The problem, as Oakland Raider Wide Receiver Bob Chandler sees it, was that "I never wanted notoriety for anything other than my playing ability. That's why I had no notoriety." That was before he appeared pretty much in the altogether in the pages of the January 1982 issue of Play girl magazine. "Strange, isn't it," says Chandler, "that after 11 years of busting my ass on the football field, I get the most attention for spending eight hours exposing my ass?"
As far as she was concerned, Chandler's wife, Marilyn, didn't care that he'd posed for the picture—what the heck, $10,000 is $10,000—but she asked him in genuine amazement, "Why do they want you?" His teammates were laughing so hard it was difficult to practice. They soon began referring to Chandler as The Slut. As for opponents, well, they were beside themselves. When Chandler lined up against Seattle, one of the Seahawks hollered at him, "Hey, Bobby, cute little stance." And for Chandler's mother, Barbara, the problem was "explaining it to my church group."
Anyway, Chandler now has notoriety. Which, ironically, may have the salutary effect of focusing attention not so much on his body—"If they were going to photograph this body, they had to do it fast. It's going downhill rapidly," he says—as on his extraordinary playing ability. As he prepares for his 12th NFL season Chandler is just 30 catches shy of his 400th career reception. From 1975 through 1978, he caught 220 passes for the Buffalo Bills, more than any other receiver in the NFL during that period. After missing almost the entire 1979 season with a separated shoulder, he came back in 1980 to lead the Super Bowl-champion Raiders in receptions with 49, including 10 for TDs, which tied him for second in NFL scoring catches behind then-Charger John Jefferson, who had 13. Last year at age 32 and despite missing most of the first half of the season with a ruptured spleen, he grabbed 26 more passes and had the highest yards-per-catch average, 17.6, of his career.
What's happening is that it's finally occurring to people that Chandler—CELEBRITY NUDE on the cover blurb—is one of the top wide receivers in the game. Around the Raiders, Chandler is favorably compared with the legendary Fred Biletnikoff. Says Biletnikoff, "None of the league's other receivers even belong in the class of Bob Chandler. They just play the position; he understands it."
Chandler, a thinking man's pro football player who runs impeccable routes, was sitting in his home in Whittier, Calif. the other day, watching movies of Biletnikoff at work. "Amazing," said Chandler of Biletnikoff's techniques. Chandler has film—seven reels of it—of almost all of the 589 receptions Biletnikoff made from 1965 through 1978, and he marvels at the way Biletnikoff backs up defensive backs, at his steps, at the positioning of his hands.
Fact is, it's a travesty that Chandler has never been selected for the Pro Bowl. He agrees. "It's embarrassing," he says. "But you can't carry your highlight film around with you." His biggest liability is that he spent the first nine of his 11 NFL seasons in Buffalo, 30 miles north of Gowanda and 35 miles northwest of Varysburg. Plus, he not only played in a run-oriented offense dominated by O.J. Simpson but also on a perennially poor team, which led to the suspicion that Chandler was making a lot of meaningless catches late in games in which the Bills were hopelessly behind.
A couple of weeks ago, sitting poolside at Julie's restaurant near the USC campus, his old stomping ground, Chandler considered his plight. "In the total scope of life, I've accomplished nothing," he says. "Except that I have gotten to bide my time and be a kid for a long while. And it's fun being paid a lot of money to be a kid." In his case, around $225,000 a year, which should help explain his three Mercedes, his Ferrari and why he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a pair of ostrich-skin cowboy boots. Marilyn, on the other hand, still buys her dresses on sale in basements. "She's cheap to have around," says Bob.
Perhaps Chandler's lack of celebrity stemmed from the fact that little in his appearance or résumé suggests a gridiron hero. At 6'1", 180 pounds, he doesn't even come close to looking like a football player. He's California through and through—he's learning to play the saxophone at $10 a lesson because "it's mellow." Last August, after eight years of off-season perseverance, he earned his law degree from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, Calif. "Not long after I started pro fooball," says Chandler, "I realized this could all end real fast and I'd better be prepared to do something else. I felt a law degree would give me credibility after football. Besides, I noticed that after each season I'd come home and find I'd forgotten how to spell, write and read. Law school reminded me how."
Moreover, he's a five-handicap golfer, he had a radio show the last two seasons on a San Francisco station and he's enrolled in an acting class in Burbank. "In football," he says, "I've learned to mask my emotions. I try to look the same whether I catch a touchdown pass or drop one. Acting, on the other hand, is being totally uninhibited. What I'm learning is to let my emotions dictate my behavior rather than my mind getting in the way. So next season, when you see me cry after a touchdown, you'll know why." The point is, he's preparing for life after football. "Mostly," he says, "I'm anxious to get into something, like being a sportscaster, where the body can rest."
His body will appreciate that. Not only has he often been hurt, but also Chandler seems to invite injuries. He doesn't wear knee pads or hip pads and only Pop Warner-style shoulder pads. "I resent people dictating what I should wear," he says. "Besides, I do this because I think it enhances my performance. I could be protected like an armadillo, but then I might play like one." No wonder he got sore when a Buffalo coach gigged him at practice because his chin strap was unbuckled; no wonder he loves the Raiders where no two guys march to the same drummer.
In fact, there's a strong feeling that Oakland doesn't have a drummer. Owner Al Davis relishes the role of renegade for himself and his troops. "Things are always different around here," says Chandler. "One day we're trying to bail a guy out of jail and another day it's something else. Not all of our guys are model citizens, and they couldn't play for the Cowboys or the Eagles. The truth is, a lot of them wouldn't want to. I think 45 individuals create a much truer atmosphere than 45 dress-alikes. Besides, the Raiders are always Darth Vader walking into a stadium, and I love it. Everybody hates the Raiders and thinks we're all creeps. But I know that we're really good guys."
Yet, Chandler is not so sure about the opposition guys. "I'm an idealist," he says. "I hate to think there isn't compassion among the players in the league. But there are a lot more dirty shots and strong efforts to hurt now than there used to be. Maybe the reason is the intense competition for jobs and the fact that the killer instinct is now taught hard in high school. Intimidation is a big part of pro football, but you can be intimidating and be fair."
No wonder Chandler's main feeling after a game is that he survived. "What I've done," he says, "is bought another week, and management thinks I'm real neat." So do the fans, and Chandler admits that "without their fanaticism, we wouldn't have jobs. There might be healthier things to do than get riled up at a football game, but I'm not making judgments. I just think if I weren't playing I'd rather do something else than watch football on Sunday afternoons."
Above all else, it's a good thing that Chandler isn't encumbered by a foolish pride. Consider, for example, that near the end of the 1979 season when he asked Bills Coach Chuck Knox to trade him, Knox subsequently told him, "Nobody's real excited about trading for you." Oakland Coach Tom Flores expressed some interest but said that because Chandler had been injured he wanted him to try out. Understand that rookies try out, veterans play. Nevertheless, Chandler replied cheerfully, "I can swallow my pride." He tried out. In recounting the deal made before the 1980 season, in which the Bills got Linebacker Phil Villapiano, Chandler says the Raiders wanted him so much that "they first offered an assistant trainer to get me."
In truth, nobody has ever much wanted Bob Chandler. Oh sure, his parents did, and they were proud when he could walk on his hands by age 3 and juggle oranges by age 7. And Marilyn did. She was a USC song girl who took one look at him on the football field and told a friend, "I'd sure like to go out with him." They now have a daughter, Marisa, 4½.
But when Chandler showed up at Whittier High, Coach Vic Lopez recalls thinking, "What a skinny little kid." Now what does Lopez think? "I look at him and I think, 'What a skinny little kid.' " In high school Chandler was an average quarterback, but Lopez defends him, saying the problem was "I couldn't figure out a way for Bobby to pass and catch the ball." Only two universities were interested in his athletic abilities: BYU and Whittier College. "What nobody understood," says Lopez, "is that Bobby has no pain threshold and a heart bigger than his body."
At the last minute USC found itself with one extra scholarship and Trojan Assistant Coach Rod Humenuik (now with the Cleveland Browns) recommended Chandler after seeing him play basketball. "I think he liked the way I knocked down a guy who had just knocked me down," says Chandler. At USC Chandler figured to be a defensive back and just one of the boys in the band. But injuries soon depleted the wide receiver corps, and in his sophomore season Chandler was given a shot. In his first start, against Cal, he caught eight passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. The next year he was named the Rose Bowl's player of the game after catching a 33-yard pass for the only touchdown in USC's 10-3 win over Michigan.
The 1971 pro draft was another lesson in humility. Chandler was sitting with some of his friends when the news came on the radio that "a USC wide receiver was just selected by the 49ers in the third round..."
"Great," Chandler said. "I love San Francisco."
The announcer continued, "...Sam Dickerson."
"Sam Dickerson?" howled Chandler.
Later came the news that "a Trojan wide receiver was the sixth-round choice by Detroit."
Said Chandler, "Well, that's a lot better than the seventh round."
The announcer continued, "He's Herman Franklin." Franklin had never played a down at USC.
Despair set in. Then O.J. Simpson called after the seventh round and said, "Welcome to Buffalo." Oddly, even though the Bills were a poor team, they had excellent receivers—J.D. Hill, Marlin Briscoe, Haven Moses—and thus Buffalo would be a hard club for him to make. More humility was dished out when Chandler went to talk contract and a Bills official said, "Seventh-round draft picks are not supposed to make the team." Which is why he promptly signed for a $3,500 bonus ($1,500 more in the unlikely event that he made the team) and three years at $15,000. $17,500 and $20,000. "I was so embarrassed," says Chandler, "that I just wanted to show them I could do it. There's always room for a guy who can play. There's not that much talent in the NFL."
This was back in the days when the Bills played and, weather permitting, practiced in rickety old War Memorial Stadium. Chandler and the other rookies once were sent out on the field to mash down the snow with team-issued boots. Then there was the time the Bills practiced on an ice rink. And finally, the day they worked out in the hallway of a recreation center. Chandler remembers watching Moses run a down-and-out—down to the Coke machine and out to the locker room—never to return that day. The players had to pay $2.50 to park half a mile from the stadium, and hot water in the showers lasted only five minutes—which meant none was left for a seventh-round rookie. Through it all, Chandler lived in the South Exit 56 Motor Inn and drove a 1953 Chevrolet he bought for $100 in which the heater didn't work. Meanwhile, the Bills went 1-13. "But we laughed," says Chandler, "because there was so much to laugh about."
Chandler's injuries have been no laughing matter. Flores says he doubts there is an injury Chandler hasn't had. That's ridiculous. In fact, Chandler has only broken his left foot, his left hand and four transverse processes in his back. He has torn cartilage in his left knee (which required four operations), twice separated his right shoulder and suffered a bunch of little things, like a collapsed left lung. And, of course, he ruptured his spleen in last season's opener.
The spleen was the spookiest of Chandler's injuries. After a world-class hit by Bronco Cornerback Perry Smith, Chandler lost 40% of his blood (about two of the normal five liters), his systolic blood pressure plummeted from its normal 120 to 70 and a hospital employee asked him, "Do you want to see a priest?" Shot back Chandler, "Do I need one?" Yes, he did. When he awoke to a room full of flowers, he checked his own pulse. Then Davis called and said, "I was up all night last night worrying about you and researching spleens."
"Yeah, and I've learned you can be all healed in four weeks." That was too optimistic, but Chandler did come back in six weeks although it was two more weeks before he got into a game as a receiver. Now, with a 12-inch scar on his stomach—"Playgirl would never want me now," Chandler says—he's ready to play full out again.
Critics persist in the notion that Chandler is too slow, but his defenders point out that on an 80-yard scoring play in Super Bowl XV he ran half the length of the field stride for stride as a blocking escort for fast, fast Kenny King. "I have an advantage now," says Chandler, "because when you have never had speed, you don't lose it." Still, he's sensitive about the rap that he has lead feet, and once, as the result of a hot barroom discussion, he went outside with a tormentor, raced him and beat him down the block. But it occurred to Chandler that "I can't convince people that I'm fast by meeting them in bars and racing them one at a time."
Sprawled on a couch at home—one of the Playgirl pictures is framed over the TV—he muses, "When you are a pro football player, most people think much more of you than they should and you convince yourself you're a lot neater than you are. The importance people put on the game is silly, but I could never say that pro football is silly when I have given up so much to it." Then he digs out a poem he wrote, which includes the lines:
"This odd little pigskin is often caught
But don't get brash—because then it's often not."
Chandler had one of his "Playgirl" photos framed and now has it on the wall at home.
Chandler is thoroughly Californian, right down to his team, the Oakland/L.A. Raiders.
After football Chandler won't just hang out at the playhouse with Marilyn and Marisa. He's now studying for the bar exam and simultaneously taking saxophone lessons.
Chandler led the Raiders with 10 scoring catches in their Super Bowl season of 1980.