Ask Sam Farmer: Who was the master of pranks on NFL players?

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Rickey Jackson during a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in January 1995.
(Greg Trott / Associated Press)

Have a question about the NFL? Ask Times NFL writer Sam Farmer, and he will answer as many as he can online and in the Sunday editions of the newspaper throughout the season. Email questions to:

With Thanksgiving coming up, I know a lot of NFL teams have that seasonal prank where they trick their rookies into going to the supermarket to pick up nonexistent free turkeys. But do you have any favorite NFL prank stories?

Gerald Hill, Palm Springs

Farmer: There are as many pranks as there are players in the league, and maybe more. Some jokesters live to pull off gags. But to hear some really good ones, I turned to Ted Walsh, former assistant equipment manager of the San Francisco 49ers who truly was a master prankster.


“Every year in New Orleans, the game day programs came out and they put one on everybody’s chair,” Walsh said. “And every year, we’d do this to a guy who hadn’t been on the team before: We’d have the locker room attendants in the visiting locker rooms come in and say, ‘Hey, guys, there’s been a mistake. One of the prizes that’s been issued got mixed up in your programs. There’s a page in there that if Rickey Jackson signed page 97 of your program, that person’s getting a car.’

“We’d prearranged it and I had signed Rickey Jackson’s name in the program on his picture. The one year we sat it on Jamie Williams’ seat, the tight end. So the guy comes in and makes the announcement and you see all the guys looking in their programs. Jamie jumps up, turns around and he’s looking at it. Jerry [Rice’s] locker is right next to him, and Jerry’s playing it up.

“Jamie’s like, ‘Man, my family’s here. I could give it to my mom, and then she could win the car.’ We were watching the whole thing play out. He’s trying to think about what he could do, how he could get this car. It’s hilarious. What ends up happening is it’s just bad acting. Guys try to sell it so hard, and the guy finally gets wind of it.”

Sean McVay was the NFL’s hottest coach as he led the Rams to two consecutive NFC West titles. But these days, the Rams are struggling and it’s been a humbling experience.


Then, there was one that involved 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo — unbeknownst to him — as well as top team executives.

“On the road, we’d get the rooming list and we’d start calling the rookies,” Walsh said. “In Dallas, we had a big balcony off our room and we could see down in the courtyard. Eddie DeBartolo, [team president] Carmen Policy, and the whole group was in the coffee shop down there.

“So we’d start calling guys — Dexter Carter, Bill Romanowski, J.J. Stokes — all these young guys on the team during their rookie years, and I would act like I was Carmen. I’d say, ‘Welcome to the team. Mr. D is really excited about your future. Like to have you guys come down and meet us for lunch. We’re right down in the coffee shop.’

“We’d hang up the phone and be like, ‘They bought it!’ Then we’d stand out there on the balcony and watch as all of them went down there, walked up to Mr. D and Carmen and sat down.


“We actually did it to Pete Kugler who had been with the team for about 10 years. We saw him on the elevator and we’re like, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ He was like, ‘Oh, you guys wouldn’t believe it if I told you.’ We didn’t say anything, but we all went back and watched him from the balcony.”

If those guys didn’t solve the mystery before, they now know who the culprit was.


Why are shoulder pads players wear now so much smaller than they used to be? Old pictures show players with pads halfway to the tops of their heads but now the pads seem barely there. Is it a technology thing? Style? Or are players so protected by the rules now they just don’t need huge pads?


Chris Hajduk, Simi Valley

Farmer: Think it’s a little of all of those reasons, Chris. The pads are better built now, more efficiently constructed. The rules better protect skill-position players, and many of them want to be as sleek as possible. And many of them prefer a more streamlined look.

When these AFC West rivals meet Monday night in Mexico City, the Chargers will be faced with containing an attack that has been dubbed the “Legion of Zoom.”

But let’s go back to former equipment man Walsh, from the above question, and check the history of players gravitating to smaller and lighter pads. Joe Montana, for one, chose to wear barely-there shoulder pads that almost looked like holdovers from Pop Warner. A lot of quarterbacks followed suit. And it wasn’t just shoulder pads.


“It used to be in the NFL uniform code that you had to wear all the hip pads and tailbone pads,” Walsh said. “The only guy I ever saw wear those were John Taylor. Nobody else even wore those girdles that had those pads in there. There were a lot of guys who tried to get away without wearing thigh pads. It was part of the uniform code. The referees would check.

“Even guys like our kicker, Ray Wersching, would try to go with toilet paper folded over. They’d stick it in there and the referee would check before the game: ‘Oh, yeah, there’s his thigh pads.’ Montana, Steve Young, they had these soft soccer shin pads. They would stick those in their thigh pad area. And then the knee pads were just real light foam. Not much to them.

“Then guys, to get even lighter, would cut the foam off, and inside that was just a plastic shell. So they would slide the shell in there to save 1/100th of an ounce. It was crazy.”