- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

All this yapping back and forth about Warren Sapp's blindside block on Chad Clifton. Green Bay assistant Larry Beightol threatening to "cut [block Sapp] every single time" when the Packers meet up with Tampa Bay again. Sapp telling ESPN that Pack coach Mike Sherman "violated me personally" violated him personally? by confronting him after the game. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue promising fines and/or suspensions unless the teams refrain from criticizing each other and from making "public comments or threats of injury or retaliation."

Ah, for the simplicity of less civil times. Ah, for the Bootsie play.

Actually, the Bootsie was only one name for it. It was also known, depending on the team you were playing for, as the Dead Dog, 99-Suicide, Socko, Snakebite, The Law, 48-Undertaker and Say Goodbye to the Wife and Kids, according to one of its practitioners. What it amounted to was this: The offense snapped the ball and then 10 guys knocked the snot out of the opposing player who had strayed too far over the line.

"If they cripple you, fine," is the way Sammy Baugh looked at it.

And here's the best thing: coaches, commissioners and media types never got involved. The players kept it all, uh, in-house.

Sometimes a team went to unusual lengths to extract its pound of flesh. One day in the '30s, for instance, the Redskins' Erny Pinckert was giving the Bears all kinds of trouble, repelling one blocker after another with an elbow or knee. Problem was, Erny was a defensive back, which made it hard to run a Bootsie on him without attracting the attention of the officials.

"So the Bear quarterback threw a short pass right into Pinckert's arms," the Milwaukee Sentinel's R.G. Lynch reminisced years later. "That made him the ball carrier, and the whole Bear team tackled him."

In his autobiography, "Footsteps of a Giant," Hall of Famer Em Tunnell recalls the Giants running a Bootsie on Bears bad boy Ed Sprinkle in a preseason game. It was an eye-opening experience for Tunnell, then a rookie and an eye-closing one, perhaps, for Sprinkle.

"The Giants didn't really run the play at him," he says. "They ran the whole team at him. This was revenge, the veterans told me, because they believed that Sprinkle had roughed up Frank Reagan in [the] 1946 [title game]. They had waited almost two years for the play, and then whack! whack! whack! Sprinkle taught me something about pro football, too, by taking his lumps without a whimper."

If this were 1948, the Packers probably would have run a Bootsie on Sapp. They certainly had ample opportunity; after Clifton got carted off, Green Bay snapped the ball 18 more times before the game was over. But no retribution was sought until afterward, when Sherman pointed an accusatory finger at the Bucs' big tackle and Beightol talked about getting even.

Which just goes to show how tame the game has gotten. Sapp ends Clifton's season and perhaps his career with a brutal and needless block on an interception return and he walks away unscathed, except maybe for some short-lived public relations fallout. There's no Bootsie, no Dead Dog, no 99-Suicide, no 48-Undertaker, no Say Goodbye to the Wife and Kids, no nothing.

I'm not lobbying for a return to the "good old days," I'm really not. The period has little romance for me. I had to laugh the other morning when I read in another paper that "violence is an issue the NFL has been trying to grapple with since 1995." Since 1995? Violence is an issue the NFL has been trying to grapple with forever. It's the nature of the football beast.

You know why the back judge was added to officiating crews in 1947? As Art Daley of the Green Bay Press-Gazette explained it, it was "to take the murder out of professional football, particularly the brand played by the Bears and Packers. In some circles [the back judge] is called the custodian of No Man's Land, Spooky Hollow and Cemetery Corners the areas opposite one end of the line that went unwatched for 27 NFL seasons.

"Ten eyes will [now] be trained for all sorts of infractions chief of which in a Bear-Packer game is illegal use of the hands. This covers a lot of ground, but mere mention of the word 'slugging' should give you the picture. Good rough football has been a healthy rule rather than the exception around the National [Football] League, but when key players sustain fractured noses in the first five minutes, it ceases to be rough; it's dirty."

And it stayed dirty well into the '50s. Fights were common so common that they almost seemed like part of the show. In one famous battle in 1937, the Giants' Tarzan White supposedly took a bite out of the thumb of the Packers' Russ Letlow. In a 1954 bout, the Colts' Don Joyce ripped the helmet off of the Rams' Les Richter and bashed him in the head with it, leaving a 14-stitch cut.

The commissioner during most of these years, Bert Bell, didn't do much to rein in the players. When Eagles ruffian Bucko Kilroy broke the nose and jaw of the Steelers' Dale Dodrill with a well-placed elbow in 1951, Bell's response was, "There are 300 big boys in this league, and somebody is bound to get bruised. I also noticed while reviewing this game that one of the Eagles got a busted cheek, too. I suppose that was an accident?"

Not exactly the kind of comment a lawyer like Tagliabue would make.

The proliferation of the facemask made the game safer for everybody, though, as did rule changes that outlawed such lethal weapons as the head slap and my own personal favorite, "the swinging elbow block." Then television came along and instant replay and there was no place to hide. Even if the officials missed some dirty deed, the cameras were sure to catch it. And the league office was just as certain to lighten the offender's wallet.

Nowadays the Saints' Kyle Turley gets skewered for pulling off an opponent's helmet and throwing it, never mind braining him with it. The NFL sure has come a long way, baby.

But when I see the 303-pound Sapp plow into the unsuspecting Clifton and get away with it well, a part of me wishes the players still had that eye-for-an-eye mentality. If they did, maybe Sapp would have opted to brush block him or bypass him entirely. One of the reasons it was such a cowardly act in my mind is that there was virtually no chance of reprisal. The NFL simply doesn't do donnybrooks anymore.

Sapp claimed he celebrated after the block not because he'd KO'd Clifton but because Tampa Bay had scored a touchdown to all but wrap up the game. You can believe him if you want. I'm just reminded of a similar hit that Chuck Bednarik made on Frank Gifford in 1960, one that put Gifford out of football for a year. The little dance Bednarik did over the down-and-out Giffer was eerily reminiscent of Sapp's exultation, as was his explanation for it: that the Eagles had recovered a fumble and were about to beat the Giants.

Bednarik was clearly proud of the tackle (though he sent a get-well card and a basket of fruit to Gifford in the hospital). He likened it to "a truck hitting a sports car. He was going full speed and I was going full speed, and when I hit him I knew one of us wasn't going to get up." Of course, he had a right to feel that way; Gifford had the ball and was running for the sideline, trying to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Even Giants coach Jim Lee Howell defended Bednarik, saying, "He hit Frank the way a football player is supposed to hit people."

Kyle Clifton didn't have the ball. Kyle Clifton was 25 yards away from the ball, essentially out of the play. He might as well have been standing on the poop deck of the Bucs' pirate ship. But Sapp drilled him, anyway with such force that Clifton's pelvis was all but ripped from its moorings.

If that doesn't warrant a Bootsie play, what does?

I might even throw in a 48-Undertaker for good measure.

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