Vahe Gregorian

Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell and ‘NFL ACTION ’72’

When I was 11 and my family had just moved from Austin, Texas, to Ardmore, Pa., Sunoco put out a 56-page stamp album called NFL ACTION ’72.

Acquiring the 624 stamps (24 per team, 26 teams at the time) to fill the pages became a quest.

So I’d nag my parents to get gas at Sunoco just for the packet of stamps that came with a purchase of gas.

Then I’d ride my bike with the banana seat to Sunocos all over, trying to persuade attendants to give them up even without a gas purchase. Seems to me more often than not they caved.

I was just starting to follow the NFL, and the Chiefs had a high profile nationally after appearing in two of the first four Super Bowls and winning in 1970.

They’d been on Sports Illustrated covers a few times, and not the fawning regional covers that dilute the impact nowadays.

And in an era of three TV stations, I’d seen them on Monday Night Football and remember being awed by Otis Taylor and struck by Elmo Wright’s celebration of a touchdown and their menacing defense.

So getting the Chiefs’ stamps, along with those of the Cowboys and Eagles, was of particular interest to me as I hunted down all 624.

The completed book is one of the few collectibles, along with comic books, that I still have and treasure from an era in which I knew the name of about every player on every team because roster changes were so much rarer then.

Another reason to like the book: It has the quaint distinction of bearing only one measly reference to Sunoco: on the bottom of the last page, no less, and nowhere at all on the watercolor front or back cover.

Where would the logo be on anything like that today, when everything is comodified?

All of this stuff spontaneously resurfaced in the last few weeks when I visited with Bobby Bell before his graduation from the University of Minnesota and then drove up to Minneapolis for the occasion.

Another Chiefs’ great of that era, Willie Lanier, a pioneer as the NFL’s first African-American middle linebacker, flew in from Richmond, Va., for the ceremony on May 14.

Because, he said, “This isn’t just something. It is important.”

After we spoke about his former teammate and other things, I told him that one of my first memories of him was the NFL ACTION ’72 album and wondered if he’d ever heard of it.

He’d not only heard of it but was pleased to tell me he possessed a completed book. But he was quick to tell me he hadn’t assembled it himself.

In fact, he felt terrible about why he had it: Someone had sent it to him to be autographed and sent back … and he lost the address. He still wishes he could send it back.

Every so often in this job, I meet or interview people I followed as a kid.

It can be a strange sensation, disorienting and even daunting, because they are frozen in time as the person I admired from afar but knew little about.

I’ve had that experience with Dick Vermeil, Mark Spitz, Darrell Royal, Mike Schmidt, Bobby Clarke and, since moving to Kansas City two years ago, the likes of Len Dawson, Bell and Lanier.

Each occasion has made for some sort of adventure or awakening, and the latest was particularly fulfilling — spending time with two men decades after they were one-dimensional figures affixed next to each other on a page in a stamp book.

Bell was so inspiring in what he did, and so engaging amid it all, and I’ve heard a lot since about all the things he’s done for people over the years.

Lanier was vivid and dignified, proof of how athletes can go on after sports and, like Bell, be defined by a lot more than just what they did on the field.

I had no notion of what Lanier had done after he retired and how prominent he’d become in the investment world and that he’d donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to education.

The day before Bell's graduation ceremony, in fact, Lanier’s alma mater, Morgan State, announced that he’d given $500,000 to establish an endowed lectureship in business ethics.

“Life provides you with opportunities to reflect upon the values and principles that have come to define who you are, and allows you the space to determine what is important,” Lanier said in a statement issued by the school. “I attended Morgan for the education and to cultivate a relationship with the university. Athletics provided the means for my education.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com  

 

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