EXCERPT: Rozelle

Izenberg-Rozelle.indd

An excerpt from Rozelle: A Biography (October 2014) by Jerry Izenberg.

Chapter 5: How Do You Tell Vince?

This is a country where gambling has always been a fever in the national blood. I remember as far back as when I was a kid in New Jersey, you could dial we 6-1212, and a recorded voice would tell you that this was a report from the National Weather Service and that there was a 20 percent chance of rain. In what other country on the planet did the national government make book on April showers?

We are a country of gamblers. We always have been and always will be. This is no secret. Just think back to Yeoman Pete Rozelle’s Army—Notre Dame caper as an amateur bookmaker aboard the USS Gardoqui.

We are also a country that will make an icon out of a young man who can throw a football sixty yards, hit a baseball four hundred feet, or dunk a basketball from a half-mile above the hoop. That adoration can have a profound impact on how such gifted athletes view themselves.

I grew up with a great quarterback named Frank Tripucka who was an All-America under Frank Leahy at Notre Dame, an all-league quarterback in the Canadian Football League, and the first quarterback of the AFL’s Denver Broncos. One day after he retired we were discussing how hard it can be for young athletes to keep themselves in perspective when the boys become men. “You are made to feel special when you are very young,” he explained, and he knew because he had been there.

Newspaper guys write terrific things about you. Boosters want to give you things in college. Later when you are a pro, hometown fans reach for your restaurant tabs. They all tell you how special you are. And it’s often hard not to start believing it. For those who do, the rules become something for someone else to respect. When I was a pro, I knew one thing. Let someone buy you drinks long enough, and he will probably want a favor. That favor could be anything from going to a friend’s wedding or… well… The way you avoid that is to eat and drink only with your teammates on the road, and then nobody can put you in a compromising position of any kind.

With the growth of football betting in America, an intriguing new form of merchandising by bookmakers posed an escape route to players who wanted to have things both ways. It was called the point spread and established what the winning margin had to be to win a bet if you took the favorite. By keeping a team under that margin and still winning, a player could say and believe, as a New York University basketball point-shaver said to me after a major 1961 scandal, “Well, nobody got hurt except the bookies.”

Now the briber did not have to get a player to lose a game. All he had to do was make sure his team did not cover the spread. With that possibility it didn’t have to be a fact for rumors to cast doubt on the game’s integrity. Proof positive that the betters believed this to be true came with the myriad of telephone calls they placed to the NFL switchboard on Monday mornings after some placekicker had missed a thirty-yard field goal and impacted the spread.

Rozelle knew all of this. And he knew that to permit a player to gamble at all was to flirt with disaster. He understood how easily gambling debts or free drugs for players in the fast lane could threaten the honesty of his games. He knew how it had happened before and how the fix had materialized in big, bold headlines about scores of college basketball games, hundreds of prizefights, and, yes, even once in the National Football League.

He never met bookmaker Alvin Paris, a man short in stature but huge in negative impact on the NFL. But he knew all about the impact he had on the sport in 1946. Paris had been the kingpin that made Bert Bell’s worst nightmare a reality. He also became the very real ghost of things that could happen again if the lesson were ignored. Ever since pro football’s mill-town days, people had bet on football. It was more an exercise in chauvinism than greed. Because gambling had always been there and because there never was a confirmed shred of evidence that the NFL’s games were anything but honest, the league paid little attention to what the man on the street did to back his loyalties.