Paul Tagliabue doesn’t know it yet, but Dion Rich will be having his picture taken with him at the Commissioner’s Party at the Equestrian Center in Griffith Park Friday night.
Rich, of course, is not on Tagliabue’s guest list, but it wouldn’t be the first time he has posed as a waiter to gain admittance to one of the NFL’s Super Bowl bashes.
“You know, sometimes you can actually get lost coming in through the kitchen,” he said.
Rich, a former bar owner and ticket broker, will dine with the Super Bowl winners Sunday night at their victory party, too, as he does each year, although no one will be quite sure who he is or how he got there.
“I danced with Tom Landry’s daughter after Super Bowl VI,” he said. “A lovely girl.”
NFL security was not amused. They posted wanted posters for Dion Rich, alias, the Gate-Crasher, the Great Impostor.
“After so many years it gets to be a real job,” he said. “People see me on the sidelines all the time and think it’s easy. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of conniving and ingenuity and contacts. Every year they made it tougher.
“It just wasn’t that much fun anymore. I’ll be 64 on my next birthday and this is kid’s stuff. It’s about time I grow up.”
Bozo the Clown might grow up, but if there’s a Super Bowl party that he hasn’t been invited to, he’ll be there. And by night’s end, he’ll have photos to prove it.
For years NFL officials reviewed photos of Super Bowls only to be confronted with the same question: “Who is that guy?”
For more than 20 years Rich played mouse while the NFL remained the frustrated cat trying to catch him sneaking onto the field or into the winner’s locker room at the Super Bowl. After successfully pouncing on him in Super Bowl XXIII, a repentant Rich promised he would make no further attempt to skirt NFL security.
Felix Eades, a Miami private investigator hired by the NFL to shadow Rich a few years ago, however, is not convinced.
“He’s so close to home what with the Super Bowl being in Pasadena,” Eades said. “How can he resist? Look at his file and what he has done. Quite a guy.”
There is the picture of the first Super Bowl trophy presentation. You’ve probably seen it, too. Pete Rozelle is on a platform with the championship trophy in hand, while Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and Dion Rich look on.
“I just walked right up there,” he said. “I didn’t say anything to anybody because I didn’t know a soul in there.”
After Dallas’ victory in Super Bowl XII over Denver, Sports Illustrated photographers caught Coach Tom Landry being carried from the field. Dallas defensive tackle Larry Cole had one leg and Dion Rich had the other.
“I had ridden to the game on Denver’s bus because I knew Red Miller, the Broncos’ coach,” Rich said. “And here I am carrying Landry on my shoulders. You should have seen the look on Miller’s face when he came out to shake hands with Landry at midfield.”
A day after Super Bowl XIII, the front page of the Los Angeles Times featured a picture of jubilant Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll and Dion Rich.
“About the fourth time Noll had won the Super Bowl I think he was getting tired of seeing me,” he said. “I tried to hook my arm into his as he was running off the field so I’d have a better chance of getting in a picture, but Noll kept trying to elbow me out of the way.”
He threw his arm around Joe Gibbs after Washington won Super Bowl XVII and appeared on television chatting with Gibbs.
“I told him Don Coryell said, ‘hello,’ even though it was bull,” he said. “I just wanted to make conversation so I could get my picture taken.”
When Jim O’Brien’s 32-yard field goal lifted Baltimore to a 16-13 victory over Dallas in Super Bowl V, the TV cameras focused on Colt Coach Don McCafferty on the sideline and the man standing directly next to him--Dion Rich.
“People could say I’m making it all up,” Rich said, “but pictures don’t lie.
“It was my hobby. The guys at home expected me to be on the tube or in the papers every year. I couldn’t let them down. I made it on TV or in some publication in 21 of the first 22 Super Bowls.”
The NFL also took notice of Rich and his penchant for being where he didn’t belong and set out to stop him. So Rich entered the stadium wearing a wig, baseball cap, glasses and mustache. He also packed a walkie-talkie--complete with earpiece--to better blend in with security.
When the game ended, he removed his disguise and somehow produced bona fide credentials to gain access to the field or locker room.
“Jim Kensil, who is currently one of the Jets’ owners, was a top official for Rozelle at the time,” he said. “He stuck a finger at me before Super Bowl VII and said, ‘If we catch you on the field Sunday, we’re throwing your rear out of the Coliseum, do you understand?’
“I nodded, and two weeks later there was a perfect shot of me and Don Shula in Newsweek magazine as we ran off the field together.
“After that, though, I had butterflies in my stomach. I knew from that time on the NFL was after me. I was nervous before a game just like the players.”
Rich took more time with his game plan, which included reconnaissance trips sometimes. The NFL remained befuddled until Super Bowl XXIII, when it hired Eades, a former policeman, to track Rich.
“Followed him all week; a real party fellow,” Eades said. “It seems he had ticked off the NFL and they were no longer amused. They were spending serious dollars on him, and he had already embarrassed more than a few security systems.”
Eades contacted Rich under the pretext of being a reporter and learned how Rich was planning to crash Super Bowl XXIII.
“He got into the game with a legitimate ticket, but of course his thing is getting on the field or in the locker room and having his picture taken. We knew he had a disabled pass and a wheelchair and we had six undercover cops around him at the game.
“When the game was about to end, his friend pushed him in the wheelchair down this ramp and they were really flying. We were chasing them, and caught him right about as he was to go into the locker room.”
Eades advised Rich that he was headed for jail, but sat and listened as Rich explained his situation.
“He’s such a nice guy; I didn’t want to see him locked up,” Eades said. “He promised to never go on the field or in the locker room at a Super Bowl again. Then he had someone take pictures of us together.”
Rich said he has been straight ever since, although he did stand on the sidelines throughout the Miami-San Diego playoff game recently.
“I had a visiting bench pass,” he said. “I can’t tell you where I got it, but it worked just fine.
“The NFL hasn’t said anything about the championship game or playoffs, so I figure the NFL gives me my territory and I give them theirs. I won’t bother them at the Super Bowl.”
In addition to his Super Bowl exploits, he crashed the 1982 heavyweight championship fight between Gerry Cooney and Larry Holmes and sat in the second row next to Farrah Fawcett. He climbed under three fences and had his picture taken while helping to dismantle “Stars and Stripes” after its America’s Cup victory in Fremantle, Australia. He joined Bowie Kuhn, George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin on the podium following the Yankees’ World Series victory over the Dodgers.
“The Olympics are easy to crash; you got volunteers chatting and you just walk right by them,” he said. “The Super Bowl is the hardest. They know who I am.”
Jim Steeg, the NFL’s executive director for special events, has not had any run-ins with Rich, but he knows about him.
“Everybody talked about him and Jim Kensil used to hate his guts, but we haven’t seen him in the last few years,” Steeg said. “It’s not that big of a deal, except that afterward he will call the press and tell them what he has done.
“The only thing we’re concerned about is this breeding other people to do the same thing and get in the way of people doing legitimate business. It’s just an aggravation.”
Rich specializes in aggravation. He has a trunkload of press credentials of all sizes, shapes and colors. He
has been known to “borrow” the press passes on display near the press-box elevator, which have been placed there to identify the different areas of access.
“It was so easy in the beginning,” he said. “Through the years, because of owning a bar, I had cultivated a long list of friends on various teams. I knew TV people and reporters and even some team owners. I’d get credentials from them. . . . See this--it’s an NFL security badge.
“How did I get it? Did Houdini reveal all his tricks?”
Sometimes he can’t get his hands on a bona fide credential.
“All you have to do is turn an old press badge backward and put it in your shirt with just the top sticking out,” he said. “You put me one-on-one with a four-dollar rent-a-cop and it’s no contest.”
Once on the field, he doesn’t move unless the ball is in the air. “I take it step-by-step, methodically moving from here to there while everyone is watching the ball.”
In the first Super Bowl, he brought a pail of water onto the field for the players. He knows how to fit in. At a Pro Bowl played in Los Angeles, he walked into the locker room with the American Conference team at halftime.
“A few people asked who I was and I told them I was an assistant to so and so and they bought it,” he said.
As time runs out in the game, he makes his move toward the winning coach. “It’s tough,” he said, “because you got 260-pound linemen trying to get on TV, too.
“In Super Bowl XV I got caught looking at the clock and Raider Coach Tom Flores took off running onto the field with nine seconds to play. That’s why you see me in the pictures a few feet behind Flores as he shakes hands with Dick Vermeil.
“In the old days the coaches waited until the clock ran out before making their move. It’s tougher now.”
No, it’s just not the same anymore.
“Thank God, I wasn’t doing my thing in the Gatorade era,” he said. “Yeah, I’m retired now.
“The NFL has got my number. They put the fear of God into me, and there’s no way I will interfere with the NFL at the Super Bowl. It hasn’t even entered my mind that I would do it. Of course, it entered my mind that I would like to do it, but there’s a fine line between liking to do it and being tempted to do it.”
Felix Eades laughed. He will be watching the Super Bowl on TV Sunday, and he won’t be surprised if a familiar face suddenly appears on the podium during the trophy presentation.
“I know I’ll be looking for him,” Eades said.