PATS' RABBIT WHO TURNED TIGER - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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It is customary for pro football owners to issue snappy ripostes whenever one of the hired hands strikes, plays out his option or gives some other indication that the NFL is not Nirvana. Los Angeles Owner Carroll Rosenbloom may have set a new standard for inaccuracy, if not invective, last week when he blasted Randy Vataha, the Patriots' 26-year-old player representative. "He was a radical at Stanford," Rosenbloom said, "and the same kind of guy when he was here with the Rams."

Replied Vataha with characteristic good humor, "If I did anything radical during the few weeks that I was with the Rams, it must have been that I took an extra glass of Gatorade once."

As that suggests, Vataha is almost as radical as Howard Johnson. He is a handsome, easygoing Californian who could be typecast as the all-American boy and who would laugh at the suggestion that he has become the NFL's Walter Reuther. By disposition and on the basis of past performance, Vataha was an unlikely candidate to bring the NFL to a halt, but as the leader of the team that was the first to walk out and the last to return to uniform, the 5'10", 175-pound wide receiver was a pivotal figure in last week's fragmented strike.

As a collegian, Vataha belonged to a single radical organization, the Stanford football team that rebelled against the Pacific Eight Conference's emphasis on the running game and instead employed bombs thrown by Jim Plunkett. Nicknamed Rabbit for the way he deftly ran patterns and dodged out of tackles, Vataha made 89 receptions for 1,586 yards and 12 touchdowns in his two years at Stanford.

Vataha's association with Plunkett, now sidelined with a shoulder separation, continued in the pros. The undersized pass receiver was the Rams' next to last choice in 1971. (Rosenbloom then owned the Baltimore Colts, incidentally, and presumably was more interested in John Unitas' condition than the behavior of another team's 17th-round pick who was cut midway through the exhibition season.) Plunkett was the NFL's No. I draftee at New England, and talked the Pats into giving Vataha a trial. The Rabbit responded by winning a starter's job.

Vataha, who worked one summer at Disneyland in the role of Bashful—one of the notorious Snow White Seven—was elected player rep last October while playing out his option. Security rather than salary was at the heart of his dispute with the Patriots, who later agreed to a three-year contract but did not give Vataha the ultimate security blanket, a no-cut clause. As shop steward, Vataha succeeded Jon Morris, a 12-year veteran traded this year to Detroit.

"I hadn't been Jon's assistant or anything," Vataha says. "A lot of us helped him. Probably more than anything, I got the job because I own a van. When we would go to picket in last year's strike, everyone would go in my van rather than take seven or eight cars. I guess it looked like I was helping more than others."

Vataha majored in political science at Stanford, but found it no help during last week's ordeal. As for his own politics, he says, "I tend toward moderate liberal, but I can get conservative on certain things and darn liberal on other things. I admire anyone who's willing to stand up for what he really believes."

Another unradical aspect of his behavior has been the equanimity of his responses to statements by owners. When told Bud Adams of the Oilers, who defeated New England 7-0 in Sunday's opener, had said, "The Patriots knew they couldn't win without Plunkett, so they went on strike," Vataha said, "I'm sure Adams said that tongue-in-cheek."

Asked for more remarks on Rosenbloom, Vataha said, "I'm not going to comment. I want to maintain my maturity."

Samuel Gompers could not have phrased it better.