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"Did they send you a certificate and ask for some personal belongings?" asked Manucci.
"Yeah," said Lou. "Why?"
"I got the same letter."
Life probably wasn't meant to be easy for Piccone. He grew up, he explains, "as your basic wayward youth from New Jersey. I wasn't into crime or anything; actually, I was more like an alcoholic. My high school buddies and I would booze it up on weekends and then go into Philadelphia and dance our heads off. Sports were the only things that kept me from going into a complete stupor."
At West Liberty State, where Lou helped pay his way, he distinguished himself in football by riding the bench for long periods of time and occasionally ripping off fearless, even bizarre, punt returns. "That was kind of funny," says Lou. "I used to wear glasses and I was fairly blind. Catching a ball was not one of my better skills. And the reason I ran right into the middle of crowds was because I didn't know there was such a thing as a fair catch. Nobody had ever told me."
After school Lou played two years of semipro ball in Youngstown, Ohio, and Bridgeport, Conn., and began making the rounds of the NFL free-agent camps. He tried out for the Eagles, the Redskins and the Jets, and each time was told the same thing—forget it. "Those camps were zoos," Lou recalls. "Hundreds of people milling all around—fat slobs, hippies, weirdos, guys on lunch break from McDonald's. So when the coaches told me to take a powder, I realized it didn't mean anything. It just meant they hadn't seen me. I wasn't on their agenda for the day."
On his second try with the Jets, Lou made it, primarily because of his 4.4 speed. "Not all white guys are slow, you know," he says. In his rookie year, 1974, Lou played on all the special teams and led the NFL in kickoff returns with 39 for 961 yards. But what he really gained during his three years with the Jets was the knowledge that pro football is as much show biz and absurdity as sport.
The same year Lou was earning $12,900, Joe Namath, who was no longer a force as a quarterback, was earning $450,000, nearly 35 times as much as Lou; star Fullback John Riggins was demanding a five-year, $1.5 million contract; and the Jets were going 3 and 11. "You know something," Lou said to a reporter in 1975, the carnival atmosphere obviously having influenced his thinking, "with the right promotion I could be a star, too. I'm small, I'm Italian, I can beat any safety in the league. They'd have to love me."
So, everybody up. It's 7:30 on a Wednesday morning and it's time for the Lou Piccone Show. This program comes courtesy of WKBW radio in Buffalo—a thrice-weekly dialogue between deejay Danny Neaverth and Lou.
"Lou, we're doing great," says Danny. "Where do we go from here?"