Gridiron greats - off-field, too

There's money in mayhem. That's one of the messages that comes through in some NFL highlights.

A youngster prone to menacing behavior finds that it's an acceptable or even valued skill. Is this an overstatement? OK, a bit.

To its credit, the National Football League promotes the United Way and publicizes player visits to children's hospitals and community centers.

Still, pro sports and the sports media have adulterated the definition of heroics.

Perhaps that's why, on the eve of Super Bowl XXXV, I've enjoyed looking at the old bubble-gum trading cards that celebrated the lightly padded gridiron greats of the late 1940s and early '50s.

These cards have a watercolor charm, with hand-colored photos and brief biographical notes that contrast with the high-tech, action-photo dazzlers produced today - the ones that sport holograms and are emblazoned with the special phoniness of vivid facsimile signatures.

Many of the bio lines of the "football picture cards" issued by the Bowman Gum Company in 1948, '49, and '50 pay tribute to players' heroics on both football fields and battlefields.

Along with scoring stats are references to PT boats and Purple Hearts; to the Marianas, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa; to the Army Air Corps and the Rhine River. Some examples:

Al Demao - center - Washington Redskins "... Served in the Navy 4 years. Rose to the rank of lieutenant. Skippered an LCT that made 9 landings in Normandy on D-Day."

James Martin - end - Detroit Lions "... Served with the Marines in World War II and won a Bronze Star for swimming to shore for information 15 days before D-Day."

We're fortunate there hasn't been a need for such heroics lately. But there's another kind of heroism captured in those cards: a civilian and civil kind of everyday heroism.

Many of the bio lines refer to the off-season livelihoods of those who played 50 years ago.

There are construction workers, lumbermen, deputy sheriffs, salesmen, schoolteachers, phys-ed instructors, all of whom also happened to play pro football.

The concluding lines of the 1950 card of the all-time-great Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch tell us that the Los Angeles Rams receiver was "an off-season wholesale food broker." Here are a few more of my favorites:

Bob Perina - halfback - Chicago Bears "... Outstanding runner and passer. Skilled at pass-receiving. Considered one of the game's best defensive backs. Bob sells radios during the off-season."

Joe Tereshinski - end - Washington Redskins "... Usually plays on defense. But in 3 seasons has caught 18 passes for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns.... Joe keeps busy during the off-season as an automobile salesman and as a baseball umpire."

John 'Red' Cochran - halfback - Chicago Cardinals "Works, off-season, in steel mills."

Jerry Shipkey - fullback - Pittsburgh Steelers " ... Played in 2 Rose Bowl games.... Narrowly missed going to the Olympics in the decathlon. Distributor of gas and oil during the off-season."

For the most part, gridiron laborers of that bygone era worked real jobs in the winter, spring, and summer, so they could play football in the fall.

I wish the youngsters who passed in and out of my high school English classrooms last year could get to know athletes who cared as much about their studies as their car payments. Some athletes who put up academic numbers:

William Wightkin - end - Chicago Bears "An honor student. Averaged 92 in 3 years in engineering courses. An engineer during the off-season."

William E. McCall - end - Chicago Bears "Still maintains B-plus average in his medical studies."

George Ratterman - quarterback - New York Yanks "Off-season student for law degree. Plays the piano professionally."

Lowell Tew - halfback - New York Yanks "... Led the entire South in rushing, 1947. Sugar Bowl, 1945, 1948; Rose Bowl, 1946. Off-season farmer and law student."

The Super Bowl buildup and telecast provide opportunities for self-congratulation. There are indeed NFL players and personnel who do make a difference - the NFL honors teachers who have had "the most positive influence on an NFL player."

But, hey, why bother to get real good at reading and writing, when fourth-stringers can make several hundred thousand a year and a superstar can make millions? Some kind of math, huh?

Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel for The New Yorker from 1976 to 1994. He teaches writing at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Connecticut.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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