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NFL Loses Architect | COMMENTARY

He Made Football Modern

December 07, 1996|BOB OATES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pete Rozelle, who died Friday night, was 62 years old and in obvious good health in 1989 when, surprising everyone else in pro football, he stepped down after nearly three decades as NFL commissioner.

"There will never be another Pete Rozelle," his chief lieutenant, Joe Browne, said at the time.

Said Kansas City Chief owner Lamar Hunt: "It's a great thing for us that there was one Pete Rozelle."

And that can be verified. It is illustrated by his accomplishments. Rozelle was the making of the modern NFL.

In his tenure as commissioner, which began in 1960 when he was 33, pro football changed from just another American sport into the most widely followed of all sports.

Two of his innovations are now national institutions:

--The Super Bowl, which originated under his stewardship in 1967 during the seventh year of his first term as commissioner, now has almost the status of a national holiday.

--"Monday Night Football," which in some U.S. households and bars today is almost a weekly holiday event, might never have happened without Rozelle.

"I tried all one year to sell it to CBS and NBC," he once said, naming the two networks that first broadcast NFL games. "But they didn't think football would make it in prime time. CBS didn't want to move Doris Day."

So Rozelle sold it to ABC, which, along with those who own NFL clubs, has flourished ever since as Americans in large numbers keep tuning in.

Including the annual every-Sunday schedule, the difference, indeed, between pro football and other sports is the NFL's large following for regular-season games.

Basketball, baseball and other sports win America's attention during the playoffs and in the tournament seasons. But under Rozelle, pro football became an every-weekend six-month event, and so it has remained.

*

Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, as the NFL kept getting bigger and richer, Rozelle was everlastingly and firmly in charge. But starting in the 1980s, a new kind of NFL owner emerged--a kind best typified today by Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys. And increasingly, Rozelle found he couldn't control the new owners in the old way.

The break between Rozelle and the younger group of owners turned on the issue of luxury-box receipts. Rozelle urged that such revenue be shared by all clubs in the same percentages that other gate receipts are shared.

The new owners refused.

And so in 1989, tired of the struggle, Rozelle resigned.

He lived ever since in San Diego County, where, in good health, he and his wife, Carrie, built a new house in the early 1990s before illness struck.

In an incredible coincidence, Rozelle and his wife had brain tumor operations during their retirement years.

He was hospitalized for his first operation in 1993, then Carrie in early 1994, then Pete again in December 1994.

Thelma Elkjer, his private secretary for the last 40 years, who served him first when he was general manager of the Rams in the 1950s, said: "The doctors at the Scripps Clinic told them that the chances were 16 out of 10 million that a man and his wife would have brain tumors at the same time."

Throughout retirement, Rozelle served his successor, Paul Tagliabue, as a close advisor.

He was always reluctant to talk about it, though, preferring to reminisce about the Rozelle years in the NFL's New York office. He believed, for example, that his major contribution to the league and American sports fans was not the Super Bowl, and not "Monday Night Football," but the two acts of Congress assisting pro football that were passed after he lobbied for them at length in Washington.

One law allowed the game's two 1960s leagues, the NFL and American Football League, to end their long, costly war over expensive new players.

"We needed that legislation to have a merged league and to have the Super Bowl," he said. "Without it, antitrust challenges would have stopped us."

In an earlier year, Rozelle had persuaded both houses of Congress to authorize single-network NFL television.

That's the law that shielded the NFL from antitrust TV suits, leading to revenue sharing and roughly even prosperity for most clubs--a prosperity that now eludes those who don't bank heavy luxury-box receipts.

"Many NFL cities, Green Bay included, wouldn't be in football today if they had to negotiate their own TV contracts," Rozelle once said.

*

Rozelle in one of his late years acknowledged that he made a large personal sacrifice to get the NFL's first act of Congress on the books. On one occasion, for example, he spent an entire Washington night sitting up in a Watergate apartment.

The apartment was former Louisiana Sen. Russell Long's, where Rozelle, Long and several other senators partied until dawn.

"Russell was Huey Long's son," Rozelle said, referring to the former Louisiana political boss. "And he told Huey Long stories all night.

"One was about Huey's brother, Earl, who won a close election one year by promising the New Orleans Police Department that he would ease up on state gambling enforcement policies.

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