John Gordy, 73, dies; former Detroit Lions lineman led NFL players’ union

Gordy in Lions uniform
John Gordy, pictured here in 1964 as a member of the Detroit Lions, was head of the NFL Players Assn. when it it negotiated the league’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1968. He died of complications from pancreatic cancer at the age of 73.
(Laughead Photography)

John Gordy, a former Detroit Lions lineman who led the NFL players’ union in 1968 when it negotiated the league’s first collective bargaining agreement, has died. He was 73.

Gordy died Friday of complications from pancreatic cancer at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, his wife, Betty, said.

A star offensive lineman at the University of Tennessee in the 1950s, Gordy was picked by the Lions in the second round of the 1957 NFL draft. He started at right guard his rookie season, when the Lions won the NFL championship, their last league title.

By 1968 he was a seasoned veteran and president of the NFL Players Assn., which he had helped found. Gordy led the union’s efforts to press the league’s owners on a slate of demands, including higher minimum salaries for veterans and rookies, bigger paychecks for exhibition games, independent arbitration and a greater contribution to the pension fund.

On July 3, 1968, after talks with the owners stalled, the NFL Players Assn. voted to strike.

The owners countered by declaring a lockout. But on July 14, the owners relented and the brief strike was over.

Although the players could celebrate winning a collective bargaining agreement from the owners, the concessions they received were small. The owners compromised by agreeing to contribute about $1.5 million to the pension fund but maintained minimum salaries of $9,000 for rookies, $10,000 for veterans and $50 per exhibition game, and no independent arbitration.

After the merger of the National Football League and the American Football League in 1970, more labor disputes lay ahead.

However, Gordy’s contributions were lasting, according to Richard Berthelsen, interim executive director of the NFL Players Assn.

“John was one of the cornerstones of our union,” Berthelsen told The Times on Saturday. “Everybody thought very highly of John. He led NFL players into their first strike. It was a short one, but he wanted to prove the point that they would do it.”

Gordy returned to the Lions but suffered a serious knee injury in training camp and retired before the 1968 season.

John Thomas Gordy Jr. was born July 17, 1935, in Nashville. His father was Papa John Gordy, a Dixieland jazz musician.

Gordy didn’t play football until his senior year in high school but won a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He was a two-year starter at right tackle and captain of the team his senior season. That year, 1956, the Volunteers, led by tailback Johnny Majors, won the Southeastern Conference and finished 10-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

Gordy moved on to the Lions, and after a standout rookie season he left the team to be an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska.

He returned to Detroit in 1959 at right guard and played through the 1967 season. He went to the Pro Bowl three times in the mid-1960s.

Gordy also had a substantial role in the 1968 film “Paper Lion,” based on George Plimpton’s book about the Lions and starring Alan Alda as Plimpton.

In his post-football years, Gordy was married three times and divorced twice. He moved to California in the late 1970s and settled in San Clemente in 1987.

In recent years, Gordy worked as an executive in the healthcare industry. He became active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Besides his wife of 26 years, Gordy is survived by sons John Gordy III of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Thomas Gordy of Beverly Hills, Mich.; Todd Wilde of Menifee, Calif.; daughters Kimberley Mendoza of San Juan Capistrano, Alexandra Hall of Woodland Hills and Meghan Swafford of Mission Viejo; sisters Judy Pass and Barbara Hirsh of Madison, Tenn.; and 14 grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at Mariners Church, 5001 Newport Coast Drive, Irvine. Instead of flowers, his family requests donations to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and its youth camp program. Contact Mark Boyer, Orange County FCA Director, P.O. Box 8366, Huntington Beach, CA 92615-8366.

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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