When the 1970s kicked off, there were still working-class players in the National Football League who sold cars in the off-season and hitchhiked to games. They smoked cigarettes at halftime and kept playing even when parts of their bodies were broken, such as their heads. But the league changed during that decade. It became a hugely complex cultural phenomenon. By the end of the ’70s, individual players were making more money than entire teams made a decade before.
In his book “The Last Headbangers,” Kevin Cook doesn’t so much debate the merits of what happened to the NFL during the ’70s as chronicle the change and search for its roots. As the book’s subtitle says, this was “The Era That Created Modern Sports.” And really, it’s the perfect conceit for a book. Cook can spin out yarn after yarn of over-muscled guys doing under-brained things (think hot tubs, controlled substances and shocking violence) while aiming to tell a bigger narrative about sports and society. He can tut-tut and titillate at the same time.
Cook’s primary vehicle is the ’70s-spanning rivalry of the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers, featuring arguably the greatest collection of weirdos, maniacs, misfits, heroes and villains ever gathered under any dome other than the U.S. Capitol (sorry, cheap shot).
On one side, you had Raiders owner Al Davis, who hated NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle with charmingly naked intensity. Davis had wanted the commissioner’s job and worked to undermine the slick, Up With People image Rozelle was crafting for the league. He fought Rozelle’s policies in court, voted against giving him raises and encouraged a truly nasty style of play. Raiders linebacker Jack “the Assassin” Tatum paralyzed Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley with a hit and wouldn’t apologize; long-haired quarterback Ken Stabler ran continuous parties out of his motel room while on the road; linebacker Ted Hendricks showed up at his first practice on horseback; defensive lineman John Matuszak “may have led the league in substance abuse.”
They were the perfect foils for the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose owner, Art Rooney, was one of the league’s founding statesmen. His fullback, Rocky Bleier, was a thick-chested Vietnam vet who had a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw was a self-doubting country bumpkin who liked to sing. And running back Franco Harris and receiver Lynn Swann were almost balletic in their grace and athleticism. The whole team would gather at Harris’s house on Tuesday nights for poker, fried chicken and Iron City Beer.
As Cook quotes writer Roy Blount Jr., the Steelers-Raiders rivalry was “good versus evil,” and its retelling is total brain candy for football fans — certainly for those old enough to remember the old Schlitz Malt Liquor and Colt 45 commercials. “Bradshaw vomited before his first pro game,” Cook writes. He describes one play where the Steelers’ rookie quarterback tried to throw to receiver Ron Shanklin, “whose puffy Afro barely fit under his helmet, [and who] liked to growl while running patterns to psych out defenders.” Bradshaw muffed the throw, and Shanklin got drilled. After throwing nine more incompletions and an interception, Bradshaw dropped back to pass from his own end zone but “stepped on the end line for a safety. He had scored the first two points of his NFL career — for the other team. [Coach Chuck] Noll yanked him. . . . After the game Bradshaw sat in his truck in the players’ parking lot, weeping.”
Then there’s Stabler, continuing to run the offense and throw passes even after concussions left him semiconscious. “Those were called zombie plays,” Cook writes. Or Raider center Jim Otto, who had knee surgery and snuck out of the hospital and back to practice with a leg that had turned black. After his career, Cook writes, he endured “so many follow-up knee operations that the nerves around his right knee died. You could light a match to that leg and Otto couldn’t feel it.” It was later amputated.
But the problem with Cook’s book is that the Steelers-Raiders rivalry doesn’t really explain how football became the modern product that today brings in billions upon billions in revenue. The creation of that money machine during the 1970s was more of a backroom affair, with Rozelle negotiating ever-higher TV broadcast deals and the networks cooking up more and more elaborate presentations. As for the game itself — the modern version, as Cook notes in the latter part of the book, actually developed in the early 1980s with the rise of the San Francisco 49ers and the complicated, air-oriented West Coast offense. And it didn’t change overnight. Lest we forget, there were dominant teams during the ’80s that featured some pretty old-school attacks, such as the Bears and the John Riggins-era Redskins, which get barely a mention in “The Last Headbangers.”
Cook does devote some attention to the rise of the Dallas Cowboys as (gag) America’s Team and that organization’s cool corporate efficiency. That’s probably more to the point of how the NFL changed in the ’70s, but it’s not as much fun to read about. No, for fun you want Steelers vs. Raiders. Just suspend your moral judgment.
THE LAST HEADBANGERS
NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s — the Era That Created Modern Sports
By Kevin Cook
Norton. 278 pp. $26.95