck up.) These things saw Sabol:

Rossovich the football player is at all times fearsome. When he hits the tackling sled he drives it into the ground, punches it, kicks it. He literally throws himself at running backs, and into pile-ups. ("Ferocious," says Sabol admiringly.) He gets into fights on the field because he will not let up. He fights not only the opposition but his own teammates. Medved says Rossovich always has the offensive players teed off because to him there is no such thing as a dummy scrimmage. He goes 30 yards out of his way to get a lick in. Rossovich himself says he has fought them all—all the Eagle offensive linemen at practice at one time or another—but is at peace with them afterward because they cannot stay mad long at someone so adorable, and they know down deep he really loves them.

And not only is he very fierce, Sabol showed, but he is also very good. Against the Atlanta Falcons last fall Rossovich made six tackles in a row, and the film showed him to be a leader who exhorted his teammates ("Hey, that's a rip-off, man!" "Far out!" "That's dynamite!") and called his virulent intentions across the line of scrimmage: "I love you, man, but I gotta wipe you out!" The film showed him wiping men out.

The second part of Rossovich is even dearer to Sabol's heart. "Some guys play with abandon," he says. "Rosso lives with abandon. People turn him on. When the organ grinder goes, he goes. He'll do anything. He puts things in his mouth I wouldn't put in my hand. He was going to have a footrace with this guy. To get ready he drank a quart of motor oil. I didn't see it, but it must have been awful. He likes to 'hang out.' We do that a lot around Philadelphia, hang out. We were hanging out at Rittenhouse Square, where they were having a concert. He saw this big box a guy had taken a tuba out of. He dragged it out into the middle of Walnut Street, crawled inside and curled up. People stopped and looked in. 'How are you?' he said. 'I'm Tim Rossovich.' 'What are you doing in there, Tim?' 'Well, we had a tough practice today and I'm relaxing.' "

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