Rodgers keeps CFL in laughter

THE BALTIMORE SUN

That Pepper Rodgers, coach of the Canadian Football League's Memphis Mad Dogs, barks when he introduces himself over the telephone is not exactly a surprise.

It's far from a put-on or a contrived role he's playing because this is one of the genuine characters in all the world. Bless him for that. He's special and deemed worthy of preserving in good wine to keep for the ages.

Pepper smiles, fills the room with laughter, dispenses anecdotes, downplays his own importance and is a walking-around good humor man. He will no doubt lose football games but, hopefully, not his individuality. Never, under the most stressful of circumstances, could he be accused of taking himself too seriously.

What sets Rodgers off from the rest of the coaching crowd is that he's not afraid to be what he is. Sorry, but there's no industry in America with a more extensive collection of egomaniacs, bullies and downright stiffs. It almost goes with the trade, but most of them prefer to refer to themselves as being in a profession.

Now that's a laugh and Pepper would certainly fall down on the floor and have some type of a whimsical seizure if he heard himself described in any such terms. He thinks that what he does, drawing X's and O's and making sure he has the right number of players on the field (11 in America, 12 in Canada) is the mental equivalent to a child piling up blocks in a playpen or deciding which crayon to use while turning the pages of a coloring book.

Pepper, with more down-home humor than Will Rogers, was once drafted by the Baltimore Colts, the 25th round in 1954, after being a 5-foot-10, 168-pound Georgia Tech quarterback and place-kicker of renown who led his team to victories in the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl, a game where he completed 16 of 23 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns besides scoring a touchdown himself and kicking five extra points and a field goal.

He knew it was impossible to improve on that so he decided to quit while he was ahead. Pro football only interested him on Monday mornings when he checked the standings although he did sign a post-dated contract with the Colts but never reported to training camp.

"I got the head coach at Baltimore, good ol' Weeb Ewbank, to buy me a steak dinner when he talked to me about playing in the National Football League so I felt I came out way ahead in negotiations," he says. "I couldn't go with the Colts because I committed to the Air Force for five years but I doubt if I would have made them forget Y. A. Tittle or been much of a challenge for Johnny Unitas when he came along."

He ultimately became a college football coach and worked for 22 years, twice being named National Coach of the Year during terms at the University of Kansas, UCLA and Georgia Tech. Not a bad resume.

His philosophy of life, which he claims he picked up from a "preacher in a filling station," is worthy of emulation.

"I try to live every day like I'm going to die tomorrow and to work every day like I'm going to live forever," is the way Rodgers describes his outlook. On another subject, as to what it is to deal with pressure, he draws an interesting analogy.

"Pressure in sports is what you want to make it," he says. "After all, you enter into sports to have fun, to play the games and may the best team win but that doesn't always happen.

"Now if you really want to understand what pressure is then join a high school orchestra and play third trumpet. When the first and second trumpets get sick or graduate and you can't play a note and the band director calls on you to do a solo, well, that's pressure."

He described himself as a triple-threat player when he was in high school in Atlanta because he threaten to quit the team three times. His mother wanted him to be a dancer or a musician but his grandfather hoped he would grow up to be a baseball player, the next "Georgia Peach," the second coming of Ty Cobb.

That didn't work either. But he became a productive college PTC quarterback and, subsequently, an exceptional coach. In 1984 and '85, he coached the Memphis Showboats in the U.S. Football League. After the USFL went down, he worked for Fred Smith, his present boss, and then Billy Dunavant in an effort to attract the NFL to Memphis.

The pixyish 62-year-old Rodgers was stunned when Memphis was given short shrift. Four different times, he helped stage NFL exhibitions in Memphis. The games sold out every time. The NFL clubs were glad to take the money out of Memphis, but that didn't count for anything when it came to expansion.

"Put it this way," he recalls. "There's nothing more difficult than trying to sell tickets to an NFL exhibition. We filled the Liberty Bowl four times. If you think that's easy, try it. The way Memphis was treated was a deep disappointment, especially after the way Memphis was so cordial and profitable to the NFL.

"After all, the NFL promised, in writing, that Memphis would get first consideration in the next expansion after it took in Seattle and Tampa. What a travesty. I'd rather believe a teller of fairy tales.

"But the all-time shock to me was when the NFL voted Jacksonville over Baltimore in expansion. There's no way you can justify that. Did Baltimore get a bad deal? Do birds fly? Do fish swim?"

With Memphis in the CFL, he's still trying to find out what to do with the 12th man and can't understand why field-goal kickers are awarded a point for missing. Otherwise, the Canadian game and its rules make for fast-moving, fun football. Pepper and his Mad Dogs are in Memorial Stadium to face the Baltimore Stallions tomorrow night.

His approach to football, as with life, is to make sure you find a way to have a good time. Pepper, or Franklin Cullen Rogers, might be able to make a dead man laugh.

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