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Football players are fussier about their helmets than any other piece of equipment. Most wear the same helmets in practice as they do in games. So the helmets get pretty beat up. If an equipment manager so much as looks as if he's about to shine one up, change a decal or—heaven forbid—replace the old headgear with a new model, he'll be sacked mighty fast.

Colts defensive end Donnell Thompson has worn the same helmet since he joined the club six years ago. At North Carolina he wore the same helmet four years. "I don't want anybody messing with my helmet," he says. "When your hat doesn't feel just right, you don't feel right. Your frame of mind is ruined. If I lost this hat, I don't know what I'd do."

Kiki DeAyala, the Bengals linebacker, drives Tom Gray, the team's equipment man, nuts. "He's got an air-filled helmet," Gray says. "He only wants to change the air pressure about 10 times before kickoff. Ever since he joined this team [in August], I've had to carry the air pump around in my pocket. Before, I kept it in the trunk, which is where it belongs."

At last year's Pro Bowl the Jets' Joe Klecko became so enamored of Howie Long's all-American model, he wore it in practice. And he wouldn't give it back. He had the Jets' colors painted on it, wore it in the Pro Bowl game and then took it home with him. "Good thing Howie had an extra with him," says Dick Romanski, the Raiders' equipment manager.

Walter Payton wears a model that Wilson Sporting Goods stopped making seven years ago. "I gathered up all the ones I could when they stopped. I've got three left," says Bears equipment manager Ray Earley.

The inside of Mike Webster's helmet is fashioned from leather. "The guts are more important than the shell," says the Steelers center, who also stuffs a knee pad inside the helmet so it sits properly on his head. "If you take the pad out," he says, "the helmet comes down too far. It's important for a center to see."

Bob Golic, the Browns nosetackle, has deep gashes in his helmet directly above the forehead because he initiates so much contact.

Golic thinks Webster, against whom he plays twice a season, is responsible for most of the gashes: "I told him [at the Pro Bowl last year] he did most of it. He said he was sorry, so he just traded helmets with me."

On Dec. 1 the federal government filed a sentencing memorandum in its case involving Dominic Frontiere, the husband of L.A. Rams owner Georgia Frontiere.

Dominic, who was indicted by a federal grand jury on June 19, has pleaded guilty to two counts—filing false income tax returns and willfully making false statements to the IRS. The charges relate, in part, to large amounts of unreported income from the sale of 1980 Super Bowl tickets—"approximately $500,000 in cash," the papers say. Frontiere claimed as a business expense $96,486 worth of Super Bowl tickets. Frontiere said he had given the tickets away; the government said he had scalped them. Frontiere was scheduled to be sentenced Monday.

While the government was filing its papers, the Rams public relations department put out a news release with this headline: RAMS, U.S. ATTORNEY JOIN IN DRUG AWARENESS PROGRAM FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. The release went on to say that the featured speakers for the kickoff program of the antidrug campaign included Rams safety Nolan Cromwell and U.S. attorney Robert Bonner. Bonner is the U.S. attorney in the Dominic Frontiere case.

When asked if he believed there was a conflict of interest, Bonner said, "I don't see any. Just for appearing onstage with Nolan Cromwell? Mr. Frontiere's case is being handled primarily by our tax department. The drug-education program is important. It is absolutely and totally unconnected with the Dominic Frontiere matter. I don't know what else I can tell you."

Tim Cofield, the Kansas City Chiefs rookie linebacker, always believed he was meant to play pro football, even when nobody else seemed to.

Cofield grew up in Murfreesboro, N.C., one of eight children. His mother had no job and the family lived in a federally subsidized apartment building. "There was little reinforcement as far as education goes," says T.J. Little Jr., Cofield's coach at Elizabeth City (N.C.) State. "No magazines or newspapers. Tim was labeled into a special-education track. Once he got in it, it was hard for him to break out. He wasn't dumb; he was a slow reader. And he was one of the biggest overachievers I've ever coached."

A high school All-America, Co-field was recruited by Notre Dame, Penn State, UCLA and North Carolina, among other colleges; but when he was in jeopardy of failing to make the NCAA's mandatory 2.0 grade point average, the schools backed off. So Cofield enrolled at Elizabeth City, a school that happens to have the highest graduation rate among athletes of any state-supported Division II school in North Carolina.

"I finally found a place that was willing to help me achieve," Cofield says. "I always wanted to learn, but nobody had let me; nobody believed in me. All I needed was positive feedback."

Says Little, "We gave him a lot of individual attention both on and off the field. He doesn't fool himself; he'll keep wearing you to death with questions until he understands."

The NFL scouts didn't buy that. Little remembers pulling out academic records showing Cofield was only one semester shy of completing his criminal justice major. Cofield's physical attributes didn't seem to count for much, either: a 4.5 time in the 40, a 34-inch vertical leap and the ability to bench-press some 500 pounds.

Draft day came and went. Eleven teams asked him to try out as a free agent. Cofield chose the Chiefs "because they really wanted me." An immediate starter, Cofield has 34 solo tackles, 21 assists, has forced 3 fumbles and has 4 sacks through 14 games.

"Every time I open my playbook, every day I'm on the practice field," he says, "I think about all the people who told me I couldn't do this."





Lavelli, attempting a catch in 1951, is in the Hall of Fame, but the NFL's pension plan still eludes him.



"Positive feedback" was all that Cofield needed.


Three major issues face the owners and the players as both sides begin negotiations for the next collective-bargaining agreement; the current contract expires Aug. 31. Free agency and guaranteed contracts you've heard a lot about. But the stickiest issue could be an improvement of the pension plan.

Because of the glut of injuries in recent seasons, the career of today's average player is only 3.2 years, according to new NFL Players Association figures. To be vested in the pension plan, a player needs four years of service. The union wants to lower that—to one game.

"The rate of injuries means the average player isn't even protected by the pension plan," says Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA. "The threat of serious injury is the same from your first game to your last; we think a player ought to be immediately vested."

Says Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL management council, "You haven't heard me talking like that."

There will also be a big push by the NFLPA to augment the pension plan by including players who retired before 1959. Last December, 82.5% of the active players voted to support pensions for pre-'59ers. About 400 pre-'59ers would qualify for money—among them 33 of the 133 Hall of Famers—including such legends as Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, Bronko Nagurski, Bulldog Turner, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Red Grange and Sid Luckman.

When commissioner Bert Bell started setting up the fund in 1959, he specified that when money became available, pre-'59ers would be added. That finally seems possible; there is more than $200 million in the jointly managed fund. In fact, so much is available that the owners refused to make their annual $12.5 million payment this year, claiming the plan is overfunded. The union is waiting for a ruling from the IRS.

Says Lavelli: "For 20-some years I have lived with this atrocious insult. We were the guys who built pro football, making it into the revenue-producing TV sport it is today. What did the owners do to develop football? Who made George Halas, Art Rooney and Tim Mara? Today's giants—the Refrigerator and Jim McMahon—are only giants because of Sid Luckman. It's time the current players gave some money back."

Says Donlan: "The union can only bargain for the members—active players. However, Pete Rozelle wants to do something about the old-timers. I'm trying to ascertain how much money this will cost, so I can go to the owners with a definitive figure."


OFFENSE: James Brooks ran for 163 yards in 18 carries, scoring once, and caught 6 passes for another 101 yards as Cincinnati amassed 584 yards total offense in a 31-7 win over New England.

DEFENSE: Cardinals safety Leonard Smith made 15 solo tackles, had 5 assists, 2 sacks for minus-22 yards and a blocked Held goal as St. Louis played the Philadelphia Eagles to a 10-10 tie.