I read the obits of Pete Rozelle, and, yes, he saved the NFL from self-destruction, and, yes, he was skilled at Washington lobbying, and, yes, he whipped the TV networks into line, but in everything I read there was something missing. Pete was at heart a fan, the best kind, the kind driven by a love of the game.
When he was named commissioner in 1960, Pete was 33, a p.r. man turned general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. During his 29-year reign, the NFL grew from 12 teams to 28, becoming the country's richest, most popular sport. He'll be remembered for those accomplishments, as well as for overseeing the merger of the NFL and the AFL, creating the Super Bowl and Monday night football, and introducing revenue sharing to the league.
But I'll remember him as I saw him at a party in the '70s. It was a few days before the Minnesota Vikings were to play the San Francisco 49ers. I knew that Pete, as a West Coast guy, was into the 49ers, so I asked him what he thought about the game. "You've got to love the Niners," he said. "I mean, they can run the ball." Just two guys talking off the cuff.
In 1969 Pete forced New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath to sell his part-ownership in the Manhattan nightclub Bachelors III, a notorious hangout for gamblers and other types deemed undesirable by the league. Oh, my, the hand-wringing that went up over that one. One of Namath's teammates, wide receiver George Sauer, threatened to quit football if Namath were suspended. You heard the word dictator every five minutes. So I went to see Pete. What's the deal?
"I saved the guy from getting busted," he said. "The FBI had the place under surveillance, and when I got Joe out of it, this FBI guy called me and said, 'You fouled up our whole operation. We were getting ready to move in.' Well, screw him. I don't want Joe Namath in an FBI lineup."
Yes, Pete could be rough and a little crude. Once, at a pre-Super Bowl press conference in the late 1960s, an NFL spokesman, some facts-and-figures guy, was talking about how football was becoming the No. 1 spectator sport. Pete was standing next to the podium, and a couple of old-timer journalists, Dick Young of the New York Daily News and Jimmy Cannon of the Hearst syndicate, started pressing the spokesman on how much of this interest came from the betting public. They were really working the guy over, and he was going through a tap dance. Finally Pete couldn't stand it anymore. He threw a hip into the guy, knocked him about three feet and took over handling the questions. No "excuse me" or anything. It was time to get serious. I was sitting next to Dave Anderson of The New York Times, and we both burst out laughing. "That's Pete," he said.
That was Pete all right: a powerhouse of a commissioner but also human. And he loved the game.