- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

For younger fans who might wonder what the NFL was like in the days when it wasn't nearly the biggest thing in sports, HBO this week presents an impressive documentary called "The Game of Their Lives." The one-hour program premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m.
Well, what was it like? Basically, down and dirty not to mention underpaid for the players on the 12 teams who slogged through the muck and mire without face masks or other modern equipment. Says Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff: "In 1959, I was the league's defensive MVP, and I was making $9,000."
In those days, commissioner Bert Bell ran the NFL from a walkup office in Philadelphia (and, probably, from his coat pocket). There were only 72 league games per season today's 31 teams play more than 240 and Bell did not exactly hide away in the kind of ivory tower occupied by successors Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue.
"I'd call the league office, and the commissioner would pick up the phone do you think that could happen today?" says former Baltimore Colts linebacker Johnny Sample. "He'd say, 'What do you need, Johnny?' and I'd say, 'Mr. Bell, I haven't gotten my paycheck.' So he'd say, 'Come on down and pick it up.'"
An assortment of talking heads, including Washington Times sports columnist and author Dan Daly, provide additional insights. But as always, the documentary's principle fascination lies in the reams of black and white film showing the sport's hardy and uninhibited practitioners of that era.
"At the start of the 1950s, only its aficionados knew this was a great sport," author David Halberstam says. "The national sports psyche was baseball the World Series was the be-all and end-all and pro football hadn't gotten hold of that national psyche yet."
Although the Redskins aren't shown to much advantage here small wonder considering that they were abysmal for most of the decade we are treated, if that's the word, to a mini-tirade against expansion by team founder and president George Preston Marshall. Marshall, you'll recall, is the man who doomed his once-proud team to 25 years of mediocrity because he would not employ black players. His brief appearance here gives us another reason to lament his lack of foresight.
I especially liked remarks by the widow of a former player about the so-called "Tuesday Rule," which attempted to forbid sex after that day each week because of an impression that the players involved would not be as strong or resolute the following Sunday.
Actress Jane Russell, then married to Los Angeles Rams star quarterback Bob Waterfield, tells how she showed up the night before a game and told Waterfield's hotel roommate, in effect, "get lost." He did, and we may assume that they did.
The '50s began with the Cleveland Browns, refugees from the defunct All-America Football Conference, winning the NFL title in their first season. The decade approached its end with the memorable sudden-death overtime NFL championship game won by the Colts over the New York Giants in December 1958. In between, as narrator Liev Schreiber puts it, "the 1950s served as a bridge between sandlot and Super Bowl."

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