Talk about your meaningless games. The winless Cincinnati Bengals played the winless Houston Oilers at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium on Oct. 7, and after three miserable hours the Bengals were no longer winless. A cold, clammy rain fell throughout, making the field a sodden carpet. The stadium lights barely cut the gloom.
It was not a punter's day.
Even so, for three quarters the Bengals' Pat McInally punted brilliantly, lifting high spirals into the dark sky with all 6'6" of his basketball player's body. On his last kick, though, McInally had to leap for an errant snap. His rhythm destroyed, he produced a weak, wobbly kick that died in a puddle on the 24-yard line. The punter was not pleased. For several minutes he paced the sidelines, shaking his head and waving a towel in disgust.
Five days later, King Features Syndicate sent some 90 newspapers the latest effort by one of its columnists, Pat McInally. Marked "FOR RELEASE THE WEEK OF OCTOBER 22, 1984," it was titled: "Keep Failure in Perspective." The column began, "A couple of Sundays ago, I shanked my last punt in our game against the Houston Oilers...." What followed was a moving account of an athlete resisting the clutches of self-pity:
"For two days I moped around complaining about it and worrying that it had cost me the lead for the NFL punting title. My wife, Leslie, didn't know how to comfort me and I know I tested her patience with my nonstop analyzing and constant reliving of this momentary failure.
"This stupid, selfish phase ended on Tuesday night, when we went to a hospital to visit John Wissel, a high school football player here in Cincinnati, who had been hurt on the previous Friday night. As I looked down on him, completely immobilized from his spinal injury, preparing himself for surgery that would determine whether he would be paralyzed from the waist down if the operation were successful or totally if it weren't, I was ashamed. I wondered how I could have wasted so much time and energy over one poor punt when someone like John was so bravely facing an injury that would not just end his athletic career but possibly leave him motionless for the rest of his life."
McInally claims that he woke up one morning two years ago with the idea that he should be a newspaper columnist. "It was a vision," he says facetiously. He took the idea to Mark Purdy, a sports-editor friend at The Cincinnati Enquirer, who listened with skepticism. Purdy introduced McInally to his editor, George Blake, who also had his doubts. But McInally is a popular figure in Cincinnati, so Blake decided to give the veteran punter and wide receiver a trial. (It didn't hurt that McInally wrote poetry, drank Perrier, could discuss the French Impressionists and graduated cum laude in American history from Harvard University in 1975.)
In the beginning, McInally's column, "Pat Answers for Kids," provided pedestrian responses to lightweight questions about football mouthpieces, Little League elbow and training techniques. Even so, within a year McInally had self-syndicated his column to more than 30 newspapers, including hard-to-crack blue-chippers like the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Gradually, the column assumed a less patronizing tone, and McInally began to attract more demanding questions from his readers, touching on sports ethics, family relationships, the value of competition. In January, McInally signed a syndication contract with King Features.
"We were quite taken by him," says Jim Head, the syndicate's executive editor. "Being an athlete got him in the door, but once inside he did one hell of a selling job. The day he signed with us, we had lunch together and Pat said, 'I think I'll go across town and talk to the sports guys at the News.' He called me back in just one hour and said, 'I signed the News.' "
Salesman. Athlete. Columnist. Labeling McInally is like trying to look at white light through a prism. One sees a spectrum of McInallys: a two-time NFL punting champion, a budding author, a promising professional songwriter, a former All-America wide receiver, a hustling businessman. At 31, McInally is larger than normal and larger than life, a man who wants to do everything and be everything but who is not easily dismissed as a dilettante. Confronted with the categorizing problem, he says, "I used to say, 'I'm not a football player, I'm a person playing football.' "