To learn of football’s supposed feral state, the president beckoned some stalwart gridiron guardians to the White House. POTUS relayed his concerns in a conference that lasted nearly three hours. However, it isn’t a framed photograph of Barack Obama that UNLV coach Tony Sanchez prizes with pride of place on a table opposite his desk in the Lied Athletic Complex.
Obama did convene such a meeting, in May 2014. But the one in 1905, arranged by Teddy Roosevelt, is what led to further discussions and the preservation of the game, and Sanchez’s precious regard for the 23rd president. The image shows Teddy with three of his Rough Riders, all on horseback, before the Alamo. Several steps from that iconic edifice stands another, the three-story Victorian-era Menger Hotel, in whose solid cherry-wood bar Teddy recruited cowboys, ranchers, miners and collegiate athletes. When Sanchez is in San Antonio, he never fails to toast—with a shot of whiskey—Teddy Roosevelt.
“He fought for the game and thought it was the most important thing to our young men in America. That’s a tough son of a gun,” Sanchez says. As documented by the The Washington Post, the unsentimental Roosevelt, in his football chats, harbored hearty contempt for anyone who counted a broken arm or collarbone as serious consequence or displayed low cunning … of base and dishonorable action. He celebrated hardihood, physical address and courage … gallant and upright men. Sanchez says, “He got it. Football is everything that is American. I love it.”
That unabashed pigskin ardor, machismo cubed, is a fitting introduction to an array of Las Vegas figures who are, or have been, close to the game and their visions of what it might look like in 30 years. Constant rule changes compelled one to envisage a National Flag Football League (NFFL). Another foresees an ultra-violent form of Rollerball—Roller Prolate Spheroid Ball?—that will only be available on pay-per-view.
Ethan Dedeaux loathes the future. A 5-foot-9 speedster at Liberty High who has committed to San Diego State, he abhors the non-stop wave of alterations and tweaks. He says football will be molded into an unrecognizable spectacle. “I think they’ll dumb it down so much it won’t really be football. It will not be a man’s game. It won’t be football anymore … it won’t be a man’s sport, as it is now.”
Few felt its Darwinist disposition more than David Humm, whose throat might still bear lineman Gene Upshaw’s fingerprints. Humm matriculated from Bishop Gorman High to the University of Nebraska to an NFL career as a reserve quarterback, from 1975-84. Clotheslining was legal. The Wedge was a gorgeous anvil. “It was pain,” says Humm, who neither suffers pansies or wussies, nor apologizes for the primal behavior of his time. As a rookie with the Raiders, in a huddle in Kansas City, Humm barked at Upshaw, who charged Humm and lifted him off the ground with both hands to his throat. Referee Jim Tunney begged Upshaw to lower Humm. “Shaking me like a leaf,” Humm says with some pride. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you when to talk!’ I love this game!”
Upshaw, Lyle Alzado, Otis Sistrunk, George Atkinson, Ted Hendricks and Jack Tatum, et al, comprised one of the game’s most ferocious band of brothers. A 2010 book about them by Peter Richmond was entitled Badasses (Harper). Tatum wrote the 1980 best-seller They Call Me Assassin (Avon Books). In a 1978 preseason game in Oakland, Humm watched Tatum launch a vicious shoulder pad at New England receiver Darryl Stingley, who was left a quadriplegic. No penalty was called, but the incident led to restrictions on spearing and helmet contact. Stingley died, at 55, in 2007. At 61, Tatum died in 2010. Humm was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988. Nine years later, the ravages of the disease forced him into a wheelchair for good; the malady also afflicted an uncle and a younger sister. Says Humm, “MS can kiss my ass.”
He remains close to the game, in a broadcasting capacity with the Raiders, and he, too, despises its mutations. Humm predicted it would morph into Rollerball, the title of a 1975 film starring James Caan that was based on an aggressive, global roller-derby-like sport on a circular, tilted floor featuring motorcycles and an outer gulley in which a heavy steel ball is fired at high speed. “Death Balls,” Humm calls his version.
“I’m weary and leery and concerned. It kills me what we’re doing to it; it’s changing so much. In high school they’re talking about taking the kickoff out. Colleges will be next. What do you do then? You pay for play.” – David Humm
The flurry of red challenge flags, official reviews, ever-increasing hands-off legislation for defenders, growing confusion about the definition of a catch, maybe a narrowing of the goalposts … it’s all base and dishonorable to Humm. “Who decides where the game goes? Mom,” he says. “Moms run our country. If mom says Junior can’t play, brother, Junior is not going out [for football]. They’ve got to keep making that effort to make the game safe for mom, but you don’t want to take everything out of it. We’re on that slippery slope already.”
Mike Pritchard’s mother probably looked on in amusement as he took crayons to his silver Raiders helmet. Red streaks here, yellow blotches there. The former Rancho High standout would star at the University of Colorado and play receiver for three NFL teams from 1991-99. When he was 8 or 9, however, in a Pop Warner league in Las Vegas, he became disenchanted that his helmet was so clean, too clean. He had speed to burn, so nobody could touch him. But when teammates peacocked about the different colors on their helmets, as badges of courage, Pritchard shrugged. He grabbed his Crayolas. See, he told his pals, I’m tough! They bought the ruse.
Now, at youth clinics and kids’ leagues, Pritchard uses that anecdote to preach against such foolishness, to avoid head contact. Keep that helmet clean, he tells the lads. Of his three concussions, the worst was with the Atlanta Falcons. He satisfied trainers by counting backward from 100, by threes, to 91. But he sat on a Georgia Dome bench and shivered, and that night in a hospital a nurse awoke him every hour to keep him from slipping into a coma.
As part of last year’s concussion-related legal settlement of $765 million with the NFL, former players undergo intensive annual physicals and mental exams. So far, for Pritchard, so good. Older ex-NFLers endure that regimen every six months. He noticed this summer when offensive tackle Eugene Monroe became the 12th pro player, age 30 or younger, to prematurely—ostensibly—retire this offseason to preserve their health and welfare. Pritchard sees that trend continuing. An NFFL, or something with high scores that highlights relentlessly bigger, stronger and faster athletes, would not surprise him. However, he does believe rugby-style tackling will make football safer and preserve the fundamental look of the game.
To some degree that method of wrapping, with the head to the side and a gator-rolling of the ball carrier to the ground, can be attributed to Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who had espoused it at USC. In a popular YouTube video narrated by Carroll, he calls it the Hawk Tackle. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl to cap their 2013 season. That tackling style trickled to coach Urban Meyer who, in ’14, coached Ohio State to a national championship.
It’s what Brian Noble tutors at Liberty High. He played linebacker for Green Bay from 1985-93, when the Packers most definitely were not Badasses. Still, football’s fabric was far different. Noble (see Seven Questions, Page 74) experienced three-a-day practices, in full pads, under coach Forrest Gregg. Today, two-a-days have been eliminated and NFL players only practice in pads twice a week. The late tight end Todd Christensen once told Noble he could have played another three seasons were it not for the punishment of nine training camps.
This is Noble’s seventh season as a volunteer prep coach in the Valley, his first at Liberty for head coach Rich Muraco. Growing up in Southern California, Noble was taught to keep his eyes up and aim for the numbers of his foe. “Head across the bow,” Noble says. Today it’s about the tackler aiming his head behind the ball carrier, rugby-ish, to avoid neural damage. But constant changes exasperate him, too.
Noble and Pritchard know NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is fueled by a quest to double league revenues, to $25 billion, by 2027. Perhaps the relocation of a certain franchise from its Oakland slumlord to a domed stadium here in the “Entertainment Capital of the World” would hasten that goal. Goodell, though, has a more-pressing conundrum—how to mitigate the physicality of a sport whose wild popularity can be attributed to that very trait, while pandering to the three-headed beast of exorbitant TV ratings, exorbitant ad fees and exorbitant revenue?
What will give?
“They have to continue to look as if they’re making the game safer for the players,” Noble says. “It’s advantageous for them to give the appearance that it will be safe. How much are the fans going to allow them to change the game, from what everybody knew to what the game is going to be … [and] keep watching? It’s predicated on offensive success and that’s what puts butts in the seats, [but] I try to watch games and I get mad when I see some of these penalties. It’s not the game I grew up watching or that I played.”
Steve Stallworth, the South Point Arena general manager who played quarterback at UNLV 30 years ago, is optimistic. Football is too popular to mess with too much, he says. “I’m no doom-and-gloomer.” He is buoyed by Adams State, a Division-II program in Alamosa, Colorado, where his son, Stetson, is playing quarterback and where Jay Staggs is defensive coordinator.
Sporting a Hey Reb! tattoo on his left shoulder/biceps and, on the right, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, Staggs played and coached at UNLV, and he champions the rugby style of tackling. Eyes through the thighs is one aspect of the Grizz Tackle he details in a five-page outline for his charges that the elder Stallworth praises. Defenders then discern the near hip to the inside lower portion of the number of the ball carrier for the takedown. Head injuries and concussions dropped from 19 to none after the emphasis shift.
“Things like this lead me to believe that there will not be wholesale changes in the game,” Stallworth says. “I don’t see it becoming flag football. Coaching techniques are improving. Head smart and head safe, that’s the approach.”
Tony Sanchez acknowledges the efficacy of rugby tackles, but it’s only part of his repertoire. To solely rely on that method, he says, grimacing, is impractical, like when a bull rusher is stomping head-on at you.
He has Teddy Roosevelt for inspiration and a sassy, incredulous edge for anyone suggesting his livelihood, his passion, should be tempered. “Are you kidding me?” Eye contact becomes steely. He had just hiked from his weight room, a thumping, rousing, howling mass of humanity and clanging metal that can be heard in the next ZIP code. He is a purveyor of hardihood, physical address and courage.
“And think about what’s going on in the country right now? Come hang out with me in that locker room; we’re black, white, we’re Hispanic, we’re rich, we’re middle class, we’re poor … we’re average. We’re atheists. We’re Catholic. We’re Jewish. We’re Mormon,” Sanchez says. “And you know what? We all love each other. Imagine if everybody could spend an afternoon in a locker room with us. What a better country this would be.”
On the eve of another season of tackle football—a sport that continues to unite us as we celebrate rivalries, analyze hits in high-def slo-mo and tally those precious fantasy points—questions about long-term solutions to limiting catastrophic injuries figure to grab headlines and affect the very future of the game.