In an operating room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, the star player is watching his boss go to work. In a few hours Stan White, a linebacker who jumped from the Detroit Lions to the USFL's Chicago Blitz after 11 seasons in the NFL, will be at work himself on the practice field. But now it's 6 a.m. and the Blitz' principal owner, Dr. Edward Diethrich, a cardiovascular surgeon and founder of the Arizona Heart Institute, is about to perform a triple bypass operation. Dressed in a green hospital gown, the 6'1", 223 lb. White looks like an oversized orderly who is doubling as a bouncer at the OR door. In effect, he is getting a sneak preview of a performance that Diethrich will give before a national TV audience a few weeks later, on Feb. 23, when he will perform the first open-heart surgery shown live on television.
Having an owner who is also a surgeon does not strike White as particularly strange, because he himself is a man of disparate vocations. Off field he is an attorney—magna cum laude from the University of Baltimore's law school—who has chosen to specialize in corporate law. If there's an overlap in his two professions, it was evident during the NFL players' strike last fall when White, the Lions' player rep, was a prime mover and shaker—so much so that he's now regarded as Ed Garvey's most likely successor as union leader. He subsequently became the only NFL starter to join the new league.
Diethrich begins, and White, as intent as the atmosphere is intense, says softly, "He can't be like me. He can't say, 'Hey, don't worry, I'll get him next time.' " Diethrich works on, occasionally stopping to explain what he's doing. "See how the heart is beating," he says, holding it up for better viewing, "and now see how it stops."
White gulps and says, only half in jest, "Let me get down in a more stable position in case my knees get weak."
But then curiosity gets the better of squeamishness. "This is something that really means something," he whispers. "He has life and death in his fingers. Life is so delicate."
A few minutes later White asks another onlooker, "Would you say that heart is pretty big?"
"Yeah, I'd say so."
"Then it's not the heart of an NFL owner," he cracks. White is still bitter about the strike and dissatisfied with the settlement. He argues that the salary structures in the NFL are stacked against the players, keeping them "underpaid at the beginning of their careers and overpaid at the end."
An hour passes.
"Look at how that heart fits in that cavity," observes White. "God really had a better idea." There are complications in the operation, but Diethrich apparently gets them under control. There's speculation as to when the surgeon will be able to leave the operating room. Says White, "I don't think you come out of the game in the fourth quarter when you're only just a touchdown ahead." Diethrich stays.