Rozelle’s monumental achievements include the introduction of the Super Bowl in the ’60s followed by the NFL’s most rapid expansion and the establishment of Monday Night Football. The ’80s saw Rozelle presiding over drug scandals, labor struggles, and the league’s legal battles with team owners such as Oakland’s Al Davis, who famously won a lawsuit to move his Raiders to Los Angeles.
Jerry Izenberg chronicles the iconic life of Rozelle, who revolutionized the culture of sports in America and is responsible for turning the NFL into the preeminent sports league in the world.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Jerry Izenberg
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2014 Jerry Izenberg
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning
Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.
Now that I think of it, I can honestly say that we never once discussed his personal goals. He had a lot of friends, but to my knowledge he never had a confidant.
—Myron De Long, longtime boyhood friend
What Pete Rozelle was was the product of a classic, traditional small-town American upbringing. If there hadn't been a Lynwood, California, Norman Rockwell would have invented it. It was virtually an all-white town, an insular place that was home first to hardscrabble farmers and later known as one of America's first suburbs—just nine miles southwest of Los Angeles and home to more than a few workers at the Alcoa plant in nearby Vernon.
Across the line that was Alameda Street lay the crazy-quilt sprawl of Watts, even then an Afro-American enclave. Lives on either side of that line rarely mingled back then.
Looking through the prism of history, Lynwood was not just a dot on the expanding map of California. It was a kind of movie-lot definition of small-town America. The Lynwood of the 1930s and 1940s was Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life and Mickey Rooney in Love Finds Andy Hardy.
And why not? According to Bill Cunningham, a contemporary of Rozelle who served for years on the town's parks and recreation commission, Lynwood "may have been the place where the idea of the drive-in restaurant was born. We had one on Long Beach Boulevard," he says, and you get the idea that teenage Pete and his buddies went there as much for the carhops as the burgers.
"Growing up in Lynwood was a lot of simple but terrific things," the late Myron De Long once told me. Theirs was a friendship that lasted beyond Lynwood and beyond the University of San Francisco, where they later worked in the sports information department.
De Long was the perfect source to reconstruct the way it was for the two of them and their friends in a Lynwood boyhood. When I met him it was in his home in the Sonoma wine country, where he had become a respected educator.
Remarking on the difference between their Lynwood days and the way it had become for that whole generation, he said, "The kids, they grow up too fast now, get sophisticated too soon. They've got all the answers right away—they think. The world has to be boxed and organized for them. They have never had the pure fun of just being young."
In reaching into the back roads of his mind to re-create the way it was and what they shared during those years, he had the recall of a man who knows who he was and what that did for him and his friends. He did not let the calendar deceive him. Steve Owen, the old New York Football Giants coach, used to say that the more years a player is retired, the faster he thinks he used to run.
But Myron De Long still clearly saw the way it was. I asked him what Lynwood was to him and Pete, and the answer came right on the money.
Lynwood was a man named Bill Schliebaum [years later hired by Pete as an NFL official] who ran the playground and coached Duke Snider [later a great Dodgers center fielder] in three sports but who always had the time to shoot free throws for Cokes with you. You hung around in the summer and you got up a touch football game or you played some tennis, and in between Schliebaum had us hopping in the school yard.
It was date nights at the Arden Theater with the malt shop next door. Girls were just something that were there. You would date them, but then you switched the next time out. You knew you were supposed to take them somewhere, so you did it. But it was never a big deal.
What Duke Snider did for our high school teams in Compton was a big deal for us, and when Pete, who worked part-time for the Long Beach newspaper, wrote about Duke and we got to read it in the paper, that was a big deal. You know, in high school they played on the same basketball team. And the biggest days of the fall were about running home after school to hear about the World Series on the radio. Now that was the biggest deal of all.
And amazing as it sounds, I can't recall ever seeing one of us—any one of us—hit somebody. Fights? It was something that just never happened.
De Long also remembered that a mutual friend named Louie Joseph had an older brother who had a car. "He would drive us into Los Angeles to the magical attraction of Gittleson's Twin Links, which to us was the Augusta National of miniature golf courses." There, among the tiny windmills and the metal chutes, they would battle for a quarter a man, winner take all. "You won't believe the way Pete could concentrate. We would stand behind him and jump up and down and yell, but we could never psyche him out in those matches. The thing is I never met a competitor so intense as he was. Even in college he played hearts as though it were life and death."
When they were in high school, oratorical contests were a big thing in Southern California. What made them an even bigger attraction was the fact that you could get time off from school to prepare. There was that and the monetary prize that the American Legion gave to the top three finishers. "Just about the time a big one was coming up, a bunch of us tried to get him to go ice skating," De Long recalled.
That was a big thing to most of our bunch, but I doubt that Pete had ever even been on ice skates until that day. He didn't want to come because he was working on his speech, and I guess you could say we actually kidnapped him.
Anyway, he gets to the rink, and we helped him around a few times, and then we put him on the end of a whip. Then somebody said, "Okay, turn him loose. He's on his own."
So he staggers off, and the next thing you know, there's this tremendous crash, and he goes down face-first and there's blood all over the ice. So now we get him home, and his mother is really furious at us. Then she wipes the blood off his face and sees there's a tooth missing. For a minute I thought she was really going to kill us.
That was on Friday, and the contest was on Sunday. His folks took him to the dentist, and they got him a false tooth. Now he goes in the bathroom and looks in the mirror and starts to practice his speech, and he sounds like Donald Duck. His dad said he practiced all night and all day Saturday.
And darned if he didn't go to the auditorium on Sunday and compete. He didn't win, but it shows you how determined he was about anything and everything he ever wanted to do.
Determination and commitment. It didn't happen by accident. Decades later when he was interviewed at the National Academy of Achievement, he spoke extensively about his father's influence:
He did so much with what he had. He never went to college more or less because of the Depression. My dad had a great influence on me, particularly later, because I was so impressed with what he did with his life. He was already a young man during the Depression, and he had this local grocery store and before that, when I was very young, we had an earthquake—1932—while he was the manager of another store. He went down there during the after-shock and he couldn't believe how bad it was.
Everything was shattered. He swept the Rinso and Oxydol together; sold it as Earthquake Soap. It was as though it were almost against his religion to waste anything. My mother and father made do with what they had and I'm not quite sure how they did it but, tough as it was for them, they gave my brother and me a genuine middle class home. They never made a big deal over money in front of us but we knew they were struggling and I have to say that my father, just through his example, gave me a terrific sense of work ethic as an obligation without ever lecturing.
The Rozelle home was at 3705 Agnes Avenue, and they moved into it after two previous rental homes. When they made the move into their version of the Lynwood American dream, Pete was five years old. It was the only boyhood home he remembered.
"I am," his father, Ray Rozelle, told me when I visited him there, "the longest continual resident of Lynwood, and since I don't feel like going anywhere, I guess I'll hold that title a little longer."
He shared a lot of photos with me. They were yellowed by the passage of time, and as he spoke his vivid memories made it clear how important it was to him and his wife to create a family environment even in the toughest of times.
If you had to characterize Ray and Hazel, who had passed away in 1972 before I met him, you'd have to say they were part of a tough, proud slice of America that looked the Great Depression in the eye, went crashing to the canvas, and struggled to their feet before somebody could run over and give them a mandatory eight count.
In 1919 Ray Rozelle came out of the U.S. Navy and hustled for a job as a machinist. Then he met Hazel Healey, whose parents had come west from Illinois four years earlier, virtually at the start of America's California-or-Bust migration. A year after that they were married. Eventually, they gambled their small savings on a neighborhood grocery store they called the Pacific Market.
Pete was born in 1926 and a younger brother, Dick, in 1929. That was the same year that America made a sharp economic U-turn. The Depression slammed across the face of America. Suddenly, Ray and Hazel were struggling to save their store. Ray told me:
I guess anybody who was around at that time recalls the way it was. The big crash hit. We tried to survive. What money I had, I put in three different banks. Nobody had much, and there wasn't much you could do if you were in the grocery business except to give credit to the people who needed it, and there were so many of them ... too many of them.
Well, you know how it was. I just gave too much credit. Then two of the three banks we had the money in went bust, and then FDR closed the third one when he shut them all down in 1932. I was working every night until after eight or nine, so I didn't get to spend much time with my boys in those days.
On top of that we had a terrible earthquake that destroyed half the town that same year. We managed to hang on until '39, and then I just saw there wasn't any way, so I went over to Alcoa and I was twenty-six years with them until I retired.
It is a fact of life of the Depression generation that the economic problems of the parents shaped the sons. The Rozelles, like many other parents in what then was a basically farming community, clung to the belief that none of this might have happened if they had been able to get more formal education. The academic competition among that generation's children, therefore, was intense all across the country.
Because there was no money in their homes, all of them hustled and studied and then hustled some more. Pete and his friends all mowed lawns and delivered groceries, but when he entered Compton High School, something happened that changed his life forever. He discovered journalism. A blend of circumstances and motivation turned him into an incredible part-time bread winner. It also gave him a sense of the power of communication that was so much a part of the incredible success he would eventually become. "Once he started doing work for the Long Beach Press-Telegram," Ray Rozelle recalled, "he always had money. There were times he could have maybe four hundred dollars in his drawer. Of course, part of that was because he never seemed to spend much. Living in Lynwood didn't require that."
But on the eve of Pete's scheduled matriculation at Compton High (Lynwood was still too small to have its own high school), Ray and Hazel made a decision that had a profound impact on his life. The principal of his elementary school had proposed to move him up an entire grade because of his gifted academic record.
Pete was athletic but undersized. The Rozelles wondered if his academic achievements might surpass his social life and his maturing. They were concerned that there might be a social gap between him and his classmates.
"Well, we had some neighbors who had moved to Modesto the year before," Ray recalled. "They had this ranch, and we thought why couldn't we hold him out a year and let him go on up there and work on the ranch so he could fill out physically and do some social maturing? He went up there for ten months, and he worked with horses and pigs and cows. He set up a basketball hoop to improve his game when he had time off. When he came home we were amazed. I think he crammed two years of maturity and physical growth into those ten months."
The sabbatical from school had another far-reaching effect. It put him into a social group of classmates that created the bond with friends like De Long and Joseph and a number of others that lasted all through their adult lives.
Both his father and De Long remembered the adolescent Pete Rozelle as a kid with an enormous drive to get things done but with little interest in ego or ceremony. As a case in point, it is worth noting that neither of them attended their subsequent graduations from Compton Junior College after the war. They chose, instead, to go fishing.
Back when they were seniors in 1944 at Compton High, Lynwood, like the rest of their generation all around the country, began to change. Familiar faces disappeared, scattered to the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. World War II was breaking up that old gang of Pete's.
"I remember," Rozelle told me, "that when we were juniors in high school, Myron had gone to one of those grade-B movies at the Arden—I don't recall which one, but it was probably a 'John Wayne in the Pacific' kind of flick—and the next day he told me, 'This is personal for me now. I got to get into the navy.' Well, I felt the same way. My dad was navy in World War I, and Myron and my other friends had their minds made up, so I guess mine was made up, too."
Rozelle tried to enlist three times and was turned down all three. But a challenge to Rozelle was like a debt unpaid. Because the military's left hand never seemed to know what its right hand was doing, Rozelle finally got his wish.
"It was the damnedest thing," his dad told me.
He got rejected each time because he was color-blind. They wouldn't let him enlist, but then they drafted him. So Pete goes over to the draft board in Los Angeles, and there is this huge line. It must have stretched out longer than a city block.
Well, it was getting near lunch, and one of the guys comes out a side door and sees Pete and he hands him some money and asks, "Will you get me a quart of milk?" and Pete says he will if the guys saves his place, because Pete is thinking that maybe when he gets back, the guy will let him in early.
When he comes back with the milk and knocks on the side door, the fellow takes him inside and asks what he wants—army or navy. The guys tells him, "Okay, it's navy if that's what you prefer, but all these other guys are going into the army." After three tries, he gets a guy a quart of milk and he's in the navy.
After his basic training he was assigned to a ship—and what a ship, a rusty old bucket of bolts called the Gardoqui, named after a Spanish gunboat captured during the Spanish-American War. The navy converted it into a class of tanker called the Double Eagle but did not rename it. It had been refitted, and its keel was laid down at the Kearny shipyard in New Jersey in 1921. The USS Missouri it was not.
"It was an old standard tanker," Rozelle recalled, not exactly the pride of the Pacific fleet.
What it was was kind of a seagoing filling station. You go out someplace and wait, and sooner or later people came to you. It was hardly the stuff of which war movies were made.
We had a small crew (seventy men including officers), and everyone had to stand wheel watch. It was so old; it wasn't electronic and it was a big, old heavy thing, and you were forever trying to compensate because it was so tough to keep it on course.
Right after the war ended, they sent us into Tokyo Bay, and that became kind of a dramatic thing. We were getting close to the mainland, and a lookout spotted a floating mine that had broken loose from its mooring. It was headed straight toward us, and I remember we had to make a hard right to avoid it. But, really, that was the highlight of my career as far as danger was concerned.
Two months later we had discharged our cargo and headed back to sea, back to Pearl Harbor, through the Panama Canal to Mobile. We arrived in January. That's pretty much my entire navy career.
"Not exactly," I suggested. "Myron De Long told me that you ran the football pools on the Gardoqui. Did you?"
Excerpted from Rozelle by Jerry Izenberg. Copyright © 2014 Jerry Izenberg. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Foreword by David Stern,
1. In the Beginning,
2. Moving On,
3. The Accidental Coronation,
4. The Boy Wonder Takes Center Stage,
5. How Do You Tell Vince?,
6. Heads They Win, Tails He Loses,
7. The 100-Yard Armageddon,
8. Sex, Lies, and Bringing Up Baby,
9. Ain't Gonna Study No War No More,
10. Bringing in the Sheaves,
11. The Failed Coups,
12. Power to the Tackles,
13. Another Day, Another Dragon to Slay,
14. At War with the Counterculture,
15. Davis Again: Feud without End,
16. Never Take a Knife to a Gunfight,
17. The Final Battles,
18. Death Be Not Proud,
List of Interviews,