Nov. 5, 2008
This interview with former Vanderbilt football and NFL player Pat Toomay is exclusive to Commodore History Corner and VUCommodores.com. It will be presented in two parts to cover his interesting and fascinating career. To read part one check last week's Commodore History Corner.
After leaving the Cowboys in 1975, Toomay became a member of the Buffalo Bills. O.J. Simpson who became the first NFL rusher to top 2000 yards in 1973 led the Bills on offense. The head coach at that time was Lou Saban, the cousin of present Alabama coach Nick Saban.
In 1974 the Bills were 9-5 with a second-place finish in the AFC Eastern Division. They lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs 32-14.
"They didn't have free agency like they do today," said Toomay. "Back then if you wanted to play out your option and become a free agent the team you were leaving had control over where you ended up. Because compensation was involved back then, the label `free agency' was a misnomer. If you wanted to leave you had to go where they wanted to send you. You didn't really understand how it all worked until you actually tried to do it yourself.
"Basically I wanted to move because in Dallas my potential as a player was going to be swallowed up by the arrival of (Ed) `Too Tall' Jones. I wanted to stay in the division and explore opportunities with the Giants and St. Louis, but Dallas didn't want me in the same division. So they worked out something with Buffalo. I was happy because Buffalo needed a defensive end, so I would have a chance to play full time there. Buffalo gave up a second round pick to get me. Dallas would eventually use that pick to get Tony Dorsett.
"I was excited about the move. Saban had been with General Joseph Stillwell in Burma during World War II. He was an O.S.S. officer, so there was the military connection again. Unlike Landry, though, who was the epitome of composure, Saban could be volatile. During a tense moment in a pregame speech, for example, he might get so cranked up that he would forget where he was and drift off into speaking Chinese."
In Toomay's lone season with the Bills (1975), they finished the season at 8-6 in third place failing to make the playoffs. Joe Ferguson was the Buffalo quarterback and assistant coach Jim Ringo would replace Saban as head coach the following season.
Toomay saw things with Simpson that he never saw in Dallas.
"The difference in the organizations was profound," Toomay said. "The Bills were built off the waiver wire because Bills owner Ralph Wilson was tight with his money. The whole offensive line, with the exception of one or two guys, came off waivers. Compared to Dallas, their football philosophy was also much simpler. Their defense was basically tackle the man with the ball.
"O.J. had power within the organization that you didn't see in Dallas. He had input on personnel decisions, recommending who to get or who to cut. In Dallas, no player rose to that level of influence. And O.J. was a magnate for media people. They were just enchanted with him. Only in Buffalo could you walk into the locker room before a game and find Howard Cosell shooting the breeze with the guys.
"O.J. was an extraordinary talent. He had a very tight circle of friends, so it was hard to get to know him well. Given what's happened since, I wonder if anyone really knew him then. I certainly didn't. In '95, as his white Bronco wended its way through the streets of L.A., I sat there staring at it for five or six straight hours in utter disbelief."
Toomay would leave Buffalo after one season. In 1976 he would become part of NFL history as a member of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Toomay was the Bucs No.1 selection in the expansion draft. John McKay was the team's head coach while Steve Spurrier was their first quarterback.
"I think publication of my first book disturbed some people," said Toomay. "I was the defensive line MVP for Buffalo and I was put on the expansion list. I think the book had something to do with it. I wasn't blackballed; it was more suttle than that. Basically, I was exiled to Siberia. In the NFL, expansion teams are Siberia. Populated with marginal players or players coming off injuries, expansion teams are deliberately hampered. Things are structured by the league so that an expansion team will not do well for quite awhile. Sometimes it takes decades for an expansion team to climb out of the hole that was initially dug for them."
That season in Tampa was historic because the Bucs lost every game, going 0-14. Toomay reveals what happened in that forgettable season.
"When I got there Larry Ball was my roommate," Toomay said. "Larry had been a linebacker on that 17-0 Dolphins team the year after we beat them in the Super Bowl. Our coach, John McKay, was an arrogant guy who had upset NFL powers with comments he made coming out of USC. There was an early exhibition game between the Rams and the Cowboys in LA. McKay had seen the film and called us together for a meeting. He said, `Men, we can compete in this league. I just watched supposedly the two best teams in the league--Dallas and L.A. That No. 54 for the Cowboys can't play for us.' Meaning he was so bad.
"Well, No. 54 for the Cowboys was future Hall of Famer Randy White. When we came out of that meeting Ball asked me how I thought we'd do this year. I shook my head and said, `0 and 14.'
"We had a lot of injuries. On a good team you play 50 plays a game on defense. Our defense was playing 90 plays a game--essentially two games in one. By the end of the season we had a truck driver out there and people cut from the Canadian League. We had a 180-pound linebacker whose name was Psycho (Jim) Sims. He was a USC guy. You had to be a psycho to play linebacker in the NFL at 180 pounds.
"That season was a challenge, but there were a lot of solid people there. Spurrier, the ole ball coach, became one of the best offensive minds in the college game. Ron Wolf, the general manager, went on to be the architect of the Packers Super Bowl team with Brett Favre. Lee Roy Selmon, a rookie then, is now in the Hall of Fame. There was a nucleus and a bonding that happened there. Our teams at Vanderbilt were similar. We were very close. We suffered, but we worked through it and that emotional connection remains to this day."
After that one infamous season in Tampa, Toomay was wondering about his future in the NFL. Toomay said he was so beat up that while driving to Tampa's next training camp he checked into a Holiday Inn instead of reporting. He called his wife to let her know that he wasn't sure about playing football again. His wife told him that he didn't have to worry about Tampa anymore because he had just been traded to Oakland. Ron Wolfe, the Tampa GM, had been the personnel director for the Raiders. He had arranged the trade without Toomay's knowledge.
"I was ecstatic. It was like dying and going to football heaven," said Toomay. "They had just won the Super Bowl. If you look at the history at that time, Oakland with Al Davis, though he was sort of a Darth Vader figure, was a very successful team. On the strength of that alone you knew something positive was going on there. I found out soon enough what it was. The key to Oakland's success was John Madden.
"After picking up my equipment, I drove all the way back to my home in Dallas, got on a plane and flew to San Francisco. Then I drove another two hours up to training camp in Santa Rosa and walked into the office. I met Madden and he said, `You know, you must be exhausted. You drove all the way to Tampa and all the way back to Dallas then flew and drove here. Take today and tomorrow off and when you feel like coming out, come out.' I said, `What? You're kidding, right?' He said he wanted me to be rested when I got out there. Usually in the NFL, it's here you are, now get your butt out on the practice field.
"Madden had been a lineman himself, so he was a player's coach. Idiosyncrasies didn't bother him. And he had an idiosyncratic bunch there. He made room for them all. He only had a few rules. Be on time. Pay attention. Play hard. He brought the best out of people. There were a lot of very powerful personalities on the Oakland roster. Players like Kenny Stabler, Pete Banaszak, Fred Bilettnikoff, Gene Upshaw, John Matuszak. Actually, I had a number of adventures with Matuszak. But Madden was like a good father to everybody. If you did the right thing, you weren't going to get crossways with him.
"He had a tremendous sense of humor. So, somebody like Ted Hendricks would crack him up more than make him want to kill him. Hendricks at Halloween would come out on the practice field wearing a pumpkin for a helmet with Raiders stickers smacked on the sides. What Madden knew and what everybody knew was that Ted was a formidable player who always showed up. Oakland was like the last breath from the old days."
The Raiders had been Super Bowl XI champions the year before with a win over Minnesota 32-14 in Pasadena. Toomay would play three seasons for the Raiders (1977-79) with the only playoff appearance occurring during his first Raider year. The Raiders were 11-3 finishing in second place behind Denver.
They defeated Baltimore 37-31 in overtime in the first round of the playoffs, but fell to Denver in the AFC Championship game. In Toomay's final two seasons with the Raiders, they were 9-7 each year.
"I led the AFC in sacks in my first season in Oakland," said Toomay. "The players were generous. Otis Sistrunk changed positions with me. We did this on our own during preseason. Otis said, `Look, I'll play over there so you can play on the right side and you can perform where you're comfortable and have the best chance to make the team. We made the personnel change ourselves.
"I would have had to play left defensive end, which was not my position. Otis was the right end and the switch worked fabulously. The coaches adjusted and we went that way the whole season. In Dallas, could two players change positions without telling anyone? Never. `77 was the best year of my career.
"After a controversial loss to Denver in the AFC Championship Game, Davis made a lot of changes. Madden got horrible ulcers. In a preseason game the next year, Darryl Stingley was paralyzed. Things went downhill from there. Looking back, the Denver game was the end of the line for that group. There's never been anything like that team since."
Toomay had been playing professional football for 10 seasons. Those 10 years would eventually lead to knee surgery to correct an old injury from his days in Dallas. Toomay said that Dallas had a policy of not telling the players the nature of their injuries and there was a lawsuit about it.
It would take him 18 months to rehab the knee, but it never got back to normal, so Toomay retired from the NFL. Then he began doing something he enjoyed--writing. Toomay began working on a novel about playing football in the NFL. The novel was published in 1984. It was entitled "On Any Given Sunday."
This is not related to the movie "Any Given Sunday" directed by Oliver Stone and released in 1999.
"Stone was told that unless he secured the rights to my title, he could be vulnerable to a lawsuit," Toomay said. "But that came later. When I first heard about the film, I was surprised because of the similarity of titles, and I wondered if Stone was using elements of my story. So I wrote him a letter saying that I had written this novel and if you're going to explore this subject, I certainly would like to be involved. He wrote back and said he was unaware of the book, but had since read it and thought it was terrific. But, he said, his story was totally different. They were already in pre-production, he added, and didn't have any openings for consulting help at the moment. I was disappointed, but I realized that I had done all that I could do. So I just went on with my life, but three months later I got a call from the producer saying Stone had given him my letter and they wanted me to be in the film. I said, `What? Be in the film?'
"He said they wanted me to play an assistant coach. Y.A. Tittle was going to play a head coach and they wanted me to be his assistant. They were in Miami filming when I went down there. Tittle was a childhood hero of mine. And they had Johnny Unitas, Dick Butkus and Jim Brown. While part of me was thrilled to be there, another part was saying, `Well, you had a career and gained some notoriety, but you ain't these guys. What the hell is this really about?'"
The film deals with the fictional Miami Sharks, a team in turmoil struggling to make the playoffs. It examines the many aspects of professional football including players, front office staff, press and the pressures of the game.
Other high profile names to appear in the film include Lawrence Taylor, Warren Moon, Ricky Watters, Terrell Owens, Emmitt Smith and Barry Switzer. The cast includes Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, James Woods, Jamie Foxx, Ann Margaret and Charlton Heston.
"The novel I wrote was inspired by actual plays," said Toomay. "One of the plays happened in the Orange Bowl. There was a horrible call in a big game. When I got down to Miami, Stone was shooting in the Orange Bowl. We have a scene and Stone, not knowing, positions us on the field at exactly the spot where the play occurred that inspired me to write the novel whose title Stone wanted to appropriate for his film.
"I didn't know at the time why they pulled me down there, but since this was a pretty big moment, I pointed out to Oliver what was going on. He stared at me for a long time. Then he turned and walked away without saying anything. Of course, I thought this would be something he'd be interested in talking about. For me the moment was full of implications about the relationship of art to reality and how works of art are created. But in the end I think he was more worried about business, if I was going to be a problem for him. Of course, I wasn't. I appreciated what he was doing. In the end, they paid me a few grand for the title and that was it."
So what about Pat Toomay the actor?
"It was fun. We had a great time," Toomay said. "You could see the allure of it. I was a defensive coach, making substitutions, yelling at my players. I was on screen for about two seconds. It took a week to do with all the waiting and other things needed to prepare for a scene. Conversing with Tittle and Brown was an illuminating part of the experience with their knowledge of the game."
Today, Toomay, 60, is a freelance writer living in New Mexico.
"I wrote about my experience working on that movie; it was an award-winning piece," said Toomay. "So I got something out of it anyway. When I wrote the piece the producer got snarky, but it was a great experience for me overall. Stone, I think on his own, gave me official screen credit as source material and that's why it's so prevalent on the Internet. Unfortunately, my piece about the film, "Clotheslined," isn't out there. But I do have a lot of stuff on ESPN."
Toomay is proud that he played in 196 professional games that include exhibition and playoffs and he didn't miss a game. He is most proud that he survived the rigors of playing in the National Football League.
Traughber's Tidbit: John North (1942, 1946-47) is the only former Vanderbilt football player to become a head coach in the NFL. North was the head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1973-1975. In those three seasons the Saints were 5-9, 5-9 and 2-12. North played for the Baltimore Colts of the All-American Football Conference (1948-49) and the NFL Colts in 1950.
Tidbit Two: The first Vanderbilt football player in professional football was Lynn Bomar (1921-24). Bomar was an end that played for the New York Giants in 1925-26. In his two-year career, Bomar played in 20 games while recording five touchdowns. He was enshrined into the National College Football Hall of Fame in 1956.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail WLTraughber@aol.com.