The National Football League has come down with a case of happy sanity. It has outlawed gratuitous violence. No longer can a linebacker lift Fran Tarkenton into the air and break the ground with the little guy. No longer can a defensive back legally send Lynn Swann to dreamland.
Before we go on, we should mention several things, such as Dan Pastorini's ribs. Bob Griese's knee, Joe Theismann's collarbone, Darryl Stingley's neck, Roger Staubach's ankle and Terry Bradshaw's wrist.
All broken or bent.
Welcome to the National Fracture League.
Dick Butkus set a high goal for middle linebackers. The old chicago Bear longed for the perfect hit. He would know it was perfect, he said, when the ball carrier's head rolled away from his body.
He meant it.
Orthopedic surgeons took the sun in Rio after a season reparing Butkus' victims. A man carrying a football was an affront to Butkus' sensitivites. Decapitation seemed a suitable response, and soon enough every linebacker in America agreed. Don't just tackle a guy. Punish him.
Leakey found footprints in Africa and said man walked upright two million years ago. If we dig in the NFL's history, looking for the man who made a Dick Butkus possible, we find a documentary film made in 1960 by CBS News. With Walter Cronkite at the microphone, America was taken into "The Violent World of Sam Huff."
They put a body mike on Huff, then an All-promiddle linebacker with the New York Giants. The sounds of pro football had never reached innocent ears. Suddenly, in our living rooms, there were these horrendous crunches, animalistic snarls and ravings of anger. We thought it was a game. It was war.
Samm huff, you scared us to death. And we all ran out to buy tickets to see this violent world for ourselves. Or we became TV addicts, hooked forever when instant replay let us see the violence repeated. Vietnam and Kent State, the Democrats in Chicago, Medgar Evers shot in Mississippi, JFK and Bobby and Martin Luther king-all in the 1960s, a decade of violence, violence in reality and in shoulder pads.
Irrational times produced irational football. Sport is not apart from society, it is a part of society. It reflects the world we live in, and if the Samm Huff of 1960 lived by violence on the football field, Sam Huff today is happy that sanity has arrived in the NFL.
Huff works in Washington as a vice president for Mariott Corp. Sundays during the fall and winter, he does color commentary on radio broadcasts of the Redskin games.
Oh, he sometimes sounds as if he would lkie to clothesline Ken Beatrice just for practice. Old habits are hard to shake. "They've taken a lot of violence out of the game," Huff said. "It used to be that if a back came around the end, the end could hook him around the head-we called it 'clotheslining' him-and then the linebacker could clothesline him, too."
Sweet Sam was nostalgic. "It used to be I never let a back pass in front of me without clotheslining him. Hell, I just stuck out my arm and it was like the guy ran into a pole."
Sam chuckled at the memories.
The NFL, in meetings two weeks ago, approved new rules for the 1979 season that will penalize players for "unnecessary roughness" in tackling people. The quarterback will be judged down as soon as he is in the "grasp" of a tackler, although he may still be standing upright. That's to prevent another tackler from destroying the vulnerable man.
Runners are to be protected by the officials when they are tackled in such a way as to be left vulnerable to a second hit. The runners will ave "much more freedom," the NFL says, to wriggle loose from a "grasp" than quarterbacks will.
If a defensive back plays the receiver instead of the ball, or if he uses his helmet as a weapon against the receiver, he may be penalized 15 yards of ejected from the game.
Is all this good for the NFL?
Huff, laughing: "Well, now that I'm out of it, I'd say yes."
Nothing could be better.
They couldn't have made a movie like "Animal House" in the 1960s. Students were too busy seizing ROTC buildings to have good fights. If baseball, a pastoral game, seemed moribund in the days the NFL grew prosperous, it is no accident that in these time, gentler if not idyllic, baseball is stronger than ever.
The NFL has done a good thing and has done it for the reasons that no other sport ever took into account. Besides the obvious need to protect its stars from the mutilation that came even with perfectly legal contact, the NFL has recognized-and put into words-the change in society.
Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys, speaking for the NFL: "I'm not sure the game is rougher today than it used to be. But the roughness is being talked about more. We're coming into an era when undue violence is repelling people.
"My friends in television and the movies tell me brutality isn't the salable quality it used to be. There has been a public reaction against an excess amount of violent scenes. Sports fans today differentiate between contact and brutality-and we're responding to this."
We shouldn't leave here today thinking Sam Huff was a violent person.If Jimmy Taylor had the ball and was scratching and growling, Huff treated him in kind. "Frank Gifford said every linebacker is a----," Huff said, laughing in happy confirmation.
But Huff had a heart. "One time in New York, I had Bobby Layne, the old Detroit quarterback, and I had him up in the air and I could have body-slammed him.
But he'd already thrown the pass. So I just dropped him on his feet. He said thanks."