Unique as it is to be professional football's only Guatemalan-born ex-math major, Ted Hendricks is better known as the All-Pro linebacker who has been frustrating NFL offenses for the past six years and bringing more grief to the kicking fraternity than ingrown toenails. His 6'7" height obviously troubles passers and for a mere 220-pounder he is exceptionally strong against the rush. But his most devastating talent is the art of blocking kicks, wherein he has no peer. Now with the Oakland Raiders, who had the best regular-season won-lost record (12-2-0) in the NFL last season and are unbeaten after five exhibition games this year, Hendricks looms as yet another weapon on a team that already had a bulging arsenal—including a full complement of professional-caliber linebackers. It may be the first time a club set out to improve its defense with a blocker.
Hendricks, 27, became a Raider on Aug. 6 when Al Davis, the team's managing partner, signed him to a three-year contract offering the kind of money that could house and feed The Norman Luboff Choir. Yet it was not so much the salary that enabled Oakland to acquire the seven-year veteran as it was the contract Hendricks had signed with Green Bay last season. It contained no option clause and thus left Hendricks a free agent when it expired. Packer fans have accused ex-Coach Dan Devine of vindictive sabotage in his method of signing Hendricks, a charge Devine, now the head coach at Notre Dame, denies. Insisting it was a straight business deal, Devine claims that had he remained with the Packers, Hendricks would have bargained in good faith for 1975. Indeed, it should be recalled that Hendricks came to Green Bay from Baltimore, where he had started 69 straight games, for what was projected as (and turned out to be) a lame-duck season. He was to join the WFL Jacksonville Sharks in 1975 but by 1975 the Sharks were out of business. Since new Packer Coach Bart Starr has no wish to incur similar fan outrage, he has yet to decide whether players or draft choices constitute proper Rozelle Rule reimbursement from Oakland. Thus the trade for Hendricks remains to be consummated.
Even so, the deal already has prompted speculation on the part of fans, players and newsmen. Fans, as they are wont to do, see Hendricks as the messiah who will lead the Raiders to the Super Bowl championship that has barely eluded them year after year. Players, remembering Hendricks' Pro Bowl performances and his work for the victorious Colts in Super Bowl V, undoubtedly feel much the same way. Newsmen are convinced that the Raiders will trade either Gerald Irons or Phil Villapiano to reduce a surplus at outside linebacker.
While the latter remains a distinct possibility, Davis' reasons for acquiring Hendricks may at once be more simple and more complex. "He's a guy who might help us win a game down the line that we might lose without him," Davis says in disposing of the simple part. It is also no secret that Davis was less than pleased with the Raiders' tackling last year, especially in the game in which the team lost the AFC championship to the Steelers. "I think maybe some of our guys got a little complacent," he says. To upgrade performance, Davis seems to be following his old formula of extracting better work out of his players through fear wrought by job competition. In 1967, when the Raiders had two of the best cornerbacks in the American Football League—David Grayson and Kent McCloughan—Davis acquired Willie Brown. Two years ago he kept Defensive Ends Horace Jones and Tony Cline in a state of worried sharpness by trading for Bubba Smith.
"Our only inflexible goal is to win," Davis says, "and we may use flexible methods to do that. I'm not a guy who believes in a wholesale housecleaning. I think you can upgrade in other ways."
Hendricks views the trade in much the same manner. "We've got so much depth on this team I don't see any way we can't possibly make it to the playoffs," he says. That was one of the big reasons why Hendricks turned down the offers of Atlanta, the Giants and Miami, among others, and chose to sign with the Raiders. "The fact that I knew Oakland was going to be in the playoffs did enter into my decision to come here," he says.
Since Hendricks reported to camp 16 days late, and then discovered he would be tried at right linebacker after playing the other side for the last three seasons, his exhibition-game performances understandably have been less than awesome. Last Friday night in Dallas, however, Hendricks' work helped the Raiders score their first touchdown in a 31-20 defeat of the Cowboys. Midway through the first quarter, Hendricks, who was playing for the first time on the Raiders' punt-return team, swooped in from the right side and seemingly harassed Mitch Hoopes so that the rookie Cowboy kicker shanked a 33-yard punt out of bounds at the Oakland 49-yard line. On the very next play Ken Stabler and Cliff Branch hooked up on a 49-yard bomb, and on the following play Clarence Davis bolted the last two yards for the initial score.
"We've never been a real good punt-blocking team," said Raider Assistant Joe Scannella. "It has to do with our style of play. Our game is, 'Don't make mistakes or give the other team a break.' That's why we don't go after the punter a lot. If we hit him, they keep the ball. But I think with Ted we're going to do it more and what we'll probably do as well is let him go on his own when he thinks he can get there." As for knocking down field goals and extra points, which is Hendricks' special joy, the Raiders have yet to work on the play to bring him through the line.
"They've mentioned to me that blocking kicks hasn't been a big factor in the Raiders' system," Hendricks says. "The same thing existed in Green Bay before I got there. I was just fortunate to get a coach like Devine and an assistant like Hank Kuhlmann to work with and talk over the best approach. It turned out beautifully. As time went on, I got to work on it more and more." Indeed, in Hendricks' one season as a Packer he blocked seven kicks, including one against the Colts that was nothing short of delicious. (As with many another former Colt, there is no love lost between Hendricks and Baltimore General Manager Joe Thomas.)
"We were in Baltimore and they were getting ready to punt," Hendricks says. "I tried to draw the opposing player offsides so they'd get a five-yard penalty, but when one of their players did move and I reached over to touch him the officials called an offsides on me. The penalty against us moved them into field-goal range, so they brought in their field-goal team—but I blocked it."
In much the same manner, Hendricks stopped Fred Cox' extra point skein at 199 straight. "I had jumped offsides prior to the snap, which killed the play," he says. "Cox went ahead and made it, but he had to kick over, and I blocked it the second time around.
"Basically, it's beating the person in front of you and getting a lot of help from your teammates," Hendricks says. "Trying to get penetration into the line is where you need some help from your teammates. Usually it's a two-on-one situation, two defensive linemen against one offensive blocker, and you usually can get penetration that way. Then you've got to get your hands up in the air. That's where my height advantage comes in. If it's a low trajectory ball, it's easy to get to."
"It's a knack some people have," says Scannella. "Some guys have the ability to get sideward momentum so that they can sneak in there between people. Ted's very good at hitting and sliding. We hope he'll do the same thing here. Later in the season we'll design some stuff to help him. When you've got a special talent, you've got to do something to utilize it."
Hendricks would agree, if not for the chance at another Super Bowl appearance, then for the chance that both he and the Raiders can rid themselves of some cloying appellations.
Hendricks hopes his new surroundings will allow him to shake the Mad Stork moniker bestowed on him by a University of Miami assistant. At that, it was better than its predecessor, Twiggy. The Raiders, of course, have heard too often that they are "the team that can't win the big one." But with the acquisition of Hendricks, they stand a good chance of making that slogan passé. Which is probably going to have to satisfy Hendricks, too—Mad Stork figures to be as enduring as Poe's raven even if it does send its owner ravin'.