Coach Walt Michaels' New York Jets had just beaten the detested Los Angeles Raiders, 17-14, last Saturday to advance to the AFC finals—against Miami, it turned out the next day—and now it was 10 minutes after the game and all the writers were jostling for position in the hallway outside the Jets' L.A. Coliseum locker room, because on the way inside Michaels had promised, "I'm gonna have something special to say about this damn Raider organization," and nobody wanted to miss it.
And now Walt reappeared. His eyes were blazing and he bit off his words like a man cracking walnuts and the guys in back strained to hear him, because this was the good stuff, the vintage stuff, the fiber and substance of the Jet-Raider rivalry that had illuminated the pages of the AFL's history. This was good old-fashioned hatred.
"I just want to say," Michaels barked, "that whatever member of the Raider organization called me on the phone at halftime and said my owner wanted to talk to me is a sick s.o.b. It's a sick, rotten way to try to disrupt our team. His initials are A.D. and I don't care if he knows it or not."
A.D.? Let's see...Adrian Dantley? Andy Devine? No, wait a minute. Al Davis, that's it. The Raiders' owner. The boss. Pete Rozelle's dark cloud. What a stunt, what a gimmick. Getting the opposing team's coach on the phone at half-time by claiming to be the owner. No one ever thought of that one before.
Michaels is a man who remembers. All those trips to Oakland to play Al's Raiders when Michaels was Jet Coach Weeb Ewbank's defensive assistant. The big picture in the Raiders' office of Ben Davidson knocking Joe Namath's helmet off; Al planting his guy, Maury Schleicher, on the Jets' team bus one time; Al coming into the Jets' hotel to yak with Namath on the eve of a game; the great fear that the locker room was bugged; the tarps that were mysteriously unrolled on the field in 1968 where the Jets were to practice; the Heidi Game; Namath's broken cheekbone; the $2,000 fine the Jets were hit with when Michaels stormed the officials' room after a loss at the Oakland Coliseum and tried to knock down the door with his fists.
Oh, yes, Walt remembers. He remembers that Al Davis fired him as a Raider assistant 19 years ago; he remembers all those bloody, brutal Jet-Raider donnybrooks, struggles like the one that had just taken place before 90,037 fans in the Coliseum, a game no less intense than the battles of yesteryear. There had been 10 turnovers this time. Two pairs of offsetting personal foul penalties had been called before the first 15 minutes had elapsed. Raider Defensive End Lyle Alzado had ripped off the helmet of Jet Tackle Chris Ward and flung it at him. The dullest play in football, the game-ending quarterback falldown, this one by the Jets' Richard Todd, was marked by a flurry of fists.
But this time the rap Walt Michaels put on Al Davis was a bum one. They turned back the clock on Saturday and a cuckoo jumped out, and it wasn't Al. It was a guy who later identified himself as Larry Hammond, a part owner and bartender at a Woodside tavern called the Winfield Inn, Woodside being a Queens community 10 minutes from Shea Stadium, the home of the Jets. He said that at halftime he had placed the call to 213-747-7111, the security office next to the visiting team's dressing room. Dr. Bruce Fitzpatrick, an earth sciences professor at El Camino College who oversees locker-room security, had answered it.
"The guy said he was Leon Hess, the Jets' owner, and he had to talk to Walt Michaels," Fitzpatrick said. "He sounded quite normal. When Joe Namath was here you'd get a lot of crazies calling, but Carroll Rosenbloom [then the owner of the L.A. Rams] used to call down a lot at halftime, too, so how was I to know? Anyway, Walt just happened to be in the hall at the time, so I gave him the call. I feel like a fool now."
The conversation lasted about 30 seconds. "I told Coach Michaels to tell his team to fight harder in the second half, to go out and kick hell out of the Raiders," said Hammond in a later call to the press. Hammond admitted he'd used Leon Hess's name to get through, but then had said the call was from "Mayor Koch's office." He said he had laid a couple of bets on the game, taking the Jets to beat the spread, which had the Raiders favored by 3½ (he won), taking the over against the over-under number of 48 (he lost). He said he had told Michaels to make [Defensive End] Mark Gastineau stop doing his sack dance because he looked like a real jerk.
"The coach kept saying, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' " Hammond said, adding that he called back to talk to the press because, "I heard that Al Davis was getting blamed for it and I didn't want it laid on Al."
Davis had enough to worry about. His Raiders had had the game in their grasp and they'd let it slip away. They went into the fourth quarter with a 14-10 lead and they were driving. The Jets' defense was weary. Their line was crippled. The Raiders' pass rush was finally getting to Todd. Then the turnovers came, three for L.A., two for the Jets. Raider Running Back Marcus Allen fumbled on the Jets' 14. Ex-Jet Burgess Owens intercepted a Todd pass in the end zone. On their next series the Jets went ahead, 17-14, on a one-yard plunge by Scott Dierking, set up by the previous play, a 45-yard rainbow from Todd to Wesley Walker, whose deep catches (seven for 169 yards) were the most striking element of New York's offense. Todd had shown a lot of guts and great stability, hanging in the pocket and throwing his bombs in the face of a furious second-half rush.
Now the clock was moving, and Raider Quarterback Jim Plunkett got panicky. He tried to force the ball to Cliff Branch on a down-and-in pattern, and Linebacker Lance Mehl intercepted at the Raider 35. Three plays later Jet Running Back Freeman McNeil lost his second fumble, and the Raiders had the ball on their own 33 with 2:26 left. A scramble and two completions got them to the Jets' 42, second and two, 1:50 left.
"We were going in, I knew it, I could feel it," Raider Coach Tom Flores said afterward. "I felt the game had turned for the last time."
Next to last time. Plunkett tried to hit Branch on the same down-and-in pattern—with the same result. Mehl intercepted again; he was one of three Jets who had a shot at the ball.
"The same exact thing," Mehl said. "Branch curled in, I curled in with him. I was surprised Plunkett threw the ball there."
Plunkett said he saw Mehl start outside and didn't see him come back in again. He said he got greedy when he just should have been trying to pick up the first down. Davis said it shouldn't have come to that.
"When it was 14-10, that's when we should have put the game away," he said. "We had the game, we had the damn thing right here and we let it slip away."
It was time to bring up an unfortunate matter. The half-time call, Michaels' accusation that Davis had masterminded it, the bitterness, the insults.
"Oh, geez, that stuff," Davis said. "It's just so stupid, but that's Walt. Crazy and stupid, both. I was sitting upstairs in my box at halftime. It doesn't even have a phone in it. I don't have enough to worry about at halftime, right? I've got to start making phone calls." He shook his head. "Crazy and stupid," he said softly.
The locker room was emptying slowly. Alzado was one of the last to leave. His dramatic and highly visible battle with Ward had been one of the focal points of the game. Ward won the first half, Alzado the second, forcing an interception, forcing a sack, making a second sack himself. Late in the third quarter Ward tried to push him over a pileup, which was when Alzado yanked Ward's helmet off and threw it at him.
"I tried to sidearm it, like Sandy Koufax used to," Alzado said.
"Low and inside," Ward said, "aimed at my groin."
"We tried to intimidate them, they tried to intimidate us; it's part of the game," Alzado said. "We felt whoever wins this game wins the whole thing."
"Can the Jets go all the way?" he was asked.
"Absolutely," he said, "but I still feel we gave 'em the game."
"They weren't real physical," L.A. Inside Linebacker Matt Millen said. "They were pushers. They get on your shoulder and wait for McNeil (23 carries, 105 yards) to make his cuts behind them. The way he cuts is awesome."
"How about his two fumbles?" he was asked.
"Nobody ever accused us of not hitting," Millen said.
Millen was in the midst of the melee at the end, a mini-brawl that summed up the bitterness between these teams.
"Ted Hendricks grabbed their center, Joe Fields," Millen said. "I was trying to break it up. Then someone took a shot at me."
"Everyone yelling and screaming, it was crazy out there," Jet Guard Stan Waldemore, who's in his fifth year with the team, said. "Is this what these games are supposed to be like?"
"I looked around for Plunkett," Todd said, "someone my own size."
The excitement on the field was too much even for Gastineau, who got a chance to do his dance in the fourth quarter, getting a sack when the Jets were rushing only three linemen. "I was jumping up and down and I tripped and fell...did you see that?" he said. "That's how excited I was out there. I've never been so excited in a football game in my life."
Yep, they turned the clock back, all right. And another cuckoo jumped out.
Todd was Richard the Lion-Hearted in the face of the Raiders' menacing defenders.
Chris had to ward off Alzado, who occasionally treated him in high-handed fashion.
Mehl had a ball and unblinking regard from Stan Blinka.