FOOTBALL: THE THRILL — AND BLOOD

John Robertson November 19 1966

FOOTBALL: THE THRILL — AND BLOOD

John Robertson November 19 1966

FOOTBALL: THE THRILL — AND BLOOD

John Robertson

“Put your head down, pick out one guy, try to run over him”

bleed, break bones and spit out teeth, and shrug it all off as part of the game. Most of them live in terror of that one resounding wallop that can snuff out a lucrative career. And if they seem to casually dismiss lesser hurts—and a fractured cheekbone is a comparatively lesser hurt — it's only because they’re aware it could have been much worse. They just learn to live with pain, like a taxi driver learns to live with traffic tickets. But all the while they are dreading the inevitable. They arc also ever aware that in the past three seasons two A FI. players have died of injuries. It could happen here.

Why play at all? Certainly not for money alone, although salaries in the CFI. range from $4,000 per season for the rawest Canadian rookie, to $30,000 for the uppermost super - star brought in from the United States. Watching the ecstasy mirrored in their faces after they troop wearily to the bench and gasp for breath after a particularly good sequence of plays, you sense that they arc out to prove something to themselves which goes far beyond what is negotiable at a teller's cage.

"As far as the hitting itself is concerned, it’s a mental toughness they must develop,” says Argonaut trainer Mert Prophet. “They condition themselves to it. That's why they have the stamina to recover quickly from injuries. or play when they're in pain. Most of these guys would play for nothing if there was no such thing as pro ball. Or they’d try another type of violent sport.”

"Look at it this way.” says Argo tackle Bill Frank. "A halfback gets a big kick out of peeling off for a 10yard run, right? Well. I get just as much satisfaction out of belting someone out of the way to open a hole for the runner. That's my job.”

Ironically, for more than 50 percent of Canadian Football League players, football is not a full-time job. Practice sessions are scheduled in the evening to accommodate the working men. most of whom hold down lucrative white-collar jobs as school teachers. accountants, sales executives, architects, engineers, geologists or public-relations men. Ottawa halfback Ron Stewart is a graduate lawyer. But no matter how independent they become in business, most stubbornly refuse to retire from football until well past 30.

“I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't run back punts,” says Jimmy Copeland of the Argos. “I love it. It's not that tough.” And he likes to add. “Of course, I used to be six-foot-three. Now I'm only five-nine.”

Running back punts is akin to looking for your watch in the middle of a cattle stampede. You're back there all alone, with no blockers, and you must catch the ball and advance it as far as you can. If you're lucky, you may get six steps before half a dozen downfield tacklers converge on you. "The secret.” says Copeland, “is to put your head down, pick out one guy. and try to run over him.”

Typical of the old pros who would rather die on their feet on a football

field than be caught limping or writhing on the field, is 36-year-old Argo defensive tackle Billy Shipp. A mammoth 300-pounder with 15 years pro ball behind him. Shipp decided to give it one more shot this year, and was cut down by a vicious block Calgary's Don Luzzi during the exhibition season. The ligaments in Shipp's

left leg were so badly torn they had to be wired together. But when two teammates went out to help him off the field, he flung them aside and tottered off himself, collapsing just as he made the bench. Two months later. Shipp was back working out with the club, vowing he'd give it “one more try.”

A proud old warrior, he once complained to management about a sewer grating near the Argo bench at Exhibition Stadium, which gagged everybody in the vicinity with unspeakable fumes on warm nights. “I don't mind it myself,” drawled the Alabama native. "But it's the fans — they think it's us."

But w hile some old pros never seem to know when to quit, there is a different kind of pain and heartbreak awaiting the eager young rookie who

“What the hell, it’s in my blood — something I have to do”

must be told he is not quite good enough to make it. Argos cut a young centre named John Reykdal before the season opened. Then, beset by injuries, they brought him back for one game against Ottawa. The tough, veteran Ottawa defensive line stomped over him all day and mashed in his nose. The blood had scarcely coagulated

when Argo coach Bob Shaw had to inform him, again, that he must be released. He would have bled every game for a chance to play.

To get a first-hand idea of just what punishment the players must endure on an exhausting two-game road trip, I accompanied the Argonauts on a western swing to Regina and Winni-

peg, and watched a last-place team die by inches at the hands of two vastly superior western foes. I saw six of them suffer injuries in the opening game — and then all but one come back for more just three days later. The other, halfback Bob Swift, had to be practically hauled bodily to the Regina Airport to be flown home for

a knee operation he vowed he didn’t need.

I watched while trainer Mert Prophet and Dr. John Palmer set up field hospitals in creaky dressing rooms and their own hotel rooms. I heard players curse and pace their rooms in the early hours of the morning after a ball game, when bruises they never thought they had began to throb, and jangled nerves they’d fought all day, refused to unwind and allow their exhausted bodies to sleep.

I sat in coffee shops with head coach Bob Shaw, the man who has the toughest job of all in football, because, when you’re losing, a head coach has no way of unleashing that welling torment and frustration out on the field, where a player can at least punish somebody in return. Until he came to Toronto, Shaw was never a loser in 22 years of football. An all-pro end in the National Football League, he fractured his neck making a block with Chicago Cardinals in 1947. Doctors said he might not live. He w'as back playing in 1949. So when he stood in the dressing room in Regina this day and told the players to “suck up your guts and take it to these babies.” they knew he spoke with authority on the matter of courage. They also knew that many more losing games, and he would be out of a job.

“This is killing me,” he confided. “We’ve got to put one together. Sometimes I get to thinking about packing it up. But what the hell, it’s in my blood. It’s something I have to do.”

Trainer Mert Prophet watched rookie tackle Mike Wadsworth limp through the lobby, on the eve of the game, on a badly sprained ankle. “We’ll have to shoot him,” he said. (Only with Novocain, to deaden the pain. )

Novocain is a player’s best friend until after the game when the freezing starts to come out and the injury begins to throb more vibrantly than ever. “I won’t be able to move too well on it anyway,” said Wadsworth. “And it won’t take those Regina guys long to notice it.”

It didn't . . . and they did.

On the opening kickoff. Bob Sw'ift, the 23-year-old fullback from Clemson University, was stomped on by one of his own teammates, while trying to make a block, and he lay inert on the field until Prophet revived him. The preliminary diagnosis by Dr. Palmer was torn knee ligaments. The doctor flew home with him the next day. All the way Swift pleaded, “I can move it, doc. it’s not torn. I can play.”

”1 need the practice.” said Palmer. And when Swift got home he found he needed the operation.

Argos led Regina 1-0 going into the third quarter, but one by one more injured players went dowm. and the Riders blew' them off the field, 23-7. Argos finished the game with 36-yearold punting specialist Davey Mann, and punt-return man Jim Copeland playing halfback.

Swift was already ticketed for home delivery, and the other halfback, Billy Martin, sat on the bench clutching an injured leg.

The gun ended it mercifully. The players filed slowly into the dressing room, and slumped down in front of their lockers with heads bowed and jerseys bloodied and drenched with

FOOTBALL continued

“What can you do?

Just suck it up and try again, and again”

sweat. Few had the energy or desire to haul themselves over to a tub of freshly iced beer. There were only two rubbing tables on which to treat seven injured players. Halfback Billy Martin was first up. writhing in pain and turning his face away from the needle held by Dr. Palmer, who was administering a cortisone shot.

Prophet shook his head as he cut the tape off Wadsworth's ankle, now ballooned to twice its normal size. “The only thing that will cure that is rest,’’ someone said over his shoulder. “Hell." spat Wadsworth, “who’s got time for a rest? Do me a favor, huh. someone? Open me a beer." Mike Wadsworth is only 23, in his first year out of Notre Dame. He survived two serious knee operations there. Now it's an ankle. They say he has a brilliant career ahead of him. if he stays together.

Veteran centre Norm Stoneburgh slipped onto the table after Wadsworth. Just back from the 30-day injured list, this was his first test on a bad ankle. It survived, barely. Several years ago he broke a leg. He was going to attempt to run off the field on it when he passed out. Mario Mariani (sore ribs), John Raulick (broken thumb). John Vilunas (ankle sprain), AI Irwin (knee strain), and Bob Good (ankle sprain), followed the others to sick bay. An hour later, they were still straggling to the waiting bus.

A special breed of cat

The curfew was midnight, but it might just as well have been 9 p.m. Most of the players had tumbled into bed by then, but few would sleep until the early hours of the morning. The bruises were starting to throb now.

Dr. Palmer was called away from his dinner to go to Peter Manning's room, where the veteran offensive end was writhing on the bed. doubled up with cramps.

"Nothing serious." the doctor reported later. "Just nerves."

Now' it was Sunday night, and in just three days the Argos were scheduled to square off against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Winnipeg, but the bumps and bruises came around a little, and the only missing face in the lineim was Bob Swift.

The B nbers. stung by a defeat at Calgary earlier in the w'eek, ran the battered Ar’os out of the park, 49-7. Afterward, the same players lined up at the same rubbing table for treatment of the same aggravated injuries, which everyone knows can only really be cured by rest.

The long period of unwinding began for the players again, only this time it took place aboard an all-night flight from Winnipeg instead of in a comfortable hotel bed. But there’s no place like home — at least not until you picked up a Toronto paper and read the headline: ARGOS mow ANOTHER.

“Football players are a special breed of cat.” trainer Mcrt Prophet had said, back there in that steaming, sweaty dressing room. "They keep getting up. shaking it off. and coming back for more. What motivates them? Pride, desire . . . they're athletes. They want

to play. More than anything, they want to play.”

But Novocain can only do so much, and it can't take the sting out of a humiliating defeat.

‘‘What can you do." moaned coach Bob Shaw as he stood forlornly outside the Argo bus and watched the troops file on. "Just suck it up and

try again, and again, and again

His voice trailed off as he followed

them.

"You know what hurts most?" growls veteran centre Norm Stoneburgh. "Losing . . . losing for a guy like Shaw. He deserves better. Better than what we've been able to give him. Those damn fans, those stupid

broadcasters — if they only knew how this guy dies for this club."

What is football? Perhaps former coaching great Steve Owen said it best, when he wound up his career in Regina in 1962 at age 65:

"You can have your fancy frills — your split-T formations, your reverses. your option plays. It doesn't mean a bloody thing if you can't get down there on the dirt and beat the gizzard out of the guy across from you. That's football." ★