It was 1968 and the fall and Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis. The details after that get foggy for Dave Meggyesy, who, though ever a storyteller, is now 79 and recovering from a stroke. He can’t recall who the Cardinals played that day, whether it was a win or a loss, what the weather was like. The written record of events is a bit blurry there, too — some contradictory accounts have surfaced over the years and archival sources are suspect. Suffice it to say, St. Louis was having an unexpectedly good season, ultimately going 9–4–1, that lone tie probably costing them a berth in the NFL playoffs. Suffice it to say that, because it was St. Louis, a market in flyover country, the game was seen only by those in the stadium or watching the broadcast locally.
This much is known: At noon, with a cold wind fluttering the Stars and Stripes on the flagpoles above the upper deck, the announcer came over the p.a. and asked everyone present to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The 45,000 or so who passed through the turnstiles got up out of their seats. The head ref, his crew and the guys working the chains stood in place. Likewise, the Cards and the visiting team doffed their helmets to pay their respects, most standing stiffly at attention, some even saluting. All but one, anyway. Dave Meggyesy, a veteran linebacker, No. 60 for the home team, was the lone aberration.
Meggyesy shuffled around while the anthem played. He spat. He held his helmet down casually. He glowered. His body language spelled out agitation, resentment, contempt. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do that day,” he says now. “I really just made it up as I went along.”
His was intended as a provocative act and it wound up provoking a predictable response: Jeering and heckling that afternoon, a tarring in the media in the days that followed and, ultimately, censure by the team when Meggyesy went through the same routine before games on the Sundays that followed. “I wound up getting benched because of my anti-war protest, but so be it,” he says. “For me it was more than the war in Vietnam. It was about what was going on then through all of society. And there was more about my getting benched than the anthem. That was just what people saw that day and the rest of the season.”
Back in the late autumn of ’68, the St. Louis lineup featured three future Hall of Famers: tight end Jackie Smith, cornerback Roger Wehrli and safety Larry Wilson, a first-ballot honouree and a member of the NFL’s 100th anniversary team. No matter, Meggyesy was about to become more famous than all of them, briefly at least, and more infamous than any erstwhile villain in the league’s history to that point. “What I was protesting then is even worse now,” Meggyesy says. “Things have changed but things aren’t better.”
In September, the 2020 NFL season launched with the Houston Texans taking on the defending Super Bowl champions in Kansas City. It was a strange scene at Arrowhead Stadium with about 20,000 fans spread out in stands that usually hold 76,416. Unlike other season openers in K.C., none of the home fans in attendance wore head-dresses or warpaint, the team finally putting in place a ban after years of protest from Indigenous organizations and waves of media criticism. And it wasn’t business as usual during the pregame, either. “The Star-Spangled Banner” played with Kansas City standing on the sidelines, with the exception of linebacker Alex Okafor, who dropped to one knee. Meanwhile, the Texans remained in the visitors dressing room and stayed there for the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a traditional hymnal that evokes Exodus, the emancipation from slavery and the promised land, a song considered the Black national anthem.
The teams’ two quarterbacks, Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, organized what they called “a moment of unity,” where both teams formed a straight line in the middle of the field, locked arms and bowed their heads. A series of messages flashed on the scoreboard: We Support Equality; We Must End Racism; We Believe in Justice for All; We Must End Police Brutality; We Choose Unconditional Love; We Believe Black Lives Matter; and It Takes All of Us. If the ceremony in Kansas City seemed over-choreographed, it provided an uplifting and hopeful vignette nonetheless. Given the temper of our times, one supposes it was too good to last. In this case, though, a moment meant to inspire hope for change passed with lightning speed, mere seconds, the time it takes to throw a quick out.
“Please join us in a moment of silence dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country,” the announcer said. And out of the brief silence that followed, the players could hear what the microphones picked up for the game broadcast: fans booing.
Exactly what all played out is up for debate. Unless you were there at Arrowhead, all you could go by was the sound. The cameras stayed focused on the players on the field, and some would later suggest that the fans’ jeering sounded louder on the broadcast than in the stadium. Whatever the volume, the loathing was clear and unmistakeable. Clips from the pregame with that discouraging soundtrack ran on newscasts the next morning and, in time, the story of the night will be boiled down to a bullet point: Fans pushed back against even the most benign show of support for the social justice movement of the day.
It was a tragic comment on our political climate, though you wonder if the NFL saw it as much more than bad timing and terrible optics. Those in the league’s management class were coming to sensitivity late in the day. The owners of franchises, NFL executives and commissioner Roger Goodell had taken a lot of heat the past three years over the conspicuous absence of interest in quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Though he had led San Francisco to an NFC championship and a narrow loss in the Super Bowl in 2013, Kaepernick last appeared in a 49ers uniform in December 2016. Over the course of that season, he had drawn more attention and generated more controversy off the field, or at least on the sidelines, than he had on it. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before 49ers games, Kaepernick dropped to one knee as a protest against systemic racism. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
True at the time and eerily prescient of the past couple of years, when a tragic succession of assaults and homicides of Black Americans, a slow-motion genocide often captured on video, became a fixture in the daily news-cycle, trending but never-ending. And though Kaepernick’s protest seemed directed at social justice in the U.S., it reverberated around the world.
After the 2016 season, the 49ers let Kaepernick know they were releasing him even though he had thrown for 16 touchdowns and given up four interceptions, managing a quarterback rating of 90.7 with a lamentable cast in support. At 28, seemingly entering his prime, he became the freest of free agents — not a single team could find a crying need for even a backup quarterback. He had effectively landed on an NFL blacklist for his protests, for peacefully expressing his political beliefs.
From the beginning, Goodell handled the issue of player protests with a fist that was half iron, half ham. Then, this off-season, he apparently saw the error of his ways amidst the outpouring of popular support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
The league was long overdue for change, though the launch in Kansas City indicated that the new woke NFL still needs work.
Meggyesy seemingly has little in common with Kaepernick — different players, different men, different eras. And yet both spoke truth to power and paid a price, and their stories share important threads that come into sharper focus in hindsight.
Dave Meggyesy walked away from the game after the 1969 season at age 29. He was done, he told the team. He didn’t explain his rationale in his farewell to the Cards but he did in his autobiography, Out of Their League, which was published in the fall of 1970. It was not a love letter to the game so much as a kiss-off.
Meggyesy’s telling of his life story begins conventionally enough. He lays out how he grew up on a farm in Ohio, the son of an abusive Hungarian widower. His young life was all hunger, toil and exclusion, until he started playing football, which won him acceptance and even celebrity in town. In his later years of high school, when his father was pulling up stakes to head out west, Meggyesy moved in with a teammate’s family. “I knew about poverty growing up,” he says. “When I went to live with a middle-class family my last years of high-school football, I had a chance to see my early life in a different context. My experience left me questioning why so many people lived in poverty and couldn’t get enough food in the richest country in the world. I read Michael Harrington’s book The Other America: Poverty in the United States. It opened my eyes and influenced my life and spurred my curiosity.”
It’s easy to see why The Other America hit Meggyesy where he lived: He was a walking case study of the author’s thesis that “the fate of the poor hangs upon the decision of the better off.” Harrington’s bestseller influenced many — President Kennedy among them — who were staggered by the fact that 20 per cent of the U.S. population lived below the poverty line.
Even before reading Harrington’s classic of sociology, Meggyesy appreciated how grim his young life had been and how limited his prospects would be if his father had stayed. He appreciated his late-coming good fortune, threw himself into the game and his books, and earned a scholarship to Syracuse University, an NCAA powerhouse and pipeline to the NFL. Until he was 20 or so, it was as if his path had been scripted by Horatio Alger. Reading Out of Their League now, you can respect young Meggyesy’s earnestness but also see how it set him up for disillusionment.
At Syracuse, Meggyesy had if not his best season as a sophomore, then the one he looks back on most fondly. Thereafter his idealism about football started to erode. It began with the corruption within the football program: under-the-table payments; academic corners cut; covering up behaviour that would lead to other students being expelled or even criminally charged. Off the field, Meggyesy drifted from his teammates and fell in with progressive intellectuals, early adapters in the ’60s counterculture who viewed football as an expression of the American’s almost genetic disposition to militarism. To the minds of the Syracuse football staff, he was associating with heretics and subversives. To Meggyesy’s mind, he was questioning the status quo and taking his place on the front lines in a time of social tumult. While his teammates did the bare minimum to keep their academic eligibility, falling short of graduation, Meggyesy alone broke the mould and set himself up for graduate studies in sociology. When he was drafted by the Cardinals in the 17th round in 1963, it was a perfect fit academically: While in St. Louis, he commenced with doctoral work at one of the local colleges, Washington University.
Meggyesy moved quickly from a depth player to the starting lineup, but he also picked up on the team’s institutional racism from Day 1, when he walked into the training camp mess hall and saw the white players on one side of the room and the Black players clustered on the other. Whether rooming on the road or riding the bus, the team was utterly divided along racial fault lines. Personnel decisions could be hard to fathom, with promising Black players getting little opportunity and often winding up among the first cut. The racism on the team was fully laid bare in the summer of ’68 when Sports Illustrated published “The Black Athlete,” a five-part series from writer Jack Olsen. The Cardinals were the focus of the last instalment which detailed the harassment of Black players, particularly by an estimated eight to 10 hardcore “white supremacists” on the St. Louis roster. According to Olsen’s article, other white players were pressured to join in the race-baiting or face ostracization themselves. “It will come as no surprise to astute pro football fans that the Cardinals … had a racial problem. [The] deep thinkers have been trying to figure out what is uniquely rotten about this team.”
Meggyesy’s name did not appear in the Sports Illustrated article, nor did the names of white players whose racist abuse targeted teammates. Meggyesy did talk to Olsen, who doubtlessly would have found him a credible and motivated source. The linebacker’s political beliefs on the matter of race and just about everything else were the furthest thing from the attitudes of the bigots in the Cardinals locker room. As much as The Other America opened his eyes, so too did his volunteer work in the community, a drop-in program to provide support for families on welfare, those living far below the poverty line. Meggyesy was especially moved by speaking with and counselling a poor Black mother who had to choose between food or medical care for her young child. By his third season in the league, he made the leap from academic theory to activism. He felt he had to take his political commitments from the ivory tower to the street. He went so far as to invite progressive groups into his home.
“I let an anti-war group, a committee, use the third floor of my house as their office,” Meggyesy says. “There were some young people, students and professors. With my salary, I was doing better [financially] than just about any of them. I also funded buses to go to events and demonstrations in New York and Washington. If they weren’t in the [football] season I’d go along. I had some money and I thought it was important to be involved.”
You’d presume that Meggyesy would have kept his anti-war activity on the down low — even reading a book would have stamped him an eccentric in the Cardinals room. Meggyesy was forthright and unapologetic, however. “I didn’t keep it from my teammates,” he says. “They were more sympathetic than you might think. It was a matter of the times we were living in.”
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, an avowed hawk, could smell the draft cards burning and was worried about radicals recruiting players. To Rozelle’s mind, NFL stars who expressed sympathy with civil-rights and anti-war protests would be doing damage to his league’s trusted brand. To head this off the commissioner made efforts to hit on patriotic themes and quash dissent, or the appearance thereof. Rozelle encouraged stars in an all-American mode, like Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, to travel to Vietnam with USO shows to entertain the troops. He came up with the idea of staging Air Force flyovers of NFL stadiums. The flag waving bordered on self-parody, reaching its nadir with the halftime show at 1969 Super Bowl: “America Thanks!”
Rozelle was concerned less with the theatre than he was player decorum. The enduring image that came out of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the medal podium with heads bowed and raised glove-clad fists. Their protest was compelling but a public-relations nightmare for U.S. Olympic officials and ABC, the broadcast rightsholder for the games. The commissioner and owners set about heading off any copycats on the sidelines of NFL games and sought to impose strict reverence for flag and country. The message to players across the league was clear and plain: Don’t even think about it. This, of course, represented a challenge to a progressive like Dave Meggyesy.
The Minnesota Vikings were emerging as a force in the league, the supposed heirs to Green Bay’s rep as the NFL’s toughest team. Minnesota’s storyline dated back to the arrival of Bud Grant, famous for denying his players creature comforts like heaters on the sidelines in the near-arctic conditions of their winter home games. This made for great copy for reporters and arresting images for the networks: these badasses waiting impatiently to get onto the field with gloveless hands, even sleeveless arms, while opponents shivered and risked hypothermia. Grant, perhaps unsurprisingly, bought into the league’s push for conspicuous shows of patriotism. He demanded his players stand on the sidelines for the national anthem with their helmets held to their chests with one arm and saluting the flag with the other. Reportedly, one of the Vikings’ offensive linemen, Milt Sunde, a National Guardsmen, even coached his teammates on proper form for their saluting.
The sports media also wrapped themselves up in the flag and not subtly. Bob Burnes, a columnist with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, impugned the leadership of Cardinals coach Charley Winner and suggested that the local heroes lacked the discipline that the Vikings demonstrated — wait for it — by their expression of patriotism during the anthem. The Cardinals front office caught wind of not just the hare-brained column but its largely positive reception from readers. Fans of the Cards, or at least the loudest among them, seemed to skew far right of centre for a state that was not quite indigo blue. Based on this focus group and Rozelle’s mandate, Cardinals ownership sent the message down to Winner’s office: The home team had to follow the Vikings’ lead and Burnes’s loopy prescription of saluting during the national anthem.
This wasn’t going to fly with Dave Meggyesy. As he would later write: “I’d thought [saluting the flag] was ridiculous. Every time I even looked at it, I saw only a symbol of repression, so I decided to protest. My original idea was to pull a Tommie Smith by raising my right fist in the air and bowing my head. Instead, I decided not to salute the flag.”
On one count Cardinals executives had to be relieved: Meggyesy’s protest in ’68 didn’t quite go unnoticed but neither did it blow up into a national story. Still, the team brass was more than slightly miffed and Winner and others on his staff made Meggyesy aware of their displeasure. Inside the dressing room, though, he faced little or no pushback. “[My teammates] didn’t publicly express support or defend me but they weren’t critical either,” Meggyesy says. “They knew my reasons, just like they knew about my politics and renting the buses for the demonstrations. And really, there were some who quietly — personally — supported me. There were more who thought along the same lines.”
The scene on the Cardinals sidelines did set off a regional furor, though, one led largely by, yes, Bob Burnes, who criticized Meggyesy in his column and on a radio talk show he hosted. And even though the linebacker would continue to balk at the league- and team-mandated anthem etiquette the rest of the season, the fallout really didn’t reach beyond St. Louis city limits.
The Cardinals tried to diffuse the situation, not immediately cutting Meggyesy but rather waiting a couple of weeks before benching him the rest of the season. Says Meggyesy: “They waited so their fingerprints weren’t so obvious on the decision … like no one could connect the dots, right? The benching was devastating to me … too hard to process. How I felt about the flag and about the game were different things. The most important thing for an athlete is fairness. If you’re a starter, you’re a starter. The integrity of sport is essential. That’s how sport is supposed to be.”
Jack Olsen’s story about racism in the Cards’ dressing room was bad PR for the organization and the league, but Rozelle and the owners of the franchise, Charles Bidwell Jr. and his brother Bill, would have been apoplectic if the public got wind of Meggyesy’s recruitment of his teammates for an anti-war initiative the next season.
Meggyesy’s account today remains fresh: “I had 35 of my teammates sign an anti-war petition and it was leaked. [Editor’s note: Meggyesy hadn’t intended for the petition to be publicized.] I had told the guys, ‘We’re just sending this to the congressional delegation in Missouri. I’m not and we’re not doing it for publicity.’ Then this guy got a hold of it and he was going to sell us out. The team got into damage-control mode. Joe Pollock, the Cardinals PR guy, called this UPI reporter who was gonna release the names of these people [who signed the petition]. The Cardinals squashed the story and then I had to go [to the reporter to] get the petition back.”
With his initiative thwarted, Meggyesy’s fate and future with the organization was sealed. He knew he was going to retire at the end of the 1969 season and just counted the days. “The benching triggered me to do more than just walk away,” he says. “I felt the need to find another outlet [to] communicate my core beliefs … to put things in perspective.”
What started out as a paper for his graduate work in sociology wound up becoming an unlikely bestseller and a hugely influential piece of sports journalism. Out of Their League laid out both the life of an NFL player in awful, granular detail and the call of Meggyesy’s conscience on far bigger issues. The racist players in the St. Louis lineup that Olsen hadn’t named, Meggyesy listed. Likewise, he detailed how Winner and the coaching staff tolerated and maybe even encouraged racism in the dressing room. He wrote about the cover-up of the anti-war petition; the reaction to his protests and activism; and even about fellow teammate, Pat Fisher, revealing to him that a friend who worked for the FBI had told Fisher the agency had been in contact with the Cardinals and built a file on Meggyesy’s association with fellow anti-war activists.
The book was an exercise in catharsis rather than an act of revenge. Traditionally, sports autobiographies were self-serving love letters to the game, but in the early ’70s the telling of unflattering truths in athlete memoirs became a trend in publishing, most notably with two baseball books: Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, on the real lives and perpetual adolescence of major-leaguers; and The Way It Is, Curt Flood’s account of his court battle with MLB and commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The reaction by the sports media’s establishment was entirely predictable. From Burnes in the Globe-Democrat: “The common denominator [with Meggyesy, Bouton and Flood] is that all three have walked away as losers. They are admitting that they have walked away as losers. They are admitting that they couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up with the rest and now find some vicarious satisfaction in abusing those who made a success of things.”
By Meggyesy’s account, the reaction of his former teammates was a sharp contrast. Larry Wilson, the team’s best and most respected player, had played weak-side safety directly behind Meggyesy and again had his back. “He wrote a book and he got it right,” Wilson told his teammates. “What’s the big deal? I have no beef with him.”
Unlike Bouton and Flood, Meggyesy worked without a ghostwriter and, at times, Out of Their League reads more like an academic polemic than commercial non-fiction. It was the furthest thing from a cash grab — the book only found a publisher when the manuscript landed on a desk at Ramparts Press, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company that produced an eponymous magazine for the New Left, one of the pillars of the anti-war movement. Thus did Meggyesy’s autobiography take a place on a list alongside Soul on Ice, the prison diary of Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. Like Soul on Ice, Out of Their League was an unexpected hit — the small publisher produced a print run of 15,000 hardcover first-editions, but the paperback wound up selling more than 650,000 copies and remains in print today.
Meggyesy, who then and now considers himself more of an academic than a former celebrity athlete, couldn’t have seemed less comfortable on his promotional tour, most notably in his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, the favoured talk-show of the intellectual set. Meggyesy physically dwarfed the host, an elfin pseud, to almost comic effect, and seemed taken aback when his massive bicep was squeezed by fellow guest Janis Joplin, the Ol’ Kozmic Blues chanteuse who’d die less than two months later. “By the time they had me doing the promotional tour, all the books were sold and it was weeks before they could print another edition,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I signed to do the book but I think everyone made money on it except me. Not that I ever thought it would sell the way it did.”
Meggyesy would hold various teaching positions at several colleges including Stanford in the decades to come, but for 15 years or so his only involvement with football was coaching his son’s high-school team for a season. (Though the team didn’t win a game that fall, he describes that brief stint as “a tremendous, rewarding experience [with] young men growing and coming together.”) He roamed the U.S, with his family. In his time in Colorado, he befriended Hunter S. Thompson and served as the football-obsessed gonzo journalist’s unofficial bodyguard during his quixotic run for election to Aspen’s sheriff’s office. When Meggyesy and his family moved to the west coast, he worked in a number of jobs, for a time in construction. It seemed like he felt most at home when he landed a job working with the NFL Players Association in 1986 as an assistant with NFLPA president Gene Upshaw, a role that he describes as “the association’s Minister of Education.” Says Meggyesy: “Through the ’80s and ’90s, we pushed back against the league, got a fairer deal, won the rights to free agency … really, we won the war and if that’s my legacy in the game, I’m happy with that.”
His role with the NFLPA seems like a perfect bookend to his playing days. He saw a system that was wrong on so many counts and set about righting it. Sure, the NFL was forever going to be a cold business, but he could give a sympathetic ear to those who went through disillusionment like his own. Out of the commissioner’s league, out of the owners’ league, Meggyesy set about helping players to balance the power, to make it their league, too. “My ability was always to communicate, person to person,” he says. “I could rap, whether it’s in a college auditorium or an NFL dressing room. Players understood where I was coming from even if they didn’t know all my history, and I knew about where they were coming from even though the game was evolving. All that said, a lot of things didn’t change that much.”
For Meggyesy and for others, the ’60s were a time of awakening. What he saw on the nightly news, grainy footage of body bags coming back from Vietnam, was of a piece with what he saw up close in his community outreach, the everyday struggle of the downtrodden.
“I was protesting the war in Vietnam but the issues are intertwined,” he says. “When you look back to the ’68 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos didn’t raise their fists on the medal stand to express Black Power. They were protesting poverty, the lack of equal opportunity. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington was a march on poverty. … I’m convinced that the powers behind the scenes didn’t want King killed because of ‘race’ so much as the threat they felt with his mobilizing the poor. Race was certainly a part of poverty — there has been a disproportionate percentage of people of racial and ethnic minorities in the underclass. And beyond that, the Americans serving on the front lines in Vietnam were disproportionately the poor; it wasn’t the poor who were getting deferments, who manoeuvred around [the draft]. The rich left the war to the Blacks, to the poor, to the underclass.”
The Other America is six decades old yet Meggyesy suggests much of it reads like it could have been written yesterday. “What was an issue then is far more of an issue today,” he says. “More people by percentage live below the poverty line — 19 per cent when I read The Other America, 22 per cent today, and that was before COVID-19, so who knows what those stats look like today? The degree of income disparity has increased exponentially … almost unthinkably. There’s a big chunk [of the population] with no employment insurance. The people who are getting sickest, who are dying the most often, are the poor. The inequity is clearer today than ever. It’s economic but it’s also health and welfare and justice, too. What Harrington had said about the fate of the poor depending on the decisions of the upper class has come to pass tragically. Harrington was a sociologist and a prophet.”
When Meggyesy watched Kaepernick kneel on the sidelines during the national anthem almost a half century after his protests, he had a sense of how the league would react that drew on his experience back in the ’60s. “The league was going to nail him,” he says. “It was tyranny then and tyranny today — just a different type of tyranny. You look at, back in the ’60s and ’70s, the teams were the tyrants. Now, I get a sense that it’s the actual league that exercises its own form of tyranny.”
Meggyesy remains predictably skeptical at the NFL’s half-hearted response to the current moment. “The league, the commissioner, they realized they screwed up because of the public support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They recognize that the next generation of fans are far more sympathetic [to BLM] than the fans traditionally. Just as they made the decision about my protest back in the ’60s: It’s marketing. It’s business. Goodell didn’t come out in sincere support [of BLM]. There’s no conscience behind [the NFL’s] sanctioning — it’s a token effort.”
Meggyesy was the NFL’s first angry man, but far from its last, and he has more kindred spirits today than in the late ’60s — at least more who are as outspoken as he was. Asked if he’s optimistic about things ahead, he sounds cautious and maybe a bit resigned — if only because of looming mortality — but never defeated. “I’m 79,” he says. “I’ve had a stroke. I’ve had friends, teammates die. I’d like to live long enough to see change. Right now, though, it all looks like 1969 — although a lot of things look worse now than they did then. I believe in righteous causes … in people. I’ve tried to make players’ and people’s lives better and there are more today doing that in the league’s rank and file. The worst aspects of our society still make me angry but more people are pushing back.
“How it plays out I can only hope.”
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