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'Headbangers' And The New American Pastime


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Baseball is still called the national pastime, and poets still compose paeans to its subtlety and gentle pace. But in the 1970s, pro football began to become America's defining game, and it was about as subtle as a kick in the head. As Kevin Cook suggests in his new book, the '70s - the days of Mean Joe, "Mad Dog" John Madden, buttoned-up Tom Landry and Howard Cosell - the days when football was raw and unfiltered.

Kevin Cook writes for Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and other fine publications. His new book is "The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70s - The Era That Created Modern Sports." He joins us from our studios in New York. And we asked him to start with the first line of his book.

KEVIN COOK: And it goes: (Reading) This book isn't meant to glorify the uglier aspects of NFL football in the 1970s and early '80s. The drugs, the booze, the cheating and headhunting, the occasionally seamy sex, and the risks the game posed to players' health.

SIMON: Boy, what a beginning.


SIMON: What a way to get people into the tent. You cite a George Carlin routine as being kind of symptomatic of - if you will - the passing, going in different directions, between baseball and football in the 1970s. Let's listen to the George Carlin routine you cite.


GEORGE CARLIN: Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, blocking, piling on, late hitting, unnecessary roughness and personal fouls. Baseball has the sacrifice.


CARLIN: Football is played in any kind of weather - rain, sleet, snow, hail, mud, can't read the numbers on the field, can't read the yard markers, can't read the players' numbers; the struggle will continue. In baseball, if it rains, we don't come out to play.


SIMON: Cook, what do you think happened in the 1970s with the identity of those games?

COOK: It seems to me that things were accelerating so much, we were looking for something faster. The NFL was more the counterculture, more a rock 'n' roll kind of sport compared to sedate, old baseball. And I think that's why it appealed to a generation that was looking for something newer and more exciting. And they found it in football, especially on TV.

SIMON: You write about a number of teams in this book, but the signature teams of the era seem to be the Oakland Raiders, whom you liken to a motorcycle gang; and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who really did seem to embody their name. What made those two franchises stand out?

COOK: Well, they were both awfully well-coached and awfully well-run - Chuck Noll and John Madden, two kind of New Age coaches that suited the Space Age. Both teams drafted awfully well. And they really had suffered for a long time, and were awfully hungry to succeed.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #1: 1972 - the Steelers are playing the Oakland Raiders for the division title.

SIMON: Help us understand the central importance of December 23, 1972 - almost Christmas - the "immaculate reception."

COOK: It was an amazing play - still the most famous play, in some minds. The Steelers had not won a playoff game. They come down to - really, a no-hope, last-gasp play against their rivals, the Raiders.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #2: Last chance for the Steelers.

COOK: And Terry Bradshaw throws the ball up for grabs, looking for "Frenchy" Fuqua.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #2: And his pass is broken up by Tatum. It's off! Franco Harris has it! And he's over!


COOK: There is a huge collision, as often happened when you throw the ball into the Raiders' secondary. And the ball is up for grabs. There were only a few players on the field who knew that the game was still going on. Franco Harris happened to be one of them. And that sets off what turned out to be a Steelers dynasty - although it didn't happen as quickly as a lot of fans remember.

SIMON: There's something almost antique about the fact that these players had roommates. These players had jobs during the off-season.

COOK: People have no idea that Franco Harris, as a rookie, hitchhiked to practice in Pittsburgh. Those guys were making $18- to $22,000 in the early '70s. They had off-season jobs. Terry Bradshaw, the number one pick in the NFL draft, still sold cars in the off-season. It was only in the 1970s - in this very pivotal decade that "The Last Headbangers" covers - that the money got so big, you no longer had to have a second job.

SIMON: It must be noted, a lot of players took a lot of different kinds of drugs. How did that affect the game? How did that affect them?

COOK: Well, I think it shortened some lives. It lengthened some careers, and shortened others. There's a lot of steroid rage, I think, happening on a lot of football fields in those days - and for decades to come.

SIMON: And let's underscore, steroids were legal.

COOK: Steroids were legal. They weren't banned for more than another decade. One of the most vivid images that I got, working on "The Last Headbangers," was the picture of a jar of horse testosterone, that actually had a picture of a horse on it because it was meant for horses at the local racetrack. The football players were glad to have it in the same doses that a horse trainer would give to a 1,200-pound horse.

SIMON: You end this book by forthrightly noting that a lot of people suffered for playing this game. They're not doing well today.

COOK: That's true.

SIMON: How does that make you feel about the era?

COOK: Oh, it's a terrible price that these men - played. And I think one reason that a friend of mine considers them sport's greatest generation is that they had an inkling that they were risking their futures. We still don't understand concussions nearly as much as we need to - and will, I hope, in the coming decade. But the suffering of men who were hit with senility at the age of 50; many who died before they even reached 50. Heros like Earl Campbell, the hardest hitter with a football in his hand - that the game has ever seen, maybe - now in a wheelchair. Men who can't drag a pocket comb through their hair, at the age of 45 or 50. Today's NFL Players Association - naturally, they represent the current players. But more and more, they're being pressed by former players, and even by fans, to remember the former players; to get more money into pensions. There's a billion dollars being - put into pensions recently. But that doesn't last as long as it sounds. And the players who have really suffered, really need to be supported better than they have been.

SIMON: Kevin Cook - his new book, "The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70s - The Era that Created Modern Sports." Thanks so much.

COOK: Thank you, Scott. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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