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Books | Sports

September 5, 2012

An Era of Headbangers' Football

Author Kevin Cook explores the brashness and brutality of the NFL's headier days in the 1970s.

Gabriel Baumgaertner

In the opening scene of Kevin Cook's The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70s—The Era that Created Modern Sports former Oakland Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano is dissatisfied with the fact that his helmet is jiggling around no matter how tightly he buckles the strap. With Franco Harris to spy on and Terry Bradshaw to blitz, Villapiano has no time for his helmet to be wiggling and impairing his vision. So he sought his nearest option.

Villapiano went to the wall and slammed his head into the wall until his head swelled up to fit the helmet. And it worked.

Kevin Cook. Photo by Pamela Marin.
"There might not be anything better than football players in mud."

Kevin Cook. Photo by Pamela Marin.

Cook explores a more brash, barely regulated and brutish era that defined the hard knocks for which the NFL is now known, for better or worse. With marked changes in the game that have undoubtedly improved the safety and innovations that have elevated the style of play, the game of the 1970s and 80s is distant, but not forgotten.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Cook took a few minutes to discuss his experience writing the book.

Gelf Magazine: Several of the players you mention are icons, but the era is so different than today's. Why did you want to explore this as a book topic?

Kevin Cook: The fact that it was such a colorful era. I followed those guys. I don't think I am a part of the group of people that think that sports was a better era when I was a kid, but it was the era during which the league took on its modern form. This was still a time when players were hitchhiking to practice and selling used cars in the offseason through the period when Monday Night Football brought enormous money into the game, and then 10 years later when the 49ers came along, with a very efficient approach—corporate in some ways, less all-out and less entertaining in others. It's the game watch today.

Gelf Magazine: Both you and Peter Richmond have explored the hard-nosed guys, the Fred Blitnekoff types, what signaled the transition away from these types of players?

Kevin Cook: I think there was a lot of money coming into the game that changed things. The rules were changing fast so the game gets more complex, and coaches were taking over. Matt Millen, who certainly has a better record as a player than he does as an executive, told me that he thought the 70s were the last period when the game was mostly decided on the field as opposed to pregame planning, in the tape room and in the coaches' meetings. It belonged more to the players than it did to the coaches. It was more violent than it is today. There was crazy stuff with steroids and the drinking was astonishing, which was really bad for the players' health. But at the same time, it had this raucous, wild, rowdy aspect that it doesn't have anymore,

Gelf Magazine: You lead off with an image of former Pittsburgh Steeler Phil Villapiano banging his head against the locker room wall so his head can swell up to fit inside of his helmet, now we have this discussion of concussions. How lax were safety regulations? Were these players protected at all?

Kevin Cook: They were, and I think the next frontier in sports science is probably to find out why so many more people are so prone to concussions. Villapiano just said he had a thick skull. But it took a terrible toll on so many players, and that is one thing that I felt I was very conscious of working on this book. You have to keep in mind the risks that they were taking while celebrating the fun that they had and encouraging the fun that they had, but you always must remember the risk and I hope that the book spurs the fans to get behind the movement from the players association and the league itself to study concussions and medical care for the ex-players.

Gelf Magazine: It's loosely related, but "Bountygate" was the primary story of the offseason. In your interviews, did you learn that this was common practice in that era?

Kevin Cook: Like so many things in the game today, the roots of that were in this period, in the 70s. The Raiders and other teams would, for a $100 out of the coach's pocket (which was completely illegal, but nobody cared), get rewarded for a great hit or great play or a fumble recovery or an interception. But it wasn't to injure somebody. This is how this kind of tradition was perverted into the modern game. I was very happy that Bountygate got as much coverage as it did because this needed to stop.

Gelf Magazine: You make several mentions of AstroTurf over the course of the book, how big of a difference is it to you that players are no longer playing on the old AstroTurf?

Kevin Cook: It's better. It helps an awful lot. That artificial turf ought to be illegal. There were so many guys that tore up their legs, tore up their ankles and there were such bad cases of turf toe. There were so many worse things than even that. There are so many concussions that are owed completely to artificial turf because it was the equivalent of hitting your head on cement. It's a better game in the mud anyway. I think that is one thing about sports that has changed a lot that is there is enough money to keep the field maintained so grass is far more practical. It should always be grass and there might not be anything better than football players in mud.

Gelf Magazine: On a personal note, were there any former players that you were especially excited to talk to?

Kevin Cook: I was looking forward to talking to Frank O'Hara. He was such an unusual guy because he was so thoughtful. He was very much the thoughtful, soft-spoken, Hercules-looking guy that I expected. Villapiano was very colorful and just a great conversation. One guy that really surprised me was Roger Staubach. He has been portrayed as such a straight arrow and he was never a guy that really fit my tastes. He represented that Dallas Cowboy Christian conservatism. He turned out to be a really engaging and funny. He was a very good quote in a way that I did not expect. You find out that the whole reason we call the Hail Mary pass the Hail Mary is because Staubach named it in the 1970s. He even talked about sex in a way that I didn't expect out of such a straight arrow. He said he liked sex just as much as Joe Namath, but only with one woman.

Gelf Magazine: Do you still see the "modern day gladiator" element within NFL players or do you see markedly different attitudes between the eras?

Kevin Cook: They're still there. I definitely want to guard against the idea that all the greatest players were back in those days. Sure, there are a few more limousine ballplayers that are surrounded by their entourages and never interacting with fans, but there are also so many throwbacks. I think the game is still violent and you are still taking a huge risk getting into such a fascinating and challenging game. It's a game that is so much more complex than baseball. Baseball fans think that if they can understand the infield fly rule, that's really deep thinking. That's nothing compared to the NFL. I think that the NFL is an incomparable sport in that way, I just think it was a little hairier in my time.

Gabriel Baumgaertner

Gabriel Baumgaertner is a contributing writer and online producer at

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- Sports
- posted on Sep 11, 12

Solve the problem of head-banging. Take ALL football players helmets away! Period.
No more spearing a QBs helmet with their helmet. Rugby players don't wear helmets.

Article by Gabriel Baumgaertner

Gabriel Baumgaertner is a contributing writer and online producer at

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