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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He had the aerosol can in his hand, and the shaving lather billowed out, and when he began to apply it to his face, a familiar, fundamental impulse stirred within him—the possibilities seemed enormous—and he began to spray the lather around, sprssssshhh, over his forehead and across his chest, and then down his arms and over the length and breadth of his 6'4", 245-pound naked body. And before the Earth had turned much farther, he had made of himself a pillar of white frosting, awesome to behold. And he looked in the mirror and saw that it was good. And because this was not something he would want to keep to himself, he ran outside the Sigma Chi house, at the University of Southern California, and down the street. And the cars on Figueroa Avenue bucked and jerked at the sight of him gliding among them. And as he turned and ran back, molting froth, Tim Rossovich chuckled inside, and he knew that he had done it again, and he was pleased.

The party was in an apartment at the Penn Towers in Philadelphia. The host's name was Steve Sabol. Not many seasons ago, when he was a fullback at Colorado College, Sabol called himself Sudden Death Sabol and sent out largely fanciful publicity releases on himself (SI, Nov. 22, 1965). Now he is executive vice-president of NFL Films, Inc., where his imagination is paying off at last, and he has become latterly famous for his free-form parties. The doorbell rang, and when the door was opened a man with a Fu Manchu mustache and an immense hedge of curly hair the texture of pork rinds stood in the doorway, not in shaving cream this time but in flames. Ablaze. On fire. Guests cried out in horror. "Oh, God, he's...." "Somebody do something!" The flaming man walked into the room, where Sabol and a guest knocked him to the floor and began beating him with blankets. The flames extinguished, Tim Rossovich got to his feet, looked casually around the room, said, "Sorry, I must have the wrong apartment," and walked out.

The lounge is on the Philadelphia Main Line, and he has become well known there. On his first visit he wore a sleeveless shirt with a big decal of a rose on the front, crushed vinyl shoes and a pair of vinyl pants with a sash. When the man at the door asked to see his I.D. card, Tim Rossovich bent over and bit him on the head. This night he had a cast on his arm, and he explained that he had broken the arm at the Philadelphia Eagles' practice that afternoon. The regulars commiserated with him, and soon they were discussing some minor point of football. Apparently incensed by what was being said, Rossovich began shouting and pounding on the bar with the arm on which he wore the cast. He swung it wildly about, striking and breaking a chair. He pounded it on the bar again. The cast splintered and began to disintegrate. Pieces of plaster fluttered silently down like snowflakes. The lounge grew quiet. Everybody was looking, stunned, at the exposed arm. Rossovich held it up, his face expressive of an epiphany. "I'm cured!" he yelled.

The stories are told—in locker rooms, at bowling lanes, over long-distance phones—by almost anyone who knows or has ever met Tim Rossovich and by Rossovich himself. Only those who feel insecure around him, like coaches who think his life-style is a threat to the Republic, try to keep his wondrous light under a bushel. Tim Rossovich eats light bulbs. He wears tie-dyed shirts and shower-of-hail suits, Dracula capes and frontier buckskins and stands on his head in hotel lobbies. Sometimes when he stands on his head his head is in a bucket of water.

The stories are endless. Tim Rossovich had this motorbike. He drove it onto a pier. He drove it off the pier. Splash! Tim Rossovich had this car. It was one of many cars that suffered beyond repair at his hand. He drove the fellows in the car to a pub to get a beer. In order to stop the car, he drove it into the wall of the pub. Crash! Tim Rossovich was sitting at a table where the conversation lagged. He was smoking a cigarette. Suddenly he was not smoking the cigarette. He was eating it. Chomp! Tim Rossovich was opening a bottle of beer. He was opening it with his teeth. Actually, he was having a bottle-opening contest with Mike Ditka, the tight end. It was no contest. Tim Rossovich had opened 100 bottles to Ditka's three when he began to drink the beer. Then he began to eat the beer glass. Crackle! Crunch! Mike Ditka withdrew from the contest.

Tim Rossovich was at a birthday party. He was bored. Beneath the slack, soft-eyed countenance the drumbeat started, swelled, stirred him. Do something, Timmy. He began to pace. He excused himself. He went into the bathroom, took off his clothes and with a mighty croak came leaping into the living room like a great bronze frog, did a ponderous flip and landed bare, uh, back in the birthday cake. Slumpfh!

The chronology of these events is unimportant. The perils of Tim Rossovich have a way of repeating themselves anyway. (Was it at the fraternity meeting at USC that he stood up to make a speech, spread his arms, opened his mouth and the sparrow flew out? Or was it at a team meeting of the Philadelphia Eagles? Probably both.) It is enough to say, in introduction, that Tim Rossovich was an All-America defensive end at USC, where he was famous for falling off sorority house rooftops, and is now on his way to becoming an All-Pro middle linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, where he is known to have made death-defying leaps into the whirlpool tank in the training room. The whirlpool tank is roughly the size of a washing machine. Witnesses say it is a very hairy stunt indeed when the tank happens to be already occupied. Squish!

His friends in Southern California, where Rossovich lives in the off season, told him there was no such place as Philadelphia when he went east as a rookie three years ago, but they were confident that if there were he would put it on the map. Ron Medved, the Eagle defensive back, says that once you have experienced Tim Rossovich you can never forget him, that his (Medved's) 4-year-old son can pick him out of a program every time, squealing, "Rosso! Rosso!" Rossovich took the Medveds to Disneyland. He rode every ride. Three times he went through the haunted house, scaring people. "They thought he was part of the act," says Medved. "I've got a picture of him on the merry-go-round. What an expression! You never saw a guy having such a good time."

Medved recounts this conversation he had with Don Meredith, the TV announcer and reformed quarterback, in a shower: "Is it true," began Meredith, "that Rossovich—"

"It's true," said Medved, "and more."

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