As Pastorini called the signals, I noticed something. It was one of those pointless observations that have a way of working into one's mind at just the moment when either clear thought or no thought at all is what is needed. The number on Gray's helmet was 21. The number on his jersey was 20. What did it mean? I needed to know in the irrational way one suddenly, unexpectedly needs to know the capital of South Dakota.
Gray was running up the sideline now and I was beside him. Actually, for the first 20 yards I was leading him, because of my planned head start. Behind us Pastorini was doing a play-action fake that didn't affect us at all.
Gray turned to look back and I turned, too. There was the ball high above us and, as always, it startled me. Many things went through my mind at that moment, and among them was the thought that I could intercept this pass. Possibilities and finalities were there. And then I was falling and Gray was catching a touchdown pass. The crowd was roaring and I literally could not believe that I was lying spread-eagled in an end zone in Oakland, Calif., muddy, defeated and 2,000 miles from home.
In the overall scheme of things the pass was certainly not important. But as a catalyst, a swift statement about my very personal future, it had its force. It has been said that there is nothing as humiliating, as absolute, in all of sport as getting beaten on a long one. I tend to agree. Lem Barney once said that the first thing a good defensive back must have is a short memory. I wish I had one. Certainly, I was upset after the pass. I began throwing myself recklessly into the paths of pulling guards and fullbacks, partially in rage, partially on the off chance I might be killed. Our East team scored shortly after Gray's touchdown, only to ultimately lose 17-13.
The next day, there I was in a photograph on the sports pages being beaten again. Like the Bold Lover on Keats' Grecian Urn, it seemed to me I was being beaten forever. Pastorini had been voted the game's outstanding offensive player. Along with throwing his 45-yard touchdown pass, he had kicked a record 42-yard field goal. Some felt Gray should have gotten the award. He had scored both the West's touchdowns, the first on a 99-yard kickoff return.
In the fall I would try out for the Kansas City Chiefs, get cut, and except for a brief fling with semipro ball, be finished with football forever. Still the play haunted me. In a way, it had told me what I needed to know—that another world was out there and that it was time to think about it.
As time went by, I began wondering if the play had had any special significance in the lives of the other principals. Pastorini and Gray were both NFL stars by then and perhaps they had their own viewpoints. Maybe it had been a precise and somewhat ominous moment for them, also. I decided to find out, a project that has taken over a year because of the crisscrossing travel schedules, and fortunes, of those involved.
From the empty stands of Busch Stadium, Mel Gray looks even smaller than I had remembered him, a mere speck amidst the giants on the Cardinal offensive team as they run through a practice. But his size has never mattered much in his career. He came to the Cardinal rookie camp in 1971, ran a 4.3 forty (one coach got him in 4.2), hung on to Jim Hart's passes and proved conclusively that speed and agility will beat weight and height anytime. In eight seasons with St. Louis, Gray has seldom been injured and has become possibly the most feared deep threat in the game with a current total of 39 touchdown receptions. He has been named Cardinal Rookie of the Year, All-NFC and All-NFL and has played in four Pro Bowls. Whatever doubts there may have been about his durability and skills are now long gone. He has caught at least one pass in 72 consecutive games, a streak interrupted only this season when, because he had a severely sprained right ankle and the Cardinals had no chance to make the playoffs, he has missed two games.
After practice, Gray dresses quickly. Clad in blue jeans and a print shirt, he looks no more imposing than a water boy. His only marks of extravagance are two small diamond earrings in his left ear.
In an empty office upstairs, I slide a yellowing newspaper photograph in front of Gray. It's a picture from the Jan. 3, 1971 San Francisco Examiner showing me nearly seated on the turf, waving desperately at a ball that hasn't appeared yet, but when it does will be caught by Gray for a touchdown. For the first time, in front of Gray, I notice in the picture that tape encircles my shoes. I can't remember now why I put tape on, unless it was to make my shoes fit more snugly. Possibly it was just to look faster. On an earlier occasion, I had noticed I was wearing a wristband on my left wrist. That obviously was solely for appearance.