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In the 1950s and '60s, the NFL was a kind of hobby—more of one for the players than for the owners, of course. Certainly it didn't offer much of a job for young men coming out of college. Every preseason the players gathered around to listen to commissioner Bert Bell's annual this-is-not-a-career address, as if they needed him to deliver that news. Johnny Unitas was making $7,000 the first time he heard ol' Bert, in 1956. Three years later his Baltimore Colt roommate, a middle-round draft choice named Jerry Richardson, was taking down $7,500 when he heard the commissioner's speech. "This is not an end unto itself," ol' Bert boomed from a speaker phone. "This is a means to an end." No kidding.
Almost every player had something going on the side, either supplementing his income or trying to develop a means to making a living once his playing days were over. "What have you got lined up?" was the clubhouse chatter of the day. Unitas remembers the Colts as being particularly enterprising, the guys all meeting in the trainer's room after "work" but before their noon practice. There were more sample cases around than playbooks. "We had insurance salesmen, whiskey salesmen, paint salesmen, cardboard-box salesmen," says Unitas. "We'd all start at seven and call on customers until 10:30 or 11. That's just what we did. We had to."
For one thing, history had told them it was far easier to squeeze some extra dough out of a cardboard-box customer than it was out of the Colts. According to Alex Hawkins, one ex-Colt who allows that he depended more on his football talents than his off-field industry, contract negotiations were anguished and generally one-sided. "You might argue over $500 in your contract—$500!—for months," says Hawkins. "And in the end you'd come out of [general manager] Don Kellett's office crying, just crying."
Unitas had worked his way up to $10,000 by 1959, but only after leading Baltimore to the first of two consecutive NFL championships. "[Former bonus baby] George Shaw had been sitting on the bench making $17,500, and I was getting my ass handed to me," recalls Unitas. "Finally, in 1960 I asked for $25,000. Kellett blew his lid."
Unitas eventually got his $25,000, but not until he took his case to owner Carroll Rosenbloom. By then, Unitas was among the league's best players. Less persuasive, apparently, was Richardson, whose contract called for him to be paid $9,750 for his third season, in 1961, but who wanted a full five figures. He was drawing an Army stipend while fulfilling his military commitment in the off-season, had invested his '59 championship check—$4,674—and was living frugally. But he had a wife and two kids and a third on the way, and no, he wasn't Raymond Berry. Still, he had caught a touchdown pass in the championship game, and $9,750 just didn't seem right. Over $250, he walked. Left camp in 1961 and never played another down of football. Went home to Spartanburg, S.C., and opened a hamburger stand.
It's interesting how the years treated those Colts. Many of them did subscribe to ol' Bert's advice and became successful businessmen. Fullback Alan Ameche and defensive end Gino Marchetti became wealthy in the fast-food business. Tight end Jim Mutscheller got rich selling insurance. Defensive tackle Art Donovan, like a lot of other guys, it seemed, had his own liquor store, and he ended up owning a country club. Of them, only Hawkins seemed a better customer than businessman. To this day he remains the pet ne'er-do-well of those Colt teams, happily chronicling his own misadventures.
And Richardson? "After the '61 season, my wife and I drove through Spartanburg, and sure enough, there was Jerry Richardson flipping burgers," says Hawkins. "We laughed and laughed at him. Told him what a great season we had had, how much fun we'd had. Ordered four burgers and told him to hurry it up, too. Kept asking him how much money you could make cooking hamburgers. It was a great joke. For Christmas, he sent me 12 of them in the mail."
Hawkins's second book is due this fall. He says it's about 15 of the 30 or so failed businesses he got involved in after his playing days. "It's called And Then Came Brain Damage" he says cheerfully.
While the great Johnny U wades through bankruptcy, having suffered several business failures, Richardson gets the last laugh on his teammates 30 years later. He parlayed that first hamburger stand into the fourth-largest restaurant and food-services empire in the country. Moreover, he hopes to become an NFL owner—and, indeed, he is among the front-runners—when the league announces its two expansion teams next year. They couldn't raise him that miserable $250, huh?
"The time we drove through Spartanburg?" says Hawkins. "I gotta admit, I thought he was crazy."