Trickery in the NFL May Be Wrong, but It Is Also Legendary
In February, when the betting lines stabilize and the Super Bowl looms, my thoughts turn to Stickum, that gooey slime that once coated the hands, arms and shirts of football players looking for an edge. .
Stickum — the color of butterscotch, the consistency of rubber cement — became commonplace in the woolly NFL of the 1970s, especially in Oakland, where Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff elevated its use to an art. Thus its catches with one hand and even without hand. (I swear I saw him once hook a touchdown with his head.)
Fred Biletnikoff of the Oakland Raiders with Stickum on his socks at the Super Bowl in Padadena, California on January 9, 1977 Photo: Fred Roe/Getty Images
It was Biletnikoff who introduced Oakland cornerback Lester Hayes to Stickum. And it was Hayes, with his huge overuse — Stickum flowed from him like sap — that forced the NFL to act. (You learn where not to go by going overboard.) Of Hayes’ league-leading 13 interceptions in 1980, perhaps half could be attributed to Stickum.
Only a handful of football players have had a rule named after them. There’s the Roy Williams rule (a player cannot tackle an opponent by catching them by the back collar or inside the shoulder pads, aka “the horse collar tackle”), the Deacon Jones rule ( a player cannot slap an opponent on the head), the Ricky Williams rule (a player can indeed tackle an opponent by the hair) and the rule named after Lester Hayes, who said that without Stickum he cannot couldn’t “catch a cold in Antarctica”.
“Deflate-Gate, like Watergate, showed how far a competitor would go to secure a win that already looked like it was in the bag.”
I get why the NFL banned Stickum — he swarmed the ball and made it hard to throw quarterbacks — but I don’t like it. For me, the creative use of tacky glue represents the essence of the NFL, which has featured all manner of games that have turned illegal since its inception.
The English ancestor of football was actually invented by an act of breaking the rules when, according to legend, a frustrated rugby school football player picked up the ball and ran.
The NFL was founded by, among others, Chicago Bears player, coach and owner George Halas, a master not only of blocking and tackling, but also of the trick that gives the advantage. It was the owner who placed his fanfare near the opposing bench with the order to play each time the other coach started to speak. It was the strategist who put scratching powder in the uniforms of the adversaries. He was the innovator who introduced the modern QB-centric offense which, from the outset, was all feint, fake and diversion.
Greg Pruitt of the Cleveland Browns has his jersey ripped off by Jim Lynch of the Kansas City Chiefs in Cleveland, October 30, 1977 Photo: George Gojkovich/Getty Images
Some seasons are known less for their games than for their tricks. 1979 brought us the paper jersey – the “tear” – which fell to shreds when a defensive back got his hands on Earl Campbell of the Oilers or Greg Pruitt of the Browns, whose name was attached to the ruler when the tear was eventually banned. In 2014’s Deflate-Gate, the Patriots’ Tom Brady was involved in the intentional deflation of soccer balls, showing, as in Watergate, how far a competitor would go to secure a victory that already seemed to be in the bag.
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I agreed when the Atlanta Falcons were fined in 2016 for playing fake crowd noise in their arena to confuse visiting teams, but not because I didn’t appreciate the effort. There’s nothing more American than gamemanship. We call it cheating, and it is, but it’s also part of what makes football our smartest game.
Iconic Bears goaltender Doug Plank once described football to me as a “game of chess.” Quarterbacks and coaches are so important because they are kings and queens. Upheavals are common because in chess, clever strategy almost always beats an unimaginative assault. Lamented for its violent brutality, football is actually the only major sport where the mind consistently trumps the body.
Or, as Fred Biletnikoff said, “If you don’t cheat, you don’t try.”
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