NFL ‘funny business’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 30, 2005

It’s called &uot;First Down and a Billion.&uot;

I’ve owned the book for more years than I care to remember and I’ve read it once or twice in the past, but for some reason I picked it up again last week.

Gene Klein writes the book with the help of David Fisher and it outlines the &uot;funny business of pro football.&uot;

For those who don’t know, and I was one of them, Klein owned the San Diego Chargers from the time they were an AFL franchise until he sold them to Alex Spanos in the mid-1980s,

Klein said he was a football fan who wanted to own the Chargers because he thought it would be fun. He found out having a dream come true wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Because of the language used by Klein and some of his cohorts in the National Football League (NFL), I can’t quote some of the passages that brought the most laughter as I began reading this book again.

&uot;After all the years I spent in football, would I consider myself an expert? I bought the Chargers for $10 million and I was expert enough to sell them nineteen years later for $80 million. Call me anything you want,&uot; Klein wrote.

Before buying the San Diego franchise, Klein had been involved in a number of business adventures, which had seen him rise to the level of having more money than he could have possibly needed.

In part, he owned several businesses and ran several others. He admitted to making good and bad decisions along the way.

On that subject, he wrote, &uot;But not buying the publishing rights to The Beatles music was just about the worst mistake I ever made in business – just about. There was one thing I did that was worse – once I bought a pro-football team.&uot;

One of many business deals Klein completed while owning the Chargers was his purchase of an aging Johnny Unitas from Bob Irsay of the Baltimore Colts. Unitas, universally heralded as one of the finest quarterbacks to ever play the game, was in his last days in the NFL and had lost all of his mobility.

Klein called Irsay amusing and said his antics were among the best in the NFL. He also knew Irsay found him amusing.

&uot;As amusing as I find some of Irsay’s antics, I suspect he gets at least a mild chuckle when he remembers that I paid him $600,00 for a statue of Johnny Unitas. Of course, I didn’t know it was a statue when I bought it, but it couldn’t move, so it must have been a statue.&uot;

Of course, as with many owners in the NFL, the one person Klein disliked the most was Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders.

&uot;Davis has a reputation as a rebel, and he is certainly respected for his football knowledge, but I’ve found him to be one of the truly dislikable human beings I’ve ever known,&uot; Klein said. &uot;And when you’ve been in as many businesses as I have, for as long as I have, that covers considerable dirty ground, coach.&uot;

And while Davis certainly was the most distasteful, the others in the group were no bag of cookies either.

&uot;These were my partners,&uot; Klein wrote. &uot;A man who spends $1.75 million trying to sell his team. Another man who wanted to increase the number of seats on the 50-yardline by laying down two fields crosswise. A woman who wanted to giver her players ballet lessons. An owner who believed that the communists had decided to start a professional football league. Another owner who would spend every morning preaching the virtues of Alcoholics Anonymous – it had to be in the morning because by the afternoon he was soused. We had owners threatening each other, we had owners suing each other, we had owners hitting each other. And, most of all, we had my good friend Al Davis.&uot;

I’m not certain how easy it would be to obtain a copy of this book as it was printed in 1987, but it is well worth it if you can find it. I have laughed through the entire book every time I’ve read it.

It is great because Klein had enough money to say whatever he thought – so he did.

&uot;I’m 65 years old and each month I get a Social Security check for $711 to prove it,&uot; he wrote. &uot;I’ve had two serious heart attacks and even without the $711, I have more money than I will ever be able to spend. So I can say anything I want to.&uot;

First Down and a Billion shows you that having your dream come true might well be one of the worst things you can imagine. It’s a great read.

Questions? Comments? Snide remarks? All are welcome. You can reach me at or call me at 332-7211.

Be careful out there and be good sports.