The Ten Most Important Figures in NFL History
10) GEORGE PLIMPTON
Got you from the start! The sophisticated New York writer spent training camp with the Detroit Lions in the ’60s, played QB for a series in exhibition games, and wrote one of the greatest sports books of all time, PAPER LION. He helped humanize gaming for millions of people.
9) PEOPLE WHO FIND INSTANT REPLAY
Maybe a lot of guys. Instant replay was actually first used on an Army-Navy broadcast in 1963, (Roger Staubach QB for the Navy) and it changed the look of TV forever. And when they started slowing down playback, that changed even more. The intricacies of the game can now be made clear to the casual viewer. We are all getting smarter. Before long, we all knew as much as Vince Lombardi.
What the replay has messed up is the lead. In-game review not only slows things down, it takes away the legitimacy of NFL gaming officials, which I think are the best in any sport. At the very least, get rid of the little red flags that coaches throw when they want to challenge the game. And if a challenge fails, a team must lose more than just the time-out rules currently punishing them. Like, maybe a coach’s office desk??
8) ED SABOL (And, by extension, John Facenda)
In 1960, Ed Sabol bid for the rights to film an NFL championship game – for three thousand dollars. From this beginning, an empire was born, called NFL Films – the biggest use of propaganda films since Leni Reifenstahl. At some point in your life, whether you realize it or not, you have watched something from NFL Films. They have slowed down the game to give it a ballet-like grace, and made the violence almost poetic. Their music, their words, everything they do is brilliant. And, speaking of words, you have to pay attention to the late, great John Facenda, classic NFL Films voice. Though it is doubtful he ever spoke of the “frozen tundra” just hearing his voice means football to millions.
7) JOE NAMATH
He guaranteed the New York Jets SB III victory over the Baltimore Colts, then made it happen. He provides AFL legitimacy, star power, and excitement. He is in his 60s as far as pro football goes. Without his SB win, the NFL and AFL merger may take longer to reach parity, at least in the minds of fans. He made two leagues equal in 60 minutes.
6) RED GRANGE
When “Galloping Ghost” dropped out of the University of Illinois in 1924, college football was everything. Pro football is for illiterate factory workers to hit each other for two dollars per game. Then Grange signed with George Halas for the Chicago Bears, and suddenly, professional football matches were being played in big stadiums rather than on sand courts. The $70,000 he earned in 1924 equals more than a million dollars in today’s batter. Along with Babe Ruth of baseball and golfer Bobby Jones, he was at the height of the golden sports era of the 1920s.
I met Grange at Super Bowl XII, when he was an honorary coin tossor. He was old, but still upright, fit and full of interesting stories.
5) BYRON DONZIS
Got you again, right?
Going into a game against the New Orleans Saints in 1978, Houston Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini’s ribs were so fractured and fractured that he had to get injections of Novocain between each of his ribs on each side of his chest, before the game and again in the half. Upon his return to Houston, he checked into the hospital for treatment before next week’s first-round playoff game.
As he lay in his bed in a stupor from the painkillers, he looked up to see a grizzly man at his bedside, wearing a raincoat and holding a baseball bat.
“Oh my God,” Pastorini thought, “someone lost money in the game and they’re going to kill me.”
Instead, the man handed the baseball bat to his assistant and said, “watch.”
The assistant swung as hard as he could, hitting the man in the chest. The man didn’t even budge. He took off his raincoat and showed Pastorini what the prototype for the quarterback’s “flake jacket” was, which is now the standard edition of football.
“I want one of them!” Pastorini said.
He wore it the next week, and Byron Donzis, the man in the raincoat, went on to become one of the most important inventors in NFL history, designing dozens of equipment that had reduced, or prevented, countless injuries.
4) ARLEDGE ROONE
The visionary head of ABC Sports who came up with the idea of putting the NFL game on ABC at a time when the network was dying. It was a Monday night, 9pm in the east. Country changed. Everyone is watching. Everyone quoted Howard Cosell the next day. Sports grew and prime time became playtime. You could easily argue that Rooney should be #1. You can also create your own list.
3) TEX SCHRAMM & LAMAR HUNT
Tex Schramm, the first president & GM of the Cowboys, and Lamar Hunt, the original owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, were the architects of the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The two leagues consumed each other and the war of attrition seemed endless. Schramm and Hunt hold a series of secret meetings and tidy things up so the two leagues can become one. Many things were difficult to complete, including moving three teams, the Colts, Browns, and Steelers, from the NFL to the AFL, so that each league would have the same number of franchises.
These two people are influential far beyond the merger. It was Hunt who came up with the name “Super Bowl” among many other innovations. And he is one of the kindest and most sincere people you could ever hope to meet.
Tex is a big, lively, breezy guy who doesn’t prefer a good argument.
My first trip with the Cowboys, as a 25-year-old sports broadcaster, was in 1977, to Minnesota and the old Bloomington, Met stadium.
The Cowboys had the Vikings on their own one-yard line. Viking QB Fran Tarkenton returned to the end zone and, finding no receiver, threw the ball to the ground. The referee throws the flag for a deliberate runway.
I was sitting next to Tex in the press box as the Referee marked half the distance to the goal line, the correct penalty at the time. Tex slammed his fist on the table and said “*#%$, next year, it will be safe!”
Tex is head of the NFL Competition Committee, the group that sets the rules.
Next year… it’s salvation! And that’s still today.
2) GEORGE HALAS
One of the founders of the NFL, the franchise owners were originally known as the Decatur Staleys, but eventually the Chicago Bears. Halas is an NFL owner/coach/legend for over 60 years. “Papa Bear” takes the league from its literal beginnings as a group of rag tag men playing on a rock-strewn field adjacent to a coal mine, to the heights of Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl.
When he offered what Mike Ditka thought was a too-small contract, Ditka said, “Halas threw in a dime as if it were a manhole cover.”
1) PETE ROZELLE
Commissioner from 1960 to 1990. It was Rozelle, former PR for the LA Rams, who not only watched over many of the owners’ egos through the merger, but made them see that Roone Arledge had good ideas, etc. The key to the contribution came when Rozelle convinced his owners that the only way the NFL would survive in any market size was to take all that beautiful TV money and split it evenly. Revenue sharing, along with player drafts and more, is what keeps the NFL competitive, from New York to Green Bay. Everyone who wants to learn about the sport and how it works, should study Rozelle.
Not to mention that he is the best PR person of his own league. He knew the name of every reporter and sportscaster in the entire league, and was always willing to sit down for an interview and spread some inside info.
Without Pete Rozelle, the NFL would still be a fun little sports group to some, not the stunning monolith it is today.