Michael Oriard: Ordinary NFL Player, Extraordinary Man

Michael Oriard spent only four years in the NFL, but he has left behind a far more notable legacy than many of his contemporaries:  the best memoir written by a professional football player, and one that’s more relevant now than ever.

 

As far as NFL immortals are concerned, Michael Oriard’s name doesn’t ring out quite like the names of Mike Webster or Earl Campbell.  Despite a stellar collegiate career at Notre Dame, where he went from walk-on defensive lineman to second team All-American center, Oriard didn’t come anywhere close to matching Webster’s superhuman durability or Campbell’s breathtaking feats of brute athleticism during his four-year stint in the pros.  He also hasn’t come anywhere close to matching the terrible post-career hurts that have afflicted these two men and, more recently, the late San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. However, he has left behind an enduring legacy of his own:  he authored The End of Autumn, a memoir of his playing days that ranks among the best books ever written by a former NFL player.

In my opinion, it is the best such book.  Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay, co-authored with prolific sportswriter Dick Schaap, offers a  thoughtful account of a single, particularly eventful season with the Green Bay Packers.  Dave Meggyesy’s Out of Their League is an interesting glimpse at the seamier side of both college athletics and the NFL, and probably the 1970s-era “tell-all” book that has aged the best (although Bernie Parrish’s They Call It a Game and Chip Oliver’s High for the Game each have their moments).  Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty is an extraordinarily underrated novel, but quite a bit of its appeal arises from the neat structure of its fictive universe.  None of these works are as carefully composed as Oriard’s The End of Autumn, however. Nor, for that matter, are any of them as relevant to the present-day crises that the NFL faces.

The story of Oriard’s rise from a middle-class boyhood to a place on the roster of Hank Stram’s legendary Kansas City Chiefs teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s is bookended by two extraordinary pieces of writing.  The first is an evocative account of Oriard’s final professional game with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL, in which he acquitted himself well in a losing effort and left the game on his own terms.  The second is a lengthy meditation on AFL All-Star and Pro Bowl tackle Jim Tyrer‘s 1980 murder-suicide, an event that served as the genesis for The End of Autumn (Oriard had originally written about Tyrer’s death in The New York Times).  In between, Oriard provides as compelling a discussion as I’ve seen anywhere about the contingent nature of professional success (he winds up as the backup center largely because he agrees to be waived and put on the taxi squad during his first season and the other rookie center, who will eventually become the starter, refuses and is kept on the active roster) and the sacrifices demanded of “great” players (he isn’t willing to place his body in undue danger by playing in an unrestrained manner).

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In March, I spoke with Michael Oriard, now retired from a long and distinguished academic career in the English Department at Oregon State University, about The End of Autumn, which had come out 30 years ago to much critical acclaim but only modest sales.  Oriard repeatedly described his book as the “story of an ordinary NFL player.”  Certainly Oriard’s career was ordinary, but can a man who completed his Ph.D. coursework in English Literature at Stanford while playing football at the highest level really be classified as ordinary?  Rick Telander, who made Oriard’s acquaintance during his own very brief stint with the Chiefs, had this to say about him:

He was a center, and I remembered him from my brief stay with the Chiefs in 1971 as being a tall, quiet, observant man who did not seem to fit in with the rowdier, veteran Chiefs.  If I had known the thinking going on in his brain, I might have made it a point to get to know him a little better before Hank Stram unceremoniously booted me out of pro football.

This is the sort of individual who emerges from a close reading of The End of Autumn:  someone who was of the team but not in it, someone for whom the game’s struggles were private and internal.  There’s no discussion of drug use in The End of Autumn, not so much because it wasn’t happening, but because Oriard wasn’t looking for it.  During our conversation, Oriard mentioned how football players in his classes at OSU occasionally asked him for advice regarding their careers. What, he wondered, could he tell them?  Graduate as class valedictorian?  Win a competitive fellowship to study for the Ph.D.?  He understood, in other words, that their experiences were not at all relatable to his.

However, Oriard had much to tell me about the troubled state of college and professional football.  What follows are some of the highlights of that interview.

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 What was your reason for writing The End of Autumn?

The entire premise behind the book was that this was an ordinary person’s experience in professional football, not the star’s experience.  It was intended to resonate with people who didn’t play past high school, who might be coaching high school football, that sort of person.

You were an ordinary player, but you were extraordinary in a different way:  You were pursuing a Ph.D. while playing in the NFL.

That was my great fortune, of course.  Football was always secondary to me, and I didn’t have any sort of crisis when it ended:  “Football’s over, what do I do now, where do I go with my life?”  I really feel like I got the best that our system offers to kids and adults without having to deal with much of the bad stuff at all.

That’s one notable aspect of The End of Autumn–there wasn’t much discussion of the bad stuff.  No talk of steroid abuse, or casual sex, or popping amphetamines.  If there was bad stuff happening, you apparently didn’t notice it.

When the book came out, it received a nice response–a good review in Sports Illustrated, things like that.  I got some attention from the media, and I was asked to talk about my career and also about pro football more broadly.  I was kind of embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know anything about the drug problems that many players faced.  If my teammates were popping little red pills before a game, they were doing it privately.  I didn’t see it; I didn’t know how bad the problem was in football at the time.

Which is unusual, because even in Bernie Parrish’s book They Call It a Game, about his career as a cornerback with the Cleveland Browns, he says he couldn’t have gotten through a single game without popping a dexedrine or a dexamyl.  Meanwhile, as your playing career in the pros continued, you not only weren’t engaging in that behavior, you had actively decided not to play in such a way that you might seriously injure yourself.  This is a fascinating decision, especially given how we keep hearing about how all these retired players have had such tough experiences later in life due to injuries they sustained on the field.  

That’s exactly where I feel so fortunate to have had the experiences I had.  In a way, when I think about that book, it’s something of a period piece:  football before ESPN, before the enormous salaries.  I was a backup and special teams player in Kansas City, but today you can’t be quite as ordinary as I was then and even make it that far.  I played in the NFL on the offensive line at 240 pounds.  A kid, to get to the point where he could play on the offensive line now, would have to be bulked up in the weight room until he’s over 300 pounds…and he’d undoubtedly have been consumed by sports media since he became conscious of it.  It’s just so unlikely that someone could play football and get as far as I got without it having been an all-consuming passion in their lives for a long time.  There are guys that really have a clear sense of perspective–Andrew Luck seems like one of them–but even they are caught up by football and consumed by it in ways that I never was.

When I was in Kansas City, it wasn’t like I was going to grad school in the offseason; I was going to grad school for part of the year and playing football for part of the year.  I had no illusions about my career in football. I had this pinched nerve in my neck, and I was conscious of managing my pain and taking care of my body.  Like every 22-year-old, I didn’t understand what it’s like to be 40 or 50, but I had some awareness that I was in it for the long term.  You can’t play the game consciously–you’ll get killed–but you can play it with a certain kind of control and intelligence and still play it well.  And you can, quite frankly, do it at a very high level.  Willie Lanier, my teammate at Kansas City, was the best middle linebacker in football in those days and he didn’t play out of control because he almost killed himself as a rookie doing that before he decided it wasn’t going to happen again.  It is possible to play the game at a high level without stupidly putting yourself at risk.

You feel pity for some of the players in the book, like E.J. Holub, who sustained so many injuries and underwent so many surgeries.  I don’t imagine things were so great for them after their careers ended, beyond the frame that the book covers.

Yes, there’s that phenomenon of hanging on as long as you can because you didn’t know what was coming next or whatever was coming next was going to be a horrible letdown.  That was something I didn’t have to deal with, and at the time I understood how fortunate I was and how sad it was for guys like EJ.

And then there’s the horror story at the end of the book:  All-Star tackle Jim Tyrer’s decision to murder his wife, then commit suicide immediately afterwards.

That was the impetus for the book.  When Jim Tyrer committed suicide and I read about it in the paper, I sat down and wrote a eulogy to him in which I reflected on his plight as a former athlete struggling to find himself after the end of his playing career.  I’d written my dissertation on American sports fiction, so I was familiar with that concept in the literature.  This was back in the snail mail days, so I sent the piece off to The Kansas City Star and they wrote back and said they really liked it, but by the time they got it, it was old news to them.  So I stuck it in a folder, and a bit later friend of mine with whom I played racquetball told me that The New York Times has an opinion page on sports on Mondays that runs reflective pieces.  I sent it there, they ran it, and then an editor at Doubleday contacted me to ask me if I was writing a book.  Of course I wasn’t, but after I got over the shock–the idea of writing a book about my career even though I wasn’t a big star–it made sense, because I had the writing background and could produce a good, reflective account.  This book never would have been written if Jim hadn’t killed himself, so his tragedy was another opportunity, in a kind of bitterly ironic way, for me.

You hold off on making any sweeping claim about what happened with Tyrer, which makes sense because–really, how could we know?  But now, with the passage of time, as we’ve seen how players like Mike Webster and Dave Duerson have fared, do you think that injuries from the game could have contributed to this?

Absolutely.  That’s been one of my recurring thoughts as we keep finding out more and more about brain trauma and how it’s affecting retired players.  Jim Tyrer…it’s too late to do an autopsy on his brain.  If nothing else, it would have been some comfort to his kids, to know that their father was crazy in a way that made him a victim instead of someone who snapped and just did this horrible thing to his family.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that had turned out to have been a factor there.  I read an excerpt in Sports Illustrated from the new biography of Walter Payton, about what an awful man he turned out to be, and I’m thinking, “How could you possibly write that book and not weigh the possibility that Walter Payton was brain-damaged, too?”  We’re just learning too much about the consequences of these hits.  To not take them into account as an explanation for these behaviors…it doesn’t make sense.

People who have had careers as long as Payton’s and Tyrer’s have to have suffered some residual damage, and not just in a way that leaves them immobilized, like Earl Campbell.  

We don’t know the percentage of guys who are damaged in a way that matters, we don’t know yet exactly what kinds of blows are the worst.  Is it concussions, is it these repetitive hits?  There’s so much more research that has to be done to provide perfect clarity, but we’re learning enough that the risk is real.  Guys who act strange later on aren’t just crazy–they could be victims of their playing days.  That’s becoming a reality.

Is there a way we can make football as good an experience as it was for you?

That’s a key question for me.  I’ve had to really wrestle with it.  In my book [about college football] Bowled Over, I make the claim that I got the best experience Notre Dame could offer me, an experience that’s not available in the same way today.  Yes, there are players like Myron Rolle, who won the Rhodes Scholarship, and Andrew Luck…but even these guys have had to make sacrifices that I didn’t have to make.  At the levels below Luck and Rolle, there are undoubtedly players having experiences like mine.  Even if they are, though, it requires from them a kind of understanding and commitment that wasn’t required of me.  I could go just along, and be a kid and a student and play the piano.  I could find myself on the football field in ways that were meaningful to myself only.  I didn’t have to be preternaturally savvy to have the experience that I did.  My own two sons had positive experiences in sports, even though they didn’t get quite to the level that I got.

Football has changed so much, and one of the ways that it’s changed is that it’s now dominated by African-American kids.  I really worry about whether their experience of the sport, if they don’t go on to the NFL…I worry if they’re getting the same benefits from this college experience that the Italians, Irish, and Polish kids of the 20s and 30s and 40s got.   I think that it has to be beneficial to some.  What percentage?  I don’t know.  All I can say with certainty is that it’s much tougher to be a young athlete today than it was for me in the 60s.

Some schools, like your alma mater and Northwestern, seem to at least try to recruit athletes with better-than-average credentials.

The Northwesterns and Stanfords and Vanderbilts get to cherry-pick the top students who are also good athletes.  It’s unreasonable to expect that there would be a pool of good student-athletes out there large enough to make this a norm.  It would be nice to think that everybody could set the academic bar high, and have kids meet it, but I don’t believe that’s practical, or even possible.  And, as I noted in Bowled Over, there’s also an enormous disparity in revenues among the university football programs.  You’ve got teams generating $100 million…and then there are ones that are making a fraction of that, running in the red just to stay competitive.  College football as we know it is going to explode or implode in the next few years, and it’s going to look very different.  It won’t entirely be a matter of choice:  university presidents will have to do what’s possible for them.  We’ll likely see a return for a majority of schools to the D-III model.  The other end of it would consist of the few high-revenue programs, in a league that’s increasingly professionalized and facing all sorts of issues:  workmen’s comp, disability insurance, and so forth.

What about schools like Oregon State, which have had some success in the past but aren’t of the same caliber as, say, Ohio State or Alabama? 

Oregon State represents a lot of universities:  the lower end of the major conferences.  The Oregon States of the world are being profoundly affected by these new TV contracts and resulting conference revenues.  They’ve expanded the stadium, and to pay it off, they’re trying to sell personal seat licenses and the like, and they haven’t succeeded in selling all of them.  But now conference revenues shot up from $6 million to $22 million for the PAC-12 schools, so presumably there’s enough money there to offset that deficit.

So it’s the Oregon States and the Washington States, and the Vanderbilts and the Mississippi States, that will benefit the most from these evenly-distributed deals.  Of course, the spending will be ratcheted up in order to remain competitive.  As for the schools that don’t make it into these major conferences…how they can maintain programs is inconceivable to me.  What are the actual benefits of investing in a program? We don’t have hard, data-driven answers to this, but it’s going to be hard for the schools that aren’t in major conferences to sustain millions of dollars in investments.  As for the bigger schools, what are the athletes getting out of it?  This is what those schools need to answer.  Are the student-athletes receiving the tools and training to lead a middle-class life after they leave school?

Paying the players opens up all sorts of issues, as with the need for worker’s comp benefits that you mentioned earlier.  Do you think the players eventually will be compensated?  

I think this $2,000 stipend they’re proposing, or maybe even a stipend up to the cost of attendance, is an inevitability…but only for those programs that can afford it.  That’s going to be one of the key factors in changing the world of college athletics as we know it:  the schools that can pay the stipend, and the schools that can’t.  You may even have schools that are thinking, oh, a great quarterback is invaluable, let’s just pay him…but I doubt they’ll get too far with that, because of the legal complications.  Not to mention you have the O’Bannon lawsuit and the others making their way through the courts right now.  On top of that, the fiction of amateurism is important.  If all a college team amounts to is a professional team with lower salaries…well, this is really not an option that universities would select unless the courts mandate it.

And now there aren’t even four-year scholarships for players, as there were from the late 50s to the early 70s.  You’ve already got these one-year renewable scholarships…a professional or semi-professional team could just cut players. 

Four-year scholarships will come back.  The one-year renewable makes these kids absolutely dependent on their coaches, and I think the four-year or five-year scholarship could come back as an option.  Those schools that offer the option will obviously have a huge advantage over the schools that don’t, and that could be another wedge that separates the big-time schools from the rest.  The four-year scholarship is a much better example of the amateur model, so maybe that will be one way that the universities can open their checkbooks and start sharing money with the athletes without actually paying them.

Another scary thing for football that could happen in the courts is the success of an personal injury lawsuit, which leads to a massive payout for the plaintiffs and an eventual collapse of the sport.  Could you see that happening?

That’s another enormous problem, and the money disparity just makes it worse.  When I was in college and receiving a scholarship worth X number of dollars, an NFL player made $15,000 to $20,000 dollars–better than a teamster, but not great.  Now you have these kids in college getting a scholarship that’s still worth essentially what my scholarship was worth, adjusted for inflation, but players in the NFL who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars.  So what’s potentially available to them is enormous.  An injury that ended one of my classmate’s pro aspirations was an unfortunate thing; today it’s an economic disaster.  It’s a catastrophe.  So that means the sacrifice of your body, and battling for dear ol’ alma mater, has serious financial consequences.  To not be able to be insured against this possibility…this is a huge problem.

I was really struck by this with regard to the Legarette Blount incident at the University of Oregon, when he punched the player from Boise State.  If Blount doesn’t make it to the NFL, he’ll be back on the streets, and he was already having a hard time keeping it together in college.  The folks at U of O should have been a little uncomfortable about all this.  Blount was playing well, generating revenue and goodwill for the school, and then he screwed up.  What he did was not an outrageous display of bad sportsmanship, in their eyes.  No, it was a crime against the U of O brand, and he had to be punished enormously.  Suddenly, he’s gone from the school, and his chances of getting those payments are reduced in a big way.  It worked out for him [now that he's with Tampa] but what was at stake for him was so considerable.

If universities are not serving their student-athletes as well as they should be in terms of providing a minimal education much less a diploma, the Blount incident shows us that they’re also not performing their job all that well for the relative handful who actually do have professional prospects.  Why shouldn’t they be allowed to have agents, or capitalize on their abilities?  You can have a soprano in your music department who tours in the summer and gets well paid for it and comes back and is a student again.  We do not allow athletes to benefit financially from their abilities even to the extent we allow other students to do so, and we don’t let them protect themselves against loss of future livelihood…so how is this working for them in any part of their lives?  You can’t over-generalize it, because you’re talking about a small percentage of athletes who are really that good…but it’s obvious that the system itself is so screwed up, because it doesn’t serve them well either as students or as athletes.

That’s a great point.  A coach can remove a “disruptive” player from the program, even if he has pro potential.  That’s a tremendous amount of power to have over a young kid’s life, especially if you know they’re going back home to a bad situation without any new tools for dealing with it. 

My guess is that there are some coaches out there who are uncomfortable with all this.  Some of them, like Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, have spoken out about it, saying they want to give the athletes something, that they’d pay them out of pocket.  There was a fun factoid I ran across when I was writing Bowled Over:  the salaries of some coaches were greater than combined value of all their players’ scholarships.  I think there are some coaches out there who have a conscience about this, but they’re also beneficiaries of this unfair system and I don’t think they’re going to mess with it too much.

If you had any advice for kids who are doing this–who are going through college by playing football–what would you tell them about their careers, about their studies?

Simply because of my background and experience, I’ve often been asked to come talk to players, to give them some sort of inspirational talk.  I feel bad about that, because my experience is so different from most of theirs.  I haven’t had a lot of football players in my classes over the years–they tended to avoid English courses–but I did have a young man, the center on the team, come up to talk to me one day after class.  This was right after Proposition 48 had been passed, and he asked me if I would have had a problem meeting the qualifying standards imposed by that regulation.  I’m thinking, god, this is when you had to have a 2.0 and a 700 SAT, and I had a 4.0 and a 1460 SAT….I could’ve gotten in twice under the Prop 48 standards.  And in my head I’m saying, “Roger, I don’t want you to think of yourself in relation to me and what life holds for you.  I was so much more fortunate than you to begin with.”

So I offer that as a kind of qualification to show how empty I think good advice can be.  The ideas are obvious and simple, but whether they are really possible is another matter altogether.  The advice, of course, would be to not allow football or basketball to be the all-consuming thing, the single place where you sort of focus your identity.  Don’t think of yourself as an athlete first and everything else second.  Realize that your long-term future is more dependent on what you do in the classroom, and not on what you do on the football field.  It’s so easy to say that, but these are kids who grew up in a different world than I did.  They’ve got ESPN on 24/7, on their phones and laptops, and the NFL looms so much larger in their minds than it ever did for me.  Also, I went to Catholic schools, Jesuit high school…and I didn’t receive the preferential treatment that many star athletes get today.  That sort of treatment can prevent them from developing a reasonable sense of themselves.  The advice is the same as it has ever been, but it’s so much tougher to get that through to the players today.

Is there anything about playing in the NFL that you didn’t discuss in The End of Autumn that you would include now, were you to write it again?

Obviously, one of the things was the dangers of head injuries.  In fact, I’m actually of that school of thought, given what we know about these injuries, that we shouldn’t let kids play tackle football at least until high school.  This advice is for parents more than it is for kids, who need to ensure that their kids’ coaches are reasonable people and that the equipment’s safe and that there’s some awareness of hit counts, as with pitch counts for young pitchers’ arms.  They don’t need to have ‘slaughter practices’ every single day, as they did when I was playing.  That stuff can get out of control, and we suspect now that even the glancing blows can have a significant impact.  That’s the main takeaway point:  the sport is more dangerous, or potentially more dangerous, than we thought back then.

Your writing about injuries, and how cautious you were with regard to them, holds up, though.  What do you think about this New Orleans bounty situation, where players were getting money to hit and injure certain players?  Was that happening in the 60s and 70s?

That startled me, the openness of it. In Kansas City, when I joined the team, they had just won the Super Bowl and were a veteran team.  I was 22, and our quarterback Lenny Dawson had an 18-year-old daughter.  Maybe it’s because we were a mature team rather than a bunch of young hotheads, but I got a very clear sense that these were professionals and they were respectful of their fellow professionals.  They knew that what was at stake were their livelihoods, not winning games.  For that reason, cheap shots were absolutely outside the pale.  You might go after cheap shot artists in retaliation, but the code of the guild was that you don’t mess with a guy’s livelihood.  When I read this stuff about the Saints, it was the explicit intention to injure that really startled me.  The idea that you’d be indifferent to the livelihood of players throughout the league was mind-boggling.  It’s always been the case that if you go after the quarterback, you want him to know you’re there…but you don’t want to jeopardize his career.  I hope this is an anomaly.

At the end of your long second career, do you still think about being cut by the Chiefs?

No.  It was relatively painless, and I had a chance to go up to join the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and finish the season.  It was good for my psyche, to go out on my own terms like that.  I’m not haunted by the touchdown I scored to win the Cotton Bowl or the Super Bowl or anything like that.  I had a fairy tale career at Notre Dame, going from walk-on to All-American, but it was a private experience.  Generally the only two people who know how well a center plays are the line coach and the center himself.  I think the higher you rise, the farther you fall when you give it up, and the more you’re likely to be haunted by it when you give it up.  Football did mark me indelibly, in lots of ways.  The fact that I played professional football and played at Notre Dame…that’s a part of me that sustains me at times.  It’s something I know about myself, and I know it’s relatively rare.  It’s been a real positive thing for me, even in an academic life that’s been so far removed from football.

I’m going to leave you with one last question:  if you had to choose between your two careers, playing in the NFL or being a professor at Oregon State, which would you pick?  

The long career at Oregon State is clearly what’s more important, because it was the long career.  It’s what has allowed me to raise a family.  In an odd way, I’ve been more successful as an English professor than I ever was as a football player, in terms of the way we judge those things.  I’ve written seven books–I’ve been a very productive scholar.  I was named a distinguished professor at my university.   Of course, that old cliché, that “sports is life with the volume turned up…”  Well, it’s true that my successes as an academic have been more routine than my going from walk-on at Notre Dame to the NFL.  I’m 63 now, and I’ve been thinking about the process of aging.  I’m half-retired, and I can remember telling people who were 55 and were complaining about their aches and pains that I was eager to get to 65, so I could qualify for Social Security.  And growing old has been fine, except for the betrayal of the body.  Still, when I think about where my junior colleagues who are just beginning their careers are, which sounds like the position you’re in…I’m just so relieved that I paid my dues and it all worked out okay.

Photo–Columbia Sports Journalism Student Anthology

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About Oliver Lee Bateman

Good Men Project contributing editor Oliver Lee Bateman is a columnist for Al-Jazeera America and Made Man Magazine. His writing has been featured in Salon, The Atlantic, Johnny America, Stymie: A Journal of Sport and Literature, the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, STIR Journal, Mic.com, and NAP Magazine. He is also one of the founders of the Moustache Club of America and Penny & Farthing, two blogzines specializing in flash fiction and creative nonfiction that he co-curates with web developer Erik Hinton, medical consultant Nathan Zimmerman, and freelance writers Christie Chapman and J. R. Powell. Oliver is a lawyer as well as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS or on Google+.

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