Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Big Show

By Dennis Freeland

AUGUST 11, 1997:  After the politics, the arrogance, the money, after the hurt feelings, this was the truth: It is the NFL -- the best football on the planet.

I was at Rhodes College early Thursday morning, standing on the track surrounding Fargason Field. As the Tennessee Oilers went through various drills and exercises, I thought how it looked like any other football practice. The players were bigger, faster, and better, but wearing their practice jerseys they really could have been any team, anywhere.

Then an odd couple came to the edge of the field and stood in front of me -- one tall and black; the other short and white. I didn't recognize either until I saw the names on their jerseys. Del Greco. Roby. It took two veteran kickers to remind me that this was, indeed, the National Football League.

The Oilers are not a star-studded team. The best player on the team, running back Eddie George, is entering his second season. The other media darling, quarterback Steve McNair, has only started six NFL games.

It is the old-timers like Del Greco, the 14-year veteran from Auburn, who represent the true glory of the NFL. Del Greco, one of the league's better placekickers, holds most of the team's kicking records. How many times have we seen him in a pressure situation on TV? He's come through with nine game-winning field goals during his career.

Reggie Roby spent most of his 15 NFL seasons with the Dolphins. A career punting average of 43.5 yards-per-punt certifies his position as one of the 10 best punters in NFL history. Roby is the consummate professional, the only punter I've ever seen wear a watch on the field. He uses it to time his kicks.

Then there is Mel Gray, the most prolific kickoff-return man in NFL history. In 12 NFL seasons Gray has returned 412 kickoffs for 10,057 yards. He has run back nine kickoffs or punts for touchdowns, a feat matched by only three other players, including the legendary Gayle Sayers. Last Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, Gray showed that even at 36, while he fights for one more year in the league, he still has the explosive speed to electrify a crowd.

The lesson learned last week is a simple one: This is the NFL and it's playing in our town. There was Mike Ditka storming the visitor sidelines. There was a camera crew from NFL Films. There was Heath Shuler, Danny Wuerfful, Mercury Hayes. This is the NFL.

Last week I seriously questioned projections that the Oilers would draw 40,000 or more per game in Memphis. I'm still not sure. If the Oilers refuse to spend on advertising and promotions, they may still have to settle for crowds between 25,000 and 35,000.

What the team should have done is follow the advice of my colleague, John Branston. He suggested this first preseason game should have been a freebie, promoted under the banner of "We Owe You One." Think about it: The Oilers could have turned out a huge crowd, taken a giant step toward dispelling the widespread resentment in Memphis toward the NFL, and infused their two-year stay in Memphis with an uplifting beginning.

Instead they had to settle for the smallest crowd to see a preseason game in the NFL so far this season: 22,811. Pepper Rodgers, who came up with the idea of bringing the team to Memphis a few days early, then sold the concept to Oiler brass in Nashville, should be credited for the team's first successful PR move.

After the team concluded its afternoon practice last Thursday, the players walked over to the gathered fans, shook hands, and signed autographs. They looked not like the greedy, arrogant NFL, but the young twentysomethings that most of them are.

The NFL is real. It now has a face.

ODDS AND ENDS: Oiler executive vice-president Mike McClure before the exhibition: "The future of this franchise in Tennessee is not going to be based on how many people come to this game." TV-5 sports anchor Jarvis Greer surveying the thousands of youngsters at the Saints game and thinking of the inevitable day when the Oilers leave town: "This is going to hurt these kids a lot worse than when some of our minor-league teams left Memphis in the past." Oilers attendance had declined in Houston for five straight years, from a record 60,341 in 1991 to 31,825 last year. The team drew 43,754 on the road in 1996.

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