Old-time fete shows how far NFL has come

January 20, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

NEW YORK -- From that automobile showroom -- selling the best in Hupmobiles -- in downtown Canton, Ohio, and also where franchise in the then-newly formed National Football League cost $100, to the Marquis Hotel and a $1,000-a-plate dinner, dramatically demonstrates what evolved in the 75-year history of a sport that has attained the ultimate in affluence and influence.

It was in an auto dealership where the NFL held its charter gathering because it didn't have any other place to meet. Be it ever so humble.

But wait. Standing over there in the reception room at the gala reunion are two of the best football players these appreciative eyes ever watched, Marion Motley for the offense and Gino Marchetti for the defense. They don't come any better, Motley as a power runner/blocker and Marchetti as a crashing end who often led frustrated opponents to block three men against him.

The NFL was putting on an all-star celebration that raised more than $1 million for such diverse charities as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, cancer research, United Negro College Fund, the New American Schools and other nonprofit organizations. Thirty-five of the 48 players selected to the all-time NFL team, and a galaxy of show-biz performers, including Diana Ross, Tony Bennett, Alan Jackson, Jennifer Holliday and the Boys Choir6l of Harlem, were present for the festivities taped by ABC-TV.

What was a two-hour-long extravaganza must now be edited to half that duration for the purposes of producing a national television show. It won't be all football but, instead, is directed to a wider audience. Five former Baltimore Colts, a team that's not in existence anymore, were voted to the historic honor squad but only Raymond Berry, Ted Hendricks and Marchetti were able to be there.

John Unitas and Jim Parker, for health reasons, declined. But such other legendary figures as Don Hutson, Sammy Baugh, Steve Van Buren, Joe Greene and Jack Lambert also didn't make the party. Each player and his family had transportation paid to New York, where they were housed at the Righa Royal Hotel, catered to and received a $1,000 honorarium for agreeing to show up and have an all-expenses-paid good time.

The treatment of such notable personalities and pioneers as George Halas, Art Rooney and Paul Brown, as depicted from the film library, and updated testimonials by former players Gale Sayers, Mel Blount and Otto Graham are absolutely priceless parts of the show. Hopefully, it won't be left on the cutting room floor.

"This is something . . . to be here with this group of guys," exclaimed Forrest Gregg, who pointed to Marchetti and added, "You'll never know the sleepless nights I had when Green Bay was getting ready to play Baltimore. I had my picture taken with Gino and Deacon Jones. Imagine, I lived to talk about it after

playing against both of them so many times."

Unitas, who has just undergone his second knee replacement, was being discussed in absentia. "What a tough guy and what a leader," complimented Ray Nitschke. "He was the best I ever faced."

Berry, there with wife Sally and their youngest of two daughters, said to "please tell John that the older I get, the more I realize how fortunate I was to play with him."

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the official host, hailed his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, for the extraordinary way he took the baton from his predecessor, Bert Bell, and utilized the magic of television to lift the game to overwhelming heights of popularity. It was Bell who won the right in a landmark case for the league to black out TV for home games unless they were sold out.

Rozelle moved it up to an even higher level of acceptance, conceiving the Super Bowl game and making it the expensive corporate outing it has become. Super Bowl XXIX, between the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers, will be watched by 135 million Americans on TV and viewed by additional millions worldwide.

Let's not forget that this astonishing success also is attributable to the 14,732 players, counting then and now, who have worn NFL uniforms since the sport was originated in 1920 -- when it was more semipro than professional. Some respectable college graduates, for the first 30 years of its existence, passed up the opportunity to play in the NFL because it lacked credibility.

A friend, Dan Edwards, a captain at Georgia, who played for the Colts, once said he regarded pro football, after a nine-year career, as "kind of like working in a junkyard" when it came to assessing respectability. But that has all changed.

From the Hupmobile to stretch limousines, the NFL has reached heights beyond imagination. It came up the hard way and shouldn't forget where it came from -- when franchises that once sold for $100 now cost $192 million . . . and counting.

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