Dinnertime had just given way to dusk, and the air was about to go out of another day at the Houston Oilers' training camp in San Angelo, Texas. On a TV set in the lobby of the team's dormitory, one of those low-budget thrillers about a lot of fish with ugly dispositions was playing on a cable channel. The film, entitled Killer Fish, had aroused little enthusiasm among the football players in the room—until a jut-jawed young actor named Dante Pastorini appeared on the screen. Suddenly everyone began paying serious attention. What made the Oiler players take notice was the fact that Pastorini had been Houston's starting quarterback for nine seasons, and presumably would've been in 1980, too, had he not been traded last March to Oakland for the Raiders' starting quarterback, Ken Stabler.
Pastorini's old teammates quickly discerned that he wasn't exactly stealing any scenes from his aquatic co-stars, but he did have one dramatic moment in the picture. His role called for him to dive in search of treasure in a lagoon that, as luck would have it, was lousy with piranha. After putting up a commendably brief struggle, Pastorini is vanquished by the fish. The last we see of Pastorini, he is going down for the third time; score a sack for the killer fish.
What added weight to this scene was that just as Pastorini was sinking out of sight on the tube, Stabler was pulling into the dormitory parking lot in his black Snakemobile, a Ford Bronco with the rear end jacked up over its huge tires like a cat with its back up. It was Stabler's first appearance in the Oilers' camp, and coming as it did so suddenly after Pastorini's cinematic demise, it seemed fairly fraught with symbolism. Just exactly what it meant no one could say, but in the NFL you take your symbolism where you find it and try not to ask any questions.
The exchange of Stabler, who is 34, for Pastorini, 31, was certainly the most noteworthy trade that occurred since Super Bowl XIV. But it wasn't the only one. As the veterans began reporting to training camps around the league last week, there was a surprising abundance of old, familiar faces turning up in unfamiliar places. Trades, of course, aren't uncommon during that coffee break the NFL calls the off-season, but few years have produced deals for as many big-name players as 1980 has. In addition to the Pastorini-Stabler swap, there have been these eye-popping transactions:
? Oakland Managing General Partner Al Davis, trying to improve upon two straight 9-7 seasons that weren't good enough to qualify the Raiders for the playoffs, picked up Running Back Kenny King from Houston in exchange for Free Safety Jack Tatum, a three-time All-Pro, and two seventh-round draft choices, one in '80, the other in '81.
?The Denver Broncos gave up their first-and second-round draft picks in this year's draft and Quarterback Craig Penrose for Quarterback Matt Robinson of the New York Jets. The Broncos, who scored only 14 points in their final two games last season, also acquired Running Back Lawrence McCutcheon, a five-time All-Pro, from Los Angeles.
?The Rams, obviously expecting more great things from Wendell Tyler this year, also unloaded former Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti on San Diego. However, subsequently Tyler was in an auto accident and is expected to miss the first month of the season.
? New England acquired Running Back Chuck Foreman from Minnesota—and had to give up only its third-round draft pick in 1981 to get him. Once one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL, Foreman was overweight and unhappy in Minnesota last year and wound up rushing for just 223 yards. Foreman has lost 21 pounds since he was traded in late April and seems ready to challenge for a starting spot.
? Conrad Dobler, a former All-Pro guard with St. Louis who had spent the past two seasons in New Orleans, was sent to Buffalo for a future draft choice. Dobler was once described as the meanest man in pro football, but arthritic knees have slowed him down and lately the meanest thing about him has been his contract, which is in the $125,000-a-year range.
The most momentous of these transactions, Stabler-Pastorini, was the first exchange of No. 1 quarterbacks by NFL teams since the Eagles sent Sonny Jurgensen to the Redskins for Norm Snead in 1964. The Raiders had been interested in Pastorini since before last season because of his strong arm, but it wasn't until the Oilers came up short against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game for the second year in a row that Houston Coach Bum Phillips decided to part with Pastorini. "We weren't looking for a better passer than Dan," says Phillips. "We were looking for a different passer, a more consistent intermediate-range passer who would fit in with our ball-control offense."