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I didn't want to see the press. Not now. Where would those pencil-wielders be lurking? In the lobby? The hotel bar? Not the bar, because the reporters would know that we players weren't allowed in there. On the first day of camp some NFL dropouts had set up there, and that night in his first speech George Allen had told us to get our alcohol elsewhere, for the good of "the club's image." Allen is not only the coach but also a co-owner of the Chicago Blitz, and he wanted us to be the cleanest team in the U.S. Football League.
I walked cautiously down the hallway of the Phoenix Westcourt Hotel toward the front desk to check out. As I turned the corner someone called my name. It was Brian Hewitt of The Chicago Sun-Times, standing with another writer. Did I want to join them for dinner? No? "What's up?" Brian asked. "Nothing," I said. "I've retired." They were the first reporters to know I no longer played football.
Of course, Hewitt put it in the next day's paper. Maybe the other writer did, too. It was sports news, after all. So why did I care? Originally I'd planned that when my fling with the Blitz ended, as I knew perforce it would, I was going to get as many reporters as I could into one place, probably by enticing them with vague hints of suspicious goings-on, and then, through tears or clenched teeth or laughter read a lengthy statement announcing my separation from the sport. Why? For fun, for power, for the thrill of exercising that last privilege of the notably failed—the calling of a press conference. But now the feelings of disgrace were too strong, and I didn't want to.
I'd felt something similar 11 years before, when Hank Stram, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, called me into his office. He was tanned and wore a toupee, but I wasn't thinking about that. It was the summer of 1971, and he was putting me on waivers. He had the power—arid the ring; K.C. had won the Super Bowl in 1970. I slunk out of camp that night with the other Chiefs' cuts, including my roommate, a safety from Texas who liked to sit on his bed reading Louis L'Amour westerns, chewing Mail Pouch tobacco and spitting into a Tastee-Freez cup. We were the used-up, the discarded. "Adios, cowboy," my roommate said. We wanted to be seen by the other players even less than they wanted to see us.
I'd thought about that rejection for years, and it still churns inside. Even though I made my own terms this time—retiring on the fifth day of the Blitz camp, before they could ask me to leave—I couldn't laugh it off. I'd briefly traded hats, writer's for football player's, but it still wasn't easy to get the football hat off.
When the Blitz first came after me last October—and they did come after me, not I them—my wife, Judy, took it as lightly as I did. She wondered if our baby daughter could be the team mascot. "What's a Blitz?" she asked me. "Why not her?"
Allen named the team. Actually, he chose the name from entries sent in by Chicagoans, selecting it because it was "tough, hard-hitting and aggressive, like the team will be." The Blitz logo, which he helped design, looks a little like the emblem that was worn by the SS. Allen is clearly the big name in the USFL, a man with a past in a league without one. His .705 winning percentage for 12 years as an NFL head coach—five with Los Angeles, seven with Washington—is fourth-best in the league's history, better even than Tom Landry's. Yet when Mike McCarthy, the Blitz' director of college scouting, called me and asked me if I wanted to try out for the team, I told him to forget it. I was 33, and I didn't care to entrust what remained of my body to a coach once described as "Nixon with a whistle." Besides, it was all just a gimmick, wasn't it, a p.r. device? Not really, said Mike. Northwestern, from which I graduated in 1971, was one of the five schools in the Blitz' territory that were protected, from which other USFL teams couldn't sign players. The Blitz was contacting every player from those schools who'd been drafted by the NFL since 1971.
When Mike called again, this time offering me a contract and an invitation to a mini-camp in November, I thought about it hard and then agreed. The challenge of getting in shape, of following through on something this wild appealed to me. Allen was many things I disapproved of, but he was serious about football. I was 6'1", 192 pounds, the same as in 1971. And I thought of something else: Whatever his flaws, Allen loved veterans.
I began working out in late October. I hadn't let myself fall apart in the past 11 years, but I hadn't played much football, either. Basketball and jogging and Nautilus work are only tangentially useful to a football player. To be good at a sport, you do the sport.
In a park near my apartment in Evanston, Ill. I ran 40s and backpedaled and made cuts, and as I did my ankles and left knee hurt a bit. I'd come through my earlier football career relatively unscarred, but it was hard to know how time had affected the minor injuries. One thing I felt as I ran was that this wasn't going to be a joke. I had no desire to do a George Plimpton story, to interject myself into a discipline at which I was unskilled just to see how the thing worked. Plimpton could do that, train for a few weeks and then box Archie Moore, for instance, but everybody (particularly Archie) knew that George was there as a journalist, not a jock. I didn't want any kid-glove treatment. I'd played football. I would follow this through, and if I became an embarrassment, I would simply leave.