Urban Legends of the NFL: Andre the Giant, Defensive End, Washington Redskins

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 19, 2016

Heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, left, Compares fists with Andre
Associated Press

The NFL was filled with colorful characters in the 1970s.

There was "Mean" Joe Greene and Ed "Too Tall" Jones, "Hacksaw" Jack Reynolds and Jack "The Assassin" Tatum.

And, of course, there was Andre Roussimoff, better known as Andre the Giant. 

Wait, Andre the Giant wasn't a football player. He was a professional wrestler, perhaps the most beloved professional wrestler ever: a 7'4", 450-pound ogre with a heart of gold. Andre the Giant certainly looked like he would wreak havoc if someone designed a helmet in his size and lined him up at defensive end. But the French-speaking international superstar never played in the NFL.

Legend has it that he came close. Colorful Redskins coach and general manager George Allen wanted to sign Andre. He even sent a scout to meet Andre and his promoters before training camp in 1975. Joe Theismann himself was there for the meeting, captured forever in a famous photograph, the young quarterback dwarfed by the wrestling behemoth.

So the Redskins really were close to signing a literal giant to block field goals and perhaps sack a quarterback or two.

Or were they?

        

'A Hunk of Material'

In a news conference worthy of Paul Bunyan and his Great Blue Ox, Babe, the Washington Redskins suggested Tuesday they were interested in a 7-foot-4, more than one-fifth of a ton professional wrestler, known as Andre the Giant, for defensive purposes.  UPI

The official UPI wire story of Andre's meeting with the Redskins doesn't have the most elegant opening sentence in journalism history. But it is an official story, published and widely circulated on July 9, 1975. So it certainly is true that Andre met with the Redskins, in the presence of reporters.

The AP also reported on the event. Neither service specified where the meeting took place, but the stories have Washington datelines. Redskins Encyclopedia states that the accompanying photos of Andre standing next to (and lifting) Theismann were taken at Duke Zeibert's restaurant in Washington, D.C. A "local wrestling promoter" was also at the event, and wrestling legend Vince McMahon Sr. is mentioned in both stories, but the elder McMahon does not appear to have been present at the event.

"I wouldn't mind working him out," Redskins personnel director Tim Temerario is quoted as saying in both stories. Still, it didn't sound as if Temerario arrived with his checkbook in his hand. "He's certainly a hunk of material, but he'd have to have more than size."

Temerario explained, according to the UPI account, that Allen told his top lieutenants he was seeking "something unusual" to add to his team's roster. "We're interested in him," Temerario said. "But there are problems with his heavy wrestling schedule and the fact that he makes so much money from it."

George Allen with his Redskins in 1975.
George Allen with his Redskins in 1975.Nate Fine/Getty Images

The AP report states that Andre was earning $256,000 per year wrestling. For comparison's sake, Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, a distinguished veteran, played the 1974 season on a $120,000 contract.

An article in the Greenville News (South Carolina) on July 8 revealed that Andre, who wrestled in front of 5,250 fans at the Greenville Memorial Coliseum the previous night, was headed straight to Washington for a noon meeting with the Redskins the following day. "There was little elaboration on the Redskins meeting," according to the article, which recounts details from Andre's tag team victory that night. "[Interpreter/handler Frank] Valois said they were asking $200,000 for Andre ... Promoter Dave Crockett said that the Skins were interested in the wrestler on the specialty [sic] teams."

So Andre wrestled on Monday, July 7, in South Carolina, then met Temerario and Theismann on Tuesday, July 8. According to newspaper archives and wrestling databases, Andre then wrestled against Spiros Arion in Albany, New York, on Friday, July 11. The next night, he defeated Butcher Vachon at Madison Square Garden. The Redskins opened training camp in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on Sunday, July 13.

About a week later, on July 19, The Capital published a column titled, "Is Allen Turning the Redskins Into a Circus Act?" Written tongue-in-cheek by the paper's assistant editor, Joe Gross, the piece discusses how earlier in the month, "Allen was ready to sign, and might still do so, someone—something—called Andre the Giant." Gross then dreams of a Redskins roster populated by six-armed quarterbacks and other fanciful creatures.

Andre, meanwhile, was on a whirlwind tour of the country: the Stark County Fairgrounds in Ohio on July 25; the Spectrum in Philadelphia on July 26; the Hamilton County Fairgrounds in Webster City, Iowa, on Aug. 8; Madison Square Garden on Aug. 9; Green Bay, Wisconsin's Veterans Memorial Arena on Aug. 10. There were almost certainly other bouts in between: wrestling databases don't track events that took place in the hinterlands, while newspaper accounts of wrestling were spotty in the 1970s.

There was little wiggle room in Andre's schedule for him to stop by Carlisle for a Redskins tryout. The AP and UPI reports stressed that Andre, then 29 years old, had never even seen an NFL game, so he would have needed a few days to learn to demonstrate any basic football skills besides size and brute strength. Sharp-eyed skeptics like Gross would have noticed a 450-pound man with frizzy hair wandering around training camp, but there were no Andre sightings.

Yet by September 1975, the Andre rumor had grown to the point where Temerario had to pour water on it. Bob Chick, sports editor of the Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida), wrote that even members of the team's publicity department thought Andre had spent a few days in Redskins camp.

Temerario squashed the speculation. "The guy was making $200,000 a year," he said of Andre. "We couldn't touch it. Hell, he's making more than the entire Redskin backfield."

A wrestling spokesman named Joe Holman, based in Washington and probably the "local promoter" in the AP and UPI stories, confirmed the story for Chick. "They were really after the guy to go to training camp. That was impossible. He had wrestling commitments through most of the summer."

So the meeting happened, but there was no tryout, workout or serious negotiation period. The general idea to add someone "unusual" may have been Allen's, but Temerario told Chick that the press conference was his idea.

Perhaps it was. But if a press conference in a restaurant with wrestling promoters sounds like a publicity stunt to you, well, Vince McMahon Jr.—our Vince McMahon—son of Vincent McMahon Sr.—offered his own take on this tale in Michael Krugman's biography, Andre the Giant: A Legendary Life:

It was really just publicity, and everybody went along with it. There were some guys who had no idea that we were just having fun, that thought, "oh my God, can you imagine what this guy would do? Andre would be like half of the line."

Andre had no intention of trying out for football. He was making too much money in wrestling.

As a publicity stunt for wrestling, the Redskins meeting worked: The AP and UPI stories circulated all over the country, with photos of Andre standing shoulders above an NFL player reaching sports pages that had given up on "wrasslin'" decades earlier.

In essence, the courtship of Andre the Giant was a fun photo op during the summer doldrums. Then financial and football realities set in.

To modern eyes, it's hard to believe that even a preliminary meeting between a football team and a wrestling superstar could take place, or that such a meeting would ever be taken seriously as anything but shenanigans.

But it was a different time, and the characters at the heart of this tale truly were legends.

      

Exceeding the Unlimited

If ever two 1970s sports personalities were meant to be linked by an urban legend, they were Andre the Giant and George Allen.

Andre Rene Roussimoff was born in a small French village in 1946. He had acromegaly, a form of gigantism often caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland. He was 6'3" and weighed 220 pounds by age 12. A Parisian wrestling promoter discovered him at 17. Canadian promoter Frank Valois signed Andre and brought him to North America.

Andre quickly outgrew the small French Canadian wrestling market. Valois sold Andre's contract to Vince McMahon Sr., impresario of the rapidly growing World Wide Wrestling Federation, in 1972. (As noted earlier, Valois stayed involved as Andre's interpreter and road manager). A master promoter, McMahon loaned Andre to smaller wrestling circuits for a hefty fee—ensuring that the arrival of "The Giant" in any market would be a special event—then brought him back to Madison Square Garden and the Spectrum for signature bouts.

McMahon's promotional strategy worked. By 1975, regional wrestling promoters were charging extra when Andre the Giant was atop the card. A newspaper article for a bout at the Amarillo Sports Arena on May 1, 1975, reported "special pricing," including a whopping $4 for ringside seats. Andre became a crossover star, appearing on television talk shows and playing Sasquatch on the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man.

When a 450-pound man (although other sources claim he was more than 500 pounds) tours America's heartland with wrestling promoters as his hype men, tall tales are sure to follow. According to one legend, Andre flipped over a car with four passengers inside it (they were harassing the good-natured giant, which sounds both unlikely and foolish). In another set of stories, he drank more than 120 beers in one sitting, or ate a dozen steaks and 15 lobsters, or did both at the same time.

Even wrestling folks take many of these yarns with a grain of salt, though the tales of superhuman alcohol consumption are corroborated by enough sources (from Hulk Hogan to The Princess Bride star Cary Elwes to Arnold Schwarzenegger) that there must be some truth to them. Saying Andre was "larger than life in every way" may be a little on the nose, but it applies.

Allen, meanwhile, was a free-spending, free-thinking, seat-of-the-pants sports executive in the mold of 1970s peers Al Davis and George Steinbrenner. Allen rose through the ranks of the George Halas Bears to take over the Los Angeles Rams during the Fearsome Foursome era of the late 1960s. Allen squabbled constantly with Rams owner Dan Reeves, who fired him after the 1970 season. The Redskins hired Allen with complete personnel control in 1971.

George Allen in 1975.
George Allen in 1975.Bob Daugherty/Associated Press/Associated Press

Allen led the Redskins to a Super Bowl appearance and several playoff berths, making the franchise relevant for the first time since World War II. He also spent so much money that team president Edward Bennett Williams liked to say that "George was given an unlimited budget and he exceeded it."

Allen has a list of urban legends on his resume that may be as long as Andre the Giant's:

  • President Richard Nixon allegedly called a play for the Redskins in the 1971 playoffs. (True, although it was an idea earlier planted by Allen.)
  • Allen once traded the same draft pick to several teams, resulting in punishment by the NFL. (Also true.) Allen actually traded picks he no longer owned several times but would strike deals with his trading partners before the NFL intervened.
  • Allen purchased hotel rooms with views of the Cowboys practice facility for spying purposes. (False, but the Cowboys certainly thought this was possible).
  • Allen ran a franchise that was traded, in its entirety, for another franchise. (Yep: the USFL Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers swapped everything but their names in 1983.)

Allen was such a magnet for general nuttiness that it was almost inevitable that he crossed paths with Andre the Giant at some point in the 1970s. Throw in the elder McMahon—whose family would soon wrest professional wrestling in America from a powerful network of regional competitors—and Theismann, then a backup quarterback with a Tim Tebow-like reputation (Heisman candidate, very athletic, better suited to the CFL)—and it was as if all the crazy stars aligned for one magical press conference at Duke Zeibert's.

But keep in mind that Allen was nowhere to be found at that press conference. Temerario said that it was his idea to reach out to Andre the Giant. A former player, longtime assistant coach and football lifer, Temerario had to believe there was a kernel of possibility that Andre the Giant could somehow help the Redskins win games.

To understand why he felt that way, we need to take a slightly deeper dive into wrestling in the 1970s.

   

Wahoo, The Big Cat and The Greatest

Ernie Ladd was Andre the Giant's greatest nemesis in the ring in the 1970s. Ladd, aka The Big Cat, aka the self-proclaimed King of Wrestling, was a first-class heel who had defeated some of pro wrestling's most beloved heroes. At 6'9", 330 pounds, Ladd specialized in grappling with monsters: His major-market matches were often against Gorilla MonsoonHaystacks Calhoun and eventually Andre.

Ernie Ladd.
Ernie Ladd.Bob Daugherty/Associated Press/Associated Press

Ladd was huge and powerful, but his secret weapon was...a secret weapon. Ladd always wore a heavy bandage on his right thumb; when a match got dicey, he reached into his tights or boots, slipped a mysterious foreign object into the bandage and began poking and gouging his foes into submission.

Ladd fought Andre 17 times between 1976 and 1982. Even Andre, whom Ladd had the temerity to call "Andre the Dummy" in interviews, could fall prey to Ladd's deadly thumb attacks. But as this 1976 Madison Square Garden footage shows, Andre had the size and strength to wrench Ladd's arm and turn his killer thumb against him, which usually forced Ladd to scurry back to the locker room under a chorus of boos.

Ladd also happened to be a former four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers. He became a part-time wrestler in the 1960s to earn extra offseason cash, but when a knee injury cut short his pro football career, he became a bombastic wrestling heel.

"In what other sport can you pick up a $14 pair of boots, $0.59 socks—spend maybe a total of $50and convert it into $100,000 a year, if you are sharp and train?" Ladd once said. "My intention was to go back to football, but pro wrestling was so good to me."

Notice that Ladd called wrestling a "sport" in that old quote. Wrestling was every bit as staged in the 1970s as it is on WWE Raw. But it looked like a more flamboyant cousin of boxing than the live-action superhero soap opera millions of fans watch today.

A football player becoming a wrestler in the 1970s was not too different from a basketball player joining the Harlem Globetrotters. The salary structures were also very different as Ladd's quotes and Andre's income suggest. Touring fairgrounds as a wrestler could make a big guy with a little theatrical flair more money than playing in the NFL.

Several NFL greats through the years also wrestled professionally, including Pro Football Hall of Famers Bronko Nagurski and Leo "The Lion" Nomellini. Alex Karras, a star for the 1960s Lions and later a popular actor, wrestled to earn money during an NFL gambling suspension.

In the late 1960s, Edward "Wahoo" McDaniel, a popular linebacker for the Broncos and Jets, parlayed his Native American heritage into a headdress-wearing wrestling persona. By the early 1970s, he switched to wrestling full time. McDaniel and Ladd fought against each other and as tag team partners several times in the early 1970s.

Jets linebacker (and later wrestler) Wahoo McDaniel.
Jets linebacker (and later wrestler) Wahoo McDaniel.DAVE PICKOFF/Associated Press

Andre the Giant even fought in a tag team with McDaniel. They defeated Ric Flair and Johnny Valentine on July 1, 1975 at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina.

Read that date again. Andre fought side-by-side with a longtime professional linebacker exactly one week before he met with Temerario in Washington! Ladd was not on that bill, but wrestlers of that era crossed paths regularly: everyone knew (or at least knew of) everyone else.

Muhammad Ali versus Kanji "Antonio" Inoki. This kick—one of the few exciting moments in an otherwise boring exhibition—injured Ali.
Muhammad Ali versus Kanji "Antonio" Inoki. This kick—one of the few exciting moments in an otherwise boring exhibition—injured Ali.Anonymous/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

The best illustration of the still-blurry line between wrestling and competitive sports in the mid-1970s was Muhammad Ali's match against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976. Ali began promoting an exhibition against a wrestler in April 1975, about the time when Allen and Temerario would have been spitballing for "something unusual."

The Ali-Inoki match was one of the great sports-entertainment travesties of the decade; its story is too true, and too unbelievable, to qualify as an urban legend. Andre had his own role in the Ali-Inoki cross promotion. He battled boxer Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner at Shea Stadium the night before Ali danced around Inoki; fans watched the live bout, then stayed in the stadium to see Ali-Inoki on closed-circuit broadcast.

By the time Andre tossed Wepner over the top rope in the summer of 1976, everyone had long forgotten that a top George Allen lieutenant and a backup quarterback held a press conference to see if the wrestler was really a hunk of NFL material. Allen and Temerario may not have been serious, but if a little cross-promotional synergy was good enough for the most famous athlete in the world, it was probably good enough for the NFL.

       

Conceivable

RICHARD DREW/Associated Press

Andre the Giant reached the zenith of his fame in the 1980s. With Vince McMahon Jr. taking over his father's role as impresario, Andre battled Hulk Hogan in national pay-per-view spectacles that elevated professional wrestling's profile and prestige, turning the WWF (now the WWE) into an entertainment industry—umm—giant. He also played an iconic role in the film The Princess Bride. But acromegaly sapped his athleticism, caused him ever-increasing pain and ultimately led to his death in 1993.

Allen left the Redskins in 1977, his trade-all-draft-picks-for-old-veterans philosophy yielding predictably diminishing returns. The Redskins became one of the most successful organizations of the 1980s with Theismann at quarterback. Allen became a head coach, general manager and all-around important figure in the USFL. He died in 1990, just weeks after getting an on-field ice-bucket shower for coaching Long Beach State to a season-ending victory, his death spurring one last urban legend. Temerario retired from professional football in 1978.

As wrestling became more of a cable television show than a live spectacle, wrestlers like Ladd and McDaniel began to look old-fashioned, though both performed throughout the 1980s. 

Wepner, who once went 15 rounds with Ali, was the inspiration for Rocky. Inoki still serves in Japan's House of Councillors, which is roughly analogous to the U.S. Senate. This is clearly a legend with some deep roots.

The last NFL star to significantly dabble in professional wrestling was Kevin Greene, who appeared in a few bouts in the 1990s before his teams began demanding "no wrestling" clauses in his contracts. NFL players don't need offseason jobs and cannot risk off-the-top-rope injuries anymore.

Many modern wrestling stars like Bill Goldberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson played football, but not as a full-time profession, limiting their playing days to college or brief stints on NFL or CFL rosters. Brennan Williams, a 6'7" defender with bad knees but a wacky personality, is another example, signing on with the WWE in August after getting drafted by the Texans in 2013. But pro football and pro wrestling are strictly either-or occupations.

Andre the Giant never set foot in a Redskins locker room. But to borrow a phrase from Andre's most famous movie, it was not inconceivable in the 1970s. Back then, football stars made more money as thumb-gouging villains, boxing legends sparred with wrestlers and general managers made up the rules as they went along.

    

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.

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