TOM MACK : Once a Force in Rams' Offensive Line, Now He's a Lobbyist Who Reasons

Times Staff Writer

Rest easy, America. The man who once made a living thumping his helmet against unsuspecting sternums, who looked after a West Virginia hick named Dennis Harrah, who pulled patches of chest hair from screaming Ram teammates and calmly asked, "Odd or even?" is safely quartered here in Suite 703 of a nondescript downtown office building on Eye Street.

There on the floor, stuffed this way and that in several boxes, is evidence of Tom Mack's second career. A plaque here. An inspirational phrase there. Company letterhead. Memos. You know, management stuff.

This is now the Mack legacy. That earlier life, the one Mack rarely acknowledges, is just a fond memory. Scratch that. The illegal-motion penalty called a half-yard away from the goal line in the 1974 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, Mack can do without.

Some former National Football League players work in broadcasting, such as Mack look-alike Dan What's-his-name on "Monday Night Football" or pal Merlin Olsen on NBC. Some open bars. Or burger stands. Or sell life insurance. Some even become doctors, lawyers.

Meanwhile, Mack, the guy who would grind his knuckles into the deep bruises of his fellow players and say, "That hurt?" is a budding corporate hotshot for one of the country's leading engineering firms, Bechtel Group Inc.

No one is quite sure how any of this happened, except Mack, 44, the University of Michigan-educated engineer who knew all along that life existed after football. Rather than spend his days buffing his 11 all-pro awards, Mack decided to put his degree to work.

"I've been very lucky with this company," he said. "It's always been, in effect, a step up."

So here he is, climbing the corporate ladder two, three steps at a time. First were those nine off-seasons as a junior engineer, when Mack slowly learned the business. Then came a 3 1/2-year stint as a regional customer service representative, a year here as a deputy office manager, a four-year assignment in Arizona to help oversee the start-up and completion of the Palo Verde nuclear facility.

Now this. Mr. Mack goes to Washington--again. This time his title is Thomas L. Mack, Vice President, Washington Operations , which is another way of saying lobbyist.

Frankly, there are those who are stunned.

Take Harrah, nicknamed Hoopee by Mack and the other Ram veteran offensive linemen upon his arrival in 1975. Best as Harrah can remember, he never once saw Mack with a Bunsen burner and beaker, exploring the mysteries of flue-gases. Back then, Mack worried more about trap blocks and holding penalties.

"It's amazing to me that a man can be out here beating his head against the turf one day, then managing a nuclear power plant," Harrah said. "Now he's in Washington, lobbying for nuclear power.

"I can kid about anything, and I feel as secure about Tom Mack being there as anyone, but I just wonder if he's plucking the hair out of the chests of his employees, or grinding his fingers on a scab on their elbows or digging his finger into a big bruise you might have on your back.

"I knew he was working with Bechtel and that they were dealing with nuclear power. But I don't think anybody knew that Tom was going to excel that highly with the company."

Harrah stopped talking long enough to laugh, then said: "I don't think any of us thought he was smart enough to do that--except Tom."

Overachievement is a Mack trademark. Always has been. With that in mind, a history lesson may be in order.

After high school in Cleveland, Mack received one scholarship offer from a big-time school--Michigan. Even then, Mack's high school swim and football coaches had to work the phones to convince Michigan athletic department higher-ups that he was worth the investment.

"You'll love this kid by his junior year," they would say, which was a nice way of describing a project waiting to happen.

Freshmen weren't allowed to play then, which was just as well, since Mack wasn't much of a split end or defensive end, his two positions. He didn't letter as a sophomore, instead languishing at the bottom of assorted depth charts. That would have been the year Mack was fitted for contact lenses. Even then, he couldn't see very well, to say nothing of flagging down a spiral.

"Blind as a bat," he said.

Then, shortly before the beginning of his junior season, Michigan coaches switched him to offensive tackle. Two-platoon was coming into vogue and, well, he couldn't play split end or defensive end worth a darn.

Michigan won the Big Ten championship. Then the Rose Bowl. Then Mack became a BMOC, followed soon thereafter by BMID--big man in draft. By the end of his senior season, the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League both wanted Mack.

Now this was interesting. Mack had always considered himself an engineer first, a football player second. But what with the two leagues fighting over him, slide rules and material-handling evaluations would just have to wait.

"For one semester, I was consumed with the idea," Mack said. "I think I was lucky that it didn't happen for four years. Then, I probably wouldn't have finished engineering school. If I didn't have that engineering degree, I wouldn't be with this company. I don't know what I'd be doing, but I wouldn't be here."

Mack got letters and telegrams from every team in both leagues except the Cleveland Browns. "And I would have played for them at a drop of the hat," he said.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, called Mack one day at his Ann Arbor apartment.

"We have two first-round draft choices," Lombardi said. "I want to take a running back first and a guard second. If I draft you, will you play for me?"

"Hell, yes," blurted Mack.

Other teams called and asked for similar commitments.

About a week before the NFL's draft, the AFL held it's own selection of college players. The Miami Dolphins chose Mack.

But they didn't stop there. Mack said the Dolphins sent several team representatives to his parents' house. Would Mack's parents, they asked sweetly, please help the Dolphins sign their son to a contract. Mack's parents sweetly told the Dolphins to go jump through a hoop.

More craziness. "The NFL had a baby-sitter, a guy who was a Detroit cop," Mack said. "He literally followed me to every place that I went for two weeks."

A week before the NFL draft, a league man shadowed Mack from class to class, school to apartment, apartment to restaurants--anywhere and everywhere.

"Look at it this way," Mack said. "Two years earlier, I can't even make the team. I can't play."

Now he's suspect No. 1. Finally, the Rams used their first pick of the 1966 draft on Mack, which sent the Los Angeles media searching frantically for their Street & Smiths. Mack said he can still remember one newspaper headline. Something like: Rams Draft Mike, A Guy Named Mack . . . Who?

That was the same year that Texas linebacker Tommy Nobis was the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft, that the Rams chose Mike Garrett of USC, Diron Talbert of Texas and, as their final pick, Bud Harrington of Tulsa.

George Allen was the new coach.

"Gentlemen, if one of you guys is here at the end of the year, you'll be lucky," Allen said during his first meeting with the Ram rookies.

Says Mack today: "We figured there were about nine guys had guaranteed contracts. I think that's where the poor guy got off to a bad start right from the get-go with (owner) Dan Reeves. George probably sent a half-million dollars' worth of players walking.

"At the beginning of the year, there were maybe four rookies. By the end of the year, there were only two and I was the only one who played."

A tackle in college, Mack was moved to guard. He made $20,000 in salary, which, he said, was probably more than any other Ram lineman, offensive or defensive, with the possible exception of Olsen.

Mack was never what you would call pro-management. He had thoughts and ideas and rarely was shy about stating them. Nor did management look forward to contract talks with Mack.

Once, during negotiations for his 1977 contract, the Rams proposed a deal that involved deferred money. Mack presented a counter-offer complete with a three-page proposal and accompanying chart.

"Where'd you get this," asked the Ram front-office man.

"Get what?" Mack said.

"This! This chart!"

"I made it."

The front-office man was shocked.

"What? You don't know how to make this."

Mack was involved in the player strikes. He became a team spokesman of sorts. He helped anchor an offensive line considered one of the league's best. He saw four head coaches come and go. Among them:

George Allen--"Contrary to popular belief, I didn't find him to be a real effective motivator. He spent, I think, an inordinate amount of time getting self-motivated people around him. One of the great myths about George was that he liked older players. I don't think he liked them as much for their acquired physical skills and attributes as he did for their self-motivated, tenacious attitudes.

"But I would never hesitate a minute to play for George again. He's always going to have a winning team."

Tommy Prothro--"Interestingly enough, he was too intellectual for his own good. His one error was that he made the assumption that since his players were adults in the sense of their age and physical maturity, that they should necessarily be treated as adults so they can make their own decisions to motivate themselves, to push themselves.

"In training camp, there was no curfew. And he'd be honest and tell you if a team wasn't any good that you were playing. In 1972 . . . he stood up in front of the team and said, 'We got the long end of the rope. We got three easy games and three tough games. If we win those three tough games, everything will take care of itself.

"We lost all three of the easy ones and two of the three hard ones. The only team we beat was the one that won the division."

Chuck Knox--"Knox was my favorite, both as a person and as a coach. He took the time to personally identify what motivated each of the individual players."

Ray Malavasi--"Ray was probably technically the best of all the coaches at really knowing the game, at what people would do. But he didn't have the charisma that Knox had. It's very difficult to follow a successful coach."

By now, a young Harrah had made his presence known. He was new generation offensive guard. Huge upper body, schooled in new blocking techniques. But there was that indoctrination to go through. Harrah was there to take a job away from one of Mack's buddies.

"When I came to the Rams, it was a very cold, unwelcome environment," Harrah said. "One, there was resentment over the money. Two, you have to prove that you can bring something to the party above and beyond that of the guy who is already there."

Harrah brought all sorts of party favors. After a trying rookie season--"I don't think there was a day that went by that I didn't get yelled at. I just wasn't very good."--Harrah began to establish himself. Mack noticed.

So he adopted the bachelor Harrah as his very own. He gave tutoring lessons. He taught him the ways of the NFL. He teased him constantly.

"We gave (Harrah) a hard time about those bird legs of his," Mack said. "And he'd say (switching to West Virginia drawl), 'I've done squats until I'm blue in the face and I can't get my legs any bigger.' "

Said Harrah: "(Mack) was a bona fide jerk at all times, but he was a jerk with nothing but fun in his heart. There was no malice about Tom. He was the first man to come over and help you out of a situation, on the field and off."

Ram historians always will remember Harrah as the guy who waved Mack back onto the field during the final quarter of the 1978 Pro Bowl at the Coliseum. The stadium announcer had just told the audience that this would be the last time Mack would be seen in a Ram uniform. He was retiring after the game.

A standing ovation followed for Mack, who then received handshakes from each member of the AFC and NFC teams.

"I was just thankful that my dumb butt thought of it at the time," Harrah said.

Bechtel hired Mack shortly after his NFL retirement. So, of course, the Rams advanced to the 1979 Super Bowl.

"I laugh about it now," Mack said. "You know, timing is everything. But I think I quit a little more on my terms."

Actually, things couldn't be better for Mack. The lobbying business is going just fine and the Bechtel bosses seem pleased. Now if Mack could just rid himself of this Dan Dierdorf annoyance, a role reversal if there ever was one.

"Dan and I went to Michigan," Mack said. "He's about six years younger than I am. Every place we'd go, everyone would say to him, 'Hi, Tom.' It drove him crazy.

"But pay-backs are hell. Now people come up to me and say, 'Gee, you look like Dan Dierdorf.' My only comeback to that is, 'Hey, he looks like a fat me.' "

And, as usual, depend on Harrah to come to the rescue of his former teammate.

"If I looked like that fat, ugly Dan Dierdorf, it would upset me, too," he said. "If Dan Dierdorf were running a nuclear plant, we'd all be in trouble."

So this Tom Mack's life. Or is it lives? Football. Engineering.

"Honestly, at this point, it's like I never (played)," he said. "I mean, they paid me well not to grow up."

But people remember. When Mack once returned to Cleveland for a high school reunion, a pair of classmates confronted him. They were former high school tough guys, rowdies, actually. Now they owned a gas station on the city's west side.

All night long they had heard stories about the great Mack, the NFL star, the engineer in residence. Finally, one of them pulled Mack aside and in a gruff, disbelieving tone, asked, "No kidding? When'd you get good?"

And to this, after a satisfying laugh, Mack doesn't hesitate a moment. "The nicest compliment anyone's ever paid me."

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