Rozelle legacy unparalleled in any arena

December 08, 1996|By John Steadman

He went from the humble role of clipping newspaper stories about the Los Angeles Rams and dutifully placing them into a team scrapbook, which was his first paid job in professional football, to becoming one of the most important, influential and recognized figures in the history of the game. The extraordinary saga of Alvin Pete Rozelle found him taking the rough edges off the sport and leading it into the boardrooms of corporate America.

He had few parallels in any business and was the most progressive, eloquent and productive of all commissioners. A visionary who was imaginative, daring and innovative. Truly a public relations genius. Success would have been his in any calling.

Rozelle yes, a perfect fit for the times. A man who came from within the football structure, wise and tolerant, who probably could have gotten along with the devil if he had to, but failed with Al Davis, who ignored the NFL's rules and went his way in a blatant action that led to franchise migration and insurmountable problems. Even Rozelle's original team, the Rams, took leave of his native Los Angeles through the same element of defiance by a club owner.

The suave, conservatively tailored and rare-to-anger Rozelle died Friday night at the age of 70 from a brain tumor at the elaborate retirement home he built in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., for his wife, Carrie, and himself after leaving office in 1989.

He had an innate ability, most of the time, to quiet troubled waters, find a solution to problems and, if pressed, implement a powerful battle plan.

The Super Bowl will always carry the Rozelle signature and, henceforth, we respectfully suggest the ball that's used in the game should be inscribed with his name as a perpetual tribute. How far would the NFL have come without him? He took television and made it a vehicle for pro football, using the vast exposure it offered to create unprecedented popularity and make millionaires out of owners who didn't have a helmet to spit in.

We go back to Rozelle's years as a publicity director of the Rams, when he was the team advance man and visited newspaper offices. It later evolved that he offered us the job as his chief assistant when he gained the commissionership and said in a letter, "writing flattering columns about me won't put off your decision; i want you to be with me to new york. as for salary, as i mentioned, it can be whatever you want." The reason we knew it was personal is that when he typed, it was characteristic of him to keep all letters in the lower case. A Rozelle idiosyncrasy.

At the time, 1960, the league was headquartered in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., near Philadelphia, and Rozelle quickly moved to a higher-profile location -- New York, the center of the mass-media network. He later formed a special division of the NFL to market souvenirs and apparel; organized a publishing house; established a firm for producing game films and highlights; and sold ABC on Monday night football after CBS and NBC said the idea wouldn't work.

His close friend and confidant, Sig Hyman of Baltimore, said in stirring tribute: "He was one of the brightest men I ever knew. If you had his word, it amounted to a guarantee. He had just incredible talent to look into the future and decide which direction to go. Words can't describe what he meant to me these many years of being close to him and observing his ethics and fairness. He always endeavored to do what was right."

At 5: 30 a.m. on the morning after his selection in 1960 as commissioner of the NFL, asleep in a suite at the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami Beach, he was awakened by a newspaper friend from Baltimore, who called to inform him, "Just trying to break you in right." He recognized the voice, laughed and submitted to an interview at that ungodly hour in his first full day on the job.

Another reporter, somewhat naive, had asked him the evening before, after his appointment after 23 rounds of votes, whether he regarded himself as a "compromise candidate." There was a split among the club owners and the position would have gone to Marshall Leahy, an attorney for the 49ers, had he not insisted that the league office be in San Francisco. The vote for Rozelle was 7-4, with one team abstaining.

Rozelle, when he was growing up in Compton, outside Los Angeles, was on the school newspaper and campaigned that an outfielder on the baseball team be afforded all-city honors. The player in question was Duke Snider, who later made the Baseball Hall of Fame, and there was Rozelle, seated in Cooperstown, N.Y., on the afternoon in 1980 when his lifelong friend received the highest testimonial the game bestows.

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