Almost a year ago I wrote about a few books, two of which were turned into movies, about fictional sports teams.
One of those was North Dallas Forty, a thinly veiled retelling of the 1960s Dallas Cowboys, which became one of those movies:
It turns out that ESPN.com wrote a more detailed comparison of the, uh, North Dallas Bulls and the Cowboys:
“North Dallas Forty,” the movie version of an autobiographical novel written by former Dallas Cowboy receiver Pete Gent, came to the silver screen in 1979. The book had received much attention because it was excellent and because many thought the unflattering portrait of pro football, Dallas Cowboys-style, was fairly accurate.
The film reached many more people than the book, and was, in many ways, a simplified version of the novel. But did it portray the NFL accurately? In the Sept. 16, 1979, Washington Post, offensive tackle George Starke wrote, “Most of what you see is close to what happens, or at least did happen when Pete Gent played.” Others disagreed. What do you think?
In Reel Life: The movie’s title is “North Dallas Forty,” and the featured team is the North Dallas Bulls.
In Real Life: Why North Dallas? Gent, a rookie in 1964, explains in an e-mail interview: “I was shocked that in 1964 America, Dallas could have an NFL franchise and the black players could not live near the practice field in North Dallas — which was one of the reasons I titled the book ‘North Dallas Forty.’ I kept asking why the white players put up with their black teammates being forced to live in segregated south Dallas, a long drive to the practice field. The situation was not changed until Mel Renfro filed a ‘Fair Housing Suit’ in 1969.”
In Reel Life: In the opening scene, Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) is having trouble breathing after he wakes up; his left shoulder’s in pain. He struggles to the bathtub, in obvious agony.
In Real Life: Jim Boeke, one of Gent’s Cowboy teammates (who also plays Stallings in the film), said this scene rings true. “I can’t say it happens to every player every morning after every game,” he told the Washington Post in 1979, “but the older you get, the more it happens to you.”
In Reel Life: As we see in the film, and as Elliott says near the end, he can’t sleep for more than three hours at a stretch because he’s in so much pain.
In Real Life: Elliott is, obviously, a fictional version of Gent. “When I was younger, the pain reached that level during the season and it usually took a couple months for the pain and stiffness to recede,” says Gent. “Usually by February, I was able to sleep a good eight hours. As I got older, the pain took longer and longer to recede after the season.”
In Reel Life: Mac Davis plays Seth Maxwell, the Cowboys QB and Elliott’s close friend.
In Real Life: Maxwell is a thinly disguised version of Gent’s close friend, 1960s Cowboys QB Don Meredith. According to Gent, Meredith was offered the role of Seth Maxwell. “Don was at Elaine’s one night talking with Bud Sharke, [Frank] Gifford, and several others, and Don said, ‘I just don’t want others to think that’s me.’ And Gifford said, ‘Well, it is you.’ ”
“Gent would become Meredith’s primary confidant and amateur psychologist as the Cowboys quarterback’s life would become more and more topsy-turvy as the years went on,’ writes Peter Golenbock in the oral history, “Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes.”
In Reel Life: Throughout the film, there’s a battle of wits going on between Elliott and head coach B.A. Strothers (G.D. Spradlin).
In Real Life: B.A. bears some resemblance to Tom Landry, who coached Gent on the Cowboys. “The only way I kept up with Landry, I read a lot of psychology — abnormal psychology,” says Gent in “Heroes.”
Though sometimes confused by Landry, Gent says he admired the man: “Over the course of a high school, college and pro career, an athlete is exposed to all sorts of coaches, (including) great ones who are geniuses breaking new ground in their game. Tom Landry was like that … When you are young, you think you are going to meet men like this your whole life. You think the world is full of genius, and it isn’t until you leave the game that you found out you may have met the greatest men you will ever meet.
In Reel Life: Jo Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson) and O. W. Shaddock (John Matuszak) interrupt Elliott’s relaxing bath, entering the bathroom with rifles blazing. Along with Maxwell, off-a-hunting they go.
In Real Life: Former Cowboys Ralph Neely (a tackle) and Larry Cole (defensive end) told Washington Post reporter Jane Leavy that the trip was real. “Football players have only one day off a week and if they go hunting, they’re sure as hell going to shoot something,” Cole said in 1979. “We shot butterflies, field larks …” And, Neely added, a mailbox.
In Reel Life: Everyone’s drinking during the hunting trip, and one series of shots comes dangerously close to Elliott and Maxwell.
In Real Life: “In Texas, they all drank when they hunted,” says Gent in “Heroes.” “That story in ‘North Dallas Forty’ of being in a duck blind and getting sprayed by shot was a true story. (Don) Talbert and (Bob) Lilly, or somebody else, started shooting at us from across the lake!” …
In Reel Life: Maxwell says, “Son, you ain’t never gonna get off that bench until you stop fighting them suckers. You got to learn how to fool them. Give ’em what they want. I know. I’ve been fooling them bastards for years.”
In Real Life: Meredith never really stopped fighting “those suckers,” meaning, really, Landry. The quarterback suffered through the early years with the Cowboys and Landry, and ended up leading Dallas to within minutes of NFL championships in 1966 and 1967. Still, Landry replaced Meredith with Craig Morton during a 1968 playoff game, and that was, apparently, the last straw. Meredith retired at age 29, hoping that Landry would ask him to continue playing. Landry didn’t, saying. “Don, I think you are making the right decision.” …
In Reel Life: Elliott and Maxwell go to a table far away from the action, and share a joint. A man in a car spies on them.
In Real Life: Gent says he was followed throughout the 1967 and 1968 seasons (more about this later): “One time a neighbor told me, ‘Pete, now don’t look, but there is somebody sitting in our parking lot with binoculars,’ ” he says in “Heroes.”
In Reel Life: At the party, and throughout the movie, Maxwell moves easily between teammates and groups of players, and seems to be universally respected.
In Real Life: Meredith “was greatly respected by his teammates for his great skills and his nerve on the field during a period of time in the NFL when knocking out the quarterback was a tactic for winning,” says Gent. He “would take awful physical beatings and somehow keep getting up and taking the team to wins … He was one tough SOB.”
In Reel Life: The Cowboys are worshiped. They are, as Maxwell puts it, “genuine heroes.”
In Real Life: The Cowboys were small time during the first half of the 1960s, but when they started winning under Landry, everything changed. “In 1964, if you bought an adult ticket, you got five kids in for nothing and a free football,” says Gent in “Heroes.” “The only time we filled the stadium was when Green Bay came. By ’66, we were sold out every game. In just two years, we went from our not being able to get a seat in a restaurant in Dallas to literally being America’s guest.”
In Reel Life: Elliott meets with B.A. The coach sits down in front of a computer, scrolling through screen after screen of information. He stops and points to the monitor. “Now that’s it, that’s it,” he says. “Phil, that’s what it all boils down to, your attitude.”
In Real Life: Clint Murchison, Jr., the team’s owner, owned a computer company, and the Cowboys pioneered the use of computers in the NFL, using them as early as 1962. “The Cowboys initially used computers to do self-scouting,” writes Craig Ellenport at NFL.com. “Were they too predictable on third-and-long situations? What was the average gain when they ran that trap play last season? As the Cowboys’ organization learned more about computers, they become a greater factor in the game-plan equation. ‘It was just another weapon that we had to do the job that had to be done,’ said Landry.”
In Reel Life: Elliott, in bed with Joanne Rodney (Savannah Smith), says he’s got the best hands in the league. Elliott’s high regard of his own abilities is a continuing theme throughout the film, and there’s plenty of screen action to back up the assessment.
In Real Life: Many of Gent’s teammates have said he wasn’t nearly as good as he portrayed himself in the book and the movie. “If I had known Gent was that good, I would have thrown to him more,” said Meredith, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, after reading the book.
Gent stands by his self-assessment, and says that Landry agreed about his ability to catch the ball. “Tom actually told the press that I had the best hands in the league,” says Gent. “And I did.” Gent, who played basketball in college, adds, “Catching a football was easy compared to catching a basketball.”
Gent, who was often used as a blocker, finished his NFL career with 68 catches for 898 yards and four TDs. In his best season, 1966, he had 27 catches for 484 yards and a touchdown.
In Reel Life: During a meeting, the team watches film of the previous Sunday’s game. In the film, Elliott catches a pass on third down, and everyone cheers. Except B.A., who says, “No, Seth, you should never have thrown to Elliott with that kind of coverage. Look at Delma. He’s wide open. I don’t like this buddy buddy stuff interfering with my judgment.”
In Real Life: Landry stressed disciplined play, but sometimes punished players when, even though they followed his precise instructions, a play went awry. For example, Landry benched Meredith during the 1968 NFL divisional playoff game against the Browns. He threw “an interception that should have been credited against Landry’s disciplined system of play,” writes Gary Cartwright, who covered the Cowboys during the 1960s. “According to Landry’s gospel, the Cleveland defensive back who intercepted Meredith’s final pass should have been on the other side of the field. Unfortunately, the Cleveland defensive back was in the wrong place. It wasn’t that Landry was wrong; Cleveland just wasn’t right.”
In Reel Life: The game film shows Stallings going offside. B.A. castigates the player: “There’s no room in this business for uncertainty.” Later, Stallings is cut, his locker unceremoniously emptied.
In Real Life: This happened to Boeke, a former Cowboys lineman, who was, in a way, playing himself in the film — Gent has said he was thinking of Boeke when he wrote this scene. “We were playing in the championship game in 1967, and Jim jumped offside, something anyone could do,” Gent told Leavy in 1979. “The NFL Films showed it from six or seven angles. They had it in slo-mo, and in overheads. It literally ended his career.” In fact, Boeke played another season for the Cowboys before being traded, but he agreed that the offside call was the beginning of the end.
In Reel Life: Art Hartman (Marshall Colt) is Maxwell’s backup at QB. He’s a very religious man, a straight arrow who is the object of some scorn. Maxwell refers to Hartman as “a dedicated young Christian stud.”
In Real Life: Lots of folks have played the guessing game about who Hartman “really” is, with Roger Staubach being the most frequently mentioned candidate. But Gent denied it after the film came out. “It’s not Staubach,” he told the Washington Post in 1979. “But don’t tell him, it’ll break his heart. That character was based on any number of players who got into all that religious bull.”
For one thing, Meredith and Gent were never teammates of Staubach. Meredith and Gent left the Cowboys after the 1968 season, one year before Staubach’s rookie season.
In Reel Life: Elliott catches a pass, and is tackled hard, falling on his back. Someone breaks open an ampule of amyl nitrate to revive him. Amyl is used in other scenes in the movie.
In Real Life: Gent says the drug was so prolific that, “one training camp I was surprised nobody died from using amyl nitrate.”
“In about 1967, amyl nitrite was an over-the-counter drug for people who suffered from angina,” Gent told John Walsh in a Feb. 1984 Playboy interview. “I talked to several doctors who told me it basically didn’t do any damage; it speeded up your heart and pumped a lot of oxygen to your brain, which puts you in another level of consciousness. At camp, I explained that this drug was legal and cheap — it cost about $2 for 12 ampules of it — everybody tried it and went crazy on it.”
In Reel Life: Elliott is constantly in pain, constantly hurt.
In Real Life: Lee Roy Jordan told the Dallas Times that Gent never worked out or lifted weights, and that Gent was “soft.” But Gent says Jordan’s comments were not accurate: “I was not particularly strong but I took my beatings to catch the ball,” he says. “That is how you get a broken neck and fractures of the spine, a broken leg and dislocated ankle, and a half-dozen broken noses.” And, he adds, that’s how he “became the guy that always got the call to go across the middle on third down.”
In Reel Life: Elliott wears a T-shirt that says “No Freedom/No Football/NFLPA.”
In Real Life: The NFL Players Association adopted this slogan during its 1974 strike.
In Reel Life: Elliott and Maxwell break into the trainer’s medicine cabinet, and take all kinds of stuff, including speed and painkillers.
In Real Life: Many players said drug use in the film was exaggerated, or peculiar to Gent. “Pete’s threshold of pain was such that if he had a headache, he would have needed something to kill the pain,” Dan Reeves told the Washington Post in 1979. As for speed pills, Reeves said, “Nobody thought there was anything wrong with them. A lot of guys took those things 15 years ago, just like women took birth control pills before they knew they were bad. It’s not as true a picture as it was 10 to 15 years ago, when it was closer to the truth.”
In Reel Life: At a team meeting, B.A. scolds the team for poor play the previous Sunday. “We played far below our potential. Our punting team gave them 4.5 yards per kick, more than our reasonable goal and 9.9 yards more than outstanding …”
In Real Life: Landry rated players in a similar fashion to what’s depicted in the scene, but the system, in Gent’s opinion, wasn’t as objective as it seemed. “They literally rated you on a three-point system,” writes Gent in “Heroes.” “On any play you got no points for doing your job, you got a minus one if you didn’t do your job, you got a plus one if you did more than your job. And a good score in a game was 17 … And they would read your scores out in front of everybody else. That was another thing. Tom thought that everyone should know who was letting them down. Right away I began to notice that the guys whose scores didn’t seem to jibe with the way they were playing were the guys Tom didn’t like.”
Meredith was one of those players. “He truly did not like Don Meredith, not as a player and not as a person,” writes Golenbock.
In Reel Life: North Dallas is playing Chicago for the conference championship. The owner says, “If we win this game, you’re all invited to spend the weekend at my private island in the Caribbean.”
In Real Life: According to Gent, the Murchisons did have a private island, but the team was never invited.
In Reel Life: Phil has already told B.A. that he’ll do whatever it takes to play, and before the game he takes a shot in his knee to kill the pain.
In Real Life: Gent, like many pro athletes, would go to extreme lengths to play, even when badly injured. He even expresses some guilt over not playing in the “Ice Bowl,” the 1967 NFL Championship Game which the Cowboys lost in the final seconds, 21-17, to the Packers in Green Bay. The game-time temperature was minus-13. “I would have played the whole game for Bobby Hayes. [Hayes put his hands in his pockets when he wasn’t the intended receiver, a tipoff exploited by the Packers.] His hands had swollen and cracked by the second quarter. I was used to playing in cold weather, but I was in the hospital with a broken leg.
“I have always felt that it [the loss] was partly my fault. Go figure that out.”
In Reel Life: Delma Huddle (former pro Tommy Reamon) watches Elliott take a shot in his knee. He says, “No shots for me, man, I can’t stand needles … All those pills and shots, man, they do terrible things to your body.” Later, though, the peer pressure gets to Huddle, and he takes a shot so he can play with a pulled hamstring.
In Real Life: Neely says this sequence rings false. “I cannot remember an instance where a player was made to feel he had to do this where he was put in the position of feeling he might lose his job.”
“Maybe Ralph can’t remember,” Gent responds in his e-mail interview. “Maybe he forgot all those rows of syringes in the training room at the Cotton Bowl. They seldom tell you to take the shot or clean out your locker. They leave you to make the decision, and if you don’t do it, they will remember, and so will your teammates. But worst of all, so will you — what if the team loses and you might have made the difference?”
In Reel Life: After one play, a TV announcer says, “I wonder if the coach called that play on the sideline or if Maxwell called it in the huddle.”
In Real Life: Who called the plays was one of many disputes between Meredith and Landry. “Landry literally could forget the game plan,” says Gent in “Heroes.” “When I would run in plays for him, he would call the wrong plays. Well, in ’66 it didn’t matter because Meredith was calling the plays, even when Landry would send them in. Lots of times Landry would send in a suggestion, and Meredith would send the player back out to publicly show up Landry. The player would start out, and Meredith would wave him back.”
In Reel Life: In the last minute of the game, Delma pulls a muscle and goes down. Elliott goes over to see how he’s doing. B.A. yells, “Elliott, get back in the huddle! The doctor will look after him. Mister, you get back in the huddle right now or off the field.”
In Real Life: Landry did not respond emotionally when players were injured during a game. Cartwright contrasted Landry’s style with Lombardi’s: “When a player was down writhing in agony, the contrast was most apparent: Lombardi would be racing like an Italian fishwife, cursing and imploring the gods to get the lad back on his feet for at least one more play; Landry would be giving instructions to the unfortunate player’s substitute.”
In Reel Life: Elliott catches a TD pass with time expired, pulling North Dallas to within one point of Chicago. If they make the extra point, the game is tied and goes into overtime. But Hartman fumbles the snap, and the Bulls lose the game.
In Real Life: This is similar to what happened in the 1966 NFL Championship game. The Packers led the Cowboys 34-20 with a little more than five minutes remaining. Meredith led a quick Dallas drive for one TD, and on the last drive of the game the Cowboys got to the Packers’ 2-yard line with 28 seconds left. A TD and extra point would have sent the game into OT. But Meredith’s pass was intercepted in the end zone by Tom Brown, sealing the win for the Packers and a heartbreaking loss for Dallas.
In Reel Life: After the loss, O.W. reams out Coach Johnson: “Every time I call it a game, you say it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you call it a game!”
In Real Life: That speech got Matuszak the part of O.W. “(Director) Ted Kotcheff had Tooz read the speech … and Tooz blew everybody away,” says Gent.
In Reel Life: Elliott has a meeting the day after the game with Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest). B.A., Emmett Hunter (Dabney Coleman), and “Ray March, of the League’s internal investigation division,” are also there. A league investigator recites what he saw while following Elliott during the week, including evidence that Elliott smoked a “marijuana cigarette.”
In Real Life: Gent was investigated by the league. “In the offseason after the ’67 season and all during ’68 they followed me,” he says in “Heroes.” “They had guys on me for one whole season.” The investigation began, says Gent in his e-mail interview, “because I entertained black and white players at my house. I have always suspected Lee Roy (Jordan) as the snitch who informed the Cowboys and the league that I was ‘selling’ drugs (because), as he says so often in the press, ‘Pete Gent was a bad influence on the team.’ ”
In Reel Life: Elliott gives a speech about how management is the “team,” while players are just more pieces of equipment.
In Real Life: Gent really grew to despise Cowboys management. “I wanted out of there,” he writes in “Heroes.” “I knew I was only going to play if they needed me, and the minute they didn’t need me, I was gone. And I knew that it didn’t matter how well I did. I could call Tom an ass—- to his face, and he wasn’t going to trade me until he had somebody to play my spot, and the moment he had somebody to play my spot, I was gone. And so from then on, that was my attitude toward Tom Landry, and the rest of the organization going all the way up to Tex Schramm.”
In Reel Life: The film stresses the conflict between Elliott’s view that football players should be treated like individuals and Landry’s cold assessment and treatment of players.
In Real Life: “I’ve come to the conclusion that players want to be treated alike,” Landry told Cartwright in 1973. “They may talk about individualism, but I believe they want a single standard … If a player is contributing and performing the way he ought to, he will usually conform … We just can’t get along with a player who doesn’t conform or perform. No way.”
In Reel Life: Elliott quits after he’s told he’s suspended without pay, “pending a league hearing.”
In Real Life: This scene was fiction — Gent wasn’t suspended. But the NFL didn’t take kindly to those who participated in the making of “North Dallas Forty.” Hall of Famer Tom Fears, who advised on the movie’s football action, had a scouting contract with three NFL teams — all were canceled after the film opened, reported Leavy and Tony Kornheiser in a Sept. 6, 1979, Washington Post article. And the Raiders severed ties with Fred Biletnikoff, who coached Nolte. “Freddy was not even asked back to camp,” writes Gent. Reamon, who played Delma, was cut by the 49ers after the film came out, and said he had been “blackballed.”
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle denied any organized blacklist, but told The Post, “I can’t say that some clubs in their own judgment (did not make) decisions based on many factors, including that they did not like the movie.”
The Raiders’ “severed ties” with Biletnikoff are somewhat hard to believe. Biletnikoff retired from the NFL after the 1978 season, his 14th with the Raiders, though he was a player/coach with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes in 1980. Nine years after that, he was hired as the Raiders’ receivers coach, which lasted until 2006.
Given the Raiders being the NFL’s rebel franchise under owner Al Davis, the only way the Raiders would have severed ties with Biletnikoff for his role with the movie is if Davis didn’t like it. The NFL’s opinion would have meant little to Davis, who sued the NFL so he could move the Raiders to Los Angeles, moving back to Oakland in 1995.