New Chapter from Ray Bentley's Buffalo Bills Memoirs
Been a while, but take a look at the first chapter of my new book about my time with the Buffalo Bills (stuff in Italics is from my journal I kept back in the day). But before we get to Buffalo, we have to go to where it all began...
Exacting a little revenge against the Bucs
We Don’t Play That Way Around Here
Donald Trump ruined my life; hopefully for the only time. Not really, but it sure felt that way. Like many others still under contract with the United States Football League in 1986, I had an entire year off from football during which they paid me one third of my salary for the upcoming season. In return, I could not pursue an NFL job. After my Oakland Invader team lost to the Baltimore Stars in the 1985 USFL Championship Game, the league, led by Trump, the owner of the New Jersey Generals, decided to fight its battles in the court room rather than on the field. The USFL made the misguided decision to not play until the fall of 1986 after three arguably successful years of playing in the spring. The master plan was to force either a merger or compete directly with the NFL using the untold millions the USFL would garner from their anti-trust lawsuit against the big bad monopoly that was the NFL.
The prevailing opinion was this movement was driven by Trump’s insatiable desire to join the NFL owners club at any expense. Either he got in by the USFL competing in the fall and forcing a merger, or perhaps the NFL would be forced by the courts to absorb some of the top USFL franchises. Anything could happen; the Donald and his lawsuit was forcing everyone’s hand. The result was the dismantling of the USFL. Trump never got his shiny new toy.
To be fair, the USFL won the lawsuit because it was, and is, quite obvious the NFL is a monopoly. However, the award from the court was ironically punitive toward the little guy, as the amount was one dollar. The good news is under anti-trust law this award would be trebled! So that brought the grand total all the way up to three dollars. (I am still waiting for my share of the settlement.)
The legal Hail Mary launched by the upstart league was easily batted down by the NFL. The verdict in the case came in late July of 1986 after NFL training camps had already opened. This timing put a lot of good football players under the gun to try and find a place to ply their trade, myself included. A mad scramble to find a new football home ensued.
My agent at the time was Greg Campbell out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I had hired Campbell because I was privy to several lucrative contracts he had been able to wrangle for some of my teammates while playing in the USFL. Frankly, I didn’t trust him but I still felt he would do a good job for me as he had for others.
Initially the USFL was talking big after winning the battle but losing the war and claimed they were still planning on playing that very fall. That bluster only lasted a few days, and in early August I was informed by the Memphis Showboats, my employer at the time, they were giving me permission to talk to NFL clubs.
Tuesday, July 29, 1986
The USFL won the lawsuit but only was awarded $1. Who the fuck knows what that is going to do to things. They (The NFL) were celebrating pretty hard via the media as Rozelle and Rothman were pretty cocky. Everybody thinks the USFL is doomed for sure.
Tuesday, August 5, 1986
Jodi (My wife) talked with Greg (Campbell) tonight and Memphis has given me permission to negotiate with the NFL. Greg has been talking with New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Detroit. It looks like I am going to the NFL! I’ve been doing all kinds of interviews because of the USFL’s decision to postpone operations for another year.
Thursday, August 7, 1986
It looks like Tampa Bay or New Orleans for the kid. Most likely the Bucs.
Sunday, August 10, 1986
I still haven’t heard from Campbell whether or not I’ll be signing a contract with an NFL team. I want to know where I am to go. I’m still waiting. I went out and ran for 20 minutes tonight and felt halfway decent. I watched the Raiders get stomped by the 49ers 32-0 in an exhibition game and it kills to watch not play.
Tuesday, August 12, 1986
I’m going to Tampa Bay. I just got off the phone with Greg Campbell and they will be calling me shortly to set up the details. He also said the just cut (David) Greenwood. I can’t believe that. Greg said it was because of his salary. They offered 70,000 plus a 10,000 roster bonus and up to 40,000 more in playtime.
You might want to call that two of the longest weeks of my life. I am not sure what took so long for Agent Campbell to negotiate my league minimum contract, but at least my foot was finally in the door. I was excited and nervous at the same time. Excited because it had been my life-long dream to play in the League since I first donned a helmet and shoulder pads at the tender age of seven; now it appeared I would get my shot. Nervous because camp had already been underway for over a week; thus I was facing an uphill battle. After being All-USFL for three straight years I knew I could play in the NFL. But that didn’t mean anybody else did. The biggest question was, would I get a fair shot.
Initially, according to Agent Campbell, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Detroit, and New Orleans were interested in acquiring my services. Of the four, Buffalo was my least favorite option as the Bills were coming off of consecutive 2-14 seasons. Campbell concurred and we dismissed the Bills out of hand. Campbell made a crack about being sent to Siberia and we yukked it up. It came down to New Orleans and Tampa Bay, and ultimately the decision was made. Hot damn! I was going to be a Buccaneer!
The head coach of the Bucs at that time was Leeman Bennett, whom I had never met and knew little about. However, Bennett had hired Jim Stanley, my former head coach with the Michigan Panthers, as his defensive coordinator. Although I knew Coach Stanley wouldn’t play favorites, I also knew he would give me a fair shot. Better than that Jim knew I played the game the proper way. Coach Stanley’s presence had swayed my decision to sign with Tampa Bay rather than the Saints.
Sunday, August 17, 1986
I’m in Tampa Bay in the Buccaneers camp. I signed on Wednesday but didn’t play in their game last night. I went and watched and was mildly impressed. I can play here and I’ll get my chance on Tuesday. I’ll also play against Washington this weekend. Leonard “Automan” Harris is my roommate. We went to Marabella’s for dinner after the game last night and had an excellent meal. The Bucs lost 20-17 on a last second field goal after Steve Young threw an interception.
My time in Tampa Bay started to look like the proverbial cup of coffee as they nearly cut me before I even had a chance to play. We were scheduled to play the Washington Redskins on August 23, 1986 in a home preseason game at The Big Sombrero, as my buddy Chris Berman called it. (Little did I know at the time I would have quite a history with that stadium.) I nearly didn’t make it to the game with the Redskins, however. I had been in camp for less than a week and wasn’t getting a lot of reps in practice. It was frustrating as I wasn’t really being given a chance to show my stuff. Then I got the call…
Saturday, August 23, 1986
We play the Washington Redskins tonight in the biggest game of my life – only because it is next. Seriously, my future employment with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers depends on my showing tonight. I got a call from Jim Stanley at 6:30am yesterday and he asked me to come by his room. He told me they were going to cut me. He said he was just sick about it and that he felt I could challenge Brantley for the job, but it was a numbers game. So I thanked him and came to the room and called Jodi. I was crushed. But the good Lord saw fit to give me another chance. Jim Stanley went to Leeman Bennett and told him he thought it was a mistake to not give me a chance. So they reconsidered and cut Dennis Johnson instead of me. I talked to Coach Bennett and he said he was going to be fair to me and himself and give me an opportunity. So tonight I’ve got the chance I have been working for for the past year. It’s a one shot deal so I’m going balls to the wall and let God handle the rest. I talked with George Yarno and it looks like Town & Country will be the place I will be living in down here. They have 3-month leases, 2-bedrooms for $425 with pets and kids allowed.
After my short week of practice I knew I could and should start for this team. They had a long-toothed veteran, Scott Brantley, starting at one of the inside linebacker spots and a talented young player named Ervin Randle starting at the other. Brantley was good but I was better. Randle had a chance to be better than both of us.
What a reprieve! I was greatly moved by Jim Stanley’s gesture and his belief in me. We had won a USFL Championship together back in 1983 and there is no stronger bond in the business. He believed in me so strongly, that I could help the team win, he had gone to Leeman Bennett’s office immediately after I had left his room. His passionate plea to Coach Bennett changed the man’s mind, which you don’t often see head football coaches do. There was no way in hell I could let him down. I was ready play some football!
Sunday, August 24, 1986
We lost to the Redskins 21-13 in a game we dominated early on. We were up at the half 13-7, but couldn’t polish those fuckers off. I got to play almost the entire 4th quarter and played pretty well. I flew around and made some plays. Coach Stanley said he was proud of my effort. I made 5 tackles but fucked up one pass drop on the 4 route. I covered 2 kickoffs and was in on 1 kickoff return. I think I showed well enough so that they will keep me here for at least another week, but one never knows. What did help my chances was Brantley’s poor showing and Randle’s inconsistency. Camp breaks Tuesday – no more curfew and the like.
Whether they cut me or kept me, it was gratifying to play so well and especially to not let Jim Stanley down. My performance bought me another week as I survived the next round of cuts. There was one preseason game left against the Miami Dolphins after which the final roster cut down would occur. During the week prior to the Dolphin game the Bucs held their annual preseason luncheon where local businessmen and fans would pay to eat with and meet the team. I hadn’t packed any clothes for the occasion and had to go to Dillard’s to purchase a dress shirt, slacks, and a tie. It was the one and only time I wore that ill-fitting outfit. It was less than encouraging.
Thursday, August 28, 1986
Today was the 11th Annual ‘Meet the Bucs Luncheon’ at the downtown Hyatt Regency, the same place Jodi and I stayed when we came down here for the 1984 USFL Championship Game. It amazes me that I am in yet another situation where I am a nobody who has to prove himself to the world. I think I was given the shortest introduction out of everybody today – simply “a three-year USFL veteran who recently joined the Bucs.”
Apparently Buccaneer fans didn’t know what they were missing. Despite my virtual anonymity, I was beginning to feel like a part of the team and more at home. I was practicing well and got along with my fellow linebackers. The experience had done nothing to sway my confidence: I could play at this level.
Guys always piss and moan about the hard work of training camp with the two-a-day practices in the heat and the grind of the whole experience; they have a valid point. It is a Darwinian trial—survival of the fittest. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges are no joke, but the real challenge of training camp for me was being away from my young family for so long. It was beginning to wear on me and I had only been gone a couple of weeks. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Alaina and my one-year-old son Ritch were back home in our house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, under the care of my wife Jodi. They were all waiting to see whether they would be coming to Florida or I’d be coming home where we would be at square one again. Bottom line: Daddy wasn’t there.
Tuesday, August 26, 1986
Man it was hot out there at practice today – at least 95 and sunny. I think I did pretty good but I’ve got to work harder so I can get better. I’ve got to do well enough in this game against Miami to convince the coaches to keep 8 linebackers. I’ll be starting on special teams, kickoff, kickoff receive, punt return and PAT. They cut to 50 and I’m still here. Now it comes down to whether they keep 8 or 7 because I don’t believe they will cut any other linebacker than myself. I talked to Jodi this afternoon and they had to put Bumble (Saint Bumble was one of our cats) to sleep yesterday. Alaina, Jodi, Cecilia and Tom (close family friends) were all crying. I can’t believe he’s gone. Mannix (our other cat) has been crying all around the house looking for him. I wish to hell I could have been there for Alaina and them. Little Ritchie has probably forgotten who his daddy is. Well, if I do make this bitch they still won’t be coming down until September 6, the day before the first game. By that time I will have set up our apartment. Damn, it just started storming like hell!
Prior to the Miami game I was told I would get to play a lot in the game. They were going to rest the starters to prevent any injuries and the backups would see the bulk of the action—your typical final preseason game scenario. I was stoked! They were going to see if this old boy could play linebacker, and I was more than ready to show them. I had picked up the defense and was versed in making the calls and adjustments to the point where I could fly around and not be slowed by processing the mental aspects of the game. It was time to get it on!
We kicked off to the Dolphins and I was L5 on the kickoff team—a wedge-buster in the middle immediately to the left of the kicker. My job was to fly down the field as fast as I could and hurl my body into the wedge of blockers in an attempt to blow up the return before it got started. (Wedge returns are no longer allowed in football today due to the insanely dangerous nature of executing such a tactic.)
The kick sailed deep into the end zone for a touchback, but one of the Dolphins still tried to lay a block on me. I lowered my shoulder and blew him up, knocking him ass over teakettle. Another one of Don Shula’s boys took umbrage with my mistreatment of his teammate and got in my face to let me know. I was sky-high and gave it back to him as we exchanged pleasantries facemask to facemask. One of my teammates who saw me blow that dude up came over and started slapping my helmet and shoulder pads while pulling me away. Spontaneously several of us started jumping around woofin’ and head butting each other! We stormed off the field all jacked up yelling and screaming.
Now that was more like it! Finally we were playing some football! One of my concerns with this team was the lack of the comfort level necessary between guys to turn it loose and feed off each other’s raw emotion during the game. Intensity and enthusiasm are infectious. This was the first time I felt like we were jacked up as a group. Who knows, we might have had a shot at becoming a team.
As I got to the sideline Leeman Bennett made a beeline straight at me. I thought I was going to get a pat on the back or an “attaboy!” for my fearless display of intensity. But Coach Bennett got up in my face all bug-eyed and yelled, “We don’t play that way around here!”
I was dumbfounded. There were no flags on the play. The boys on the team were jacked up over my big hit. I didn’t know what the hell Bennett was talking about, but if that wasn’t how they played around there then I wanted no part of it. I was pissed and didn’t bother hiding it.
I alternated standing behind Coach Stanley and sitting on the bench for the next three hours living and dying a thousand deaths. Every time the defense took the field I made sure to get into his line of sight. But he wouldn’t look at me—something had changed. I knew what it was; Coach Bennett had pulled the plug. I went from full throttle intensity to outright embarrassment. From mystified to mortified. From elated to depressed. From … you get the picture. They refused to put me into the ballgame. For the rest of the game I vacillated between indignant righteous anger, pitiful hope, deep dark depression, and excessive misery. It was the worst three hours I’ve ever spent in a football uniform.
With just a little more than a minute left in the game Miami held a double-digit lead and all they were going to do was kneel on the ball a couple times to kill the clock. To my utter disbelief I finally heard the words I had been yearning for all night. Coach Stanley yelled my name and sent me into the game. I honestly think he did so just to make a point to Coach Bennett. But I no longer cared. I wanted to tell them to pound salt and hand Leeman Bennett my helmet and tell him to go out there and show me “how they do it around here.” Taking the field at that point was the most embarrassing and humiliating moment of my football career.
Seriously? Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds. As I stood on the field watching Dolphin’s backup QB Don Strock take a knee I knew I did not belong in Tampa Bay. I could think of a lot of other places I would have rather been than right there, right then.
After barely sleeping the night after the game I continued to stew about the situation. I played it over and over in my mind wondering what I had missed. The more I ran it through my mind the more I was convinced I had to get out of there. I packed my bags knowing they were going to release me the next morning. If, by some miracle it didn’t happen, I was contemplating leaving anyway. Jodi told me that was crazy talk and there was no way in hell I was going to walk out of there if they wanted to keep me. We had two young kids at home and were running out of money. Her arguments were the only thing keeping me from going and sitting in front of the main doors at One Bucs’ Place to demand my release and a plane ticket home.
There was no need to worry about that, however, as the phone in my room rang shortly after six that morning. I was asked to come over to Coach Bennett’s office and be sure to bring my playbook with me. Gladly! When’s the next train?
Curiously Bennett never said a word about the previous night’s game in my exit interview. He just thanked me for my efforts and went back to the time-honored NFL’s favorite exit excuse. He said “it was a numbers game.” I almost laughed when he said it. He said to stay in shape because if something happened they may want to call me back. I kept my poise and thanked him for the “opportunity.” I told him I could play in this league and believed I would. Escaping that place I found myself thanking God I was not stuck a Buc.
I stopped by Coach Stanley’s room on my way out to thank him for all he had done for me, not only the past couple of weeks but for the two years I had played linebacker for him with the Michigan Panthers. He was profoundly disappointed in the situation. It was unfortunately beyond his control. He didn’t necessarily agree with the way things were done around there but his hands were tied. He wished me luck and told me he knew I could play in the NFL; to keep my head up and keep trying as my day would come. I was almost in tears when I left his room. I may have met a tougher, better man than Jim Stanley in my days, but I couldn't name him.
I’m not saying I put some kind of hex or curse on Tampa Bay, but the Bucs went on to lose double-digit games the following nine consecutive years and didn’t make the playoffs for eleven years. Bennett was fired at the end of the season with a 2-14 record. I knew what their biggest problem was: “They didn’t play that way around there.”