From Palo Alto to Pittsburgh, from Miami to Minneapolis, sports banquets glut the winter calendar, providing the diners—who pay from $17.50 to $100 per plate, depending on who's sitting at the head table—with a semilegitimate sanction for a night out with the boys, a chance to be regaled with locker-room humor and, this banquet season, an opportunity to ask Tony Dorsett for his autograph.
"I've been to 30 or 35 of these things the past few months," said Steve Garvey of the Los Angeles Dodgers one night in Spokane, "and after a while they all seem to be the same no matter where you are. But you must remember that while it may be the same for you, it's the one big sports night of the year for the people in that town." For the athletes, the banquet beat also can be very lucrative. The esteemed Washington Touchdown Club, for example, pays up to $2,500 to ensure the appearance of its Timmie Award winners.
Here is an account of six banquets attended during a recent 10-day period marked by one missed airline connection, a 19-hour loss of luggage and, compliments to the chefs, a loss of 2� pounds.
HOUSTON—Seventh Annual Lombardi Award Dinner. Hyatt Regency Hotel. M.C.: Ray Scott. Toastmaster: Bob Hope. Tickets: $100. Special guests: former Michigan Center, former Yale Assistant Football Coach, former President Gerald R. Ford and Mrs. Ford. Attendance: 1,300.
A society function, the Houston banquet honors the nation's outstanding collegiate lineman and, thanks primarily to the Fords, sold out weeks in advance and will contribute $115,000 to the American Cancer Society. Private cocktail parties surround the main event; the ladies are chic in long gowns; and one Texas gentleman wears a tuxedo with cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat. The ultraconservative crowd seems almost in reverence of the Fords.
In the main dining room, a tiny green bug inches across one of the tablecloths, away from the salad. A noisy singing group called Up With People—the vibes might best be described as white-collar rock—leads off the program.
The four finalists for the Lombardi Trophy, a 40-pound block of granite with the word DISCIPLINE carved into it, are Notre Dame Defensive End Ross Browner, Texas A&M Linebacker Robert Jackson, Pittsburgh Middle Guard Al Romano (who looks like a beefy Mark Spitz) and Houston Defensive Tackle Wilson Whitley. After getting a standing ovation, Ford says, "When I told Betty that you might not be interested in seeing a former President, she said, 'You're not the only one they're coming to see.' But being here as Betty Ford's escort makes me the proudest man in the room."
Speaking to Marie Lombardi, Vince's widow, Ford recalls that he almost signed a $200-per-game pro contract with the Packers in 1935. "If I had signed, and if I had lasted as long as George Blanda," he says, "I might have gotten the chance, Marie, to play for Vince."
Short highlight films introduce each nominee to the audience, then their coaches take over. "I'd like to thank you, Mr. President, for the hard work you put in at the end of your term," says Notre Dame's Dan Devine. "I understand you spent a lot of time trying to find a bulletproof mule for Billy Carter to ride in the Inaugural parade." Hope follows the coaches to the microphone.
" Texas football is rough, tough, low-down, gritty and nasty, just like their chili," he says. "I suggested a new job for President Ford—bouncer at the Plains, Ga., Baptist Church. It's tough when you go from Air Force One to Ozark Air Lines. It's so cold in Plains, they're harvesting peanut brittle. And so cold in the East that Joe Namath is sleeping with three comforters.