"Quality Of The Game and Butkus III"



Quality of the Game and Butkus  PART III


By Dr. Ken 

With the establishment of the short-lived World Football League, [see HELMET HUT team summaries and helmet displays at   http://helmethut.com/WFL/wflindex.html ] one of my memorable deliveries for Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries occurred at the Gator Bowl facility in Jacksonville, Florida. I was dispatched with another driver, Doug, to the camp of the Jacksonville Sharks. The company, still limited in personnel during what were still the early years, delivered equipment in two, distinct manners. With only one company owned tractor trailer at the time, we would load thirty-three to thirty-five machines into the trailer, completely broken down, at times to what seemed like the smallest possible components in order to maximize the number of pieces on the load. As one of only two long haul drivers, my schedule was close to impossible. We would travel around the nation and into Canada, delivering, assembling, and installing the equipment and then remain on site to give instruction on what was then, a brand new concept in exercise equipment. For smaller and/or more local packages of equipment, we would load fully assembled pieces into a Ryder twenty-four foot rental truck and make the deliveries and installation without necessary on-site assembly.

An early-1970’s photo of high school football players training at the Nautilus factory facility in Lake Helen, Fl. Players from DeLand HS as well as Daytona Beach area schools often used the facility, including, as an aging memory recalls, current Atlanta Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith who played at Father Lopez Catholic HS


For those who like the details, our frantic work schedule would find us on the road for ten days to three weeks, back-hauling everything from barbershop equipment to sanitized garbage for the local pig farmers, leaving the trailer at the factory for cleaning and reloading, and the tractor at the mechanic’s shop for a tune-up and any necessary repair work. Within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, we were once again on the road repeating the delivery, assembly, and installation process. Moving equipment of significant weight and dimension was no easy or enjoyable task. Those in the trucking industry know that the commonly seen truck lift gate was first developed in the mid-to-late 1960’s and did not enjoy widespread use immediately. Typically, as it was on the Peterbilt cab-over tractor trailer rig we drove for the company, a long ramp was used to load and unload heavy equipment in the absence of a loading dock. The problem with the delivery of fully assembled equipment prior to the use of lift gates, was the necessity of safely and efficiently moving 1,200 pound machines with poor balance points onto a two or four-wheel dolly, and rolling them up or down the ramp that sat on the tailgate of the truck. This would most often be compounded by the need to then twist and turn the equipment down and through a narrow stairwell for example. The work was fraught with danger and injury. For our Sharks delivery, arrangements were supposedly made to insure that assistance would be available to us so that the delivery of a dozen new pieces of fully assembled equipment went as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible. Like much associated with the World Football League, our delivery did not come off as promised or expected.

The Sharks uniform was among the nicest in the new World Football League

We arrived at the Gator Bowl in the Ryder rental truck one late-spring morning in 1974 and drove to the office area of the Sharks. It was less than impressive and looked as if a group of fraternity boys had partied there the night before. Discarded fast food wrappers and empty cups were strewn around the office, the furniture appeared old and worn, and there seemed to be confusion relative to our arrival, delivery, and arranged-for man power assistance. We were eventually guided to an area away from the offices and field, still on the stadium grounds, until we pulled up next to a cinder block building that appeared to be a large storage shed. In front sat three elderly gentlemen who might have been homeless and all of whom were definitely inebriated. I introduced myself and asked the men if they were supposed to be the ones helping us move a dozen very heavy, very large, and very capable of inflicting physical damage machines. They were polite, answered in the affirmative but quickly noted in markedly slurred speech that “we supposed to take some light boxes from a truck to inside.” I knew this was not going to go well and explained that the “light boxes” were in fact, huge half-ton pieces of equipment and all had to be placed on  dollies and then rolled down a twelve foot ramp, through the narrow doorway into the shed and placed into position. They did little more than stare and smile at Doug, and me. The shed was just that; dirt floors in each of three moderately sized rooms within a one-hundred percent cinder block and tin roof structure. Lighting consisted of a half dozen bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. When one of the “office guys” walked over to see if we had begun to unload, I asked, “This is going to be your weight room?” Answering in the affirmative I noted the lack of lighting, lack of ventilation, absence of a sturdy or level floor, and the fact that despite assurances, we would be fortunate to be able to aim two or three of the pieces through the extremely narrow external and internal doorways. I also noted the absence of sufficient help. We were told to “do what you have to” which was echoed by the staff in our home office when we telephoned for advice. The highlight of this specific delivery occurred when a Double Chest Machine sat at the top of the ramp, just off of the tailgate, with all three of the “hired help” holding it in place as Doug and I began to ascend the ramp. In an instant the 36” x 75” x 79” in height, 1260 pound mass of steel and chrome was hurtling towards us. Amid cries of “Oh Lordy!” and “Watch out down there.” Doug and I had to literally leap out of the way to avoid broken bones or death as the machine raced down the ramp and crashed through the cinder block wall. Bricks exploded as the machine settled to a stop, off of the dolly but still miraculously upright.  The “explosion” of sound was so great that Sharks Head Coach Bud Asher and other team personnel came sprinting over to our location. They were all sympathetic and agreed to provide payment in the form of the promised case of beer to the three helpers while immediately removing them from the premises. Rather quickly more suitable assistance was provided for us and we continued our work.

Sharks in action vs. New York Stars


The entire incident served to introduce me to Coach Asher with whom I had an immediate rapport. After a few hours of moving and installation, the equipment was in, instruction given to the assistant coach who was to also serve as strength coach, and Asher invited me to sit with him in his office. He brought in lunch, and we talked about football for two or three hours. This eventually led to his invitation for me to give football another shot as a prospective member of the Sharks. With plans to serve as the best man at my brother’s impending wedding and a month off from work, the offer was tempting. Unfortunately, my collegiate playing weight of 232 pounds had presently been reduced to approximately 170, necessitating a change in position from fullback to defensive back and though my entire football history had been played during the two-way era, that defensive position had not brought a great deal of success. Coach Asher handed me a $100.00 dollar bill and a contract, and I was once again, after a brief stint with the Westchester Bulls of the Atlantic Coast Football League six years before, a professional!


Presenting a proper perspective, with the Bulls, I knew the going rate for player contracts in the Atlantic Coast Football League and specifically with the Bulls. With friend Joe Tuths and other local players like former C.W. Post College and Denver Broncos receiver Tom Cassese on the team, I sat across a desk from Bulls General Manager Tom Scott, confident that I would be paid what I thought was a fair salary. Scott, the former N.Y. Giants linebacker, was more than willing to discuss the past glories of the “G-Men” squads I had watched in the early-‘60’s but he wasn’t moved by my familiarity with his playing career nor my request for $200.00 per week. That he offered $75.00 puts my abilities into perspective, and that I accepted it without so much as a whimper is indicative of the self-acceptance of my true standing in the talent hierarchy. The $100.00 bill that Asher took out of his own pocket would be the sum total of my WFL pay. After less than three weeks it was obvious to all I no longer “had it” despite a bit of special, individualized attention from former Kansas City Chiefs great Johnny Robinson who was our defensive backfield coach. I might have deluded myself into thinking that I would have performed up to minimal Sharks standards at my more familiar running back position, but observing former University of Florida’s Tommy Durrance and Georgia’s Ricky Lake, I instinctively knew I was not close to the quality of talent these players possessed. Durrance especially was extremely underrated, a smooth, tough, quick back with great blocking ability who was obviously committed to being the best possible team player. I was reminded that when fans sit in the stands or on the couch in their living room and shout down to the field at a specific player that “You stink!” they have no idea just how good any collegiate or professional player truly is. They may make a bad play or “stink” only relative to others on the field but everyone possesses a great deal of athletic ability and talent, usually in amounts far beyond the understanding of the average fan who at best, toiled on their high school squad. Durrance was exceptional and an example of many WFL players who had inordinate amounts of talent yet could not make an NFL roster.


Sharks running back Tommy Durrance was nothing short of great!


It should also be noted that despite a level of play that was considered to be of poorer quality than that of the NFL, the instruction given by the coaches, and the performance of the WFL players reflected sound fundamentals. Even with poor execution, blocks were made with the intent of maintaining contact for as long as possible and moving opponents from one point to another on the field. Tackles were made utilizing time-honored, proper form that stressed sustained contact and correct follow through that insured secure tackling. Frequently, watching today’s NFL games I am very much reminded of what was once considered “sub-standard play” by the World Football League teams because the blocking and tackling in many of today’s contests are quite a bit worse than what was offered by the supposedly “lesser league.” 


I thanked Coach Asher for the opportunity but as importantly, I could not wait to get back to work at Nautilus so that I could inform Dick Butkus that I had met his brother Ronnie. I was shocked when I first walked into the Sharks locker room and drew my equipment. The man giving me my helmet, pads, and uniform was none other than Dick Butkus. Except it wasn’t! Just as big, just as strong looking, and with the same facial features, I at first mistook Sharks equipment manager Ron Butkus for his younger brother Dick.


My moment of confusion was real. I knew that Dick was an acquaintance of Sharks owner Fran Monaco but I could not figure out why multiple time All Pro Dick Butkus would be with the Sharks and the World Football League, even though he had just retired from the Chicago Bears a few months prior due to his serious knee injury. Serious knee injuries may have run in the family unfortunately as Dick’s older brother Ronnie Butkus as I later learned, had his football career cut short in similar fashion. Ron had been a terror at Chicago’s Tilden High School. He went from Tulsa University to The College of Idaho before settling in closer to home as a 6’3”, 235 pound two-way tackle at the University Of Illinois. He eventually became a free agent signee of his hometown Chicago Cardinals, displaying the Butkus family trait of tenacity and toughness but a knee injury cut short his professional career just as it would later end that of his brother Dick.


Ron Butkus could no doubt pass for Dick Butkus’ twin brother in this Chicago Cardinals photo. Ron, facing camera, jousts with another former Illini gridder Chuck Ulrich


One of the most obvious and immediately noticeable traits about Ron was the physical impressiveness and aura of power he radiated. Like Dick, if you were in his presence, you had the belief that if he chose to manhandle you, Ron could and would do just that and large or small, you were not going to be able to do much more than accept the beating. That I found him to be a gentleman and rather polite like his brother perhaps would surprise some who otherwise judged him strictly on his physical appearance. What I did not know at that moment was that there would be yet another Butkus brother in my near-future, as I would share driving duties with Dave Butkus.


[For those interested in terrific World Football League tee shirts and sweatshirts, see the following specific page at the website of the Throwbackmax company in Spokane, Washington. They have been producing and delivering quality products of the WFL teams and more, for many years. http://www.throwbackmax.com/html/wfl.html ]