Players who handle the ball frequently develop a connoisseur's hands. Field-equipment manager Jack Hart said he could spin a ball and tell whether it was balanced. Referees would reject a game ball if it had a little bulge around the laces or if the black stitching around the laces didn't follow exactly the black line around them. "Guys claim the night ball is fatter because the white stripes make it look that way," said Hart, "so we use those in practice a few days before a night game. A dark ball is better to grip. A lighter-toned ball is slippery."
"When you can get a good ball," said Quarterback Terry Hanratty, "you just want to stay with it. Some are slick and some are fatter than others. Noll will look at it and say no, that ball's not fatter, but unless you've thrown the ball as long as a quarterback has you can't tell."
Bradshaw and Gilliam both have big hands, like most quarterbacks and baseball pitchers. I told Bradshaw I'd seen a picture of him and President Nixon comparing hands, palm to palm, in some White House ceremony, and it looked like their fingertips matched exactly. " Nixon must have big hands," I said.
Bradshaw said, well, Nixon had cheated up on him a little bit from the bottom.
Wide Receiver Chuck Dicus said he'd had to stop working on cars, which he loved to do, because it cut up his hands too much and it was bad for a receiver's hands to hurt. I asked him, "Can you do anything special with them because they're a receiver's hands?"
"I can do this," he said, and he crossed his middle finger over his forefinger and his ring finger over his little finger at the same time, without using any of his other fingers to help them into place.
Now that, I thought, is a good little index to a receiver's hands. I was talking to one of the linemen about hands and I said, "Dicus can do this." And I did it.
Oddly enough I could only do it with my left hand. Still, it must not be much of a hallmark of receivers' hands. Unless...unless.... One afternoon during a Steeler practice, when I was all dressed up in sweat pants and a yellow jersey and shoes with lots of short plastic cleats for artificial turf, Placekicker Roy Gerela started lofting me passes and I looked marvelous. I don't think any other part of my body could conceivably make it in the NFL. Once I scrambled down a gravelly hill in front of a scout and at the bottom I said, "Pretty good feet, huh?" and he said, "Yeah. If you had one more of 'em you might be a player." Once in the dressing room the trainer came up behind me and kneaded me at the base of the neck. He acted as though I didn't have any muscles there. "We don't get many in here like you," he said. That made me feel wonderful.
But my hands were nearly as big as Bradshaw's (about the size, then, of Nixon's). I am a third baseman in Central Park Softball, and playing third base requires quick hands. I was catching passes from Gerela and a wave of competence came over me. Not only was I catching the ball neatly with my fingers—ft, pth—but I actually felt I was moving well. I was catching the ball at the sidelines and putting both feet down deftly in bounds.
"Hmm, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, eh?" said Gerela, and it sounded vainly like an acknowledgement. I trotted off the field and Dan Rooney said, "You looked like you knew what you were doing out there." The man who directed the club! I think I may have told him as modestly as possible that I caught the only forward pass completed all season by my dorm floor in freshman intramurals in college.