The NFL Network exists to promote the football league that owns it. Its daily programming off-season consists of shows in which commentators, many of whom are former players, obsess over the draft or personnel or front-office moves teams have or haven’t made and their supposed effects on the season to come. In season the same guys blather about games that have been played and those that lie ahead, mostly without shedding much light on either. Shakespeare’s line about “sound and fury signifying nothing” fully applies.
Occasionally, though, the channel does something that rates as journalism. One such was a recent episode of its “A Football Life” series that focused on Alan Page, the former Minnesota Viking and Chicago Bear defensive lineman. The fact that the life portrayed was about much more than football was what set it above the network’s usual fare.
Just about everyone over age 50 knows the gridiron side of Page’s saga. An All-American at Notre Dame, 245 pounds of rompin’, stompin’ dynamite (thanks Alex Karras), he joined the Vikings in 1967 and with Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen formed one of the game’s most-notable defensive lines, remembered as the “Purple People Eaters” after a novelty song of the era.
Page led that foursome, quickly gained All-Pro status and, in 1971, became both the NFL’s top defender and its Most Valuable Player Award winner, the first man to combine those titles. His Minnesota teams played in four Super Bowls, and although they lost each time it’s the best the franchise ever has done. Waived during the 1978 season at age 33, he quickly signed on with Chicago, where he put in 3 ½ honorable seasons, never missing a start. In due course he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his native Canton, Ohio, a facility that, interestingly, he helped build during a summer construction job as a teenager.
Page’s life would have been remarkable if it had ended with his football retirement, as for practical purposes do those of most famous athletes. The best these guys aspire to is a long and peaceful interlude of golf and perfunctory employment requiring little besides bathing in the adoration to which they think their status entitles them. Indeed, as evidence mounts of the deleterious health effects of collision sports such as football and hockey, ex-players who emerge with their faculties intact can deem themselves lucky. One of the focuses of future research into repetitive brain trauma should be to identify what allows some men to survive those sports whole while others don’t.
As the NFL Network piece showed, Page was an exceptional sort of athlete from the outset. He enrolled in high school without gridiron dreams and the first extracurricular activity for which he was recruited there was the band. Because of his size he was handed a tuba, an instrument he continues to play and enjoy.
The football recruiters followed, and he excelled at the activity. When sudden high school BMOC status came with his displays of prowess, it set him to head scratching. “I wondered why this [football] was so important to people,” he recalls thinking.
Page paid attention in class in high school and at Notre Dame, from which he emerged with a degree in political science and academic as well as football honors. He showed up in Minneapolis as the Vikings’ top draft choice that year and immediately set himself apart from his fellow rookies by refusing to participate in a training-camp beer-chugging contest set up by team vets.
He went on to show his independence in other ways, some of which didn’t please his team or league. Among other things, he bridled at training-camp curfew rules, disdained autograph signing (although he’d chat with fans), enrolled in the U of Minnesota Law School while still a player and missed team events when they interfered with his studies, and became a leader of the NFL players’ union that staged strikes in 1970 and ‘74. Before and after he played he made it clear he didn’t like his “Purple People Eater” tag, explaining that he wasn’t purple and didn’t eat people.
The last straw for the Vikings came in 1977, when on health grounds he took up a regimen of long-distance running that pared his weight to an un-NFL-lineman-like 220 pounds. Midway through the next season the team cut him, a move that led to an estrangement that lasted until just a few years ago. He played at that weight through his 3 ½ seasons with the Bears, in one of which (1980) he was good enough to earn All-Conference honors.
The 1981 end of Page’s football career was the beginning of a what was, maybe, a better one in the law. He returned to Minneapolis to go into private practice, then became an assistant Minnesota attorney general. In 1992 he ran for and won a seat on the state’s supreme court, and was reelected several times before retiring at the mandatory age of 70 in 2015. No ex-NFLer has climbed higher professionally except for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, who played in an era (1939-42) when pro football was an avocation.
Page did and does other things, including running 10 marathons, writing a couple of children’s books with his school-teacher daughter and sponsoring a national high-school essay contest on the value of education. In 1988, with his wife Diane, he began the Page Educational Foundation, which he’s funded more with his time and energy than with his money (when he played the average NFL salary was about $75,000 a year and he spent most of his legal life in public service). Over 29 years the foundation has dispensed some $14 million in financial aid to about 6,500 minority-group college students, who in return must serve at least 50 hours a year volunteering in projects tied to elementary or high-school education.
The awards the foundation makes have nothing to do with playing-field achievement. When a jock does come in for one, Page has advice for him or her. “Don’t major in football” or whatever other sport the kid plays, he tells them.
Given the odds against any kind of sports career, that line should be on every school’s locker room walls.