On the one hand it wasn't much, just a long pass completion over a beaten defender in a rather meaningless East-West Shrine Game nearly eight years ago. On the other hand, it was a dramatic 45-yard touchdown bomb in front of 54,000 spectators and a nationwide television audience, and a winning touchdown at that—a play that would make sports-show highlights later that evening and San Francisco Bay Area papers the next morning.
It was a play that featured two outstanding college seniors and one obscure, perhaps overmatched one, the three of them interwoven for a few seconds in portentous ballet—what some people like to call the essence of sport. The outstanding players were Quarterback Dan Pastorini of the University of Santa Clara (now with the Houston Oilers) and Flanker Mel Gray of Missouri (now an All-Pro with the St. Louis Cardinals). The obscure one, the beaten one, was me.
It was the winter of 1971 and I had just finished my career as a defensive back for Northwestern University. Hard times have recently beset Northwestern's football program, but back then the team was, well, if not overpowering, at least respectable. In 1970 and 1971 we finished second in the Big Ten. In 1972, the season after I was gone, Northwestern even whipped Ohio State, in Columbus—a feat that will undoubtedly sustain certain ex-Wildcat players into middle age.
At any rate, I was selected to play on the East team in the 46th annual East-West Shrine Game in the Oakland Coliseum on Jan. 2. My credentials were reasonable, if not impeccable. I went to California with the cautious exuberance of a young athlete whose past has been recognized and whose future appears moderately bright.
Practices at Santa Clara were easy and dorm life was riotous. In the dining hall, hungry linemen whipped sizzling 18-ounce steaks off their plates and held them under the table, explaining to the waitresses that they hadn't been served yet. I have fond memories of Linebacker Jack Ham and Center Warren Koegel of Penn State passing idle hours in their room giggling and singing Tiny Bubbles into a portable tape recorder, of watching players in their game blazers dancing onstage with North Beach strippers, of wanton abuse of alcohol and rental cars, of one player trying to make a date with a woman with a wooden leg.
The presence of myriad pro scouts, all seemingly clad in white shoes, all carrying stopwatches and cigars, only added to the ruckus. One morning, one of my Northwestern teammates, Mike Adamle, a 5'9" running back who went on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs, the New York Jets and the Chicago Bears and later became a sportscaster, climbed on the scale for an NFL scout. In Adamle's pockets were several weights taken from the training room. "Two hundred and forty pounds," marveled the scout, a man who undoubtedly had weighed and measured every imaginable body shape, "...and on that frame."
But there was a game to be played and our foolishness never concealed that fact. From time to time certain over-zealous coaches will tell you that football is like war. It most certainly is not, except for the fact that there are times in both war and football when things may happen that can never be undone.
My moment came in the third quarter with the West leading 10-7. I was playing right cornerback and Mel Gray had lined up opposite me. I had him man-for-man. He looked mean and shifty, and I knew he was fast. I had done my homework. I knew, for instance, that he had set just about all the University of Missouri receiving records, that he had long-jumped 25'11¾" and that he ran the hundred in 9.2.I didn't run the hundred at all.
I looked in at the West's quarterback, Dan Pastorini. I knew about him, too. He played baseball, kicked field goals, punted, did everything. He'd been hurt a lot, but some scouts were sticking their necks out by touting him highly.
I backed up several steps. I was prepared to let Gray catch a five-yard out or a six-yard curl or anything else short, because I wasn't going for any fakes. Even if Gray ran backward I was still going to head downfield. There wouldn't be enough room in the stadium for a 9.2 man to beat me deep. Not on national TV.