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Original Issue

A Page out of NFL history

Retired Alan Page will not miss football as much as it will miss him

Alan Page's wife, Diane, sat huddled against the 12° cold in Chicago's Soldier Field last Sunday. "Alan's been counting down the days with a smile on his face," she said. She recalled the time more than three months before when Alan suddenly blurted out "Dan Hampton" during their daily five-mile jog.

"What?" she asked.

"Dan Hampton." Hampton, a defensive end, is No. 99 on the Bears, and Page had determined he had 99 days left until his retirement. He came up with a new name every day thereafter, tapping various NFL rosters.

"Last week we passed Vince Evans, Number 8," Diane said. "Well. Now we're down to Ken Burrough of Houston. Double zero."

The family Christmas card read simply "Bearing Retirement News/the Pages '82." It showed Diane and Alan sitting in the stands of Soldier Field. Now, before Alan's 218th and final NFL game, Papa Bear himself, George Halas, presented Page with a plaque inscribed: WITH APPRECIATION AND ADMIRATION FOR THE ENJOYMENT YOU HAVE BROUGHT SO MANY. With typical aplomb, in accepting the gift Page quoted Tennyson: "I am a part of all that I have met." He then went out and led a Bear defense that scored two touchdowns as Chicago upset Denver 35-24. Page sacked Bronco Quarterback Craig Morton 3½ times and earned a game ball, a fitting end to the career of one of the finest defensive players in the history of the NFL.

In Page's 15-year career as a defensive tackle, he played in four Super Bowls, eight Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro nine times—the last, a mark matched only by Pittsburgh's Joe Greene and former Baltimore Colt Gino Marchetti among defensive linemen. He started 215 games in a row for the Vikings and the Bears, had a total of 173 sacks and blocked what is believed to be a record 28 kicks, including one against Oakland two weeks ago. Page also shares the NFL record for most safeties in a career (3) and most fumbles returned for touchdowns (3). But he is probably most renowned as the only defensive player to be voted the league's MVP, an honor he earned in 1971. "For my own purposes, I don't know whether 1971 was any better than the years before that or the years after," he says. "But it happens to be when I got the recognition."

Ask Page to recall the highs and lows of those 15 years, and he comes up dry. With prodding, he'll guess that the finest team he ever played on was the 1969 Vikings, which lost to Kansas City 23-7 in Super Bowl IV; that Carl Eller and Jim Marshall, his erstwhile Minnesota teammates, were the best defensive linemen he ever saw. He doesn't remember much about specific offensive linemen—except that they were always there, trying to keep him from doing his job. His worst moment was probably when the Vikings unceremoniously put him on waivers in mid-1978 after he had allowed his weight to drop to 222 from 245; his best was the whole 3½-season Chicago experience—the support he received from the coaching staff and fans, and his own play. In the 58 games he played for the Bears, he led the team with 40 sacks and 12 blocked kicks.

"I tend to look at the broad picture instead of specific instances," Page says. "It's been more than a little bit fun, more than a little bit interesting, but I guess what I'm saying is that it hasn't been all that important. Football's just entertainment. Its importance in the world is blown far out of proportion to what it really is."

How many times before this season had he thought about retirement? "More than once. The first time, after nine years in the league, I didn't have anything else to do, anywhere else to go. That's when I decided to go to law school."

Page passed the Minnesota bar exam in 1979 and since then has been working winters and springs with the Minneapolis firm of Lindquist & Vennum, which serves as counsel to the NFL Players Association. He has been specializing in labor law, and it's more than likely that he will be involved in the forthcoming negotiations between the players and the owners regarding a new player contract. Last summer Page had to give himself a pep talk to return to the Bears for the final year of his contract. "It was hard leaving the law firm, where I'm constantly challenged, to come back to the toy department. Football is an occupation in which you don't grow very much. That aspect of this business has always been a turn-off."

When Page does bring up memories, they are not of Super Bowl losses or playoff wins, not of tackles or sacks or fumble recoveries—"The best thing about recovering a fumble is that you get to go sit down." They are of the odd human moments that are part of any game. Like the time in training camp when Carl Eller took off his helmet and told Minnesota Coach Bud Grant, "I ain't running no more" at the end of the day's second workout in the blazing heat, to the shock of the rookies and the delight of Page and Marshall. "When I came into the league in 1967," Page says, "there were 40 different personalities on every team. Now there's much less individuality. There are a lot of born-again Christian types—which is a ticklish subject to discuss—but it might be a reflection of the kind of player that management picks. They're followers, less individual. Whatever it is they're told to do, they do. It's almost like they've been stamped out with a cookie cutter."

Which Page most certainly was not. When he was told he couldn't play tackle at 222, he was all the more determined to prove that he could. And he proved it. He's still believed to be the only NFL player to have completed a marathon, and now that he's leaving football he intends to concentrate his competitive energies on running. He claims he will have his weight down to 190 before long, and, as Diane says, "Now that he's said it, he'll have to do it."

Page has lived in the regimented world of professional football, and he has excelled in that world while remaining true to himself. How could he play the game so well for so long without loving it? Without becoming caught up in the hoopla? Without even being able to wax sentimental in the final week of his career? "You'd think you'd have to love what you're doing to play in the fashion that I have," he says. "But I don't love it. I've just always done the best I could. Maybe it's got me buffaloed. Maybe I don't realize I love the game of football. But somehow I don't think I'm going to miss all this."

But football will miss him.