Ken Ruettgers was an offensive lineman for USC the last time the Trojans defeated Notre Dame, which obviously makes Ken Ruettgers very, very old.
But two weeks ago, Ruettgers was still playing for the Green Bay Packers against the Dallas Cowboys on “Monday Night Football” in front of a national TV audience. It was the last time, after more than 20 years of high school, college and professional football, anyone was going to see Ruettgers in uniform.
It’s an amazing story: A player who toiled for a dozen years in Green Bay during some of the darkest days of the historic franchise. A team record, in his time there, of 79-95-1 before this season. And Ruettgers simply walks away from almost $500,000, certain additional playoff bonuses and maybe a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
“I was drowning in pain,” he explained. “My knee hurt so bad, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Ruettgers, who had been responsible for protecting quarterback Brett Favre’s blind side as the Packers’ starting left tackle, played the entire game against Dallas, flew with the team back to Green Bay and arrived at 4:30 in the morning. He spoke to no one of his plans until he was quite sure what he was going to do, and then he took his wife out to dinner.
“Tuesday night is date night, and that’s when I told her I was done,” he said. “She had mixed feelings. She knew how much I absolutely loved football.”
The next day Ruettgers, a No. 1 pick by the Packers in 1985, told Coach Mike Holmgren, who advised Ruettgers to go about his work as if nothing had happened.
“I’m in the meetings and watching videotape and I’m thinking I can do this and maybe I should change my mind,” Ruettgers said. “But I went out to lunch, took some time to think and pray, and I knew I could not go on.”
He still has his full USC uniform at home, but when it came time to clean out his Green Bay locker, he took only three pictures of his family and a bible.
“I had seen thousands of guys come and go, and that’s the way it was going to be for me,” he said. “It’s like John Robinson always used to say when he was coaching me at USC: ‘If I die, bury me and just go on.’ It’s the nature of the business.”
Ruettgers, the author of “Home Field Advantage, a Dad’s Guide to the Power of Role Modeling,” could have stayed with the Packers. He could have gone on injured reserve, earned his full salary and properly received a Super Bowl ring in the event the Packers won.
“I could not accept a Super Bowl ring under those circumstances,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been right to go on injured reserve and ride it out. This organization has just been wonderful to me. It was willing to take a chance on me.”
Ruettgers, who has begun dieting with hopes of dropping from his playing weight of 295 to 230 to lighten the load on his sore knee, has no regrets as the Packers march on.
“I had more fun at USC and in the pros than any guy deserves,” said Ruettgers, who has a master’s degree in business. “I was part of the Packer tradition which is as rich and deep as the USC tradition.”
Ruettgers blew out his knee in 1983, and was on crutches preparing to find a job after graduation from USC. But a change in NCAA rules gave him an extra year of eligibility and, in the long run, an NFL career three times longer than the average.
“I played every card I had, and I just couldn’t take the pain any more,” he said. “A lot of people say I was lucky to have played 12 years. And I would say to them: ‘Don’t you love what you are doing?’ And most people say no. That’s what’s really sad--not me retiring with a chance to play in a Super Bowl.”
A GREAT RESOURCE
One of the great minds and leaders in professional football continues to rest unused, and as teams begin to plot their futures following the 1996 season, there are some outfits that should be calling Chuck Knox.
“I’m not interested in coaching anymore, but I would certainly entertain thoughts of being the director of football operations, a general manager or consultant,” Knox said. “But no, I haven’t talked to anybody about something like that. My name has been thrown around in Seattle, for example, but I have not talked to anybody.”
Knox, as the record books testify, has the ability to quickly turn around sagging football teams. He did it in Los Angeles with the Rams, in Buffalo and then again in Seattle. He failed again in Anaheim, but ask Rich Brooks how tough it is to be successful, given the management structure of the Rams.
Since leaving them two years ago, Knox has kept his trained eye on the game. His son is coaching with the Eagles, and a check of NFL rosters indicates most teams employ a Knox-trained assistant.
“I don’t get up every morning feeling anxious, like I have to find a job,” Knox said. “It’s not an overwhelming obsession with me. But you see all these flare-ups with players and coaches and it makes you wonder if someone couldn’t help. It would have to be the right situation where I could help coaches, or the head coach on what to do in certain circumstances.”
Bill Walsh returned to the 49ers this year as a consultant, and in recent weeks Coach George Seifert has asked Walsh to become even more involved in the team’s operation. Why not Knox?
Knox, the former junior high teacher from a small town in Pennsylvania who went on to become one of only eight head coaches to last for more than 20 years in the NFL, hopes to be an inspiration, he said, for other aspiring coaches. It is a good profession, he said, although there is no sense discussing his last assignment with the Rams because Knox is not going to change a lifetime approach to the game and become critical.
“I’m enjoying myself, but I do miss it,” he said. “I miss the arena; it has been my life. I loved winning, although I didn’t like the agony of defeat. It was such a great challenge to get players ready for the next game. A year ago on Labor Day was the first time in 49 years I was not on a practice field.
“I still believe I have some good years to give. But will I call anybody? No, that’s not my style. I consider myself retired at this point.”
A phone call, however, could change that, and for a team looking for experience, the benefit of history and the proper way to conduct oneself in the pressurized game of professional football, who better than Knox?
Al Davis speaks, and everybody is supposed to listen, although he makes no sense. In a 90-minute ramble the other day, Davis said the “diabolical problem” confronting the Raiders these days is that Oakland mismanaged the $198-million deal he accepted to move his team from Los Angeles.
He said he was greatly concerned at the time that Oakland could not handle the deal economically, but what the heck, he accepted it anyway. He didn’t mention anything about personally setting the highest ticket prices in the league, ignoring the recommendations to the contrary from the marketing people he employed.
He said the community is at fault for not selling personal seat licenses--in other words the fans are to blame for not wanting to make another mortgage payment to watch a lousy football team. He said taxpayers now will probably have to be hit for money and said he doesn’t want to rip off anyone. No report if his following remarks were drowned out by laughter.
As to his specific comments, if you knew a guy at work who wore a white or black sweatsuit every day of his life, shuffled around like he was mad at the world, made decisions that suggested he was always out to lunch and acted as if he were smart and everyone else dumb, would you care to hear what he had to say?
Keyshawn Johnson, former USC wide receiver and the NFL’s next superstar if he can ever get away from the Jets, is struggling. He dropped three passes last week, caught one for 10 yards and is complaining that he is not getting the ball early in games.
Johnson has caught only five first-quarter passes.
“I think you have to get receivers the ball quick,” Johnson said. “When I don’t get involved early, I don’t produce that well. That’s been the case throughout my career.
“Look at the ‘Niners and Jerry [Rice]. When Jerry isn’t involved early, the ‘Niners struggle. You have to get him in the flow. You have to get the great ones involved.”
Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt said, “All I know is the quarterback throws the ball to the receiver that’s open. . . . If you throw it to him early and he’s not open, what difference does it make?”
So Johnson hasn’t been open?
“If anyone tells you that, they’re a damn liar,” the great one said.
IN QUOTATION MARKS
--Doug Flutie, 34, who led Toronto to a CFL Grey Cup title recently and was named the game’s most valuable player:
“When I see guys like Jim Harbaugh and Rich Gannon playing or backing up in the NFL, it frustrates me, because I always felt that I could do what they do and more. There is no doubt in my mind that I could succeed in the NFL. All that stuff about being too short is a bunch of bull.”
--Arizona offensive coordinator Jim Fassel on the Cardinals’ turnaround:
“A month ago, this team looked dead. I know it. The grave already was dug. We just hadn’t put anybody in there yet and filled it up.”
--Nancy Irsay, wife of Colt owner Bob Irsay, who is recovering from a stroke, says the trustees appointed to run the team in her husband’s absence have not been very nice:
“They’ve been treating Bob like he’s been dead ever since his stroke. It’s sick. Instead of helping him to get better, they’ve been planning for his death. I feel like I’ve been sitting in a canoe with sharks running around me since Bob had the stroke.”
CLIP ‘N’ SAVE
--The Eagles have lost three in a row, but Coach Ray Rhodes said this week, “I just want to say right now, we’re not going to lose the rest of our games.”
--A week ago, Dallas cornerback Deion Sanders said the Cowboys, 49ers and Packers are the only real contenders for the Super Bowl. Said Denver Coach Mike Shanahan, “I don’t believe, unless something changes, two NFC teams can play each other in the Super Bowl.”
--Jet Coach Rich Kotite is 4-31 in his last 35 games. That’s good. Rick Venturi, 0-4 since replacing Jim Mora in New Orleans, is 1-40-1 as a head coach, including his stints with the Colts and at Northwestern.
--The Rams are the losingest franchise in the ‘90s with a 33-75 record.
--The six victories for Arizona Coach Vince Tobin are the most by a Cardinal first-year coach since Charley Winner was 8-3-1 in 1966.
--The Minnesota Vikings’ starting quarterback, Brad Johnson, becomes a free agent this off-season. Do they try to re-sign him, or do they pay Warren Moon $4.3 million and hope the 40-year-old quarterback, who is out now because of a sore ankle, has something left?
--The Giants must decide whether to fire Dan Reeves or let him coach the final year of his contract. The players seemed to have cast their vote a week ago by awarding Reeves a game ball after beating Dallas.