Later, at camp, I often lined up behind Shafer Suggs, a muscular, 29-year-old strong safety who'd played five years for the New York Jets, the last few in great bitterness. "It was the first contract that did it to me," he told me one day. "I was probably the lowest paid second-round pick in the history of the NFL. I knew it was a bad contract, but I just wanted to play. They knew it, too."
Such laments are almost universal. It's always the same: You get screwed on your first contract, which keeps your salary down for years. Then, by the time you know what's going on, you're damaged goods and they don't need you. "It's a perfect trade-off," the former Dallas Cowboy flanker, Pete Gent, wrote a while ago. Management makes money off the game but gives little of it back to the players in the form of salaries "because deep down we all know they'd do it for free."
It's raining hard at the Logan Correctional Center outside Lincoln, Ill., but George Allen walks through the muck with vigor. Twenty-five people surround him—guards, the warden, writers, cameramen, McCarthy, Blitz public relations chief Kay Schultz and me. I've been given permission to come along.
We walk into a small building at the far end of the prison compound. It is a weight room, and on a bench sits 6-foot, 225-pound Michal Sifford, who's doing 12 years for armed robbery. Sifford, 23, wrote to McCarthy in July asking if he could try out for the Blitz. He would be eligible for work release in January, he said, and he was in great shape. He'd played one year of small-college ball and been named MVP on the Stateville penitentiary team before getting transferred to Logan last year. And he wanted it bad. "Sir," he wrote, "I can dunk a basketball, move like a man 175 pounds. I love football, sir."
"Let's start," says Allen.
Of course, this is for publicity. The story will make the wires, and on a dull sports Thursday in November it'll run in a lot of places, which is good for the Blitz and the league. But it's also a real tryout. Hungry for any advantage, the Blitz will cover the earth seeking players. Before camp starts the team will have tested more than 3,200 prospects and signed 340—I was the 171st. Allen would die if he passed over someone who then played somewhere else.
Sifford's parents are in the room, having driven 200 miles from their suburban Chicago home. They both smoke, and Mrs. Sifford, an attractive, gray-haired woman, looks nervously out the window at the rain as her son bench-presses 220 pounds 15 times. The parents visit their boy every two weeks, but it's hard to tell how much they miss him. Mike dropped out of college in 1978, fell in with bad people, participated in some robberies, and this is what it's come to. What does a mother think?
"Football weather," says Mrs. Sifford. "I remember always washing grass-stained uniforms after days like today. I remember using too much bleach and putting holes right through Mike's game jerseys."
Sifford has already lifted weights for two hours this morning, not believing that the coach would really come. But he runs his drills in the rain now with no complaints, his blond hair plastered to his scalp. Sifford has quick feet and a massive chest. But he's primitive. His moves are raw and uncoached. He has been locked up for five years, and beaten, stabbed, humiliated. Who can say what he'll be like on the outside?
On the plane back to Chicago, Allen ponders what he has observed. Pleased with the media turnout, Schultz says, "Coach, when they do your life story and Ronald Reagan plays you, this will be an historic moment."