He thinks for a few moments, then looks at me, smiling. "I've got to say thank you very much, Rick, because I think it all happened for the best."
If this season is the zenith of Dan Pastorini's career, last season was the pits. In 1977, his life seemed to be unraveling. The Oilers were losing close games, Pastorini was routinely getting beaten up by defensive linemen, his marriage to centerfold pin-up June Wilkinson was breaking up and his off-field pursuits were being increasingly criticized by the Houston fans and press. "This game," Pastorini had muttered one day last November. "If I could do anything else...." When the Oiler fans, a touchy crowd at best, heard that Pastorini wanted to play out his option or be traded, they booed him and showered him with debris as he was being helped off the field after being sacked.
The criticism and frustration (the Oilers had never made the playoffs since their absorption into the NFL in 1970) came to a head in the final game of the 1977 season when Pastorini's teammates voted him the game ball for leading Houston to a 21-16 victory over Cincinnati. It was a game that knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs, but meant nothing to the Oilers. "That's what I need," Pastorini had snapped derisively. "Another football."
Certainly Pastorini's statistics were not the cause of his anguish. The Oilers' first draft choice in 1971, he had been their No. 1 quarterback ever since. Through 1977 he had thrown for 12,283 career yards and 66 touchdowns, and until that season had been the Oilers' leading punter. He had been named to the Pro Bowl in 1976. Moreover, he had a cushy, come-when-you-can job with Ragland Resources, a Houston oil exploration company, and had just started his own jet-boat manufacturing company. He traveled a lot and partied frequently. He appeared at charity functions, played in celebrity golf tournaments. To outward appearances, it seemed that Dan Pastorini had it knocked.
But he was decidedly unhappy. "We've never really won here in Houston," he said, "and that's all I want to do. Sure, we were 10-4 in '74, but we didn't make the playoffs. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati did. Then the next year we were 5-9, and I think it was because we were cocky. That doesn't make sense, does it?"
This season was the year everything was going to be different for Pastorini and Houston, and it gradually shaped up that way. During the off-season Pastorini recanted and signed a six-year contract with the Oilers that made him among the highest-paid performers in football. Then Houston traded with Tampa Bay for the right to draft University of Texas Running Back Earl Campbell, which gave the team a fearsome ground attack. This season Pastorini has been able to use play-action fakes on his passes, and not have defensive linemen ignore them en route to meeting over his body. Indeed, Pastorini has been sacked only 15 times, less than any other starting NFL quarterback.
Most of all, Pastorini's head is squarely behind his game this year. Gone are ex-wife June Wilkinson and the boat company. "Racing, all that stuff—it's history," he says.
The Oilers have won seven of their last nine games, including victories over New England, Miami and Pittsburgh. Earl Campbell has been running like a mule with a peppered feedbag, and the defense, led by young Linebacker Robert Brazile and old Tackle Curley Culp, has been solid. But it is Pastorini who has noticeably taken charge. His statistics are the best in his career: he has completed 185 of 340 passes for 2,307 yards and 13 TDs. And with Campbell's running providing a weapon the Oilers never had before, Pastorini has shown that he has matured into a football strategist, a field general who can direct long scoring drives, not just fill the air with footballs and hopes.
After Pastorini led the Oilers to a 26-23 win over the Patriots a month ago, his teammates again voted him the game ball. This time the quarterback's reaction was markedly different than it had been a year earlier. He took the ball and wept openly.
I had plans to talk with Pastorini again on the Monday after the Pittsburgh-Houston game two weeks ago. The game was not televised in Key West, where I live, but I knew that Houston had lost 13-3. I also knew that Pastorini and four other Oilers, including Campbell, had been injured, though the news reports did not say how seriously.