NFL retirees: Saints crossed the line
Elizabeth Merrill [ARCHIVE]
April 17, 2012
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There is an old story that has been told, most recently in HBO's documentary "Namath," about a legendary quarterback with bad knees and a league full of opponents unwilling to exploit it. Fred Dryer doesn't understand why people make such a big deal about it. Back in the 1970s, Joe Namath had bad knees -- everyone knew he had bad knees -- but Dryer, a tough defensive end who went on to be a badass on a 1980s cop show, never took a shot at them. It didn't seem right, Dryer said. Around the league, defensive players would pull up when tackling Namath.

"There was a moral code to how you played the sport," Dryer said.

"I would hate to play today."

There is a legion of old football players who are passionate and angry right now, and perhaps that is somewhat of a surprise. When commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down on the Saints last month for running a bounty program, there was a sentiment, voiced loudly in New Orleans and whispered among a few young defensive players, that Goodell was once again sissifying football. That the stuff former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said to jack up his players has been said in locker rooms for decades.

It hasn't. At least that's what Dryer and a number of other retired NFL players said in interviews this week. Many of them expressed disappointment at what they heard in the audio clip released late last week that featured Williams, the day before a January divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, imploring his defense to "kill Frank Gore's head" and target receiver Michael Crabtree's ACL.

Dryer mainly expressed disgust. For nearly 40 minutes, with his voice reaching high decibels, Dryer vented his anger at a league that he says is reckless and at a reality that so many of his friends are stumbling through their later years with concussion issues and battered old bodies. Dryer said he supports Goodell's decision to suspend Saints coach Sean Payton for a year and ban Williams, the team's former defensive coordinator, indefinitely.

Filmmaker Sean Pamphilon's website has glossy slideshows at the top of the page and venom at the bottom. On a corner of the page is a spot for reader comments, and Pamphilon has been peppered with F-bombs and called disparaging names. It's happened over the past few days, since the Gregg Williams audio was released. Pamphilon's intentions, some say, were noble. He was in the Saints' locker room that day in January filming a documentary on former Saints linebacker Steve Gleason, who has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), when Williams unloaded the speech. Gleason has been retired for four years but is so close to the franchise that he -- and Pamphilon -- were there when Williams addressed the defense. The speech made Pamphilon uncomfortable, and eventually he was compelled to release the video. Maybe, he thought, this behavior might someday seep into youth football if he didn't do something.

The audio most likely had no impact on Goodell's decision to uphold the suspensions Monday, but it did resonate with many others. A half-dozen retired NFL players known for their toughness were interviewed for this story, and all of them said they were taken aback by Williams' words.

One player, former Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Brown, said he was initially willing to give the Saints and Williams the benefit of the doubt. Brown knew all about Goodell's initiative for safety and how he occasionally made examples of people. In Brown's playing days, from 1993 to 2007, he received a few $15,000 fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and sometimes rolled his eyes over his perception of the league's heavy-handedness.

But Brown quickly changed his mind on the Saints' situation after hearing the tape.

"It crossed the line," he said. "There's a player code. It's definitely unspoken, but every player knows when you go on the field, particularly a defensive player, you're going to hit as hard as you possibly can, but you never intentionally try to injure people. I want to rob your will to play the game; I don't want to rob your ability to walk."

Even the nastiest players, such as Conrad Dobler, are aware of the code. Dobler, who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in the 1970s with the title "Pro Football's Dirtiest Player," never wanted to take away a man's livelihood. He knew his opponents had families to feed, too. By the way, the former offensive lineman was making a quiche Saturday when he answered the phone. For a minute, it took some verification to make sure the person on the other end was indeed Dobler, especially after he said, "I use some heavy whipping cream so it puffs up real nice. It's fabulous."

Then Dobler liberally referred to a few of his old opponents as "jerk-offs" and waxed on about leg whips and his battles with the late Merlin Olsen, and things were back to normal.

"What he said in that meeting, I've never heard a guy say that," Dobler said of Williams. "I've had coaches before say, 'That guy's a real jerk; you've got to do what you have to do to neutralize him.' Now what does that mean? Every time he comes near a ball, we knock him down. He's not a factor.

"I wanted to embarrass the hell out of him. That's more important to me than hurting the guy. If he's hurt and leaves the game, then I can't embarrass him anymore. I want to have a couple of chances to make him look like a jerk-off."

They weren't exactly saints back in the old days of professional football. Dobler used to gouge eyes, spit and punch at throats. He drew the ire of Olsen, which apparently was an accomplishment because Olsen was widely known as a mild-mannered defensive tackle. Olsen once said that someday someone was going to break Dobler's neck, and Olsen wouldn't send flowers when it happened. It never happened. Dobler said he was too tough for that.

Dobler said that one team, the Raiders, hated him so much that they put a $100 bounty out on him.

"You might not think $100 is a lot of money," Dobler said, "but we didn't make a lot of money back then. A hundred bucks, especially with the Raiders ... they'd murder somebody in their family for it."

Dobler isn't the only one who says bounties were going on as far back as the 1970s. Floyd Little, a Hall of Fame running back for the Broncos who played during Dobler's era, said he was casually told by his friends, who happened to be opponents, that their teams had bounties out on him, too -- $1,000 to knock him out of the game, and an extra $500 if he didn't come back.

"They had a coach who would pay them in the locker room after the game," Little said. "Fifteen hundred dollars was a lot of money for us. That was a tremendous incentive. I was a No. 1 draft choice, and I signed for $10,000.

"It was something we all knew. It's been going on forever. But I didn't think it was still going on today. Guys...
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