The Game before the Money recounts the National Football League’s story and the evolution of America’s most popular sport in the vivid words of men who built the NFL. This unprecedented look at football history from the players’ perspective combines the stories of icons such as Frank Gifford and Bart Starr with those of journeymen who shared the huddle with Johnny Unitas and rallied to halftime speeches from legendary coaches Vince Lombardi and George Halas. Featuring players from the 1930s through the 1970s, these personal accounts trace professional football in its journey from post-barnstorming days through the first two decades of the Super Bowl.
The Game before the Money offers backstories to classic games and the men who made history in them before multi-million dollar contracts. Insights into life in the NFL come from those most capable of providing it, NFL legends themselves. Forty former players open windows onto their own lives, their triumphs and tragedies, and the hardship and the glory that make them the people they are both on and off the field.
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About the Author
Jackson Michael is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Maxwell Football Club. He is a freelance writer and journalist. Twitter @JacksonMichael
Read an Excerpt
The Game before the Money
Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL
By Jackson Michael
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2014 Jackson Michael
All rights reserved.
Penn State University
Cleveland Rams, 1937–1939
Philadelphia Eagles, 1940
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1941–1942, 1945–1948
3 All-Pro seasons
I went out for the high school team as a freshman and didn't make it. The shock of my next football season was when we pulled up and they said, "You're going to be a center."
No more carrying the ball than the man on the moon. My forte wasn't offense, though. Defense was what I liked, and I could really play it. You got a chance to hit somebody, and they couldn't hit you back. Offense is just the opposite: you hit somebody, and they'd hit you back.
I used to love that defense.
There was a Goody Lawless in Scranton. He came down to see me all the time and encouraged me to attend Penn State.
They didn't have scholarships. School cost about $17 a month. Now you spend that much for breakfast. My dad was a coal miner and paid for it.
We didn't have that good of a team. Our record was lucky to break even.
I thought I'd love to play professionally but never realized I'd be in it that long. I started with the Cleveland Rams. One of the coaches was a good friend of mine and talked me into it. At that time my reputation wasn't that good either. [Laughs.] He just said, "Why don't you come with me?"
I said, "Heck yeah, I'll go with you."
I was only a kid at the time, about twenty years old. I was just glad to make the team.
I remember my first game. Who was that big back from the Bears? Nagurski. They used to tell me how great he was and all that crap. He came through the line and I tackled him. Boy, did it all come back. I knew what they were talking about. When you hit him, he'd hurt you. It never worked that way, you know? With him it would.
He knocked me around every time I hit him. At that time I only weighed about 185 pounds; he weighed about 220. He was at the end of his career, and I was just beginning mine. He was so great, I'm glad I wasn't around before that. He's the best football player I saw during my career, especially from that position.
When you were hurt, you wouldn't play, but you had to be hurt. There were no prima donnas then. They didn't have that many players. I think one year we went through with seventeen players. I played nine games in a row without coming out. I was beat up, stiff. Boy, you'd be stiff, but it was a great life. I wish I had it to live all over again.
I later played with Pittsburgh. I used to make $150 a game. The last couple years I did pretty good. I didn't set the world on fire, but I'd make $12,000–$15,000 a year. I was also a wine salesman and worked on commission for fifteen cents a case.
The Steelers didn't pass much. We never had a great quarterback. Bobby Layne was the first one; that was after my time.
We had good runners. Bill Dudley was one of the best backs I've ever seen. What made him so good was his attitude. If he was hurt, he'd play. He was that type of kid. At that time he was a kid compared to me. He never cursed, never did anything bad. A real religious kid, and everybody respected him. A guy like Bill Dudley, he'd probably make about $500 a game.
When the war came, I enlisted in the navy. There was nothing much you could say, and I just left the Steelers. [Steelers owner] Art Rooney said, "Go ahead."
We had football teams in the service and played other teams in the military camps. Our team had a guy with a great reputation as a football player. He was our quarterback and captain. He played for Duquesne, a college in Pittsburgh. I wish I could remember his name. I used to remember the signals; why can't I remember stuff like that? I was thinking of him the other day.
I was in the service sixteen months: two seasons. I went back to playing center and linebacker with Pittsburgh.
On offense, I'd rather play center than any other position on the line. You start everything and you're right in the center of the action.
They tried to change how I threw the ball back on punts. Once you learn it, you're not going to jag over here or change it, and I had it down pretty good. I can't ever remember making a bad pass on a punt. They said, "We need more speed, more spiral."
I'd laugh because it's not easy. Very few people can do it.
The big thing is, when you grab that ball with your right hand, you got to almost squeeze the ball. That's the one that's controlling it. A lot of times, the left arm's just guiding it. I'm talking about a right-handed thrower, now. If you're left-handed, it's just the opposite.
You got to continuously do it and get the arms in that rhythm of going back, going back, going back. You got to throw it so many times you almost get dizzy, but that's the only way to learn.
Take and stick your fingers the way you hold the ball; everybody holds it different. I squeezed it with my right hand. I'd even do exercises to keep my right hand inspired.
After the snap, the guy is going to work on you, trying to knock you down. Once you learn that, though, you'll get that under control pretty good. You can get it off fast and get ready for him. Throw the ball back, come back on your heels, and you're ready for anything. The big thing is being ready for someone to hit you.
The coaches helped, but it just came natural. You can't teach what I knew from just being coached. They tell you how to do it, but the way you react is something different.
You see a guy in sports that has ability but never shows it. They try to coach him to do this and do that, but he still goes back to the same stuff. That's the difference between the fortunate and the unfortunate. The unfortunate never get it, whereas the lucky guy, you tell him once and he remembers. He reacts to it when it occurs.
Back then, you got to know the sportswriters, and you'd go out drinking with them. There's no better way to get to know a guy than to get drunk with him.
The team used to go down to Duquesne Brewery around the end of the season once a year. We'd get together and we'd have a helluva time. Drinking for free; that's what football's like, brother, to get in free. I'm so glad I lived that life. That was better than being a millionaire.
I went into coaching after playing, mostly with Pittsburgh. Then the Redskins with Bill McPeak, and the Philadelphia Eagles with Nick Skorich. They were good friends of mine. They needed a line coach, and there I was. It's tough on your kids because you're there two years and then you get fired or move on, and they have to leave all their friends behind.
That first year coaching, I thought I knew everything, and I didn't know anything. After two or three years, you learn that stuff. You learn how to use it too. That's the big thing. After five or six years, it was just like going back to school.
If I had the choice to go back to live in Pittsburgh, I'd never go. The weather's terrible there. That's why the people are so great. Boy, they got great people there. Really down to earth. They just keep you going.
The Rooney family was one of the best families I've met, especially the old man. If I needed any money, all I had to do was call them, and they'd send it to me. They treated me like a son. That's why I played so long.
My nose was broken five times. I can reach up and slide it around. It never stopped growing, though. It's so big it's in the way.
The injuries I have now are just the ones I've caused myself. [Laughs.] Right now, I'm running around with this aluminum crutch. I got heavy shoes, and the left leg kicked the right ankle and broke the ankle. You get real clumsy when you hit that big 9-0. Never expected to, I'll tell you.
The bad thing about it, I'm losing my memory. I tried to say the Hail Mary the other night, and I forgot it. I didn't forget the whole thing, but I got to the third part, and I couldn't remember it to save my life. I said to myself, "Somebody's mad up there at you, fellow; get going."
You got to take life different than that. You start feeling sorry for yourself, and the first thing you know, you start acting sorry. I figure every time I start feeling like that, I think, "You got this far, you're lucky to be this far, so let it go at that." Nobody pays attention when you're complaining anyway.
Life is great; enjoy it, that's the big thing. Don't let anything get you down. Which is tough to do, but do it. Make up your mind that you're going to do it. I'm not kidding you; you can do it. You probably think you can't, but you can.
Don't let anybody talk you out of it either. If they get you once, they get you twice. If they get you twice, they got you forever. That's why when I say, "No," they finally get to know what I mean by "no." That's what you have to do. Just don't wear heavy shoes and fall down. [Laughs.]
I enjoyed it; it was a great life, and I thank the Lord every night that He let me have it. That's why I played so long.CHAPTER 2
Joseph "Buddy" Lex
College of William and Mary, 1946–1949
Set NCAA single-season touchdown pass record, 1949
Clarence "Ace" Parker
Tailback, defensive back, quarterback
Drafted, 1937 (2nd round, Brooklyn Dodgers)
Brooklyn Dodgers, 1937–1941
Boston Yanks, 1945
New York Yankees, 1946 (AAFC)
5 All-Pro seasons
NFL Most Valuable Player, 1940
Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee (1972)
[Buddy Lex discusses "Ace" Parker and his own story.]
Ace was all set to go to college at Virginia Tech; VPI we called it back then. A Duke alumnus in Ace's hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, asked Ace if he would mind going to Durham to talk to Duke's renowned coach, Wallace Wade. Ace got down to Duke University and went into Coach Wade's office.
Coach Wade said, "Clarence, I understand that you're all set to go to VPI."
Ace said, "Yes, sir."
Coach Wade said, "I think you're making a wise decision because if you came here to Duke, I don't think you could make the ball club."
As soon as Coach Wade said that, Ace made up his mind that he was going to Duke to show Wade he could make that ball club. Coach Wade used a little reverse psychology and it worked.
Ace was a single-wing tailback, just like I was. He was at Duke University from 1933 through 1936 and was an All-American.
The sportswriter for Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot wrote an article on one of Duke's football games in the 1930s, back when Duke was big time. In it he said, "If Duke University needed four yards or eight yards or ten yards, they would give it to Clarence Parker. He was like an ace in the hole."
That's how he got the name "Ace," and it sticks with him to this day.
Ace could do anything. He and future Masters Champion Sam Snead were in high school at the same time. They held a longest-drive contest at a golf tournament, and in that contest Ace came in first and Snead came in second.
In track, Ace did the high jump in high school and at Duke.
From Duke he went to the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of only eight NFL teams back then. In 1940, Ace was the Most Valuable Player in the NFL. When he was named that, he said, "If I'd known I was this good, I'd have asked for more money."
Ace also was an outstanding baseball player and wanted to play pro baseball rather than football. He went right from college to the Philadelphia Athletics and hit a home run in his first major league at bat. He played for the Athletics for a few years but broke his ankle sliding into second. He wore a little boot and played football on that cracked bone the year he was MVP.
After his football career, Ace managed the Durham Bulls and the Portsmouth Cubs. Both were in the Piedmont League, a Class B league when the minors were AAA AA, A, and B. Later he was a backfield coach at Duke University. He then scouted for over twenty years with the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Cardinals. He retired in his seventies, well respected.
At ninety-nine, he's the oldest living member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he's slipping. Ten months ago he was still playing nine holes of golf, could have talked to you and answered questions, but now he can't hardly talk. His birthday is May 17, so he's got a few more months to make one hundred. [Ace turned 101 on May 17, 2013, and passed away on November 6, 2013.]
As for me, I was a pretty good athlete. In 1943 I made All-State in basketball and All-Southern in football. I graduated from high school in June of 1944, after I had turned eighteen. World War II was in the midst of everything, and I got drafted in August. I then went to Camp Blanding, Florida, for sixteen weeks of basic training. I was lucky to get Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and five more days at home right afterward. From home I went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and boarded the Queen Elizabeth, one of the fastest ships afloat.
The Queen Elizabeth was so fast the German U-boats could not zero in on it, so we didn't need an escort. We crossed the Atlantic in four and a half days. I landed in Glasgow, Scotland, and took a train to Southampton, England. From there they ferried us across the English Channel to Le Havre, France. From Le Havre I rode in a boxcar to a replacement center in Verviers, Belgium. An army truck took us to the front lines, where I was assigned to the Ninety-ninth Infantry Division. This was the Battle of the Bulge, and snow was probably three feet deep in the Ardennes Forest.
We were dropped off around five o'clock at night, and it was just getting dark. One of the boys around my age started crying and wanting his mother. They took him back, and I never saw him again.
We saw three dead German soldiers lying on the ground. This was all weird to me because I'd never seen anything like this. One of the Germans had a gold tooth. Another had a ring on his finger, and the other had two rings, one on each hand. The next morning when we woke up, the gold tooth was gone, and the fingers were cut off. That's what some of our GIs were doing.
On my nineteenth birthday, February 23, we went back to R&R at a convent in Belgium. We had been living in the woods in foxholes to survive. We'd worn the same clothes for weeks, everybody had dysentery, you had crapped in your britches and everything else. I had jock itch down to my knees and ringworm from my elbow almost down to my hip. My hands and my face were black as soot. People don't understand what these frontline soldiers had to go through.
When the war was over, you got points to come home from length of service and battle stars. I didn't have enough points to come home, so I stayed. I got to play some ball over there and traveled all through Germany. I finally got home in June of '46.
I didn't know where I wanted to go to college. I had about twelve or fourteen scholarships before narrowing it down to Norte Dame, William and Mary, and Duke.
I wanted to go to Duke when I was growing up because of Ace Parker and Eric Tipton. Tipton was the tailback in 1941, when Duke played in the Rose Bowl. They moved the Rose Bowl Game for that season to Durham, North Carolina, after the Pearl Harbor attack.
My dad wanted me to stay close to home. I grew up in Newport News, Virginia. William and Mary was only thirty miles away, in Williamsburg. William and Mary had already enrolled my brother—who was not an athlete—and said they'd give him a half-scholarship if I would go there. Wake Forest offered the same thing.
Excerpted from The Game before the Money by Jackson Michael. Copyright © 2014 Jackson Michael. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Preface: Opening Kickoff,
Part One First Quarter: Players Whose Careers Began before 1950,
1. Chuck Cherundolo,
2. Joseph "Buddy" Lex and Clarence "Ace" Parker,
3. Al "Ox" Wistert,
4. Nolan Luhn,
5. Charley Trippi,
6. Johnny Lujack,
7. George Taliaferro,
Part Two Second Quarter: Players Whose Careers Began in the 1950s,
8. Yale Lary,
9. Frank Gifford,
10. Johnny Lattner,
11. Cotton Davidson,
12. Bob Skoronski,
13. Bart Starr,
14. Paul Hornung,
15. Sonny Jurgensen,
16. Jim Taylor,
17. Don Maynard,
Part Three Third Quarter: Players Whose Careers Began in the 1960s,
18. Carroll Dale,
19. Austin "Goose" Gonsoulin,
20. Dick Frey,
21. Irv Cross,
22. Garland Boyette,
23. Mick Tingelhoff,
24. Lee Roy Jordan,
25. Tony Lorick,
26. Carl Eller,
27. Dan Reeves,
28. Walt Garrison,
29. Ken Houston,
30. Elvin Bethea,
31. Bob Griese,
32. Rocky Bleier,
Part Four Fourth Quarter: Players Whose Careers Began in the 1970s,
33. Jack Youngblood,
34. Otis Sistrunk,
35. Conrad Dobler,
36. Joe DeLamielleure,
37. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson,
38. Doug English,
39. Louie Kelcher,
40. Chris Bahr,
Appendix: Monetary Figures in 2013 U.S. Dollars,
Author's Note Concerning Sources,
Further Reading: Extra Points,
About Jackson Michael,