Saturday, August 8, 2009

Hall of Fame Recognition / Chasing Balls

I watched a little of today's induction ceremonies for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I grew up in Ohio about 20 miles from the Hall and have been there a number of times. It was great to see them honor Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Buffalo Bills have had in their 50 year history.

Wilson was one of the original eight owners in the American Football League that began play in 1960. Against long odds, the AFL succeeded and ultimately forced a merger that laid the foundation for the NFL as we know it today. I've always related to the underdog AFL and have a couple of great books on the league's operations. Written all the way back in 1965 is Bob Curran's The $400,000 Quarterback subtitled The League That Came in From the Cold. More recent and probably easier to find is Going Long written by Jeff Miller in 2003. It also has a subtitle, The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It. Whew! I recommend Going Long to anyone interested in sports business.

The AFL succeeded against expectations (like our own Harlem Ambassadors as we enter our 12 season). The best thing about Wilson's induction was that they honored him while he was still alive and could both appreciate and participate. At 91 he appears to still be in good health and sharp mind.

In his speech, he mentioned that back in the 50's you were considered a success as an owner in pro football if you could "break-even". Money was tight and as an example, Wilson told the story of George Halas' Chicago Bears when they played home games at Wrigley Field. In those days, teams didn't have nets in the end zone to block PATs from going into the stands. According to Wilson, Halas used to position burly linemen in each end zone to go into the stands if necessary and retrieve the footballs after PATs if the fans didn't throw the ball back.

Listening to that story, I suddenly had a flashback to my Major Indoor Soccer League days in Chicago. Balls would occasionally go over the hockey glass and into seats and the great fans would readily toss the ball back. The flashback that I had was back to a time in the old Chicago Stadium when a fan tried to keep the ball. Players and officials were standing on the turf waiting for the ball to be returned.

I did a Chicago Tribune archive search and there it was, in an account of the Chicago Sting - Cleveland Force game of March 8, 1986 written by Tribune sports writer John Leptich. The Sting won the game 5-4 in overtime and the crowd was a decent 8,271. Believe it or not, but that was more than than the attendance at a typical Bulls game in the same building during those very early days of Michael Jordan.

There it was in writing: "At 2:52 of the second quarter, a fan refused to give up a ball kicked into the stands. Dale Moss, the Sting's director of marketing sales, wrestled the ball away from the unidentified spectator."

I remembered it because we all had a good laugh that Leptich put that incident in the story. With so few media outlets back in those days, and soccer's second-class status, the likelihood of a front office person like myself ending up in a game story in a paper like the Tribune was remote.

I just remember that everyone was waiting and the fan obviously didn't know the protocol. I was close by and I just went to retrieve it. The delay was long enough that by the time I got to the guy, all eyes were on both of us. He stubbornly refused to release the ball and now I have 8,271 people watching me. No way am I the size and strength of a Bears' linemen, but fortunately I was able to leverage the ball out of his arms. If I had lost the wrestling match, I would have heard boos from the notoriously tough Chicago fans.

Instead I got a smattering of applause as I tossed the ball over the glass and play resumed. And I got 15 seconds of fame in the newspaper that amazingly I can look up from my home computer 23 years later. Is this a great country or what?