If last Saturday night's Coaches All-America game in Atlanta had ended any other way, it would have been downright unnatural. First, Henry Kieronski, the promoter, wandered in too late from Long Island to do any promoting. Then O.J. Simpson said he couldn't play because he hadn't signed his pro contract, so people like Leroy Keyes, Ron Sellers and Ted Kwalick began saying the same thing, and suddenly there was a bunch of All-Americas named Waddey Harvey, Harold McLinton and Mike Schnitker coming in for the game.
Then there was the heat—96° at the 8:30 p.m. kickoff. And the feud. Oh, boy, the feud! The game is run by three separate parties: Kieronski, the American Football Coaches Association and the Atlanta Braves, who pay the expenses and hope they get something back from the live gate. You need a roster to tell who isn't talking to whom, and everybody is running around trying to break Kieronski's contract, which he carries in his inside coat pocket and will whip out at the drop of an unkind word.
Now you take all this, add Joe Paterno and Pepper Rodgers as rival head coaches, and you know there has to be more than just 60 minutes of grunting and a final totting up of the points.
The last time Joe and Pepper played was in the Orange Bowl, Rodgers with his tough Kansans, Paterno with his unbeaten Penn Staters, and before it was over Pepper had added five and six and come up with a 12-man defense which Penn State scored against to win in the last few seconds.
And that's the pattern they brought to Atlanta. The first day Rodgers, suddenly shy a linebacker, was driving through the city with his daughter Terri, who had tuned the car radio to WAOK, a black rock 'n' roll station.
"Turn it down," said Rodgers. "You're driving me crazy."
Just then, John Merkerson, a disc jockey, said, "It sure is a shame that the coaches game didn't invite Harold McLinton, a fine linebacker from Southern University. Six feet three, 245 pounds, fast and an Atlanta boy."
Minutes later Rodgers was on a phone to McLinton. Now Rodgers coaches the West and McLinton's college is in Baton Rouge, which doesn't make you think of cowboys and Indians. But Rodgers' geography stood up, mainly because Paterno said to hell with it.
Then Rodgers found himself short of receivers. Off he skipped to a Falcon rookie training base where he latched onto Jim Mitchell from Prairie View A&M. "We're each supposed to have 30 players," Paterno said, "but the way Pepper counts you can never be sure."
"If I could count," said Pepper, "I'd still be getting $125 for a speaking engagement. Ever since the Orange Bowl I've been getting $500."
In all, 15 players didn't show up, most of them because they were still negotiating their pro contracts. Only Tackle Dave Foley from Ohio State, the Jets' first-round draft choice came in unsigned but willing to play.
"I hadn't planned on coming here," Foley said. "I was like everybody else, I didn't want to get hurt and maybe lose some bargaining power. My lawyer told me not to play, my coaches at school said they didn't care if I didn't play. The Jets didn't want me here. So I called to say I couldn't make it. They told me it would be tough to get a replacement, and I asked them to hold on while I talked to my mother.
"I told Mom that, darn it, I said I was coming, so I had an obligation. People are always making me promises and backing out, and I don't want to do that to someone else, so I said I'd play.
"I'm getting real disenchanted with the pros anyway. The Jets won't even call me. I have to call them. They act like they are doing me a favor just to talk to me. It's all Mickey Mouse. I may say to heck with it and go on to graduate school."
Meanwhile, the tickets weren't moving. But then, they never have moved since 1966, the first year the game was in Atlanta, when it drew 38,326, many of whom passed out from the heat. The next year there were 30,205, who weren't told until the last minute that the game had been set back until 9:30. ABC-TV was caught in a time-zone switch and had to go with Lawrence Welk at 8:30. Attendance fell to 21,120 last year, and the Braves, unhappy about the shortage of top players, are now taking a second look at what they are underwriting.
"The game will never leave Atlanta," says Kieronski, "I got a contract." Kieronski's contract gives him a $15,000 fee plus a piece of the pot after the Braves deduct expenses plus the first $50,000. Since 1966 there hasn't been a pot.
So, against this harmonious background, the West's Bill Bradley put his foot to the ball and the game was on. The West, with Mercury Morris (running in Simpson's spot), Paul Gipson and Earthquake Enyart, was a strong favorite.
"What the hell," said Rodgers, "Atlanta is my home town. We should win. If we were playing in Brooklyn, I'd let Paterno win."
With 25 seconds left in the first half, Gerald Warren kicked a 42-yard field goal and the East led 3-0. The West failed to make a first down the first quarter and finished the half with only five.
"The terrible, terrible heat," said Gipson later. "The terrible heat. Just terrible."
"It was the damn number I had," said Morris. At West Texas State his number was 22; in Atlanta it was 31. "I didn't get no vibration from that number," he said. "I almost ripped it before the game, so I'd get another number. But I was scared they'd give me 37, and there's a real bad number."
In the third quarter, the East mounted a drive from its 39, pushed to the one and gave the ball to Bob Campbell, who scored. The kick made it 10-0.
Oh, oh, they said, where's the old Paterno-Rodgers magic? And, presto chango, there it was. No, no, not a 12-man defense. It was more like, well, sort of a 12-man offense.
Just into the fourth quarter the West took over on the East 36. Bobby Douglass dropped back and fired two incompletions. That made him 0-for-12, with one interception. Then, bingo, a pass to Jim Lawrence for 21—and the West's initial first down of the half—and another to Morris for 11 and the West was at the four. Douglass got two on a keeper. And then it happened.
Douglass handed off to Enyart, who plunged and got a yard, yard-and-a-half, but instead of respotting the ball, Field Judge Bo Menton signaled a touchdown. Upstairs in the ABC booth Bud Wilkinson looked at the replay twice and admitted what millions of dumbfounded viewers already knew: Enyart did not score. No way. Nonetheless, the points were on the board: East 10, West 7.
A few minutes later, the West had the ball again. Out went Jerry Levias on a sideline pattern. Levias and the East's Jim Marsalis dived for the ball. Levias missed, and he and Marsalis sailed out of bounds together. "Roughing," shouted Head Linesman Wayne Shaw. Roughing? The penalty cost the East 29 yards. Now the West was moving. Douglass spotted Enyart near the East goal. He put a pass in the air. Enyart went up. The East's Al Brenner went up with him. They collided, and no one came down with the ball. "Interference," shouted Gil Rushton, the back judge. Inter what? The ball was placed at the four, and the West managed the rest on its own, Gipson scoring from the one. Final score, West 14, East 10.
Later, after the crowd of 17,000, which strangely resembled about 12,000, had finished its booing, the West players sat, gasping, in the dressing room.
"About those calls..." said Rodgers, grinning. "Now I saw them. But you got to remember that I wanted them to be called that way. Now if I had been on the other side...."
Gipson, the Houston running back who was voted the game's most valuable player, was told that Ben Hyman, an Atlanta jeweler, had wanted to donate a watch to the MVP. But when game officials refused to announce Hyman as the donor, he left at half time, taking his watch with him.
"Pitiful," said Gipson. "Just pitiful."