Football Urban Legends Revealed #22

This is the twenty-second in a series of examinations of football-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn whether Andre the Giant tried out for the Washington Redskins, discover whether Pamela Anderson was plucked from a football crowd for stardom and find out the story behind Iowa’s famed “Steubenville Trio!”

Click here to view an archive of all the previous football legends.

Let’s begin!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Andre the Giant once tried out for the Washington Redskins.

STATUS: False (with some truth to it)

The late André René Roussimoff was best known as the stage name he worked under as a professional wrestler – Andre the Giant. The French-born legend was one of the early stars of the World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Federation (WWWF/WWF) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, preceding Hulk Hogan as the main “babyface” wrestler (wrestling term for the “good guy” wrestlers) for the WWF. He gained even more fame when he appeared in the 1987 classic hit film The Princess Bride as the gentle giant, Fezzik. At seven feet four inches and nearly five hundred pounds (a result of gigantism), Roussimoff was an imposing and surprisingly athletic figure who marveled fans for years before his untimely death in 1993 at the age of 46 due to congestive heart failure.

His athleticism (and size) has led to a persistent legend that Roussmoff tried out for the Washington Redskins and their coach, George Allen, offered him a contract to play in the National Football League (NFL) in 1975. As the story goes, after the tryout, Roussimoff ultimately decided to pass on the deal, changing not only his professional legacy but perhaps NFL history, as well.

Is that true, though?

Interestingly enough, in his early days as a wrestler in his late 20s and early 30s, Roussimoff (who wrestled under the name Monster Roussimoff back then) would often use athletic moves like dropkicks, which was quite impressive coming from a guy as big as him. He lived in Canada and often traveled to Japan (where he was always quite popular). It was difficult for him to find people willing to wrestle him in Canada, so his destiny seemed to be as a highly capable wrestler rather than as a “star.” Things changed, though, when then WWWF president Vince McMahon Sr. was brought into the mix in 1972. He convinced Roussimoff to change his style to play up the “immovable object” aspect of his personality – a “giant” who could not be stopped. This change to his style, along with the corresponding new stage name “Andre the Giant” turned him into a superstar (and McMahon cashed in by sending Roussimoff on a harrowing travel-intensive schedule of matches all over the world, all of which McMahon got a cut of).

It was during this time that Roussimoff was “discovered” by George Allen, the Hall of Fame coach of the Washington Redskins (who had led the ‘Skins to the 1972 Super Bowl, where they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins).

In either 1975 (or 1976, as I’ve seen some places cite it – I think 1975 appears more likely), Allen was interested in looking beyond the normal football prospects for a possible addition to the Redskins. Tim Temerario recalled the situation:

After the draft, George Allen said he would like to sign someone unusual, maybe about seven feet tall. I had heard about this wrestler and traced him through Vince McMahon. When he told me how much Andre earned, I was a little bit put off. It would take a long time to get him ready, but I knew he was quick and the agility to be a defensive tackle or end. We were interested, and I talked to Allen about it.

However, ultimately the discussions never got past that (I cannot even confirm that Allen and Roussimoff actually even spoke to each other directly), as Roussimoff was not interested in taking off time to try out a new sport when he was making so much money as a wrestler (money that he would not make as a football player, certainly not right away), so the Redskins never made an offer and Roussimoff never tried out for the Redskins (the ‘Skins likely did at least offer a try out, though).

Thanks to Ross Davies’ book, Andre the Giant, for the scoop (as well as thanks to Tim Temerario for providing the information to Davies)! Dan Steinberg, of the Washington Post, also did a good piece on the subject back in 2009.

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Pamela Anderson got her big break when caught by a TV camera at a Canadian Football game.

STATUS: True

A number of professional football players made it big in the United States of America after first proving themselves in the Canadian Football League. The most famous example of a player not being drafted or not making a National Football League team before becoming a star in the CFL is clearly Warren Moon, the legendary quarterback who is the only man to be enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Moon is far from the only player to do so – some others include Pro Bowl Quarterback Jeff Garcia (undrafted by the NFL), defensive end Harald Hasselbach (the last player to win a CFL championship and an NFL championship) and wide receiver Mervyn Fernandez. This is not even counting those players who had a choice between the two leagues and went with the CFL before later coming to the States (guys like Rocket Ismail and Joe Theismann).

However, the CFL did not only give the United States football players. It also was (in a roundabout way) responsible for giving the USA Pamela Anderson!

Pamela Denise Anderson was in the limelight basically from birth. Born at 4:08 AM on July 1, 1967, in Ladysmith, British Columbia, Anderson was the first baby born on Canada’s 100th Anniversary as a nation. As a result, Anderson was named “The Centennial Baby.” When she was six years old, a photograph of Anderson at the library became a popular poster in British Columbia libraries (you know, like those “Read” posters you often see in libraries). So even while living in small cities, she managed to make a name for herself.

Always interested in the entertainment industry, while still in high school Anderson appeared in a 1984 film, Crimes of Passion (starring Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins) as a hooker. Clearly interested in the entertainment business (and California specifically – Anderson’s goal in her high school yearbook was to be a “California beach bum”), soon after graduating high school Anderson moved to the biggest city in British Columbia, Vancouver. Once there, she eventually found work as a fitness instructor. While in Vancouver she began to participate in the film and TV industry there (a number of movies and TV shows film in Vancouver), getting small jobs on a few different projects as an extra. In 1987, she was credited in the film, Some Kind of Wonderful (as “Party Guest”). Around this time, she also began modeling fitness wear and swimsuits.

In the Summer of 1989, the 22-year-old Anderson attended a B.C. Lions football game at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver (I cannot seem to figure out exactly which home game she attended – most tellings of the story have it as being against the Toronto Argonauts, but that game did not take place until the middle of August – it seems a lot more likely that it took place at one of the three home games in July) with some friends. Anderson was wearing a tight Labatt’s Blue crop-top t-shirt (supposedly given to her by one of the friends she attended the game with, someone who worked for Labatt’s – I cannot confirm that). A camera man put his TV camera on Anderson during the game and she was shown on the big video screen at the game (and to the TV viewers at home). The audience reaction was tremendous. Accounts differ on whether she was given any specific special treatment at the game itself (whether it be being involved in a contest at halftime or whatever), but it is safe to say that the exposure from her appearance at the game did, indeed, break her career in a big way, particularly with regards to Labatt’s, as they reportedly received a number of phone calls inquiring about the girl from the football game.

Labatt is one of the oldest beer companies in Canada. It was founded in Ontario by John Kinder Labatt in 1847! Up until the late 1970s, it most popular beer was Labatt 50, but eventually, its Pilsener Lager, labeled Labatt Blue, became its best selling beer (it was first informally referred to as Labatt Blue because of the color of the label and because Labatt was a sponsor of the CFL team the Winnipeg Blue Bombers; Labatt eventually just adopted the name officially). Its late 1970s appeal might have something to do with Labatt owning the Toronto Blue Jays from the team’s formation in 1976 until 1995 (when Labatt was purchased by the Belgian brewer Interbrew), but I couldn’t say for sure. By the late 1980s, Labatt had introduced a marketing strategy called “the Blue Zone,” where they would mark off certain areas of stadiums as “the Blue Zone.”

Now here is where the myth of Pamela Anderson falls apart a bit. According to Anderson herself in a few interviews, her appearance on the big screen at the Lions game was pure chance, and her career sprang out of that. Anderson said in a 1996 interview, “I did not pursue this career.” As though if it would not have been for the TV camera catching her, she would have never been anything but a fitness instructor. Obviously, we know that not to be the case. She had worked in the entertainment industry already and was modeling well before she was “discovered” at the football game. In addition, according to photographer David Sereda, who had done modeling sessions with Anderson around that time, Anderson and her then-boyfriend (and later fiance), Daniel Ilicic, had pitched Anderson to Labatt as a spokes model before she appeared on the big screen at the Lions game. Ilicic later did the photography on the famous “Blue Zone Girl” poster of Anderson, and allegedly that, too, was produced before Anderson appeared on the big screen. Actually, if we are to believe the story that one of her friends worked for Labatt’s, it certainly would make sense that Ilicic would have plenty of opportunity to pitch Labatt, right? In either event, the football game appearance was extremely notable as it brought Anderson a great deal of attention and got Labett to finally say “yes” to her.

Anderson eventually did appear in advertising for Labatt (including the aforementioned famous “Blue Zone Girl” poster). Right around this time, another Vancouver photographer (at Anderson’s behest) sent some photos of Anderson to Playboy magazine, who was interested. Anderson was asked to do a photo shoot for the magazine. She first appeared on the cover of the October 1989 issue of Playboy. The Labatt ads began appearing at this time. Anderson began to get more attention now from Playboy and other places, so she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her modeling career. She did her first Playboy nude pictorial in February 1990 (soon after the spread she got her first breast implants) and later in that year she began to appear in a few minor TV roles (Charles in Charge and Married…With Children) before getting a gig as a recurring character on the brand-new hit sitcom Home Improvement (as the “Tool Time girl”) in 1991. It was her role on Home Improvement that got her her job on the TV series Baywatch, at which point she became a national star.

So while we can certainly debate the various aspects of the Pamela Anderson “creation myth,” as it were, the one thing that all versions of the story agree on is that had it not been for her attending that BC Lions game, she never would have become as famous as she eventually did. So next time you see the Kiss Cam land on someone at a sporting event, who knows, you might be seeing a star of the future!

Thanks to David Sereda, Sky Magazine, Playboy Magazine and Pamela Anderson herself for various quotes and pieces of information!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: A player who had accepted a football scholarship to Ohio State abruptly changed his mind when saying goodbye to his two best friends before they left for Iowa.

STATUS: True

When Forest Evashevski took over as Iowa football coach in 1952, the program was in disarray, with only a lone winning season in the past decade. Evashevski set out to change that, and by 1956 he had achieved a Big Ten Conference championship and in 1958 he won a National Championship, cementing his status as a legendary football coach (he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000).

Naturally, one of the areas where Evashevski turned the program around was in the area of recruiting. None of his recruiting stories, though, were quite as famous as the story of how he netted the “Steubenville Trio” in the fall of 1952.

Calvin “Cal” Jones, Eddie Vincent and Frank Gilliam were students together at Steubenville High School in Ohio. They were all great football players and, more importantly, great friends. When it came to recruitment time, though, only Jones – an imposing guard – was recruited by Ohio State and its own legendary football coach, Woody Hayes. Evashevski was given a tip about Vincent and Gillam, so he gave them both scholarships and they agreed to play for Iowa. This led to one of the all-time great Iowa stories.

If I’m talking about all-time great Iowa stories, who better to quote that Ron Maly, king of great Iowa football stories? Here is Maly on what happened next:

When Gilliam and Vincent were preparing to say goodbye to Jones, the big lineman said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I’m going with you.’ Suddenly, Jones put some of his belongings together and jumped into the car with Gilliam and Vincent. Seeing that, Jones’s mother said from the front porch, ‘Calvin, you can’t go to Iowa City. Mr. Hayes is counting on you to be on his team at Ohio State.’ “However, that didn’t stop Jones. Into the car he went, and off it drove to Iowa City. “‘I know I promised Coach Hayes that I would go to Ohio State,’ Jones told his mother, ‘but I want to go to Iowa.’

As you might imagine, Woody Hayes did not take this well. The commissioner of the Big Ten launched an investigation to see if Iowa did anything improper with Jones. Ultimately, Iowa was cleared. When asked about why he switched schools so late in the game, Jones replied, “I’ll tell you why I came out here. They treated me like a white man, and I like it here. I’m going to stay.”

As to what actual role Evashevski actually played in Jones’ decision? Maly notes,

“Ohio State had Cal sewed up, and they weren’t interested in Gilliam or Vincent. It was on the recommendation of a high school coach that we took Gilliam and Vincent. ‘When they decided to come to Iowa, Jones was a little reluctant to go alone to Ohio State. If he came to Iowa, he’d have his two friends with him. We told him he could room with the other two players, and that did it–he hopped into the car and came with them.”

Maly also notes that Gillam confirmed the story to him in 2002. It is really not THAT crazy of a story (although it definitely is awesome!), so I think it’s fair enough to go with a “true” here.

Jones, of course, went on to become the first Iowa player to ever be named a two-time consensus All-American. While another Hawkeye (Larry Station) eventually matched that achievement, Jones remains the only Hawkeye to ever be a three-time All-American.

Tragically, while playing professional football in Canada after graduation, Jones took a plane to meet up with his old teammates to watch Iowa play in the 1956 Rose Bowl (his friend Gillam had missed the 1955 season due to injury, so he was still on the team). Tragically, his plane crashed on the way and he was killed. He was 23 years old.

Jones is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and, along with the nearly-mythical Nile Kinnick, are the only two Hawkeyes to ever have their number retired.

Thanks again to Ron Maly! Be sure to buy his book:
Tales from the Iowa Sidelines!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

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