I met Walt Sweeney in a bar in a hotel out near 128, which is a ring road that encircles most of Boston. I think the hotel was a Holiday Inn. I think the meeting was in the late afternoon, something like 4 or 5 o'clock. I am not sure of the specifics.
All of this took place a long time ago.
"Do me a favor," a player for the New England Patriots -- I think it was Bill Lenkaitis, a center -- had said. "Write a column about Walt Sweeney. He's back in the area. He's had some problems. He's looking for a job with the state. Give him a little publicity."
This was the favor.
Sweeney, who grew up in Cohasset on the South Shore, had gone to college at Syracuse University, then was a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in the American Football League in 1963. He was an offensive lineman, a guard. He proceeded to play 154 straight games for the Chargers, 11 seasons, was an All-Star or All-Pro in nine of those seasons, then tacked on three more with the Washington Redskins before he retired in 1976.
This interview was three years later, on Sept. 21, 1979.
"You want a beer?" he said or maybe I said.
"Sure," he or I replied.
He was a big guy, had a sense of humor. Likable. He had a fine irreverence to all things NFL. He laughed at the seriousness, the pretentiousness that surrounded the game. The image. All of those halos had been knocked sideways long ago. He said he had thought about bringing a collection of his own football cards to explain his evolving point of view. They were pinned now to a corkboard in his kitchen in Cohasset.
"In the first one, 1963, I'm a rookie with a crew cut, the whole thing," he said. "I have a very intense look about me. In the second one, 1968 maybe, the hair is longer and I have sort of a quizzical look. The final one is from my final year in Washington. I have the full beard and here I am."
He laughed at the progression, innocence to worldliness.
"Another beer?" he said or maybe I said.
"Sure," he or I replied.
He talked about the father-son relationship that all coaches try to build up with their players. Everybody wants to please the father. Everybody is worried about being punished by the father. The coaches would break down the film from Sunday's game; then break down the individual players, make them seem small. Around Wednesday, the talk would change. The build-up would begin, sins forgiven, a march toward that feeling of invincibility at 1 o'clock on Sunday. The process was hilarious, when you thought about it, but everybody went along with it. Pro football was like that.
"So I get traded to the Redskins, right? So before the first game of the season they bring in the mayor of Washington, Walter Washington. He gives us a Knute Rockne speech and then he says, 'OK, now, let's all sing "Hail To The Redskins."' I look at Deacon Jones, who was traded to Washington with me. He looks at me. Is this room full of 35-year-old men going to start singing? Is this for real? Everybody starts singing. I look at Deacon. He looks at me. We start singing."
* * *
It was around here -- no, maybe it was later, after a few more stories, after a few more rounds were delivered to the table, maybe after the story about hoping the Chargers would kick off to start the second half because that would make time for two cigarettes rather than one in the locker room at halftime -- that the interesting conversation became much more interesting. Walt Sweeney began talking about the drugs that were used in pro football. I don't remember many of the specifics, but I do remember that there were a lot of drugs. Walt Sweeney said that everybody used them.
The Pro Bowl, he said, was a pharmaceutical convention more than a football game. Players from different teams brought their drugs, the specific ones everyone on their team used, and traded them for the specific drugs that everyone on another team used. It was a trading bazaar. Amphetamines. Steroids. Codeine. Seconal. Marijuana to come back to earth. Sweeney said that a trainer for the Chargers would go around the locker room before home games with a bowl of amphetamines that looked like a bowl of M&M's, everyone grabbing a handful.
He said he himself had been incredibly strung out on the drugs. He said they made him feel like Superman, made him try to force his body to do things it shouldn't or couldn't do. He played his games in a rage. All of his major injuries had come from situations where he was trying to make a play that his body couldn't make. That was how he picked up the knee injury that finished his career.
"Wow," I said.
Or something like that.
I wrote all of these words down as fast as he said them in my official steno notebook with my ballpoint pen. He watched me write. The interview went that way for a while -- Beer? Sure -- and finished in the early evening. We shook hands. I went home in a buzz of excitement.
This was a report from the inner circle of the game, a place where reporters with notebooks weren't welcome. This was that look at how the game-day sausage was really made. Not many stories about any of this were written at the time. Indeed, not many are written now. This was explosive stuff.
I think I started typing as soon as I got home, the narrative easy to spin. This was a Friday and the column was going to appear on Sunday, and when I shipped it to the offices of The Boston Globe late Friday night, every pill and every popper named, I had some very good feelings. I was a pro football muckraker. This was an award winner. There would be phone calls, stories about the story.
The first phone call the next day, Saturday, alas, was from Walt Sweeney. He had gone home, you know, and thought about our conversation. We'd had some beers, you know, and he'd said some things he probably shouldn't have said. He was going for that job with the state, you know, and all of that drug stuff probably wouldn't help. He wondered, you know, if I could take any of that stuff out of whatever story I had written.
And I said that I could.
And I did.
I went into the Globe and told the editors that there had been some misconceptions on my part, or something like that, and the story had to be toned down. I did the toning. The drugs disappeared. Just like that. I knew I could have, should have, been a better journalist, told Sweeney that on the record is on the record and that's that, but I couldn't. He was a good guy. He needed the job. He deserved the do-over. The story that was published about Sweeney had a headline that read "He Has Seen It All And Now He Can Laugh." That would not have been the headline for the first story.
I never talked to him again.
The state job, I guess, didn't work out, because he soon landed back on the West Coast. His silence didn't last, either. He not only told the story again (and again), repeating all of the details to anyone who would listen, but he sued the NFL for becoming addicted to drugs as a player. In 1997 he was awarded $1.8 million in disability payments, a ruling that was later reversed. He became a constant critic of the NFL.
"Dealing with them," he said, "is like dealing with Satan."
News of his death from pancreatic cancer, age 71, arrived on Monday. I hadn't thought of Walt Sweeney in a long time. The memory made me smile.
That was the best story I never wrote.