Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Antiwar Activism or Pro Football – Never the Twain Will Meet

[Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog will continue to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]

As editor of Vietnam GI (VGI), his underground antiwar paper, Jeff Sharlet traveled the country constantly and even occasionally went abroad seeking stories to run in the paper. In the States, he most often sought out GIs just back from Vietnam, but he also met with antiwar activists. Aside from his charisma, Jeff had the additional cachet of being an ex-Vietnam GI – Been there, done that.

One of the most unusual people Jeff encountered was Dave Meggyesy, a pro football player. Meggyesy was then a star linebacker for the Cardinals, the National Football League (NFL) team in St Louis. He was one of the very few players in the NFL who was also an activist. Even more unusual, he was the rare political radical in the ranks of pro ball.

Dave Meggyesy had been a poor farm boy from Ohio whose stellar performance as a high school player earned him a football scholarship to Syracuse University, a football power in upstate New York. The previous season, Syracuse had won the national championship.

One of the most unusual people Jeff encountered was Dave Meggyesy…the rare political radical in the ranks of pro ball

Meggyesy fulfilled the coaches’ expectations, being named All-American honorable mention in his Sophomore season, although from the outset he was also something of a maverick on the Syracuse squad.

Dave Meggyesy tackling a runner, Syracuse-Notre Dame game, 1961

Football players were expected to take so-called remedial courses, the easiest possible to ensure their academic eligibility to play under NCAA rules. However, Dave bucked the coaches and insisted on taking regular, more demanding courses of his choice. Then, as he proved himself in the games, he was offered cash under the table for his ‘services’ to the team – a standard illegal practice in big time college football – but as an athletic purist he was taken aback and initially refused.

Further worrying the authoritarian head coach was his non-conformity – Dave lived off-campus with his girlfriend instead of in the team dorm. To make matters worse, the two of them hung out with irreverent arts students the coach regarded as ‘beatniks’.  They also read ‘subversive’ literature by Aldous Huxley, Ernest Becker, and Jack Kerouac, America’s ultimate rebel.

After a standout gridiron career at Syracuse, the St Louis Cardinals drafted him for the ’63 NFL season. A tackle in college, the pros converted him to linebacker, a key position on the defensive team requiring speed, agility, and intelligence. Dave had a very good rookie season in St Louis and was considered a player of promise, but he nonetheless continued his free-spirited ways to the distress of the coaching staff.

During the off-season, Dave enrolled in grad school at Washington University, a very distinguished institution in St Louis. Intending to eventually become a doctor, he took pre-med courses, but later switched to Sociology where he came under the influence of a noted politically active mentor. Professor Irving Louis Horowitz put him on to the writings of recently deceased C Wright Mills, arguably the most radical, intellectually combative scholar of the day.

Dave Meggyesy, St Louis Cardinals

Once the football season got underway each fall, Meggyesy was all business, constantly perfecting his game and making significant contributions to the Cardinals. Off-season however, he began taking an interest in politics. Although he was Caucasian, in ’64 he was asked by the St Louis chapter of the NAACP to lend his name for fund-raising.

He momentarily hesitated, worrying what the team owner might think of him stepping out of his purely jock role, but then gave his consent and retrospectively considered the decision to get involved his first political commitment.

During the following year, 1965, as President Johnson dramatically escalated the war in Vietnam, Dave became politically active. As antiwar opposition heated up on the nation’s campuses, he attended Washington University’s ‘teach-in’ against the war where he made contact with the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter. Although he didn’t formally become a member, he attended SDS meetings and found himself in agreement on the war issue.

His new SDS friends at the university introduced Dave to the radical press – the hard-hitting magazine Ramparts, published in the intensely political San Francisco Bay Area; and the left paper, The Guardian, out of New York. That fall the march on Washington conflicted with his daytime job as linebacker, but his wife made the trip to the capital.

Football was the singular focus and all-consuming passion during the season for most of Meggyesy’s teammates. Dave, however, was privately conflicted about his profession. He disliked the coaches’ treating adult men as juveniles, the many petty rules such as bed check, and the fact that players were often compelled to play injured – shot up with painkillers by the team doc.

Dave was privately conflicted about his profession, disliked being treated like a juvenile, petty rules, and players compelled to play injured shot up with painkillers

Dave Meggyesy, linebacker

Most of all he was shocked by the racism in the St Louis organization – for road games Black players were segregated in accommodations and eating arrangements. On the personal side during annual training camp, Meggyesy – to some degree a straight arrow – wasn’t particularly keen on post-scrimmage rituals of boozing, brawling, and philandering. Although he got along with his teammates, who respected him for his ability, he never ‘fit in’ with the culture of the outfit.

In effect, Dave Meggyesy was not in sync with his peers. His innate intellectual curiosity alone set him apart, but it was his progressive radical activism that began to open up a growing divide between him and the politically conservative owner and coaches.

Dave’s intellectual curiosity alone set him apart, but his activism opened a divide between him and the conservative owner and coaches

He had given an antiwar talk at nearby Southern Illinois University, which elicited an outraged letter from a Cardinal fan to the owner. Then, in April of ’67 Dave took off for New York to be part of the huge march against the war and later that fall helped organize and finance buses to Washington for St Louis activists participating in the great demonstration at the Pentagon.

During spring ’68, brother Jeff was on the road again for VGI, visiting GI antiwar coffee houses where he’d meet with combat veterans and men training for Vietnam. On this tour, his itinerary took him down to the Mad Anthony Wayne GI coffee house outside the giant infantry training base at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

A meeting was arranged between Jeff and Dave Meggyesy in St Louis. Unfortunately, with the passage of time when I contacted Dave in recent years, he couldn’t recall their conversation, but presumably they rapped about the war and the emerging GI protest movement.

That spring Dave and his wife were in the thick of the antiwar movement, often hosting large SDS meetings at their house. By then, his political resume was nearly as impressive as his football feats, and he had attracted FBI surveillance.

Cardinals’ management had grown quite uncomfortable with his dissidence, which was attracting many letters from angry ‘patriotic’ fans. The bottom line for management was of course the gate and profits.

Just before the ‘68 summer training camp, Meggyesy received an oblique but clear indication that management was going to ask him to make a choice – politics or football, never the twain will meet. He was only saved from the ultimatum when the team’s racism finally broke in the news, and the owners felt they couldn’t handle a political scandal as well.

Undeterred by the threat looming over him, at training camp in northern Michigan Meggyesy circulated a petition among his teammates in support of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, the peace candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Eugene McCarthy button

He collected a surprising number of signatures from teammates and after practice drove down to the Chicago convention to lobby the Missouri delegation on behalf of McCarthy. To no avail however – Missouri was firmly in the camp of the mainstream candidate, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey.

In ’69, which would turn out to be Dave’s final season in pro ball, he publicly irritated fans, management, and teammates when he consistently refused to salute the flag during the National Anthem before games. During one game, a belligerent fan heckled the maverick linebacker unremittingly, shouting that he was a ‘commie’.

During the season, the St Louis organization finally lost patience when Dave gave an extensive interview to a major Philadelphia daily criticizing the Cardinals’ management, the culture of football in general, and, of course, the war. The coaches no longer spoke to him, and he was benched, sitting out most of the games.

In the highly divisive and charged atmosphere over the war in the country in the late ‘60s, activist politics and pro football – his conscience and his profession – proved a toxic mix for Dave Meggyesy. By that point, he was thoroughly disenchanted with everything about football, and being punitively benched for lesser players was the final straw for him. At the height of his career, he quit the game at the end of his seventh season, packed up his wife and kids, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.

There, with the help of a Berkeley professor, Dave wrote his controversial autobiography, Out of Their League (1971). One reviewer called it “the first critical look at the dehumanizing aspects of pro football,”* and the book soon became a best seller. 

Subsequently, in addition to a personally rewarding stint coaching high school football, Dave devoted the rest of his working life to following his conscience. He went on to teach courses on the sociology of sports at Stanford University, founded ‘Athletes United for Peace’, co-founded the Esalen Sports Center, and eventually headed the western region of the NFL Players  Association, the labor union of pro ball, finally retiring in 2007.
*San Jose Mercury News, date unknown