It is a beautiful picture. The two men are in football uniform. Pat Fischer, white, cornerback, No. 37. Mike Bass, black, cornerback, No. 41. They are hot and tired, and they have an arm around each other, and joy owns them. The camera caught it. Smiles this wide. Eyes alive. The Redskins beat Dallas that day in 1972, earning a spot in the Super Bowl, and the picture speaks volumes about common sacrifice, common reward.
For seven seasons beginning in 1969. Mike Bass was a starting cornerback for the Redskins. A gentle man personally, he yet delivered the violence his profession demanded. As Fischer is, Bass was a hitter, pure, clean and unrelenting. It was his job to knock people down, and he did it well until ----for the crazies that run under kickoffs, defensive backs are asked to sacrifice their bodies. Here comes a 220-pound running back on a sweep. The cornerback, a little guy, maybe 190 pounds, meets him headon. Nice work if you can get it.
On Nov. 9, 1975. Bass was at work, making a tackle on Joe Dawkins of the New York Giants. Dawkins' knee struck Bass in the head, tearing apart the cornerback's neck muscles: They used a stretcher to take Bass off the field. He didn't practice the next week, so terrible was the pain, but he played every game of the season. Football coaches preach this: You take the job, you take the pain. Football players say amen.
Then, in training camp on July 24 last summer, in a routine drill, Bass was hit in the chest. Strangely, the resulting pain was in his head. Two days later it was still there, and two days after that Bass said he was leaving football because tests showed another neck injury -- and another seemed inevitable. The November tackle had rendered weak those awesome neck muscles that protect football players against blows that would snap Everyman's spinal column -- another injury might be finally tragic.
"The choice was being able to walk away or being in a wheelchair with someone taking care of me forever," Bass said. "Of those two. I chose to walk."
The Redskins start practice today for another season. For the first time in 10 years, Mike Bass won't be in uniform playing professional football. Some men would cry. Extraordinary bodies enabled them to accomplish atheletic feats that produced unending adulation, favor and privilege. Unthinking, they took that as their due.Their world was a child's, all candy and bubble gum, theirs forever and ever. At the end, with a bad neck, they would cry when camp began without them.
"No. I don't at all." Bass said when asked if he missed not being there. I've not looked back. Oh, there was a point about two months ago when I started getting itchy. I wanted to work out. I half-thought about going to training camp. But then I became really realistic. It was raining and humid outside, and my neck was throbbing, and I said, 'C'mon, Mike, be realistic."
Michael Thomas Bass runs MTB Enterprises out of an office in a building he owns in Silver Spring. He deals primarily in real estate, and his company is a partner in a deal that offers a club membership to people who want to vacation at 90 resorts around the world. On this day he sat at his desk, across from the picture of Fischer and himself, and said he always knew what football was.
"I recognized football as a means to an end and not the end itself," Bass said. He spoke softly, his voice as smooth as O. J. Simpson in flight. "I always looked upon it as a business. And it is business, as witness my current difficulties with the Redskins."
Bass is suing the Redskins. They are arguing whether he retired last season or didn't play on advice of doctors. The Redskins have refused to pay his 1976 salary. $78,000 saying Bass retired voluntarily. Bass wants that money, plus more than $6,000 in expenses, saying he did not retire but was unable to play and quit because the team physician told him to.
"Let that be a warning to players that no matter what their position may be, when you are no longer productive, the real concern and interest by management is no longer there," Bass said.
Because he'd twice been cut by National Football League teams, Bass quickly realized he must escape the child's world. For two years after graduation from Michigan. Bass taught history and civics. When he joined the Redskins in 1969. Bass knew he wanted to be in business for himself. MTB was born. It is prospering, and Bass a year out of the game, said he doesn't have any idea how the Redskins will do this season.
"I haven't really followed them as a team," he said. "I've followed players on an individuals basis. But I've had contact with only a very few -- and I think it's best that way. We live in different worlds now."
"The memory lingers, thought. Vince Lombardi signed Bass here in 1969. An oil portrait of the coach hangs next to Bass's desk. Bass took an interception in for a touchdown to beat the Giants in 1974. The game ball rests on a shelf. Bass once described the relationship with teammates as "an unspoken thing, a love syndrome."
"The only thing I'll want my teammates to know is that I miss them. I care for them and I wish their families the very, very best -- because the profession is not an easy profession."