Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sports Drama for Far Less than $97 million

Once again its football season!

There's lots of serious stuff to talk about, but in the 'white noise' of all the news about President Clinton's rescue mission, health care legislation and the shooting in Pennsylvania, I heard something that caught my attention. Eli Manning, quarterback for the New York Giants, was offered and was expected to sign a new contract for $97 million, making him the highest paid player in the National Football League. Trivial against the backdrop of all of the serious news out there, but what can I say? It caught my attention...

Now let stop and say, I really don't have a problem with how much anyone earns. I have a problem with people not being paid enough to support their families, but I understand the market enough to know that what it will bear, in general, will be what people will be paid for the work they do. Again, while I can argue with that in the interest of poor people, I understand the principle.

No, this isn't about Manning being overpaid. It just made me a bit nostalgic.

The Dallas Cowboys are my favorite team. And I was whisked back to about 40 years ago when I really became a fan. One of my favorite players of all time was Duane Thomas.

Thomas was a running back and the first round Cowboy draft choice in 1970. He graduated from West Texas State University (Texas A&M Commerce) and a local favorite - he graduated from Lincoln High School in South Dallas.

Duane was a phenomenal football player. He had a fluid, slashing running style that made him absolutely fascinating to watch. Some compared him to a cross between Gayle Sayers and Jim Brown. He gained over 800 yards, averaging 5 yards a carry and was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1970.

Duane signed to play for the Cowboys for the rookie minimum, which was $23,000 (did I mention that Eli Manning's contract was for $97 million!)! Thomas played in Super Bowl V with the Cowboys, in the devastating loss to the Baltimore Colts. On media day, Thomas who was always described as quiet, almost shy, had one of the best quotes of any player ever. A reporter asked how it felt as a rookie to play in the ultimate football game. Thomas told the reporter that he didn't consider the Super Bowl the 'ultimate game'. The hard bitten sports writers were shocked that this rookie could be so nonplussed in the face of such a significant opportunity for his team and himself. So the reporter asked him why he said that. Thomas shot back, 'If it was the ultimate game, they wouldn't play it again next year.'

Duane got a $5000 bonus for being the NFL Rookie of the Year. In a recent ESPN documentary on Superbowl teams, Duane said that the Rookie of the Year for the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals, got a $25,000!

Now all of this was before agents and free agency. And the Cowboys were notorious for underpaying their players - any and all of their players. But Duane figured that, after such a stellar season he deserved a raise - so he went to negotiate a new contract with then general manager Tex Schramm. DT wanted a raise from $23,000 to $80,000 (did I mention that Eli Manning will sign a contract for $97 million!)!

Schramm refused. A contract is a contract and the Cowboys didn't renegotiate contracts, especially for rookies. Thomas took it as an insult. He held a press conference and blasted America's Team's Holy Trinity! He called Gil Brandt the head of Cowboy scouting 'a liar, and a cheat'; he called Tex Schramm 'sick, twisted and totally demented' (Schramm said he got two of the three right); and he called venerated head coach Tom Landry 'a plastic man...really no man at all'. Suffice it to say, for a 23 year old pro football rookie (from South Dallas, no less), playing for America's Team, to go off like that caused quite a stir!

Duane threatened to retire, was briefly traded to the Buffalo Bills, but the trade was reversed by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Thomas was sent back to the Cowboys. So to show his displeasure and disdain for the Cowboys and their handling of the situation Thomas decided that he wouldn't talk. Not just to the media - he wouldn't talk period - not to the media, not to the coaches, not to his teammates. He said the absolute bear minimum to anyone. He didn't answer roll call in team meetings. He had his pregame warm ups away from the team. He sat away from his teammates on the sidelines.

And he had an absolutely phenomenal season...

He, Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison were the Cowboys running backs. Thomas led the team in rushing with 793 yards and the league in touchdowns with 13. After Landry settled on Roger Staubach as the starting quarterback (another story altogether), the Cowboys went on to win their first of five Super Bowls. Thomas gained 95 yards in the a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins and would have been MVP, had it not been for Staubach's great game.

In a post game locker room celebration interview, with the great Jim Brown at his side, DT broke his silence. CBS' Tom Brookshire asked Thomas - who hadn't spoken all year - the stirring, burning question that was on everybody's mind: 'Are you really as fast and as elusive as you seem?' (sigh).

Thomas' reply? 'Evidently.'

Eli Manning, is probably going to be a great player. But he'll never provide that much drama!

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