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Piccone presents his fans with the classic little-guy-versus-the-system conflict, and they love him for it. Jet fans first started the "Lou! Lou! Lou!" chants in 1975 when Piccone returned from his maiden walkout. The fans were used to No. 1 draft choices with gimpy knees and Broadway calling cards getting uppity, but a pint-sized free agent from the Youngstown Hardhats and Bridgeport Jets acting up? Now that was class. Lou's contract that year was for $15,000, but fines and the mandatory option year cut had reduced it to $12,900, the lowest figure in the league. "People were happy to see me back," says Lou, starting to feel better again. "They could identify with me. After all, I was making less than your average garbage collector."
Though Piccone now makes closer to $80,000 a year, there are those (besides Lou) who feel he should get a lot more. Larry Felser of the Buffalo Evening News recently wrote, "This is the time to tear up Lou Piccone's one-year contract and ensure that he'll be around here for a long time, doing the grubby things which win football games."
They are grubby things, too: breaking through wedges, running down punt returners, blocking out men who often outweigh him by 75 pounds or more. There are some glamorous duties as well. Piccone comes in and routinely makes clutch catches on third down; he returns punts; he fills in as a starting receiver. Last year Bob Chandler and Jerry Butler were sidelined at various times and Lou caught 33 passes for 556 yards and two touchdowns. This year he was injured himself, straining ligaments in his knee in practice, and missed seven weeks of the schedule; he returned to the Bills' lineup on Nov. 30.
"A seventh-year starting receiver gets $120,000 and all he does is catch passes," says Lou. "I catch passes, too. Plus I know all the receiver positions—X, Y and Z—the halfback position, and even the tight end. Plus, I'll go down on kickoffs. Those guys won't touch that."
Lou signs a few autographs, then thinks of something. "Earlier this year I got rejected," he says. Excuse me? "On a kickoff against New Orleans I got buried. I was trying to sift a wedge and instead I got sifted, put out, rejected. Later, maybe I can show it to you on film. It's quite shocking." In fact, the scene is so gripping, such a perfect example of the point Piccone has been trying to make about getting paid for his services, that he decides to reconstruct it verbally now, without visual aids.
"I was flying downfield in my normal manner, you understand, but I wasn't in a real good stance; I was a little flatfooted. Two guys hit me at the same time, one on each shoulder. They knocked me backwards and buried me in the turf. I put my feet on one guy's chest to roll him off me—he went about 240, a nice-sized boy—and my legs were straight in the air, my neck down, when I was suddenly engulfed by three more bodies. I didn't get the numbers of the vehicles, though I know from the film that one was Dee Hardison, who'll go 270. There was at least a thousand pounds on my neck. It was a petrifying hit.
"I lay face down on the field for a while, out, before they helped me off. Elijah Pitts, our special teams' coach, implied that it was a questionable hit, not that bad. Then he came up to me after seeing the film and said he was awfully sorry, that anybody who could take a lick like that and still play, well, my God."
Lou's whole career has been marked by heavy blows. The day he was traded to the Bills from the Jets in 1977, he was in the Jets' parking lot in Hempstead, L.I., lamenting the fact that his brand-new, white-on-white pinstripe Corvette had just been stolen. Walt Michaels, the head coach, approached him. "Sorry about your car, Lou," he said, "but I wanted to tell you that you've been traded to Buffalo." Lou thinks it's funny, now. "I was ripped off and traded off in one day," he says.
In the locker room Little Lou is fair game for anyone. "When Lou checked into the NFL, they only gave him half a computer card," says Guard Conrad Dobler. Hearing that a reporter is writing an article about Lou, equipment man Chuck Ziober, only 5'8" himself, says, "I bet it's going to be a short story."
Sometimes, even when Piccone thinks he's getting respect, he discovers he isn't. On a golf outing last summer he informed second-string Quarterback Dan Manucci that he, Lou, had just been invited to join the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago.