To Archie Griffin, a television announcer from Mexico today said: ". . . you'll be one of the keys Sunday to the Super Bowl." Griffin's head snapped in astonishment; no one on the Cincinnati Bengals had let him in on any such strategy.
"That'd be a surprise to me," he said, laughing. Then Griffin suddenly realized that style would win over substance today, that the NFL lets anyone with a microphone into media day, and he recovered, politely saying, "If I get a chance to play, I'm gonna be out there doing the best I can do."
If I get a chance to play. Funny the routes men take to the Super Bowl. Griffin came into the NFL six years ago riding two Heisman trophies; he neither carried the ball nor caught a pass for the Bengals in the AFC title game two weeks ago. In the entire regular season, Griffin ran with the ball just one more time than the quarterback, Ken Anderson.
If I get a chance to play. Slightly more than two years ago, Dwight Hicks was selling bean sprouts and yogurt, working in a health food store a few miles from the Silverdome here. With the 49ers, he has returned a star, an all-pro safety with nine interceptions this season.
"Sometimes people make mistakes," said Hicks, alluding to his being cut by the Lions in '78 and the Eagles a year later, "although it was such a drastic mistake you wonder how that could happen. But it does. I knew I belonged in the NFL my first year out of college (Michigan), just competing in camps.
"Competing against your (temporary) teammates, you know whether you belong or not. All the defensive backs on Detroit's team knew; the players in Philadelphia knew. Wilbert Montgomery had congratulated me on making the team, 'cause when we broke camp I was still on the roster.
"The next day they called me in and said, 'We got some bad news for you.' "
Not quite broken either in spirit or at the bank, Hicks took a job at the health food shop, from late August 1979 to Oct. 24, "for four-something an hour.
"But I don't really ponder on that too much," he quickly added, "because there's too many good things happened to me since. I took that job as a means of income, and because I was sitting around my apartment doing nothing but being frustrated and depressed . . . (NFL) people did call me. I had a tryout with the Giants, and Kansas City flew me in.
"San Francisco was the last. They didn't sign me that day. I went back (to Michigan), and two weeks later Eric Johnson injured his shoulder and I got my chance."
Hicks had five interceptions in eight games the rest of '79, and four in twice as much playing time a year later. On draft day last May, if anyone had told Hicks that his interception total this season would equal his combined production of the two previous years he would have suggested a lobotomy.
He admits to being very skeptical when the 49ers drafted the kids who shortly would be his three defensive backfield partners: Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson. He could not be much happier with the results.
Of Hicks, 25, the Niner deep defender closest to senility, Coach Bill Walsh volunteered, "He caught us at the right time. You see a number of players who make a team after things didn't work out with a couple others. It doesn't mean they failed. Mostly, they matured enough through each experience to be ready for the NFL that third crack."
How many more cracks will Archie get? How many chances before he leaves the NFL unfulfilled? He went from Heisman to humble about as fast as that is possible. He wants to be traded. This season was doubly frustrating, because in addition to his football inactivity a business he ran with Bengal brother Ray went sour.
"Two different segments of my life," he said. "College was mostly running; the pros is mostly passing. I try to patiently explain things, but that doesn't always get it either. My parents have one (of his Heismans); I have the other."
Whatever inner struggles Archie has about his pro fate stay inside, Ray insists.
"He's not the happiest man in the world, quite obviously," the younger, by two years, Griffin said, "but he's carrying it very well. Deep down inside, he knows his ability."
If I get a chance to play. Anderson has been the toast of the league this season, the quarterback on most all-NFL teams. He has become the best in his profession after being drafted in the third round out of lightly regarded Augustana (Ill.) College in '71.
But for a career-ending injury to Greg Cook, a first-round choice two years earlier, Anderson's career surely would have taken a dramatically different twist. Perhaps he would not have had a pro career at all.
"(Cook) is the greatest single athlete I've ever seen at that position," said Walsh, a Bengal aide at the time.
"He would have been an all-time great quarterback," said Sam Wyche, a 49er assistant and former Redskin backup quarterback who was a backup quarterback and Cook's roommate with those early-'70s Bengals. "If he'd stayed, I suspect Kenny wouldn't have been drafted.
"Probably, it would have been Greg Cook playing--and doing well--and me as backup."
Paul Brown's son, Pete, first saw Anderson's potential; Walsh verified it.
"I saw him play," Walsh said, "and later worked with him in the gym. In that (Augustana) game, he was the biggest player on the field. The only person larger was the drum major--of the other team's band."
As Hicks realized two years ago, and said today, as Griffin now knows and as Anderson also does whenever he has time to consider his athletic life, "sometimes things are just beyond your control. You've got to have faith in yourself." And hope it is matched somewhere important by somebody with some pull.