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Still on the Outside

Nearly two decades ago Dave Meggyesy took on the NFL in his scathing book. Now as a union man his struggle continues

Above his bed 14-year-old Patrick Meggyesy has tacked up a black-and-white photograph of his old man. It's not one of the angry images of Dave Meggyesy that people dimly remember from nearly two decades ago: the inflamed, bearded jock raging against the bullet-headed lords of football, the radical linebacker who announced to the world that "when society changes in the way I hope it will, football will be obsolete." Nor does the picture show the man who called football a militaristic "rationalization" for the war in Vietnam, a racist sport "that is one of the most dehumanizing experiences a person can face." In the picture over Patrick's bed, his old man is an earnest St. Louis Cardinal about to dehumanize a Dallas Cowboy on a distant Sunday afternoon.

"I love that picture," says Patrick. "It makes me proud of my father." Patrick is a wispy, intelligent kid who wears his hair tied back in a ponytail; he's just the sort of youth you would expect to find living in Berkeley, Calif. He talks about a "nuclear-free Berkeley," reads Carlos Castaneda and goes to a junior high school organized on the principles of A.S. Neill's progressive school, Summerhill.

"Patrick is into consciousness-type stuff," Dave Meggyesy says. "He's about a thousand miles ahead of me when I was at that age."

"But I like football, too," says Patrick. "I sort of like the violence."

Patrick was not yet born when his father quit the NFL in 1969 at the height of his game and wrote Out of Their League, the scathing indictment that stunned Pete Rozelle into silence. The football bosses thought they could ignore and isolate Meggyesy, but his book changed the way we think about the most popular spectator sport in the country. Patrick is proud of the way his father fought for the things he believed in, and yet it seems so long ago. Patrick can't possibly appreciate the fact that back then tackling the institution of football was a great deal harder than stopping Jim Brown in the open field.

"I'm gonna play Pop Warner next year for the Berkeley Cougars," Patrick says. "Dad says he wants to talk to the coach first. I think he wants to find out about the kind of football they play. And he wants to make sure I'm ready. He's worried my muscles aren't developed enough yet. But he's not against it. I think Dad still loves the game. He's just always wanted to make it better."

If there was ever living evidence of the importance of play in life, it's Dave Meggyesy. Football has been everything to him. "It opened the world to me," he says. "It gave it shape."

When Meggyesy was a poor kid growing up in Glenwillow, Ohio, and his widowed father beat him for "being just a stupid lefthanded kid," he found escape and solace in football. He found mentors who would praise and teach him. He found a road to Syracuse University, where he hung out with the hip and learned to read something more than play books.

As a pro with the Cardinals he earned a good living and the respect of his coaches. The people of St. Louis cared intensely what Meggyesy did with his Sundays. There were days when the game was pure pleasure. "I remember having an unreal afternoon against the Colts, stopping John Mackey," he says. "We'd played together at Syracuse. I wasn't out to kill him, but when the day was over, I just knew I had done the absolute best I could do. It was the feeling that I'd worked for all my life."

Then came the matter of leaving football after seven years in the NFL. Rejecting football was more painful than any injury. When Meggyesy grew disgusted with the game, he divorced it, thought hard about what he'd been through and, a year later, wrote a polemical book that made Jim Bouton's Ball Four seem as tame as The Red Grange Story. Meggyesy wrote about alumni boosters contributing money under the table to college athletes, team doctors shooting up players with painkillers, coaches pushing athletes to play despite serious injuries, players cheating on their wives and organizing orgies, sadistic coaches treating players like dray horses, teams divided along racial lines. His candor did not make him loved. Of Meggyesy and another NFL "dropout," Oakland Raiders linebacker Chip Oliver, New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank once said, "They fell for Communist hogwash and quit football. They joined organizations that will just cost us more taxes. These are the things that poison our young youth."

But after years of getting over football and then ignoring it, Meggyesy has returned to the game, a prodigal son not so much chastened and humbled as intent on making football a thing worth caring about. For the past six years he has been the western director of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), a union man who spent the first week of the strike in the San Francisco and Washington offices explaining issues to players, gathering support from former players as well as other unions, and offering whatever help possible to the pickets. "Some of them are being very creative on the lines," he said with relish, referring to an incident in Cincinnati in which quarterback Boomer Esiason lay in front of a bus carrying the scab players to practice, and to one in Cleveland in which striking players drove cars at three miles an hour in front of the bus that brought in the substitute players. It took the bus about 20 minutes to go just one mile.

Meggyesy is remarkably well preserved. He's 45 years old, trim, muscular and as clean-shaven as a plebe. Gone are the beard and the sleeveless T-shirts and the scruffy boots. Meggyesy wears an alligator shirt and jeans around the house and a tie when business calls.

But for the photograph on Patrick's wall, there's hardly a clue in the Meggyesy house of Meggyesy's incarnation as No. 60. No trophies, no plaques, no game balls. The modest house is what you might expect of a nostalgic, educated flower child. A visitor passes under a front-door sign that reads: MAY PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH. Back issues of CoEvolution Quarterly are piled in a corner. In the small backyard, there are lemon trees, birds of paradise and the thick wine-smell of roses. By the picnic table, Meggyesy's wife, Stacy, is breast-feeding their 2½-year-old daughter, Erin.

Meggyesy twists open a beer and says, "The truth is, I've never been a big fan of the game. I probably didn't watch a game from the time I wrote the book until 1977. The only way I got back into it was I started working as a carpenter, and on a Sunday I'd take a break and watch a football game. I watch now because I know guys who are playing and I admire their abilities, but I've never really understood the whole fan vibe.

"Being a professional athlete was so strange. The real beauty of the experience is the actual play, the exhilaration of it, physically and emotionally. But because you have fans, millions of fans who get so crazy about the game and feel so deeply about it, you have all these secondary and third-level industries surrounding the game—the press, especially. You have people dissecting your every move and thought. It would be so amazing if the experience were for its own sake. But 10 minutes later there are microphones all over the place, and everyone wants you to explain things: 'Why did you screw up?' 'Why did you hit that hole instead of the other one?' 'How does it feel?' And you have to respond to all these people who never knew the first thing about what it feels like. It's not necessarily wrong, it's just so strange and removed from what could be the purest kind of experience. It's like making love and having to explain it to someone every time."

In the 1960s and early '70s nearly every institution, from the Pentagon to marriage to sports, had its iconoclastic opponents. Rebellion came late to football. At some schools, players faced off against antiwar protesters. But when football finally got its comeuppance, it was fitting that, in an era when the mining of the Haiphong harbor and the renewed bombing of North Vietnam was called Operation Linebacker, a real-life linebacker did the job.

It was one thing for students to protest the war, but here was a ballplayer sniping at the game that "made" him. In the locker rooms and boardrooms of the NFL, says NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, "Meggyesy was looked on as a guy with two heads, a guy that had to be watched."

Rozelle saw that Bowie Kuhn had attracted unwanted publicity when he summoned Bouton to his office in 1970 to chew him out for writing Ball Four. Rozelle knew better. He ignored Out of Their League, and to this day he refuses to be interviewed about Meggyesy. Small wonder. Meggyesy wrote that it was Rozelle's decision to play NFL games two days after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 that first "began to disillusion me with the pros." And those were the nice things he said. David Harris, who wrote The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL, in 1986, says, "Meggyesy was the first to come along and say that Pete Rozelle's attempt to portray the league as a wholesome, all-American engagement of sportsmen was incomplete. That, on one level, it was a business and a meat factory, was not something Rozelle cared to have mentioned."

Meggyesy's lexicon was sheer '60s, and his political insight was often dreamy and half-baked, but his credentials as an honest, intelligent witness made people think. The book sold 30,000 copies in hardcover and 650,000 in paperback. "No one athlete had as much cultural impact," says Robert Lipsyte, who wrote several columns about Meggyesy for The New York Times. "He had such passion. That energy that went into making him a killer jock—all that reflexive obedience to authority—was transformed into anger when he felt betrayed and lied to."

At about the time the book came out the Meggyesys had something much tougher to deal with: personal tragedy. In 1968, Stacy gave birth to Sarah, who was born microcephalic and was institutionalized all her life. She died at age 15. "Dave's critics could be heartless," Stacy says. "We got nasty letters all the time. In the book he admitted taking LSD, and one person wrote him that we deserved to get a retarded child after using drugs. It was brutal at times."

Soon there were more books like his. Soon a better-known player, George Sauer of the Jets, would quit the NFL for reasons similar to Meggyesy's and give Out of Their League more credibility among those who had thought, as had Broncos coach Dan Reeves, that "Meggyesy was no great player anyway." Soon colleges would start offering courses in the sociology of sport and use the book as a text. Journalists would begin writing more about the human dimensions of football, trying to understand the sport, not only for the pleasure and escape it can be, but also for its importance as a reflection of the greater world. Out of Their League would go out of print, but its words entered the language of sport.

Time consumes public figures. Once it had given Meggyesy his moment, it moved on to the next fascination, the next celebrity. Although he was now freeze-framed as "the guy who quit and wrote that book," Meggyesy was young in 1971, only 29. He had a life to live. And he had a strange hunger inside. He still dreamed of playing football. The truth was that for all the searing things he had said about the game, he could not get playing out of his head.

Life had taken on all the trappings of a counterculture paradise. He and his family rented a log cabin in the mountains near Durango, Colo., where they "got into some spiritual things." They paid the rent by working on the cabin. When Meggyesy needed extra money, he would give a lecture.

But the difficulty of athletic retirement is well known. Suddenly young men and women are forced to die a little. Meggyesy had walked away from the game in anger, but he did it the way a lover leaves a tempestuous affair. The game had given structure and meaning to his life. Suddenly those exhilarating moments on the field, the friendships, the signals of approval from teammates, all of it was gone. He was depressed at times, and restless.

"It's like your biological clock is tied to football, mentally and physically," he says. "Even in the book I was dealing with football. When the World Football League came on-line in the early '70s, a friend of mine knew someone associated with the Portland team, and he proposed to them that I might be interested in playing. I said it was absurd at first, but I started to think about it.

"I was in Albuquerque to do some Christmas shopping. I was driving back home alone in the van, and I was getting into this fantasy of playing again. I began to daydream. I was a linebacker, and the offense was running a tough play, a kind of sweep where the tight end blocks down on you and they pull a lead back out to block, too. It's a lot like the picture on Patrick's wall. In the movie in my head I tried to do what the linebacker is supposed to do in that situation: use up those two blocks so the safety behind me can eat up the play.

"But the way it happened in my mind, I got hit and I flew backward. I mean flew! I thought, Better run that movie again. So I went through it again, and every time, the same thing happened. Wham! I kept flying backward. Finally, a voice went off in my head that said, 'You are not dense enough.' I didn't have it anymore. It was over."

After that his anger cooled, and the Meggyesys lived happily in the mountains for several years. "The only reason we moved back to California in 1976 was that David was a little restless," Stacy says. "We were ready for something new."

Meggyesy began to teach courses at Stanford named Sports Consciousness and Social Change, and The Athlete and Society. His students, many of whom were football players, had never had a class quite like his. "I had guys like John Elway who were from football families and traditional backgrounds," Meggyesy says. "I think what I was doing was pretty shocking to them." The players kept journals about what they were feeling during the season and the reading they were doing. They read books such as Lipsyte's Sports World, George Leonard's The Ultimate Athlete, Jack Scott's The Athletic Revolution and Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. They did "guided imagery" exercises, a meditative practice in which the students imagined the feeling of catching a long pass or skiing flawlessly down a powdery slope.

At the same time, Meggyesy's oldest son, Christopher, was playing football at Tamalpais High in Marin County. After the team went 2-8, the coach left for another school. When the athletic director asked Meggyesy to take the job for $900 a season, he decided to give it a whirl.

Meggyesy once wrote that when he was playing ball in high school, he "developed a style the coaches loved. We moved in Oedipal lockstep: the more approval they gave me, the more fanatically I played." He would do anything for the coaches, and they knew it. Once, he injured his neck so badly in a "ground-hogging" drill that he could not move it the next morning. But he would not miss a big game with Warrensville High. Before the game he went to a local doctor, who "stuck a long needle into the big muscle knot in my neck. When he tried to pull the needle out, the muscle spasmed. The needle broke from the base of the syringe, and I was left with it sticking in my neck. The doctor took a pair of pliers out of the drawer and pulled it out." Shot up with Novocain, Meggyesy played the game. He wanted to be loved.

Such memories shaped Meggyesy's year as a coach at Tamalpais High. The team had only three experienced seniors, and it was always overmatched by the schools it played against. Ostensibly, Tamalpais's biggest accomplishment on the field was to hold a rival scoreless for one half before getting mauled in the second.

Week after week Meggyesy's players lost, but they were learning something about themselves. Before games he would ask them to sit quietly together and imagine themselves playing an ideal game from start to finish. "My orientation was to talk about the love of the game," he says. "We went 0-11, but it was a great experience to see them mature and gain confidence even when we were losing. High school football is football in its purest form. It struck me what a crucible for learning it was."

The next year, 1979, the head of the NFLPA, Ed Garvey, hired Meggyesy to work for the union in San Francisco. "We knew what the league's reaction would be when Ed hired Dave," Upshaw says. "You still get subtle comments from certain players: 'Wasn't he the guy who wrote that book?' " Ever since, Meggyesy has traveled from team to team in the West, describing what he sees as management failings and dealing with player grievances.

Most of the players in the NFL were in elementary school when Meggyesy had his curious moment of fame. They have little or no idea of the battles he fought, little idea of how different the game is as a result of a slim memoir called Out of Their League.

But the league knows. "They'll never forgive him for speaking out," says Upshaw. Jack Donlan, the executive director of the NFL Management Council, says, "In this league, Meggyesy doesn't have a very good reputation. He's a radical who runs off his mouth without knowing the facts."

When most people see pro football players, they see young men averaging $215,000 a year—according to NFLPA figures—to "play a game." When the Denver Broncos filed into a meeting room last spring during minicamp, Meggyesy saw exploited "workers." His message to them was harsh and direct: "Players average less than four years in the game. Look at the amount of money the players generate every year, $875 million in 1986, and the players get around 54 percent of that. Why?" He was "astonished" by the way league owners have been able to keep average salaries lower than those in baseball.

Outside the meeting room Reeves waited for his players. He doesn't much like the union. He endures it. Meggyesy is another matter. Reeves held his hands way apart and said, "If he's on that end of the spectrum, I'm way over on the other. When his book came out, I was playing for the Dallas Cowboys, and there wasn't a whole lot of discussion about it. First of all, we never thought Dave Meggyesy was a great professional football player.

"He talks about the painkillers. I've never asked anyone to take something to deaden anything. I did that on my own in Dallas because I didn't want to lose my job. It was strictly volunteer. Playing in this league was the greatest experience I've ever had. I've had 10 knee operations, and I'd still do it again. Football wasn't dehumanizing. It was tough. Like life. I've never seen the NFL Dave Meggyesy saw."

On his way to the airport, Meggyesy asked what Reeves had said about him. He smiled at the criticism. "Ol' Dan's a fine man," he said. "We just don't see things quite the same."

In a way, Meggyesy is a liberal by day, a radical by night. He still has criticisms of the way the league does business, but he does the job Upshaw and the union ask him to do. They pay him $44,500 to inform and reform. "Dave knows there is a difference between the immediate concerns of the union and his idea of a Utopia," Upshaw says.

Sometimes Meggyesy considers the things he cannot say on behalf of the union. Personally, he still speaks unsparingly of the NFL. If he does have a Utopia in mind, it is a long way off, as some of his views suggest.

•On drugs: "There was a period of my life when I used illegal drugs, but I wouldn't say I was into drugs. At a certain time people thought cocaine was pretty benign. Now we know it isn't.

"But drug testing is a control issue. It's the employer assuming the prerogatives of the criminal-justice system. The employer isn't the state.... We're fighting this battle for every person who works for a living. There is the tragedy, the death of Don Rogers, but every NFL player shouldn't be painted with the same brush. The real drug problem in the NFL is in the training rooms. But Rozelle still doesn't want to talk about painkillers."

•On race and the NFLPA: "We are a union driven mostly by blacks. In the NFL a lot of the white guys came from conservative or born-again backgrounds. No matter how big the star, the blacks know the sting of injustice."

•On football and culture: "Football emerged out of Social Darwinism and the industrial period in American history.... It is based on violence, on the conquest and defense of territory. The ball is just a little marker of where you are. I think the game fits in now with the whole idea of corporate America. The values of being aggressive are being tested in the business world. Are we competitive? Can we beat the other guy? The game now is an ode to materialism. It certainly doesn't stand for any spiritual or ethical values. The stuff that surrounds the Super Bowl is just one big corporate self-congratulation. It's so ostentatious it makes you want to puke.

"But a game does have spiritual overtones. All sports do. The game is a powerful activity that humans do, like music. It's a powerful learning context. But it will take a lot to get back to that essential part of it."

•On team owners: "In sports there's a tendency to accept things as axiomatic: the draft, the right of an owner to keep a player against his will. Capitalists like to own people. Most owners see players as chattel, big dumb guys who play a game.... The owners know that if the players wised up and realized that the players are the game and don't need owners, they'd be in trouble. Owners are the only unessential component in the game. Why doesn't someone own Frank Sinatra or the Rolling Stones? It's a real mind-body split, a slavery attitude that says, 'Look, I'll screw you as long as I can until you force me to stop.' It's the American ethic....

"There are some good owners, though. The Rooneys in Pittsburgh have a sense of decency, because they have a sense of history. And Al Davis is committed to the game. He'll screw you over in a minute if he can, as all of them will, but at least his players feel that if they perform, they'll be treated all right."

Before finishing his comments, Meggyesy referred to a passage in his favorite book about sport, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga: "Play casts a spell over us; it is 'enchanting,' 'captivating.' It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony."

Meggyesy knows that he will be forever associated with a more passionate book. "It was an angry book, and those were very angry times," he says. "What I did was take the game of football, which was being used to sell the war in Vietnam, and say, 'Let's examine the game from a typical player's perspective.' I've had players read it, and they think it's applicable for these times, too. It was every player's story, to a degree, and every man's story about growing up in this culture."



When Meggyesy goes to practice now, it's to wait for a chance to hear player grievances.



After seven NFL seasons, Meggyesy came to grips with disillusionment.



With the publication of his book, Meggyesy became a well-known counterculture figure.



Before the strike—and during it—Meggyesy came East to confer with Upshaw.



Scott (left) helped Meggyesy write his book, and they still tackle weighty stuff together.



A Berkeley family: from left, Stacy, Jennifer and Patrick, with reclining Dave and Erin.