(Fall is closing in, and the NFL football season is back! From my vault of articles, I hope you enjoy this one I wrote a few years ago…)
“Missing Roger Staubach”
In the early summer of 1978 I was seven years old, and my family was finishing our stay in Stillwater, Oklahoma. At this time, my dad was still head basketball and golf coach at Stillwater High School. In just a few months though he would be hired as the men’s head basketball coach at Northern Oklahoma Junior College, and our family would make the 45 minute move to Tonkawa, Oklahoma.
I had wild brown curly hair that my mom thought would straighten out the more she let it grow. That never worked out, and I have the funny pictures from my childhood to prove it. It was during this innocent time in my life that I was first introduced to a drug that came in a 2 ½ by 3 ½ wax package called Topps Trading Cards.
Not baseball cards mind you with all of its glorious history and statistics, but NFL football cards were my first love. The 1978 Topps football cards were my first foray into the world of sports trading cards.
My dad would take me by the local QT (Quik Trip) convenience store on our way home in Stillwater, and for 25 cents I could get a pack of football cards (side note: I looked on the internet recently and you can still find a few unopened packs, but they go for about $17-$20 a pack now). Each “wax pack” (below) contained 12 gods of the gridiron inside along with one hellaciously hard stick of “bubble gum.” (On a personal note to my dentist, I shamelessly blame all of those rock-hard sticks of so-called gum on the amount and coverage of fillings in my hopelessly soon-to-all-be-capped molars.)
There were 528 cards available in the 1978 set, and I voraciously chewed my gum and opened my packs day after day, week after week checking off players as I uncovered them inside. There was a team checklist card for every team featuring four small pictures of the team leaders on the front along with a checklist of all the players available from that team on the back. Like any dutiful seven year old, I grabbed an ink pen and check-marked the ones I had (I even wrote my initials on the backs of many of my cards. I didn’t know about mint condition or the value of them or even care when I was seven!).
The 1978 NFL Topps cards were very plain. At the time Topps didn’t have a licensing agreement with the NFL so the team logos were nowhere to be found on the player helmets or jerseys. There were a few action shots, some standard close-up photo poses, and pictures of a lot of players sitting on the bench looking like they’d just been through a three hour battle.
The back of each card featured basic bio on the player along with statistics and an interesting fact about that player. Some photos were even clever duplicates a year or two before as is the case with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Charlie Smith (below; interesting fact: “Charlie works as a substitute teacher in the off-season”). It was the same exact crazy messed up afro, same exact axe-murderer expression on his face. It was just a slightly different camera angle between the two pictures.
At this time my two favorite NFL teams were the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Blasphemy, I know! And, yes, I will confess to being a front-runner back then if that helps with an explanation. Coming off of a Super Bowl win in January 1978, the Cowboys were in the midst of becoming labeled “America’s Team.” Plus, their proximity to most of Oklahoma made for the closest NFL franchise. The Steelers, on the other hand, were five states and a thousand miles away, but I had relatives in Pittsburgh. My cousin Kevin was one year older and like a distant big brother to me. If he and his family liked the Steelers than I did too!
My two favorite football players during this confusing time were the great quarterbacks from each team – Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers and Roger Staubach of the Cowboys. I do confess to loving all the quarterbacks back then, and I made it my mission to make sure I collected all of their football cards that year.
From the Bears’ Bob Avellini (“Bob works for a paper company during the off-season”) to the Seahawks’ Jim Zorn (“Jim is an accomplished speed skater”), I treasured the quarterback cards more than any other (a speed skater? Really?). The quarterbacks were the leaders, and the hopes of their respective teams seemed to rise and fall every Sunday depending upon their play.
I had all of the quarterback cards except two. In an ironic twist of my QB card searching fate, Topps didn’t produce a Baltimore Colts QB card that year for whatever reason. The Colts had gone 10-4 in 1977 and were led by Miller Beer star Bert Jones.
One of my two missing QB cards was NY Giants Joe Pisarcik who staggered through a four touchdown, 14 interception, 42.3 passer rating season in 1977. He followed up that stellar campaign with 12 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and 52.1 passer rating in 1978. Needless to say I wasn’t really in dire need of that Joe Pisarcik card. After all, I did have the other Giants QB card at that time – Jerry Golsteyn (“Jerry is one of six brothers. All of whom share the first initial “J”).
Topps would also sneak a back-up or two into the QB card stock as well. James Harris or Dave Mays anyone?
Harris (“At Grambling James was MVP of the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic”) backed up one of my all-time favorites with the San Diego Chargers – Dan Fouts. Fouts rocked the QB beard like nobody’s business in the late 70’s, and easily ranks in any top all-time QB beards list. Fouts quarterbacked Chargers teams that were always fun to watch on offense but never had the defense it took to win it all.
Dave Mays (“Dave was once a mascot for his father’s Arkansas AM&N football team”) backed up another quarterback I liked – Cleveland’s Brian Sipe. Sipe would go on to win the NFL MVP award in 1980, but his Browns’ teams would never play for a Super Bowl (then again, nobody’s Browns’ teams have played for a Super Bowl).
Amongst the other back-up quarterback cards I had was one Danny White of the Dallas Cowboys. White (“Danny set 7 collegiate passing records at Arizona State”) was the Cowboys starting punter, and as far as I know the only starting punter in the NFL history who would also go on to become a starting NFL quarterback. I had the White card probably 10 times over, but the other starting QB card I did not have at that time was number #290 on the checklist. It was the card featuring former Naval Academy and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach.
Staubach’s picture just exuded the confidence and leadership one might expect from a former Navy graduate. It was if he had just stepped out of his Navy blues and directly into the blue, silver, and white of the Dallas Cowboys. Some players are just meant to play for certain organizations, and the star of the Cowboys seemed natural for this Navy man. Without wearing a helmet in the picture, his 1978 hair was perfect. His eyes looked just over the camera man’s shoulder gazing down field. He’s holding the football with both hands likely looking for an open Drew Pearson or a streaking Butch Johnson.
Staubach had career numbers that were deceiving because he didn’t break into the NFL until after he served out a four-year stint as required by the Navy at that time. He was a 27 year old rookie before he played for the Dallas Cowboys, and then he sat behind Cowboys’ starter Craig Morton for the better part of two seasons before finally taking over the reins as the starter while pushing 30 years of age.
“Roger the Dodger” was on his way to an all-pro season in 1978 where he would throw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,100 yards. But I was less interested in his all-pro season and more interested in discovering his football card in an unopened wax pack of Topps NFL football trading cards. Did Topps even make a Roger Staubach card? I knew they did, and the checklist said it did, but to me it seemed like they didn’t make any, or at least didn’t ship any to Oklahoma.
It was like a cruel hoax every time I opened a pack only to get the same Houston Oilers’ Curley Culp card (“Curley strengthens his body by tossing 50 lb. Barrels”), or another Detroit Lions’ Eddie Payton card (“Eddie plays the trumpet”). And, yes, that is Walter Payton’s older brother who had a five season stint in the NFL mostly as a kickoff/punt returner. My disappointment and frustration grew as time and again I was stopped short of the goal line by another Oakland Raiders’ Ted Hendricks card (“Ted’s nickname is “the mad stork”) when Staubach failed to appear inside.
To pass the time in between trips to the local convenience store I would group my cards together by teams and place them in a specially designed card holder. Occasionally if I was bored I would gather all of my quarterback cards together in one group and go through them gazing at their frozen expressions, wondering who Jim Plunkett was talking to on the headset (“Jim plays a lot of tennis during the off-season”), and thinking that Greg Landry’s picture of him playing in the mud was probably the coolest looking QB card I had (“Greg spent the off-season working on a graduate degree”).
With nearly all 528 cards in my collection, it only magnified my disappoint of a missing #290 everytime I shuffled through them and wrapped each team neatly together with a rubber-band (serious collectors worried about card values are screaming at this point – not a rubber band!).
Somewhere along the way between nerf hoops, and basketball, and girls, and cars, and college, #290 became a vacant memory. It became a distant desire long forgotten. But every now and then fate seems to step in for a moment and puts our busy lives on pause. In my attic sorting through bins of old baby clothes, toys, and in the midst of putting up Christmas decorations, I stumbled upon my youth again. Sitting among the old dusty boxes and sacks in my attic were two dusty plastic bins of old memories. In them are worn out baseball, basketball, and football cards just sitting there with rounded corners and worn out edges telling stories of years gone by. The NFL faces of 1978 are frozen in time, and for just a minute or two I’m in 1978 as well.
It’s only natural for us all to take a peek back at our childhood from time to time. We linger for a few minutes and then move on to more important things in our lives. There’s no need to dwell in the past, but the past is what makes up our memories as we grow older. We cherish pictures that bring back fond moments and good times, and that’s what these 2 ½” by 3 ½” pieces of cardboard that cost 25 cents a pack at one time did for me.
On January 21, 1979, Super Bowl XIII took place at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida and featured the Steelers against the Cowboys. As any good NFL fan knows, you can’t really cheer for the Cowboys and the Steelers and call yourself a NFL football fan. It’s either one or the other (or neither).
So on that day some 37 years ago, my seven year old self decided that whoever won this Super Bowl was going to be my favorite team forever. I already told you what a front-runner I could be, and so history dictated for me that day that Terry Bradshaw (“Terry’s wife is ice skater JoJo Starbuck”) and the Steelers would be my team of choice going forward.
The Cowboys were banished to most-hated status. It was cruel and an unfair punishment for a team that had done nothing wrong but lose a football game that day. Bradshaw was named MVP of the game after throwing four touchdown passes, and Staubach had played well in defeat throwing for 228 yards and three touchdowns.
With that thrilling 35-31 win the Steelers have been my favorite team since that day. I’ve cheered on the Steeler greats and not-so-greats through the years. I’ve watched a few more Super Bowl trophies go to the team from the “steel city,” and someday I actually hope to waive a terrible towel at a Steelers game in person. Perhaps it will be at Heinz Field, and maybe I will be lucky enough to be cheering against “America’s Team” that day. But, despite my 30+ years of Steelers allegiance, and my reverence for the great 1978 Steelers, I have a suspicious feeling that deep down inside I will always, and to some degree, forever be missing Roger Staubach.
(On the left wearing my Bradshaw / Steelers jersey and then on the right is Christmas morning 1980 going through my new football cards. Notice my Pittsburgh Steelers shirt on the floor as well. By this time, the conversion from Staubach to Bradshaw was complete.)