Pro gridders and GIs swap quips at gabfest
TOKYO — "When you're down, the mark of a champion is when you can come back." The words were spoken by the Green Bay Packers' tight end Marv Fleming to a group of military patients in the U.S. Army Hospital, Camp Oji, Japan.
Fleming was speaking about the former world champion Packers and their hopes for the coming National Football League season. But somehow you got the impression he was also talking to the patients grouped around him in Ward Two of the Oji hospital. It seemed he was urging each man within sound of his voice to make a strong comeback also.
Fleming, along with Joe Namath of the New York Jets, Jim Otto of the Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants' Steve Wright are touring military hospitals in Japan and later will visit hospitals on Okinawa, the Philippines and Hawaii. They, along with NBC's Charlie Jones, are making the tour: sponsored by the USO, pro football commissioner Pete Rozelle and the. Department of Defense.
Besides talking with the patients, the quintet passed out decals of their respective teams, signed autographs and then introduced a trio of films showing the AFL and NFL championships as well as the Super Bowl. Jones said the group was uncertain as to how they would be received in the hospitals but that uncertainty was quickly dispelled when they walked into the first ward.
"Where's the New Yawker?" one cried. "You brought it (Super Bowl title) back to where it belongs, Joe."
"What happened to Bart Starr?" quipped another to Fleming.
Still another New Yorker asked Wright what Aliie Sherman (Giants' coach) would look for in the player draft. "Some offensive tackles," said offensive tackle Wright.
Jones called out to Namath, "Joe, don't come over here, there's a Baltimore fan." But Namath went anyway and, when the patient said he was a fan of Baltimore's great quarterback Johnny Unitas, Namath replied most seriously, "So am I, fella."
On and on went the chatter, ranging from home towns, to favorite teams, to what happened to the Packers, to the Raiders, etc. And each time the group moved on the ward seemed brighter.
Bantering good naturedly between the players was another way of lighting up the wards. A typical comment was one thrown by Namath at Fleming. Joe said, "Green Bay used to have a good team." He paused, then added grinning, "You can say that when you don't have to play them."
And again the faces in the beds beamed. They beamed because here were true, honest-to-goodness pro football stars, kidding around, signing autographs and shooting the breeze, all for them.
But to the touring, hard nosed professionals those men in the wards were somebody. And the players were here because they wanted to be here, in the wards, talking with the boys.
Jones, acting as unofficial spokesman for the group, gave an indication of what this trip meant to the players by stating that all of them were sacrificing something (time, money, etc.) to make the tour. He also stated that each man came voluntary when asked to do so by the commissioner's office. No decision was necessary Jones said because the question of whether to accept or not never entered anyone's mind. "There was no decision to make," he said, "sure we'd go."
And just why were these men giving their time for such a trip? Jones replied, "It may sound corny, but pride brought us here. Pride as an individual at being selected to make the tour, pride in the team each man represents and finally pride in our country and our servicemen. We're proud of what American military men are doing throughout the world and in this way we can show what we feel towards these men and what they are doing."
Jones added, "You know, we all were really nervous this morning thinking about this first stop. We were wondering if the men really wanted to see us or whether they would feel we were just another bunch of people coming through to bother them."
Jones didn't have to say a thing as the group left the final ward that afternoon. You could tell how the players were accepted by the grins on the patients' faces.
You could also tell how the players felt. One glance at those equally big grinning faces told the story.