As in the sunshine of their youth, Ray Nitschke and Herb Adderley and Willie Wood talked football yesterday. Only now they are not the fire and ice of the Green Bay Packers' defense. They are old men by the calendar that measures kids' games. And Nitschke and Adderley didn't tell Wood to go man-to-man with Lance Alworth. They said it was about time.
About time that someone made Willie Wood the head coach of a professional football team that matters.
About time that a man who played for John McKay and Vince Lombardi, who played every day with the idea he would learn how to be a coach, who played with uncommon desire and intelligence -- about time that such a guy, after 20 years a player and assistant coach, be given a shot at a head job.
Even if he is black.
Ed Garvey shoots from the lip a lot. The boss of the NFL Players Associations last shook the windows of Pete Rozelle's office with a loudmouth charge that the NFL is "a momument to racism." It is Garvey's thesis that the NFL too long has passed over blacks for jobs as general managers and head coaches. Rozelle said Garvey was being hysterical, that the NFL's race-relations record is no worse than that of most major corporations. Find me a qualified man, Big Business says.
Perhaps someone should have arranged an introduction, such as: "NFL, this is Willie Wood; Willie, meet the NFL."
That won't be necessary now.
Two days ago the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League hired Wood to succeed Forrest Gregg, another old Packer who left the Argos to take over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Now Wood is one step away from an NFL head job.
Marv Levy went from the Montreal Alouettes to the Kansas City Chiefs. Bud Grant of the Vikings learned the pro game in Canada. If Willie Wood makes the Toronto team into something good -- right now it is undermanned and in the first year under new ownership, with all the attendant problems that creates -- someone in the NFL will notice.
An old wide receiver, Abe Lincoln, out of Illinois, said, "I will study and prepare myself, and when the time comes, I will be ready." Willie Wood is in no hurry.
A native of Washington, a star quarterback and basketball player at old Armstrong High School, Wood was graduated from Southern Cal in 1960 and signed with the Packers as a free agent defensive back. In 12 pro seasons, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound hitter made the Pro Bowl team eight times.
He retired in 1972. He coached defensive backs for the San Diego Chargers a while, then jumped to the World Football League with the Philadelphia Bell. When the coach (whoever he was) was fired, Wood became the first black head coach in the WFL.
Then the WFL fired itself. Under the weight of unpaid bills, the league collapsed.
Wood came home to Washington.
Waited for someone in the NFL to call him.
People called, all right, to ask his opinion of Bell players they might hire.
But nobody called to hire Willie Wood.
Does Willie Wood think the NFL is "a monument to racism"?
"Not really," he said.
Pardon me, Willie. But you'd been a Lombardi Packer, a Pro Bowler by guile more than muscle, an assistant coach in the NFL, a head coach in a league whose head coaches included, to name one, Jack Pardee.
"My concern was more personal than racial," Wood said, "I knew practically everybody in the NFL, but none of them called. Certain people called about players, and I was trying to give the players good recommendations. I'd leave my number. But when all that was taken care of, nobody called for me."
Finally, with no coaching jobs available, Wood signed on with the Oakland Raiders as a scout. He hated it. The job took him away too often from his wife Shelia and sons Andre, 21, and Willie Jr., 11. He lasted five months before putting away his suitcase in Washington, where he did work for the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Metropolitan Police Boys Club.
Whatever Lombardi had, it must have been catching. Gregg, Bill Curry, Dave Hanner, Ken Inman, Boyd Dowler, Lew Carpenter, Zeke Bratkowski, Max McGee, Elijah Pitts, Jim Ringo and Bart Starr were Lombardi players who became coaches. Fired by the Cleveland Browns as head coach two seasons ago, Gregg was hired by Toronto this season and immediately reached into the nation's capital for his defensive backfield coach, Willie Wood.
Gregg left Toronto unexpectedly two weeks ago. The new owner was bitter at the parting because Gregg, only a week earlier, had publicly promised that he was committed to building the Argonauts into a team much better than its 5-11 record of this year.
On Gregg's recommendation, the Argonauts interviewed Wood for the head job.
"I was very pleasantly surprised to get it," Wood said yesterday. He flew from Washington to Toronto twice for talks. "Then they left me in suspense for a while. They talked to a lot of people, I understand."
Wood believes he was hired because he already was part of the organization and the new owner didn't want to further disrupt the building of the team. "That was my main selling point." he said.
After Toronto, what? Does Wood want to be a head coach in the NFL?
Then Wood said all he ever wanted to do was be a head coach somewhere, sometime, and if it had to be with the Philadelphia Bell, or with the Toronto Argonauts, it's still the job of his dreams.
And he's not thinking about the NFL?
"Not at all. I would be perfectly satisfied staying in Toronto the rest of my coaching career."
Forrest Gregg said much the same thing the week before he went south.