The National Football League, born Sept. 17, 1920 in Canton, Ohio, is 5½ years older than its commissioner, Pete Rozelle, born March 1, 1926 in Lynwood, Calif. Five and a half—that's not much of a spread; they're both in their 50s and have grown up together, the last 20 years as one, indistinguishable.
It's eerie how the lives of the man and the league have paralleled. As they grew up, the Depression hit both. The league almost foundered, being kept afloat in large part by a forgotten commissioner named Joe Carr, just as Rozelle's own father lost his grocery store and struggled to keep his family on an even keel. The war forced further disruptions upon both (although Rozelle's putative military career, an old chum recalls, was confined mostly "to running the football pool on some kind of supply ship"), but then, in the aftermath of the hostilities, both began to mature. Rozelle, age 20—"looking 15, acting 30," a journalist who was there remembers—was significantly, symbolically present on that very day when the NFL spanned the hemisphere and started getting "classed up," to use Rozelle's expression. A student at Comp-ton Junior College, Rozelle was a gofer for the Rams' P.R. man the summer of 1946, when the team moved from Cleveland to L.A. and trained at Compton. Rozelle has always had a facility for being in the right place at the right time. Branch Rickey once defined luck as "the residue of design." By that gauge, Pete Rozelle is the residue of design and luck.
That summer with the Rams, Rozelle discovered he was best at being a P.R. man. He was offered the job of undergraduate sports information director at the University of San Francisco and went north to finish his schooling. Later he would win a P.R. account with San Miguel Beer because the brewery rep who saw his resumé admired Jesuit-trained Catholics; USF is a Jesuit school; Rozelle is a very lucky Methodist. Not long after he arrived in San Francisco, the NFL put a team there. No one realized it yet, but clearly Rozelle was the dauphin of the NFL.
In the '50s, television discovered pro football and at last the NFL began to prosper, precisely when the young Rozelle himself rose to prominence. He quit as the Rams' P.R. man in '55 to take a $3,500 raise with a San Francisco P.R. firm run by a man named Ken Macker. When Rozelle left the Rams, Dan Reeves, the club president, gave him an engraved pen and pencil set. The engraving read: "Pete, remember, money isn't everything." In '57 Rozelle got another large raise when the Rams hired him back as general manager. Macker gave Rozelle another pen and pencil set. The engraving read: "Pete, obviously, money is everything."
Rozelle was married in 1949, and in 1958 his only child—Ann—was born. Then, 20 years ago this month, on Jan. 26, 1960, the league, 39, in desperation, on the 23rd ballot, chose the Rams' general manager, 33, to lead it. Nobody was yet smart enough to see that he was the dauphin. "Pete just came out of the sky," old Art Rooney, owner of the Steelers, recalls. Rozelle was in the men's room, washing his hands, when Carroll Rosen-bloom of the Colts came in with the news.
Rozelle was acceptable precisely because he was an unknown, a polite young man who knew how to hold his tongue and his liquor. When Wellington Mara of the Giants went to Rooney proposing the kid, Rooney said he would have to check with his close colleague, Frank McNamee of the Eagles. This is what McNamee said: "Yeah, sure, but who is Pete Rozelle?"
If Rozelle hadn't been elected commissioner, he'd probably be long out of football now. He wasn't all that great shakes as a general manager in Los Angeles. He sent Norm Van Brocklin to Philadelphia and made the Eagles champions, and he gave up way too much to get his old USF schoolmate, Ollie Mat-son, from the Chicago Cardinals.
But the '60s, after he had become commissioner, were glory years. Pro football became a national phenomenon and all of Rozelle's life. He moved the NFL office from the back rooms of a small building in a Philadelphia suburb to midtown Manhattan, within walking distance of his apartment—whenever he did go home. Television couldn't pay Rozelle enough for his games. Judge Landis had Babe Ruth. Rozelle had TV. In 1964 he got the league a two-year contract for $28.2 million. He started calling the clubs to tell them they had signed for $14.1 million. He meant per year, but a lot of clubs thought he meant $14.1 million for the whole two-year package, and they thought that was terrific. Then the commissioner would say, no, no, you double the fourteen-one. It was out of control: one...! two...! three—count 'em—three...networks! The merger! The Super Bowl!
Then, wouldn't you know it: the midlife crisis. Rozelle's marriage fell apart; he started to put a little weight on around the mid-section; and the players, heretofore a sweetheart group of grateful and/or dumb employees, suddenly revolted and threatened to strike. Strike the NFL! Football is American, striking is American, but striking the NFL is most definitely not American.
At one point during the summer of 1970, when the players were first rearing up on their hind legs, the commissioner invited John Mackey, the head of the players' union, and the players' lawyer, Alan Miller, to come to his apartment for a private talk and spend the night. Rozelle also invited a couple of team executives, including Tex Schramm of the Cowboys. Now, of all the patrons the young Rozelle attracted, perhaps Schramm has remained the most important. It was Schramm, then the general manager in L.A., who brought Rozelle into the league, as the Rams' flack; it was Schramm who, more than anyone in the NFL, was most responsible for smoothing the path for Rozelle's merger plans with the AFL. Certainly, no one has ever argued that Tex Schramm and Pete Rozelle don't share many common thoughts.