Bob Lilly at work at at Rhein-Main in 1967.

Bob Lilly at work at at Rhein-Main in 1967. (Bob Milnes/Stars and Stripes)

RHINE-MAIN, Germany — "The merger saved professional football."

Bob Lilly, a tiger on the gridiron as a defensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League, made that matter-of-fact comment here Wednesday.

Lilly, 6-5, 255-pound veteran of seven NFL campaigns, has been an All-League selection the past three seasons. The 27-year-old graduate of Texas Christian has seen various changes on the national gridiron front and went on to elaborate:

"I feel that the fabulous bonuses that had been going to the young college players could have killed the game," Lilly, on a two-week tour of duty as a photographer with the Texas Air National Guard at Rhine-Main AB, quipped.

"The bonus problem was really getting serious. The clubs were spending all kinds of money in the keen competition of players and they weren't making that kind of a profit when everything was considered. The merger had to be an inevitable solution," Lilly added.

"The merger certainly should be a boon to the veteran players," he continued. "Some of the money going to the rookies can now be spent on people who have proved their worth. After all, the average playing life of a pro football player is about eight years and it is only fitting that the veterans get something for their efforts.

"The good rookies can still get pretty good bonuses," Lilly added. "Of course, they won't be anything like those available during the heated competition for talent. However, they'll still be better — lots better, in fact — than they were in the old days when there was only one league."

Lilly expressed a belief that the overall caliber of pro football might suffer somewhat over the next few years because of the merger.

"One thing that the merger has done," Lilly said, "is to create a situation whereby the player talent might be spread pretty thin. There are 27 clubs now with a possibility of more in sight. That means getting the good players might become quite a task.

"I'm afraid that the new clubs ,might encounter some difficulties forming competitive entries, Under the old setup of two leagues, or even before then, a team would get a crack at the available talent more often. Now, 27 players must be chosen before a team gets a second shot at the list.

"The good teams who have some name players they can afford to trade are in a very good position to dangle such bait for two or three draft selections. For this reason," Lilly continued, "I look for Green Bay to be very strong for a long, long time. These clubs that have the talent and money can afford to make the deals and give newcomers a couple of years experience.

"The new teams, I'm afraid, might not get to the point where they can deal with the others on an equal footing for a long while."

Some players have made the spotlight by playing out their options and signing with other clubs, but Lilly doesn't really think this will become too serious a factor.

"Technically, a. man could change clubs every other year," Lilly explains. "However, that doesn't really happen too often. A man has to be mighty unhappy to play out his option. We generally work on a one-year contract for the first couple of years we are in the league and can negotiate new contracts readily.

"However, if we just can't get together with the owner, we can pass up signing a new contract and work the next year without one and take an option of signing with another club — that is, if we can actually accomplish this. The owners keep each other alerted and signing with another club can be a difficult achievement.

"This practice is being challenged somewhat by the players who have been hiring attorneys to look into all the intricate details of the contracts and I anticipate that players will be getting multiple-year offers in the future as protection from the owners group."

Lilly expects to be in Germany approximately two weeks with the Texas Air National Guard.

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