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PERSPECTIVE ON FOOTBALL

When the Game Isn't Moving, Punt

The NFL's return to L.A. is stalled. The fans are yawning. Bring in a point kicker like Danny Villanueva.

March 16, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Kickers are the least respected players in American football, yet among the most important. So Danny Villanueva Sr. has had lots of practice for the unsung but pivotal role he could play in bringing pro football back to Los Angeles.

Chairman of Bastion Capital Corp., a $125-million venture capital fund based in Century City, Villanueva is one of the most successful Latino businessmen in the nation. Yet he is better known, both within the Latino community and outside it, for other achievements.

Latinos remember Villanueva as former president and general manager of KMEX, Channel 34, the city's first Spanish-language television station. It remains the flagship station of what eventually evolved into the Univision TV network.

Non-Latinos, at least those who are sports fans, remember Villanueva as a National Football League player for the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys. As the Cowboys' kicker, he played in some classic games against the legendary Green Bay Packer teams coached by Vince Lombardi.

A New Mexico native raised in Calexico, Villanueva takes great pride in his eight years in the NFL. But even he might dispute my premise that kickers are among the key players on any football team. They are not as glamorous as running backs, nor are they as much of a presence as those big NFL linemen. Speaking of size, kickers don't even look like football players. They tend to be small guys--often immigrants from Europe or Latin America who got their first kicking experience playing soccer.

But a reliable kicker is like a good relief pitcher in baseball or an accurate free-throw shooter in basketball. You take his skills for granted until the waning moments of a close game when he comes in and helps clinch a victory.

That is the role Villanueva could play sometime in the next few years, when the NFL gets around to admitting that it made a serious mistake in allowing the Rams and Raiders to abandon the Los Angeles area.

NFL team owners haven't reached that point yet, to be sure. They met last week in Palm Springs and once again rebuffed the campaign by Los Angeles officials to get a new NFL franchise into the Memorial Coliseum, the old stadium in Exposition Park that both the Rams and the Raiders gave up on. But, while still cool to the Coliseum, the NFL may be starting to waver on Los Angeles itself.

NFL officials have been taken aback by this city's seeming indifference to the loss of NFL football. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles is not willing to give the NFL all it wants in exchange for a new team, especially a palatial new stadium built at public expense.

That's why league officials were so anxious last year for Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley to apply for an NFL franchise. They rightly figured that only a businessman Los Angeles knew and trusted could sell the city on yet another team. But O'Malley didn't rally L.A. to his support. So now the names of other possible owners are being floated by league sources.

Among those mentioned are MCA chairman Lew Wasserman, Atlantic Richfield chairman emeritus Lodwrick M. Cook, Creative Artists Agency founder Michael Ovitz, and News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch. All business superstars--quarterbacks, if you will. So it's no surprise that an old Latino kicker's interest in owning part of a new L.A. franchise has gotten scant attention.

But that hasn't kept Villanueva from quietly working to bring together a group of investors that includes two other former NFL players who call Los Angeles home--retired Cleveland Browns linebacker Sidney Williams, currently U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas (and husband of Rep. Maxine Waters), and NFL Hall of Famer Willie Davis, who played for the great Green Bay Packer teams against Villanueva's Cowboys.

Both Williams and Davis are African American, and what should make Villanueva's group interesting to the NFL is that it includes Latino and black businessmen who are respected in Los Angeles. That could prove as important to reestablishing the NFL's credibility in this town as having a big name like O'Malley or Ovitz involved. And while minority business leaders alone might lack all the resources to deal with the NFL, as partners with a major financial player like, say, Murdoch, they could help form a team that is well-nigh unbeatable.

This city's black and Latino communities have already shown they will have a big say on whatever deal is worked out with the NFL. It was the mostly Latino residents of Echo Park who raised such a fuss that O'Malley had to back down on his plans to build an NFL stadium adjacent to Dodger Stadium. And a black member of the City Council, Mark Ridley-Thomas, has led the fight to keep the Coliseum's hopes for a new NFL team alive.

The NFL has found that its test of wills with Los Angeles will be a much tougher and closer contest than it is used to. So it better have a reliable kicker ready to come off the bench when needed. Just for the record, in his playing days Villanueva compiled one of the best kicking percentages (97.9%) in NFL history.

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