The heat is off now for Dale Robertson, the Houston Post reporter who was flung through a door by Houston Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini last week after a locker-room shouting match.
Robertson still is receiving some nasty letters, but the telephone death threats have ended, mostly because of Houston's venom has been redirected toward those NFL officials who nullified an Oiler touchdown catch in Sunday's playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"People have forgotten about me and Pastorini," Robertson said yesterday. "They're calling the NFL now, not the newspaper."
That folks should get so worked up about the little tussle between the writer and the quarterback -- to the point where Robertson needed a police escort to get home one night -- points up once again the difficulties in reporting fairly and honestly about athletes idolized by the sporting public.
Athletes and media men have been going at each other for as long as games have been played. Ted Williams and the Boston writers had 20 years of love-hate. Joe Namath had a running feud for years with several New York writers. The 1979 season began with Will McDonough of The Boston Globe exchanging punches with Patriot cornerback Raymond Clayborn.
And Billy Kilmer, who occasionally threw footballs at writers' heads (usually, he missed), once challenged me to a fight in the Redskin locker room. Luckily for him, it took at least 20 of my colleagues to hold me back.
"Sure I had problems with you guys," Kilmer said over the telephone the other night. "I always found that when a writer comes to you, most of the time he's already made up his mind what he's gonna write. He goes to you to confirm it. I didn't go for that.
"How do you avoid problems? Maybe the writers should just stay away from the athletes. Most of the writers haven't even played the sport; they don't know what the pressure is like to be involved in a race for the championship.
"A lot of times, little things are written that come out the wrong way. So when I got frustrated, I just tried to get away from everybody and not say anything because I knew I'd do what Pastorini did, something I'd regret later."
Pastorini said he was not proud of pushing Robertson through a door, but that he did not regret it, either.
Robertson has been covering the Oilers for the last four seasons. This year, Pastorini began having arm problems in training camp, and Robertson wrote about them. Pastorini did not like what was written, and relations between the two began to chill.
Robertson's story comparing Pastorini's problems with those of Miami quarterback Bob Griese prompted the Oilers quarterback to seek out the writer on a flight back to Houston after the Dolphin game. According to Robertson, Pastorini held up the article and basically told the reporter he could "shove it." After that incident, Robertson says, he simply avoided Pastorini. "If he didn't want to talk to me, I wasn't goint to force it, " he said.
Still, Robertson's readers were entitled to information on the quarterback, particularly his physical status. The week before the Pittsburgh game, when Pastorini was still suffering from groin problems, Robertson heard the quarterback on a taped interview with a local radio man. He inserted a sentence from the interview in his story, quoting Pastorini as saying he would play.
That apparently set off Pastorini again. The two began arguing in the locker room last Thursday, Pastorini telling Robertson not to use his quotes unless he had talked to him directly.
"How am I going to do that when you won't talk to me?" Robertson said.
More words were exchanged, and Robertson, by his own admmission, called Pastorini a compound noun you don't hear much on television. Push came to a shove through a door.
Heaven knows I can sympathize with Robertson because for six years I waged a similar war with Kilmer.
Almost every season, Billy the Kid would start out like Chatty Kathy during training camp, only to clam up at the first crisis -- a bad game, an injury, a possible switch to Sonny Jurgensen or Joe Theismann.
In 1973, my first year on the beat, I had scheduled my first in depth interview with Kilmer the same day The Washington Post ran a story saying Spiro Agnew would resign the vice presidency in the next few weeks. Kilmer didn't like that story, he said, because The Post quoted unnamed sources. So he canceled the interview. "Nothing personal," he said.
Over the next six seasons, there were other stories Kilmer didn't like. He took offense when people wrote that his passes wobbled, that the offense he ran was too conservative, that his dropback was too slow, that he had trouble throwing the quick outs to the sideline.
So he went into a funk and stopped talking, just like Dan Pastorini. Judging from the mail I got after a frontpage story detailing Kilmer's arrest on drunk driving charges, a lot of people sided with the quarterback. How dare you print that in the newspaper? they asked. How can you spoil our children's images?
In Houston, Pastorini also had plenty of allies, including Dan Patrick, the television sportscaster who left WTTG in Washington last fall to take a similar position with a Houston station. The night after the shoving incident, Patrick showed film of the tussle on the air. He also called Robertson a clown and a fool and criticized him for disrupting the team, the week before the big game, with "negative-reporting."
All the while, Patrick wore a blue Oiler Cowboy hat on the air.
That's when the death threats began for Robertson, and the hate mail, and the police escorts, not to mention 208 subscription cancellations. Many people agreed with Patrick, that the man on the beat ought to be a public relations arm of the team, that he should offer sugar, but absolutely no spice.
Fortunately, that is not a view held in Washington, Houston and many other cities. Robertson says his editors have "backed me up 100 percent on this." He says he will be covering the Oilers next season, though he also admits he has learned one lesson from the whole episode:
Never call a football player that compound noun. A referee, maybe. But a football player, no.