“Hold the sideline under your right arm.”
When the 1972 season began, there no longer was any question the Oilers were my team. Charley Johnson moved on to Denver. Jerry Rhome was in Los Angeles. And my backup, Lynn Dickey, suffered one of the ugliest injuries I'd ever seen. In a pre-season game, against the St. Louis Cardinals, Dickey scrambled and was dragged to the Astrodome turf from behind. His knee jammed into his hip socket so hard, the socket shattered, breaking bones and tearing ligaments. He was in agonizing pain on the field. I mean, agonizing. Doctors snapped Dickey's leg back into socket on the field and we all knew it would be at least a year, if ever, before Dickey would be the same again. Even as he was getting carted off, trainers and doctors on the sideline were saying things like he may never walk again – it was that bad. That's the reality of the game. I watched Dickey writhing in pain and realized, like every player did at some point, I'm that close to being in the same spot. Especially considering my new head coach was a buffoon and my offensive line had changed completely from the season before, I knew I was going to have to stand up to a lot of punishment.
Going out and drinking, partying, picking up girls and having a good time really was a kind of self-medicating thing for me.
I engaged in some preventive medication a number of ways. Going out and drinking, partying, picking up girls and having a good time really was a kind of self-medicating thing for me. The football environment was so controlled and rigid at Fannin and Braeswood, it wore us down physically. Coach Peterson wore us down mentally. The intensity level was so fierce, every time we got a break from meetings, practice and working out, we made the most of it. We cut loose. And there wasn't a better place in the league to cut loose than Houston, Tx. I arrived to Houston when it was on the cusp of exploding with energy – literally. Oil practically ran down the streets. The city was a lot like me, or I was a lot like the city. It was growing up fast, flexing muscles and was untamed. You could see it and feel it all over town. By 1972, population had more than doubled in the city. People from every corner of the country were coming to Houston for work and there was plenty of work to go around. It was an amazing time. Money literally came through the Ship Channel every day, tankers and ships barreling in and out of the Port Of Houston with millions of gallons of oil, gas and everything related to the oil and gas industries. NASA brought all kinds of attention and jobs, as did the Astrodome – the so-called, Eighth Wonder Of The World. The oil and gas industries couldn't keep up with demands. If someone picked up and moved from Ohio or Michigan one week, they'd have a job and as much work as they wanted by the next week. The biggest shopping mall in the country opened, The Galleria. Skyscrapers were popping up all over downtown. Blue-collar workers were just like us NFL players. They'd work a double-shift three straight days, pack as much work as they could into as many hours as they could stand, then roll into town with wads of bills in their pockets ready to party. The white-collar traders were up before dawn, traded all day and then hit Happy Hour, dropping cash everywhere. There were women everywhere. They were beautiful women and there was just something about Houston women. They reflected the same kind of ambitious, outrageous, untamed style as everyone else. Strip malls and restaurants opened at the blink of an eye. Housing developments popped up overnight: The Woodlands, Lake Conroe, Clear Lake. Strip clubs, honky tonks and night clubs kept the same pace. Bars and restaurants overflowed with partiers, socialites, cowboys, oilfield workers, energy executives, NASA folks.
It was football country with attitude and an unlimited budget. And I was the 23-year-old quarterback from a town of 1,300 people, turned loose in one of the biggest, fastest-growing cities in the country.
It was football country with attitude and an unlimited budget. And I was the 23-year-old quarterback from a town of 1,300 people, turned loose in one of the biggest, fastest-growing cities in the country. What was a red-blooded Italian-American to do? Everybody knew me. I was the saving grace. Everybody was my buddy. Everybody loved me. And I ate it up. I started getting intoxicated by all the fame and attention. I started getting intoxicated, period. Everyone wanted a piece of me. Everyone wanted to get me into some kind of business deal. Every girl I met, it seemed, wanted to get me into bed. I was living the dream.
When we opened the season in Denver against the Broncos I felt like everything was about to break wide open for me and the Oilers. It was a highly anticipated game by the networks and across the country. NFL Films showed up, because the game featured Denver's John Ralston, the first-year coach from Stanford, against Peterson, who was supposed to be an offensive genius from Florida State. Of course, every guy in the locker-room knew Petersen didn't know shit, but fans and media all bought into it. That first game was featured nationally, partly also because of the hotshot quarterback that played for Houston. I thought it would be a good launching point for a breakout season. In the locker-room just before the game, Petersen gathered us all together. I sat at my locker, some other guys sat alongside at their lockers on both sides of me. The rest of the team surrounded Petersen on a knee or sitting on the floor. Everyone was nervous, quietly fidgeting, going through the usual pre-game routine. Some guys closed their eye and focused, others stared off blankly, or bowed their heads going over assignments or alone in their thoughts. Then, coach Pete gave us the season-opening pregame speech.
Everyone was nervous, quietly fidgeting, going through the usual pre-game routine. Some guys closed their eye and focused, others stared off blankly, or bowed their heads going over assignments or alone in their thoughts. Then, coach Pete gave us the season-opening pregame speech.
"Men," he barked at us, "I want you to think about one word. This entire season is going to be about one word and one word only. That's all we're thinking about this year. Everyday, remember one word. Everything is about one word. And that word is, 'Super Bowl.'"
I said under my breath, "Well, coach, that's two words, but OK. I'm still with you."
He went on, with a few guys raising their eyebrows over the "one word" comment.
"Now when you go out there for the National Anthem, I want you all to make sure you stand on your helmets and hold the sideline under your right arm."
Across the room you could see guys starting to tremble and snicker under their breath. I looked at Charlie Joiner and Kenny Burrough. They turned their heads away, trying not to laugh in Petersen's face. Guys were biting their lips, whispering to each other, "Is this fucking guy serious? THIS is our coach?"
Petersen then told us, "Now everybody grab a knee so I can lead you in the Lord's Prayer."
We all bowed our heads and Petersen began.
"Now I lay me down to sleep … ah, shit, fuck, no, that's not it. Now I lay … Ah, shit … Pastorini!! You're Catholic. You lead us!"
Everybody in the locker-room started just dying, shaking, tears rolling down guys' faces. I had to pause to keep from laughing out loud as I knelt at the middle of the room, covered my face with one hand and said the prayer, "Our Father, who art in Heaven …"
By the time I finished, some guys had put socks in their mouths, trying not to laugh out loud. We ran out of the locker-room in front of the coaches and busted out laughing. As we went through the tunnel, Broncos fans looked at us like, man, that's a loose team.
Before we even took the first snap of our first game, we realized that poor son-of-a-bitch Petersen had no clue. We got killed. We lost 30-17 and I got the shit kicked out of me. The NFL Films crew kept putting the camera on Petersen and he kept acting like he had it all under control
"Hey, ref. Ref!" he shouted at one point when I got buried by a rushing defensive player. "You know, that kid's got parents!"
What did that have to do with anything? Our left tackle, Gene Ferguson, missed a couple of blocks in a row and I got pounded by defenders. When Ferguson walked off the field, Petersen saw the cameras and yelled at Ferguson, "I'm not going to take this standing down!"
Ferguson stopped, stared Petersen in the face and said, "Standing up, coach? Or lying down?"