Something Better than Big-Time Football
Two professional football players tell what they found to be much better.
THERE was a time when sports were more important to me than eating or sleeping. They were my whole life. Developing physically to about six feet three inches and two hundred pounds, I became well known in high-school athletics.
In college I concentrated on football, playing offensive end at the University of California at Berkeley. I was voted “All Pacific Coast” three years, and in my senior year made the Pro-Grid All America team, a selection made by professional football people.
Then in 1973 I was drafted by the Oakland Raiders, one of the best teams in professional football. I had a successful first season. But last year when I quit it was front-page news on local sports pages. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:
“A ‘persuasion party’ of two Raider representatives has so far failed to change [his] mind. . . . The fact that he is now considered an outstanding player is attested by the urgency of the Raiders’ scouts in attempting to convince him to come back.”—June 21, 1974.
Many have asked, “Why did you quit? Why did you give up such a bright football future?”
Attitude Toward the Game
It is not because I did not enjoy professional football. I did. I relished playing with the best players in the nation, matching my skills against theirs.
True, it is a rough game, and every year scores of professional players are seriously hurt. In fact, each year one out of every eight players is said to require knee surgery. But the fear of injury had nothing to do with my quitting. Frankly, I enjoyed the physical contact.
Financially, I made more money in one year in professional football than I could make in several years at my present job as a carpenter. And I had the prospect of earning much more in the years to come.
Yet there were things connected with football that began bothering me; no doubt earlier training influenced my feelings. My mother started studying the Bible with Jehovah’s witnesses when I was ten, but I was too interested in sports to pay much attention. However, later, when associates would pressure me to use drugs, I vigorously objected. But after about a year and a half at Berkeley I gave in and started using amphetamine drugs before the games.
Amphetamines make a player more active during the game. They dispel any tiredness, and keep him playing fast all the time, making him superfast. Many professional players take them because their job, their livelihood, depends on being at peak alertness and speed during the game. But they stay keyed up for hours or even days afterward. Often I was unable to sleep for a whole day after a game. So players may use other drugs after a game to relax.
In time I was also smoking marijuana and sniffing cocaine. I knew it was wrong, and it would bother me. But the players I associated with used them, so I did too. Another thing that began troubling me was the immoral living that is such a part of professional sports.
Girls were always hanging around to see if they could be picked up by the players. Married players often went out with girls other than their wives. The attitude of people seemed to be, ‘Well, he’s a pro football player, so it’s okay.’ And they would just kind of excuse it as the expected thing, because a football player is “somebody special.”
As a rookie, I looked up to a lot of people on the team. But the things they said—it just completely blew all feelings and the respect that I had for them. For example, they would say: “Hey, I made it with five girls last week, not including my wife.” And I looked at the person and thought to myself: ‘So this is the guy I idolized. I hope I never become like that.’
But, in a time, I began doing the same type of things, except that I was single. If people knew the scene behind pro football—it’s really bad, high living and very immoral. I am not saying that everyone is involved in such conduct, but it’s very common among players.
Effect on Personality
Receiving all kinds of adulation does things to a person. A man came hundreds of miles to shake a teammate’s hand before a game—a well-known player who did TV commercials. “I would just like to shake your hand because I think you’re a marvelous player,” the man said as he extended his hand, adding, “although I’ll be rooting for Kansas City.” At this the player grabbed back his hand, yelling, “Get the . . . out of here. I don’t want to . . .” And he started cursing him.
That disgusted me—the arrogance and pride. Because a player is famous he feels entitled to treat people like that. Not all do, of course, but it is a tendency. I know. Although I did not reach stardom in professional ball, I did in college and it affected me.
It is hard to be humble when you are a campus hero, and people are always telling you how great you are. When I would go home to visit, my mother and friends would try to show me the Bible’s viewpoint. But I was only interested in my career, and would snicker at the thought of being a humble Christian. I felt that they should be proud of my achievements.
I had what I thought I wanted, but still I was not really happy; my life just had no purpose to it. So I decided to make some changes, to clean up my life. I stopped smoking hashish and sniffing cocaine.
Then one night early last year some associates said: “Let’s go see The Exorcist.” It was the most sadistic, evil movie I have ever seen. Leaving the theater afterward, I had a very uncomfortable feeling. I had remembered as a youngster studying in the Bible about the existence of invisible wicked forces.
I called my sister and her husband in Modesto who are Jehovah’s witnesses. They confirmed that demons can really exercise adverse influence on humans and earthly affairs. (Eph. 6:12; Acts 16:16-18; 19:11-17) Concerned, I jumped into my car and headed for Modesto.
From our Bible discussions I became convinced that there really is a spirit world. But if that is so, there must really be a true God. That means my energies were being wasted if my life was not being used in harmony with His purpose. At this point I came to a crossroads in my life.
I could see that there were no real satisfaction and happiness on the road I had been traveling, just an empty and shallow feeling of uselessness. This was the road with all the material frills—big money, worldly fame, immorality, drugs, and so forth. But there was another road, one involving Bible study, Christian meetings, service to God—a simple and uncomplicated life, but one full of true meaning. This is the road I now chose to take.
On learning of my decision, representatives of the Raiders visited me to try to change my mind. To them, giving up such a lucrative career seemed foolish. I explained that I still liked football, but that my relationship with Jehovah God had now become even more important to me.
I told them what my associations in those circles had resulted in—use of drugs, loose living, an arrogant, proud disposition. That whole life-style connected with professional football, I explained, would interfere with the Christian life I now wanted to lead. Also, I was being idolized by fans, and I did not want to contribute any longer to such idolatry. And, furthermore, I wanted to be freer to devote more time to the urgent work of Kingdom preaching, in imitation of Christ’s example.—Luke 4:43.
By submitting to water baptism in the summer of 1974, I symbolized my dedication to serve Jehovah God, and have since been blessed spiritually. In my days as a football player I had many thrills, such as being carried off the field as a hero before 70,000 screaming fans at the end of the Stanford game. But recently I had an even greater joy.
While calling from house to house in the preaching work I found a young man who was sincerely interested in God’s Word. I revisited him several times, and he agreed to have me conduct a weekly Bible study in his home. This is the greatest joy I have ever experienced, because it means that I am sharing in the work of ‘making disciples’ that Jesus Christ started and encouraged his true followers to continue.—Matt. 28:19, 20.
Others who have played professional football feel much as I do. One of them lives nearby in Stockton, California. He spent seven seasons in the National Football League, five of them as a first-string defensive tackle. But I’ll let him tell about it.
Realizing an Ambition
In high school I received a lot of recognition as a lineman on the Edison High football team. Then, upon graduation, a barrage of some forty offers came from various colleges across the country. I decided to stay close to home and go to San Jose State College.
After four years of college football, I was rated one of the best professional prospects in the nation. Practically every team in the National Football League contacted me. I was six feet four inches and 245 pounds, but could run the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds.
The Green Bay Packers picked me in the third round of the 1966 college draft. As a bonus for signing a contract, they gave me a new Oldsmobile Toronado and $10,000 in cash. My starting salary was $18,000 a year.
I was twenty-one years old and walking around with over $5,000 in one hundred dollar bills in my pockets. I thought to myself: ‘Now, this is what it’s all about. I’ve got money, new car, prestige, the best clothes, and I am recognized and welcomed at the finest restaurants.’
I reported to the Packers’ training camp in July 1966, already in top physical condition. Conditioning drills were grueling, and this is where my precamp conditioning program paid off. None of the veterans seemed to be in as good condition as I was; some would fall out of drills in agony and throw up.
But before the season started, coach Lombardi took me aside. He had just gotten a call from the St. Louis Cardinals. They had lost a top lineman with a heart murmur that took him out of football, and they needed a good replacement. So the Packers traded me to St. Louis for a high draft choice plus substantial cash.
What the Game Is Like
In St. Louis I continued to improve, eventually becoming a keyman in the defensive line and the team’s top pass rusher. The coaches emphasized the need to be rough, and being exceptionally strong, I became highly skilled at beating my opponent. It is not without reason that interior line play has been called “war”!
I played defensive tackle, and defensive linemen can hit with their open hands. It is legal. I learned to hit an opponent upside the head in the temple area. It’s called the “headslap.” If you slap hard enough, it gives the offensive lineman a headache. So the quicker I could hurt my opponent, and then concentrate on his pain wherever his pain happened to be—the better advantage I had.
The moment the ball was snapped, I would hit the offensive lineman as hard as possible. This would jar his head and give me a chance to get by him and get to the quarterback. We would use our elbows and forearms too. Once I cracked a guy’s helmet with my arm.
Many of the players I played against in professional ball were the same guys I knew during my college years. But on the day of the game we became mortal enemies, trying to beat one another physically. My good friend and roommate in college later played for the Cleveland Browns. I hit him hard one day when we were playing Cleveland, and he later had to go to the hospital and have an operation. My wife and I felt sick about that.
I can remember one time when we were playing Cleveland. The coaches told us that their quarterback had a bad neck. They suggested that, if I got a chance, I should try to put him out of the game. So during the game I broke through the line, beat the center and guard, and there he stood. I tried to tear his head off with my arm, and he fumbled the ball.
My teammates were praising me. But watched the quarterback on the ground in obvious pain. I suddenly thought to myself, “Have I turned into some kind of animal? This is a game, but I’m trying to maim somebody.” I also considered that he had a wife and family just as I had. The crowd was giving me an ovation, but I did not feel right about what I had done.
After that it became more difficult for me to try to hurt an opponent deliberately. Of course, at our weekly strategy sessions we discussed the weaknesses and injuries of players on the opposing team. Our strategy was specifically to hit an opponent where he was most vulnerable, where he had suffered previous injury.
When we later played the New York Jets, it was pointed out that their star quarterback had suffered several knee injuries. Therefore, that was the place to hit him. On one play I had the opportunity to hurt his knees badly. The coaches later asked me why I didn’t. I told them that I didn’t think it was necessary. My teammates thought this was strange.
In 1971 we played the Buffalo Bills. Their star running back had suffered an ankle injury and we were supposed to get him out of the game. On one play I grabbed his ankle and, as he went down, I started to roll with it, which is perfectly legal. But I didn’t do it. With this new attitude, each week opposing players would actually thank me for not deliberately hurting them on the playing field.
Factors Influencing Change of Attitude
A back injury suffered during a game in 1969 was one factor that caused me to change my attitude. Most of that season I played with constant pain in my back and legs, even though I was given pain-killing drugs. When they wore off, I’d be in so much pain I’d have to crawl around the house. In April 1970 I had a back operation that seemed to help my condition some. From then on I did not want to be responsible for someone else suffering this way. But more was involved in my growing hesitancy to hurt others deliberately.
About the time of my operation my wife started studying the Bible with one of Jehovah’s witnesses. I didn’t like it. I thought the whole thing was another religious scheme to get money. So I told her: “If you want to study, go ahead. But I’m not getting involved.” And I didn’t.
However, in time my wife began asking me questions, such as: What is God’s name? Why did Christ die? What is God’s kingdom? The questions were not hard. But I didn’t know the answers. This bothered me. I believed in God, and had read some of the Bible. Yet, I found now that I really knew little about what the Bible teaches.
So later I changed my mind and joined my wife in her weekly Bible studies. I enjoyed them, because I received answers right from God’s Word. Then I started going to a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Stockton, California.
In time, I was moved to begin calling at people’s homes to share with them the good things I had been learning about God’s purposes. This brought me real satisfaction, because I knew that this information from God’s Word could truly help others, even as its application in our lives has helped me and my family. In February 1972 my wife and I symbolized our dedication to serve Jehovah God by undergoing water baptism at a Christian assembly.
But I was still under a football contract for two more years. So when July came around I felt obligated to report to training camp. This really disturbed me, since I was having a hard time harmonizing professional football’s brutality—especially its interior line play—with Christian principles. (Gal. 5:22, 23) Yet living up to one’s word by fulfilling a contract is vital too, even as God’s Word indicates. (Matt. 5:37) I prayed to God many times over what seemed a dilemma.
Then, halfway through the 1972 season, my old back injury flared up, and in October I was in the hospital for another operation. With my future value to the team in doubt, the Cardinals agreed to release me from my contract. I was overjoyed to be free.
It is not that I believe sports such as football are themselves bad. I can enjoy them. But it is indeed sad how the selfishness and win-at-all-cost attitude is bringing professional sports to the edge of ruin. Yet this should not be surprising, since the whole system of things is permeated with this same spirit of selfishness and greed.
Truly it is a joy to know that our Creator has something much better in mind for humans who will serve Him. His Word makes clear that soon now he will completely wipe out this entire system with all its selfishness and greed, replacing it with a new system of things in which righteousness will dwell. (Matt. 24:36-39; 2 Pet. 3:5, 13) A Bible promise regarding that new system warms my heart. It says at Revelation 21:4 that God “will wipe out every tear from [human] eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”
Devoting one’s time and efforts to telling others about these grand purposes of God to bless humankind seems to me a much better career than big-time football.—Contributed.