Pepper recalls salt NFL poured into Memphis' wound

December 10, 1993|By John Steadman

From the perspective of another passed-over city, dear old Memphis, Tenn., there's the expected disappointment and resulting dejection that went with losing out on an expansion franchise in the National Football League. Its wait has been painfully prolonged, 19 years, and it came away empty.

Memphis, for no other reason than its enduring patience and hound-dog perseverance, deserved a better fate. The faith it once had in another man's word has been destroyed. Thanks, NFL.

The effervescent Franklin "Pepper" Rodgers, a former Georgia Tech standout and a draft choice of the Baltimore Colts in 1954, who quarterbacked the Memphis effort, is annoyed over the way the process was handled -- plus, in the end, a lack of "common-dirt courtesy" on the part of the league.

Right up front, to show he's not reacting for reasons of provincialism, Rodgers says, "Baltimore, in my opinion, was the strongest of the group. It had the rich tradition and a new stadium ready to go. There wasn't a single minus."

How Jacksonville, Fla., smaller than any of the contestants, got the prize makes for a baffling set of circumstances.

"We put on four exhibition games," recalls Rodgers. "Nothing's harder to do. We never asked for any of those exhibitions. They asked us. Nobody mentioned a word that our stadium wasn't good enough. The teams got big checks, over $500,000 apiece. There should have been some thanks but there wasn't."

The fact Jacksonville was picked ahead of Memphis, Baltimore and St. Louis annoys him. Meanwhile, stories circulate that Billy Dunavant, the world's largest cotton broker and the personification of a gentleman, is hopeful of getting an existing club to embrace Memphis. The truth of the matter is that Dunavant is too good for the NFL with its lack of heart, soul and consideration for others.

It's a league that has lost much of what could be called its gentlemanly qualities. A current club owner said he's embarrassed by some of those he has to associate with. What he called them couldn't be repeated in any kind of newspaper.

Back to "Pepper," a man with a Will Rogers-like personality that makes you regret you haven't known him all your life. Rodgers remembers 19 years ago, after the NFL added Tampa Bay and Seattle, that Memphis and Birmingham, Ala., were told they would get first preference in the next expansion. So much for promises.

"At the meeting when the franchise was awarded to Jacksonville, I was told to wait in my room and the NFL would let us know when a decision was made," reported Rodgers. "Well, no one called. I got a call from 'Boogie' Weinglass [one of three applicants for the Baltimore team] and he asked if I heard anything. I told him no. And he said the same. He hadn't heard anything either. I think we deserved a little more than that."

Rodgers says the way the NFL kept changing the rules was unlike anything he ever experienced. He once coached at UCLA and Georgia Tech and maybe, back then, if he could have manipulated the way the games were played he would be a legend in one place or the other.

"It was like you played four quarters and were ahead," he said. "Then, suddenly, you're told you have to play another period so they can get the chance to beat you. That's exactly how it was."

That Jacksonville is touted as a mecca for college football by the NFL causes some contradiction for Pepper. He says Roger Goodell, who handled much of the NFL expansion preparation, told him when he put in a similar boost for Memphis that it wasn't pertinent.

"Roger mentioned being a great college football town didn't mean anything because he wasn't sure the fans who went to a Saturday game would come back on Sunday for the pros," Rodgers said.

Memphis right now is depressed, but not to the extent that Baltimore is. It just never thought it could lose to -- of all places -- Jacksonville. But it happened. The NFL, mainly the headquarters of commissioner Paul Tagliabue, has been thrown for a credibility loss.

About the only thing the NFL was able to do for Pepper Rodgers was buy him a steak dinner. That happened in 1954, when he was the 25th player drafted by the Colts (remember, there were only 12 teams and 30 rounds of the draft). Coach Weeb Ewbank, hoping to convince Rodgers to sign with Baltimore, took him to a restaurant as his guest.

Pepper was bound for two years of Army duty and never gave the NFL a try as a player. After the steak dinner, he should have quit while he was ahead.

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