The Ten Most Important Figures in NFL History

My Own List – Therefore official

10) GEORGE PLIMPTON

Got you from the start! The sophisticated New York author spent a training camp with the Detroit Lions in the 60’s, played QB for one series in an exhibition game, and wrote one of the greatest sports books of all time, PAPER LION. He helped humanize the game for millions.

9) THE GUY WHO INVENTED INSTANT REPLAY

Probably many guys. Instant replay was actually first used on an Army-Navy telecast in 1963, (Roger Staubach QB for Navy) and it changed viewing TV forever. And when they began to slow replays down, it changed even more. The subtleties of the game could now be made apparent to the casual viewer. We all got smarter. Pretty soon, we all knew as much as Vince Lombardi.

What replay has screwed up is officiating. Replay review during games not only slows things down, it takes away from the legitimacy of the NFL game officials, who I think are the best in any sport. At the very least, take away the little red flags the coaches throw when they want to challenge a play. And if a challenge fails, a team should lose more than just a time out the rules currently penalize them. Like, maybe the coach’s office desk??

8) ED SABOL (And, by extension, John Facenda)

In 1960, Ed Sabol bid for the rights to film the NFL championship game – for three grand. From this start, an empire was born, called NFL Films – the greatest propaganda use of film since Leni Reifenstahl. At some point in your life, whether you know it or not, you’ve watched something from NFL Films. They have slowed the game down to give it a ballet like grace, and made the violence almost poetic. Their music, their words, everything they do is brilliant. And, speaking of words, you have to note the late, great John Facenda, the quintessential NFL Films voice. Even though it’s doubtful he ever talked about «frozen tundra» just hearing his voice means football for millions.

7) JOE NAMATH

He guaranteed a SB III New York Jets win over the Baltimore Colts, then made it come true. He gave the AFL legitimacy, star power, and excitement. He was the 60’s as far as pro football went. Without his SB win, the merger of the NFL and AFL might have taken much longer to achieve parity, at least in the minds of the fans. He made the two leagues equal in 60 minutes.

6) RED GRANGE

When the «Galloping Ghost» came out of the University of Illinois in 1924, college football was everything. Pro football was for illiterate mill workers to bash each other to bits for two bucks a game. Then Grange signed with George Halas for the Chicago Bears, and all of a sudden, pro football games were played in huge stadia rather than sand lots. The $70,000 he earned in 1924 equals well over a million in today’s dough. Along with baseball’s Babe Ruth and golfer Bobby Jones, he was at the pinnacle of the golden sports era of the 1920’s.

I met Grange at Super Bowl XII, when he was the honorary tosser of the coin. He was old, but still upright, fit, and full of fascinating stories.

5) BYRON DONZIS

Got you again, didn’t I?

Going into a game against the New Orleans Saints in 1978, Houston Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini’s ribs were so cracked and broken that he had to have Novocain injections in between each of his ribs on each side of his chest, before the game and again at the half. On returning to Houston, he checked into a hospital for treatment before the next week’s first round playoff game.

As he lay in his bed in a painkiller-induced stupor, he looked up to see a grizzly man at his bedside, wearing a trench coat and holding a baseball bat.

«Oh, god,» Pastorini thought, «Somebody lost money on the game and they’re gonna kill me.»

Instead, the man handed the baseball bat to his assistant and said, «watch.»

The assistant swung as hard as he could, hitting the man squarely in the chest. The man didn’t even flinch. He opened his trench coat and showed Pastorini what was the prototype for the quarterback «flak jacket,» now standard football issue.

«I want one of those!» Pastorini said.

He wore it the next week, and Byron Donzis, the man in the trenchcoat, went on to become one of the most important inventors in NFL history, designing dozens of pieces of equipment that have reduced, or prevented, countless injuries.

4) ROONE ARLEDGE

The visionary head of ABC Sports who came up with the idea of putting an NFL game on ABC at a time when the network was dying. It was Monday night, 9pm eastern. The country changed. Everybody watched. Everybody quoted Howard Cosell the next day. Sport grew up and prime time became play time. You could easily argue that Roone should be #1. You could also make your own list.

3) TEX SCHRAMM & LAMAR HUNT

Tex Schramm, the Cowboys first president & GM, and Lamar Hunt, the original owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, were the architects of the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The two leagues were spending each other out of existence and the war of attrition looked to be endless. Schramm and Hunt held a series of secret meetings and smoothed things out so that the two leagues could become one. Many testy items had to be ironed out, including the moving of three teams, the Colts, Browns and Steelers, from the NFL to the AFL, so that each league would have the same number of franchises.

These two men were influential far beyond the merger. It was Hunt who came up with the name «Super Bowl» among many other innovations. And he was one of the nicest, most genuine people you could ever hope to meet.

Tex was a large, lively, blustery man who loved nothing more than a good argument.

My first road trip with the Cowboys, as a 25-year old sportscaster, was in 1977, to Minnesota and the old Bloomington stadium, the Met.

The Cowboys had the Vikings on their own one-yard line. Viking QB Fran Tarkenton dropped back into his own end zone and, finding no receivers, threw the ball into the ground. The Ref threw a flag for intentional grounding.

I was seated next to Tex in the press box as the Ref marked off half the distance to the goal line, the correct penalty at the time. Tex slammed his fist on the counter and said, «*#%$, next year, that’s gonna be a safety!»

Tex was the head of the NFL Competition Committee, the group that sets the rules.

Next year… that was a safety! And it still is today.

2) GEORGE HALAS

One of the NFL’s founders, owner of the franchise originally known as the Decatur Staleys, but eventually the Chicago Bears. Halas was an NFL owner/coach/legend for over 60 years. «Papa Bear» took the league from it’s literal beginnings as a group of rag tag men playing in rock-strewn fields adjacent to coal mines, to the heights of Monday Night Football and Super Bowls.

When he offered what his all-pro tight end Mike Ditka thought was a too small contract, Ditka said «Halas tosses nickels around like they were manhole covers.»

1) PETE ROZELLE

Commissioner from 1960 to 1990. It was Rozelle, a former PR guy for the L.A. Rams, who not only oversaw the many egos of the owners through the merger, but got them to see that Roone Arledge had a good idea, etc. His key contribution came when Rozelle convinced the owners that the only way the NFL would survive in every size market was to take all that lovely TV money and share it equally. Revenue Sharing, along with the player draft and much more, is what keeps the NFL on a competitive footing, from New York to Green Bay. Everbody who wants to study sport and how it works, has to study Rozelle.

Not to mention that he was his own league’s best PR man. He knew the name of every beat reporter and sportscaster around the league, and was always willing to sit for interviews and spread some inside info.

Absent Pete Rozelle, the NFL remains a nice little sports group for the few, not the amazing monolith it is today.

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