Kevin Cook, Author, The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s—The Era that Created Modern Sports:
First, can you let readers know how and why you decided to take on this subject and how you started doing so?
I was a tyke in 1967, watching the first Super Bowl on a little black-and-white TV. I grew up watching the early Monday Night Football and the great teams of the ’70s. After writing three books that were largely about golf, I wanted to write about the number-one sport.
It’s easy to forget that pro football didn’t always dominate the sports landscape the way it does today. It was a process—an evolution that’s really fascinating, full of epic games, crazy plays and vivid characters.
What makes the book unique in its coverage of those 70’s teams?
I think Headbangers is the first to suggest that the NFL took on its modern form in the ten-year period between the sport’s most famous plays: the Immaculate Reception and The Catch. Back in ’72, rookie Franco Harris actually hitchhiked to practice. Terry Bradshaw sold used cars in the off-season. Andy Russell and Ray Mansfield carpooled to work to save on gas that cost 55 cents a gallon. Monday Night Football was new—an experiment that only last-place ABC was willing to try.
By the time Dwight Clark snagged Joe Montana’s pass in 1982, the NFL was America’s dominant sport. Thanks mostly to TV, teams were getting rich and players were making ten times what guys earned a decade before. Rules changes favoring the passing game helped Bill Walsh’s 49ers usher in a more efficient, scripted style of play—the modern, corporate, huge-money NFL we watch today.
How did you research the book and what surprised you most as you did so?
I watched a bunch of grainy ’70s games, read everything I could find on the subject, and then started phoning ’70s players, coaches and broadcasters. What surprised me was that the vast majority of those players went on to other careers. They were the last NFL generation that wasn’t set for life by virtue of playing pro football. Some have struggled financially as well as physically. And then there’s Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, who screwed up his career by abusing drugs, and then won $28 million in the Texas state lottery.
How can readers purchase the book?
Were some players reluctant to discuss their experiences with you? Why/why not, do you think?
Most were eager to share their memories. I expected Henderson, for instance, to be tight-lipped about drugs, but he told about hiding liquid cocaine in his uniform during the Super Bowl. I expected Roger Staubach to be a stiff, but he was one of the most candid, interesting interviews I had in more than a year of working on the book. Talking to Staubach could almost make you root for the Cowboys…I say almost.
How do the players you spoke with look at the way the game is being played today? What were their thoughts on today’s rules regarding hits and the way today’s players handle themselves – both on and off the field?
Most of them think today’s players are spoiled. They hate seeing preening, prancing me-first guys do touchdown dances on TV. And they think the rules have changed so much that quarterbacks aren’t really football players anymore—QBs are more like kickers, playing a specialized, protected position. Or ballerinas. But don’t quote me—I don’t want Jay Cutler kicking me with his toe shoes.
Concussions and head trauma and the issues many former players deal with as a result of those injuries are a big topic today How did you find the players you spoke with on those issues. Angry at the NFL, accepting of them as a game risk…?
I think they’re scared. Worried. But while many ex-players are suing the NFL, others shrug and say they knew the game was risky. I’m hoping The Last Headbangers leads more fans to support former players who risked their futures to help build the game. The NFL and the NFLPA are starting to recognize the debt they owe the Headbangers generation, but haven’t done nearly enough.
How in your opinion does/can the NFL successfully manage the need to keep a certain level of “old school” physicality in the game for fans while better protecting players today?
I think it’s crazy when people talk about banning NFL football. Twenty or so years ago we began hearing about Dementia pugilistica, the brain damage boxers suffered from getting concussed. But we didn’t ban boxing. I applaud the NFL’s efforts to deal with players’ health issues. The next step is twofold: The league needs to put more of its wealth into pensions and medical care for former players; and it needs to keep improving concussion detection.
If a player shows concussion symptoms, team doctors need to keep him off the field. For years, players were expected to “shake it off” and stay in the game. That decision—in the NFL as well as in college, high school and every other level of football—must be taken away from players, so they don’t feel pressured to say, “I’m fine.”
Who were some of the biggest characters of the headbanger days and what made them so? Any examples?
The ’70s was the most colorful time in NFL history. Mean Joe, Franco, Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann (who never got enough credit for his toughness), Stallworth, Vietnam hero Rocky Bleier, Frenchy, Ham, Blount, Webster, Fats Holmes, Greenwood, White, Gerela—and that’s just the Steelers! You’ve also got O.J. Simpson slashing downfield, and the crazed Raiders and glitzy Cowboys. I can’t imagine any time in any sport that ever had a better cast of characters.
In your discussions with former players, how much did they discuss the difficulties ex players have on adjusting to post-NFL life, and what’s you find separates those that struggled to do so from those that did not?
That’s a mystery. It’s clear that one or two bad concussions make you more likely to suffer more in the future. But why are some people more prone to concussions, while others are resistant? Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano used to bang his head on a cement wall before games. Villapiano had a bunch of concussions, but 40 years later he’s as lucid and healthy as can be, while plenty of guys he played with suffered far greater damage. Some were senile at 50. Others died before they turned 50.
I think the next frontier in sports science is discovering why some of us are more prone to concussions that others.
Without revealing too much, what players and stories were the most powerful, from your perspective. And why?
I really enjoyed talking with Franco Harris, who turned out to be as thoughtful and sharp as I expected. But his old rival Villapiano was my favorite: a great conversation, funny and profane. And Phil provided an important, powerful end to the book, because he’s got a son, Mike, who plays football. Quarterback Mike Villapiano led his team to the New Jersey high school state championship. Mike and his dad talked about what he should do if he “got his bell rung.” They agreed that Mike shouldn’t tell anybody. He wasn’t going to get a Division I scholarship sitting on the bench; he had to stay on the field.
Were they right? Were they risking Mike’s future for a shot at a scholarship? I think they were right, because Mike’s goal is to find out how far he can go in football, and that can’t happen unless he stays on the field. But I could be wrong…
What’s next for you?
Two movie producers are working on films of my previous books, Titanic Thompson and Tommy’s Honor. Here’s hoping somebody wants to make a movie of The Last Headbangers. Other than Jim Caviezel as Staubach, I’m open to casting suggestions.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I hope they’ll buy the book rather than just reading excerpts online. We authors gotta make a living! I spent almost two years of my life on Headbangers…but it’s bigger than me.
I hope the book brings a great NFL era back to life for a new generation of fans.