John Dutton stretches himself to his full 6'7" and stares out at the miles of rolling Nebraska farmland that surrounds his house near Lincoln. "Pretty this time of year," he says. "I'd forgotten how pretty it can be in the fall." His hands tighten on the wooden porch railing—you almost expect to hear sounds of splintering lumber—and then they relax. "Of course, it's been some time since I've seen this part of the country during the football season."
For five autumns Dutton's part of the country has been Baltimore, where he earned a pretty decent living as an All-Pro defensive end for the Colts. Five autumns but no more. Dutton's had it with the Colts. He played out his option in 1977, then in 1978 signed a one-year, $108,000 contract without an option-year clause. Now, he says, he should be a free agent. The NFL disagrees. "I will never play for the Colts again, and that's final," he says. "If they don't trade me by the deadline [Oct. 9], I don't play."
"Do you miss it?" Dutton is asked.
"Of course I miss it," he says, looking out over his 80 acres planted in hog fodder and wheat. "Of course I do. I'll go to see the university play Penn State on Saturday, and I'll sit in the section with the regents and professors. But I haven't gone to a pro game. In the mornings they let me use the equipment down at school, and I work in the weight room and run the stadium steps. I get through quickly and I get out. I don't want to interfere with the team."
Around the NFL, people shake their heads when the subject of John Dutton comes up. "Another Howard Slusher dropout," they say. To the uninformed, Slusher is a convenient scapegoat.
Slusher is the Brooklyn-raised Los Angeles attorney who represents Dutton—and more than 50 other NFL players. His detractors say that Slusher is a disruptive force, that he tells players to walk out on their teams. The people from the clubs Slusher gets along with say he is tough but fair.
"I don't pull people out of camp," Slusher says. He is sitting behind his desk in his 55th-floor L.A. office. He has just gotten off the phone with John Ralston, San Francisco's administrative vice-president. Slusher wanted to talk about Dutton. Ralston wanted to talk about another client, Bob Martin, the linebacker who had been at a contract impasse when he was cut by the Jets two weeks ago. Martin now plays for the 49ers.
Forty-two years old, 5'7", 240 pounds, with red hair, freckles and a high, squeaky voice, Slusher resembles a matzoh ball, a cartoon character, but the clubs that have been over the route with him on a negotiation don't find him so funny. "You think I want to see Dutton out of football?" Slusher says, the squeak in his voice rising an octave. "I'm trying like crazy to get him placed somewhere. John Dutton shouldn't be forking hay in Nebraska. He belongs in pro football. This thing is killing me. I'm a nervous wreck. I've even told him maybe he ought to think about us beginning negotiations with the Colts again, and he says, 'Be strong, Howard, be strong.' The kid's taking this better than I am.
"Why should it be so difficult to get him placed with another team, unless they're trying to get at me through John? He's 28 years old, a three-time All-Pro. O.K., when he played out his option in '77 we were asking for $200,000 a year. When I gave that number to the Rams, Steve Rosenbloom was quoted in the papers as saying I was on hallucinogenic mushrooms. But what's so terrible about $200,000? Where does it say that only quarterbacks and running backs are worth that kind of money? You see who the first people drafted are every year—defensive linemen.
"I hate to say this, and I hate to use the word 'conspiracy,' but it almost seems like there's a stop-Slusher movement afoot and they're using John as their whipping boy."
What has Slusher done to incur such wrath? Well, there are a lot of bitter feelings left over from 1977 when All-Pro Offensive Linemen John Hannah and Leon Gray walked out of the New England camp; Dutton stayed at home for a month while playing out his option; Baltimore Wide Receiver Roger Carr stayed out of camp; Punter Tom Skladany sat out all season at Cleveland; and Quarterback Dan Fouts missed 10 games at San Diego. All are clients of Slusher.
Pittsburgh President Dan Rooney, who likes Slusher just fine, tells a story of meeting him one day in Los Angeles' Century Plaza Hotel. Howard was accompanied by his 10-year-old son, John, a sure-handed goalie for the Rolling Hills Swordfish soccer team.
"Do you want your daddy to represent you when you grow up?" Rooney asked the boy.
"No," said John Slusher. "I want to play."
Hannah, for one, suggests that there is an anti-Slusher conspiracy in the NFL. "I've talked to college kids who were specifically told that if they went with Slusher it would hurt their drafting position," he says. "If the kid was kind of naive, they'd even tell him he wouldn't get drafted at all. Who tells them? NFL scouts who visit the campus, assistant coaches who've been briefed by scouts. It even goes on at Alabama, my school."
"Look, I don't care what anybody says about me, or writes about me," Slusher says, "but I don't like what's going on now with Dutton. The only club the Colts made a legitimate deal with for Dutton was Cleveland, and the numbers were wrong. The decent money was in the last two years of the five-year contract, but only the first two were guaranteed, and the figures for those two were $105,000 and $130,000, which is embarrassing.
"The Colts go around telling people John has a bad knee and hasn't played well for the last two years. Then when they talk trade they ask for something ridiculous.
"I sincerely believe [Colt Owner Robert] Irsay wants to use this to gain a victory over me, so he can go to the owners' meetings and tell people how he beat Howard Slusher. Do you think the real football people, the Rooneys and the Tom Landrys, the Al Davises—the consistent winners in this league—play games like that? No way. They sign their players and win with them."
At least two people, Dutton and his wife Ginny, share Slusher's bitterness toward Irsay and Colt Coach Ted Marchibroda. Three weeks ago Ginny Dutton wrote a two-page letter to Marchibroda that began: "John has given the Baltimore Colts five great years. You're, however, not man enough to stand up to Mr. Irsay to get a trade accomplished so John can pursue his career where he's appreciated as a fine ballplayer and a fine person." It ended with a reaffirmation of faith. "If not playing for Baltimore means ending John's career, then that's the way it will be. John, myself and our baby are the better for it. You are the loser!
As Dutton hunts on his farm, Attorney Slusher frets that some NFL owners may be using the player to teach him a lesson.