A Review of The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless 70’s

Ken Stabler, Terry Bradshaw, “Mean” Joe Green, Steve Bartkowski, Jack Tatum, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, Jim Otto, Roy Blount, George Atkinson, John Matuszak and Phil Villapiano gave birth to something in the 70’s that we call the NFL.  They didn’t start the league, of course, but by most definitions it is the premier league it is today based on the sacrifices they, and the many others who played the game, made.

last headbangeIt was an age of sloppy, weather drenched, and poorly maintained fields.  It was an age that involved “legalized” use of steroids, which involved some using horse testosterone that was equivalent in dosage to that which is given to a 1,200 lb. horse before a race.  The result of this is the now well-known ‘roid rage’ that most certainly affected the hits involved in the game.  Steroid usage was so prolific in the game, during these years, that some players admitted that they could tell who was on steroids and who wasn’t by the look in their eyes.

It was an era that not only allowed, but encouraged late hits, hitting receivers in a vulnerable position, and exacting head-to-head hits that caused massive migraines and concussions.  It was an age of stick ‘um, touchdown dances, and toothless, sweaty linebackers that would cause a normal citizen to walk to the other side of the street to avoid them.  It was a game that involved none of the genteel, poetic resonance attributed to the strategic nature of baseball.  Yet, prior to the 70’s, professional football was baseball’s broad.

In the 70’s, Baseball had Reggie Jackson and the Yankees, The Red Machine, the A’s, The World Series, and a tradition so rich it achieved the moniker “The National Pastime”.  The NFL players mentioned above, the Monday Night Football guys, Pete Rozell, Al Davis, Don Shula, and a number of others took professional football from a proverbial backyard sport to the heights of the national stage.  They were so successful that the number two sport is now football’s dejected broad.

GEORGE CARLIN: “Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, blocking, piling on, late hitting, unnecessary roughness and personal fouls. Baseball has the sacrifice.  Football is played in any kind of weather – rain, sleet, snow, hail, mud, can’t read the numbers on the field, can’t read the yard markers, can’t read the players’ numbers; the struggle will continue.  In baseball, if it rains, we don’t come out to play.”

Baseball played well to the prolific sports writer that could artfully and poetically lift its magnificence with an analysis that called upon its rich history and place in American tradition.  It has a subtle strategy that can be brought to life through careful and leaned analysis from a great play-by-play and color commentator team on radio. Newspapers also favor baseball in that they can provide a daily recap of each day’s games in a manner deemed almost inconsequential in other sports.  Football, however, has a special, visual quality that no other sport can match throughout an entire game.  Basketball may provide more visually tantalizing highlights, but the game of football has a more irresistible appeal from start to finish.  “It is for this reason,” writes author Kevin Cook, “that the rise of football occurred in conjunction with the proliferation of television sets across the country.”

This was proven out by a risky move that the NFL and the ABC network agreed upon called Monday Night Football.  What was once a rising sport, became “the” sport, the new national pastime, with dynamic personalities, such as Howard Cosell, selling it to millions.  Monday Night Football also produced the first moment of “must see” TV for one enthusiastic, young football fanatic in a city of Nebraska: “Halftime Highlights”.  Cook details, in his book, that Cosell’s initial “Halftime Highlights” were totally unscripted, and they were “by today’s standards” poorly produced.  Yet, anyone who was privileged enough to watch those 70’s, Cosell highlights, knows the profound effect they had on the game and the national psyche.  Some of us still run imaginary plays, calling them out in Cosell’s staccato.

Football also had one thing that baseball did not: scarcity.  This aspect is not covered in Cook’s book, but I believe it was one of the determining factors in the battle between baseball and football.  Baseball had 162 games, sprint training, the playoffs, and The World Series.  If a team was successful, they could’ve played 176 games a year at that point in history, and that’s a lot of games for one to maintain acute focus.  Baseball did have events; they had opening day; the All-Star game; a few weeks of pennant chase games for those involved; and The World Series, but for the most part baseball was/is basically a six-month marathon.  Baseball is equivalent to NASCAR in one aspect, as my friend said: “In NASCAR, everyone pays attention to the first five laps, and the last five laps, but you talk and eat dinner in between.”  One can forget about baseball for months at a time, in other words, but just about every football game means something.  The NFL only played fourteen times a year for most of the 70’s, seventeen times if one counted the playoffs and The Superbowl.  One game was played on television, on Sunday, between noon and three, fourteen times a year, and then there was Monday Night Football.  We now have Monday Night, Thursday night, Sunday night football, and Saturday night football once the college season is over.  But in the 70’s, the NFL only appeared on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, and this provided a regular season NFL game an “event” status that baseball, basketball, and Hockey could only dream of attaining..

Author Kevin Cook expands: “It seems to me that things were accelerating so much, we were looking for something faster. The NFL was more the counterculture, more a rock ‘n’ roll kind of sport compared to sedate, old baseball. And I think that’s why it appealed to a generation that was looking for something newer and more exciting. And they found it in football, especially on TV.”{1}

Kevin Cook’s The Last Headbangers provides all of the details of the teams, and their games, that precipitated the rise: The Immaculate Reception; The Dolphins undefeated season, and the games involved in that season; and the instrumental battles between the Raiders, the Steelers, the Dolphins, and the Cowboys.  He also talks about the end of that era with “The Catch” by Dwight Clark in the corner of the end zone against the Cowboys.  The era began with a catch, the Immaculate Reception, and it ended with a catch “The Catch” in Kevin Cook’s narrative.  He talks about how that 49ers offense called the “west coast” offense took advantage of the many rules changes that favored the passing game and changed the game from the sloppy, smash mouth, and run oriented offenses to the clean, crisp, and almost machine like precision that modern day NFL teams have copied, revamped, updated, and instituted in their offensive strategies.

In a broader sense, The Last Headbangers brought a “nothing new” approach to those avid NFL fans who have been inundated with the rich tradition that the 70’s and the early 80’s produced.  ESPN, MNF, the NFL network, and others have all captured these elements hundreds of times before, but Kevin Cook does unearth some nuggets that we longtime fans didn’t know.  Shula’s competition committee, for instance, narrowed the hash marks from the traditional, college width to one they hoped would open up the passing game, but it only allowed running backs more room lateral room, and the running game flourished for a time.  Most football fanatics heard sketchy details about Larry Csonka leaving the NFL in his prime for the WFL, but when he was asked to summarize his tenure in the WFL, Csonka replied: “It was nice to make money playing football.”

On that note, Cook reports that most of the top NFL players of the early 70’s still had to have part-time jobs for their existence, as they only made between $18,000 and $22,000 a year on average.  Number one draft pick Terry Bradshaw had to sell cars in the offseason, and Franco Harris had to hitchhike to games.

It was also fascinating to learn that what drove Bill Walsh to accomplish much of what he did in the early 80’s, as a result of being passed over for the Cincinnati Bengals job by Paul Brown when Brown retired from that position.  Apparently, Brown had been damaging Walsh’s prospects throughout the league by calling every owner in the NFL to tell them that his assistant coach was inept and a trouble maker.  Another thing that Brown informed NFL owners about, a fact we learned from the NFL Channel’s exposé on Bill Walsh, was that Brown believed Walsh was too mercurial to handle the rigors of coaching at an NFL level.  His highs were too high, and his lows were too low.  After seeing what Walsh would accomplish with the San Francisco 49ers, most of these owners probably wish they had never listened to Brown, but Brown’s characterization of Walsh would eventually bear out.

When Walsh was passed over for the Bengals’ head coaching job, and he found out that Brown had muddying the waters for Walsh and his career prospects in the NFL, he was crushed.  Walsh would eventually exact his revenge, of course, by taking two Super Bowl trophies from his former mentor’s Bengals.  The book, The Last Headbangers, also details that Walsh had something of a Noll/Bradshaw relationship with his quarterback Joe Montana that culminated in Montana saying: “(F-bomb) you, you white-haired (person who sucks on … roosters).”

In the promotional interview with NPR for the book, author Kevin Cook talks about the suffering that a lot of the players are now enduring for playing the game, “A friend of mine calls them sport’s greatest generation, because they had an inkling that they were risking their futures.”  When we hear players, like former Rams DE Fred Dryer, say, “I would have to roll off the bed onto the ground in order to lessen the pain enough to be able to walk around for a day.” When we hear former Vikings running back Robert Smith say that he retired prematurely, after seeing the former Houston Oilers’ great Earl Campbell in a wheelchair, and when we read Cook document that some former NFL stars can’t drag a pocket comb through their hair, at the age of 45 or 50, we are forced to realize what these players foresaw and played through.  It’s a point Cook elucidates when he points out the few players, like Franco Harris and Phil Villapiano, that were able to escape prolonged and debilitating injuries in their post-football careers.

The thing is, as Cook’s friend said, these players did “have an inkling” that they were doing long-term damage to their bodies every time they took the field, every time they woke up the morning after and heard a doorbell that didn’t ring, and every time they covered up an injury, because they “weren’t injured they were hurt,” as Don Shula was known to ask the players who groaned on the sidelines that they couldn’t go in for the next play.  Very few twenty something males consider the long-term health consequences of their actions, so it’s debatable whether they considered this or not, but most of we naysayers haven’t put our bodies through a quarter of what they did.

Reliving the moments that made the NFL the premier game that it is today with Cook are thrilling.  The man describes the players, and the plays, with a flair that one cannot help but notice comes from the perspective of a fan.  This is the book’s great selling point for much of the book, but it is its downfall in others.  As Cook warns: “This book isn’t meant to glorify the uglier aspects of NFL football in the 1970s and early ’80s.  The drugs, the booze, the cheating and headhunting, the occasionally seamy sex, and the risks the game posed to players’ health.”  As that statement entails, there is some discussion that will satisfy prurient interests, but there’s not enough.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a book of this nature must delve into the seedier side of the game to satisfy me, but this book almost seems to respect the game too much.  It doesn’t feel rounded out enough.

The book Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman explored the entirety of Walter Payton’s career.  Some may say it was too negative and disrespectful, but that author complained that those who said such things simply haven’t read the entire book.  The point is that a writer has a duty to report both sides of the story to his readers if he is going to produce a worthwhile book.  We all hate to have our heroes diminished in any way, but a writer can do it in a responsible and journalistic manner to produce material that we didn’t already know, isn’t that why we purchase such books in the first place.  One gets the feeling that Cook saw how the NFL brotherhood ganged up on Pearlman, and he didn’t want any part of that.

Kevin Cook does conclude The Last Headbangers with some reporting, but he does it in an ESPN-style “Where are they now” human interest type stories on Franco Harris and Phil Villapiano.  As with all of those tedious, ESPN-style stories created to fill time, most readers don’t personally care that Franco’s son unsuccessfully ran for office and Phil’s son unsuccessfully trained to make a Division I football team, and we don’t care that Villapiano eventually gave Harris a noogie over the Immaculate Reception.

It is a well done book, and Cook has created a real page-turner for any avid fan of 70’s football, but you do finish the book with the feeling that there is something more to the story than we’re being told.


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