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Now in his 11th NFL season, Minnesota Viking Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad has been selected to the Pro Bowl four straight years and currently stands fourth among active players in career receptions (472). Known as Bobby Moore when he was drafted in the first round out of Oregon by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972, Rashad later played for the Buffalo Bills and the Seattle Seahawks before joining the Vikings in 1976. This summer, at the urging of Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Frank Deford, the 32-year-old Rashad began collecting on tape his thoughts about life in pro football. In Part I Rashad takes us through the early days of the Vikings' training camp, which are clouded over by the issues of chemical dependency and a possible players' strike.
THURSDAY, JULY 29: Who are these guys, anyway?
All right, Frank, here I go again, on the road to my 11th pro football season, my 11th training camp. It's funny, too, because in the last 10 minutes I've passed several old teammates on the highway, guys driving everything from pickups to Mercedes, and we waved but, really, I didn't have any great desire to see them. Understand: I don't mean I dislike those guys; it's just a matter of not knowing them.
People assume that just because you're on a team, you're tight with everybody. But this isn't the Foreign Legion. First of all, any football team is really two teams plastered together—the offense and the defense. And then the players are divided by age and race and status—you know, what position you play and how good you are—and when you take all that into consideration, a guy's lucky if he ever has more than a handful of really close friends.
In a way, a season is always kind of a battle to see if the one thing that holds the team together—trying to win football games—can outlast all the factors that are pulling in the opposite direction. I'm really curious to see about this season, because we have two new special pressures working on us. First, there's the threat of a strike, and second, there's all the talk about NFL players using cocaine. It's common knowledge that the Vikings have had several guys go off to rehabilitation centers because of some form of chemical dependency, drugs or alcohol—or both. The teams that best handle these problems can really move up.
Even under the best of circumstances, it can be tricky being a part of a team. A couple of weeks ago I went into a photography store in Minneapolis and there was this big guy there, and you know what? He played on the Vikings. He'd been my teammate for several seasons. But I couldn't remember his name. I went back out to the car like I'd forgotten something, and I asked my girl friend, Diane, if she could remember the guy's name, but she didn't have a clue either. That was very embarrassing. A few months ago, I was quoted as speaking out against [Players Association Executive Director] Ed Garvey's 55% plan, and right after that I got a call from an offensive lineman. He was kind of trying to half-cajole me and half-scare me into becoming more pro-union, and I didn't mind that so much—like a lot of guys I'm pretty pro-union anyway; I'm just not very pro-Garvey—but the whole conversation left me sort of edgy, because even though we've played together for a long time we really don't know each other. I kind of felt like saying: Look, I'm sorry, but I gave at the office.
See, it may be my fault, Frank, because I just don't understand linemen. I understand women better than linemen. I simply can't figure out why anybody would want to play a position where you get beat all around and you don't even touch the ball. I've asked a lot of linemen about this, and they've given me answers about loving the game and all that, but that only confuses me more because I love the game, too, and the reason I do is that I get the ball and then I get to try to run away with it. That's the point. You know, when I was 11 years old I was already strictly an offensive specialist.
I found out early: It's very dangerous out there, Frank.
I have searched my psyche, and while there are still a lot of things I don't know about myself, one thing I'm positive of is that no part of me desires to be on a special team. And this may be why I've survived. But understand: I don't believe that football is violent. I wouldn't play if it was. It's a collision game. And the idea, I believe, is to avoid collisions. In all my time in the NFL, I swear, I've only taken three really hard hits.
Linebackers are the strangest guys of all. They go against human nature. They're people who just plain love to run into things. They'll hit you as you go by them the way other people shake hands. Before a game a couple years ago, I got carried away. To this day I don't know what got into me, but it was an important game, the band was playing, the fans were cheering, and I looked over and saw all the linebackers warming up, banging each other the way they do, and I rushed up to Scott Studwell and yelled, "Come on, baby, gimme a shot." And he did. He hit me so hard on my shoulders that my feet went numb—and you know how far your feet are from your shoulders.