Catching It All
Ahmad Rashad has gone from all-pro receiver to all-network announcer.
Former television announcer and NFL star Ahmad Rashad strides safely into the Plaza Hotel's Oak Room--the same room where, in North by Northwest, Cary Grant is kidnapped for an improbable journey to South Dakota. In a linen summer suit, Rashad navigates the tables without being tackled, fouled--or kidnapped. Looking as fit as a receiver, hauling a leather bag over his shoulder, he weaves across the floor, heading for the plush leather booth in the corner. The alcove is made to order for two-hour lunches and one-hour-long smokes.
In a few minutes, Rashad talks about everything: from basketball and football, to Islam and vegetarianism; from Marv Albert and television to his good friend Michael Jordan. And cigars. Rashad possesses a fresh stock of ideas on a broad spectrum of subjects--in and out of sports. But that's not out of character. Marv Albert, America's best play-by-play voice in basketball, says of Rashad: "When you look at the athletes who turned broadcasters, he's one of the best out there."
His bright-eyed television persona isn't far from the way he comes across in person. Rashad is not one of the athletes who took the Lite Beer trail after retirement, but looks as if he could step back on the field and snag a touchdown pass on a post-pattern. "I work out every day. I run or I ride a bike when I'm tired of running. I have a gym in my house and I work out there. I never lifted a weight until two years ago. Then Michael Jordan gave me his routine, and I went through it with him. It takes about 45 minutes. It's light weights with a lot of repetitions, but you go through four or five stations three times a week and that's it. And I play tennis, sometimes two or three times a day."
We come around to his age and he says, "I'm 44--I was trying to figure out if I was 44 or 43, but I think I'm 44." In November he turned 45. "I eat whatever I want to eat because I work out so much." Indeed, Rashad--with an earring and jet-black hair--still looks youthful, even boyish.
"I don't eat [red] meat. I was a vegetarian before I changed the name (from Bobby Moore, in 1972). I went to school during the late '60s and early '70s," he says, shifting gears but keeping to the same road. "Oregon was a hippie school. People were into good food and good health, eating grains and not so much red meat. We didn't have guys who had steaks for pregame meals; we had guys who came in with some kind of bag of grain or something--that's probably why we got beat all the time! Half of our guys had their hair pinned up or their hair beneath their helmets all down the back. We didn't win any national titles, but we had very well-rounded people on the team. We weren't football jocks." Rashad then orders the Caesar's chicken salad and clam soup, after repeated assurances from the waiter that there is no bacon in it.
He quickly gets back into his story. "Our coach, Jerry Frei, was one of those guys who said you could miss practice if you had a good reason. Guys would come to practice and say 'I couldn't make practice yesterday because there was a protest. Dow Chemical was on campus and we don't think that's right during the Vietnam War.' With Frei, that was fine. He wanted guys to be successful human beings, and that was more important to him than turning out good football players. Football was never primary. It wasn't primary when I got out of high school and when I got out of college it still wasn't primary.
"As I was driving here I thought about this one coach I used to have. I was with St. Louis, about 25 years old, and he was a short, stocky guy who smoked big, fat, long cigars. I wasn't practicing one day. This coach saw me talking to someone who wasn't on the team and he just went ape shit. He looked at me and yelled 'Hey, get your ass over here. You keep your head in the game. I don't care if you're not practicing, I want you to stand over here and watch everything we're doing. Get over here now.' I was thinking to myself 'how funny is that?' I thought this guy was going to have a stroke," Rashad smiles that boyish grin. "I thought 'Hey, chill.'
"I didn't have a relaxed attitude. I just had priorities," Rashad continues. "When it was time to practice, I practiced. But in between plays you didn't have to have this crazed look all over your face. I didn't feel like I played better if I got myself into some frenzy. Some people did and that was fine. I watched guys get ready to play by knocking their heads on walls. I talked to people on the sidelines, I talked to fans if they were close, I talked to the other team, I talked to refs. I talked to everybody. Then one morning, it dawned on me that I didn't want to do this anymore."
Not playing football was nothing new for Rashad. For most of his life he didn't know it would be his future. Born in Oregon in 1949, Bobby Moore was raised in Tacoma, Washington. He was the youngest of six children--three boys and three girls. And if ever a child needed a life lesson, young Moore had his--a trial that served as constant motivation. "When I was six years old, I started developing a skin disease. And they never did figure out what it was. It was something that drove me inside a lot. It was ugly; I had it on my ears, hands and elbows and wrists and everything. Big bumps. I'd be embarrassed about them. Crueler kids called me 'Bumpy' or 'Raisin Ears.' I felt like a freak. If I caught a ball the bumps would burst and spill blood all over me.
"I remember when I was 12, my mother and I got on a bus to go to a medical convention where they had all these unknown diseases. I thought of myself as being pretty normal, but when I saw these people they had at this convention, man, they had the most deformed people I had ever seen in my whole life! All the people were kept in one wing of a hospital and doctors would come around with their assistants and pinch you and do all kinds of things to you and take notes. I can still remember a nurse nod toward me and spell out l-e-p-e-r. Just because I had bumps all over, she didn't think that I could spell out a two-syllable word when I was 12-years-old? I just remember that was my lowest point ever. I would always draw on that and make sure that gave me strength rather than tear me down. I remember my mother crying all the way home from Vancouver to Tacoma." But Rashad's childhood trial ended almost as mysteriously as it began. After a doctor cut the bumps off, they stayed away.
"I realized I was good at football in tenth grade. During the summers, football players at the University of Washington would play touch football in the park. I was picked one time, the guys were all PAC-8 [the PAC-10 today], some were coming up for All-American, and I remember holding my own with those guys. My cousin was supposed to be a big star at the University of Washington. He was covering me one day, and I caught one pass and took off about 60 yards, he couldn't catch me and that gave me so much confidence. I knew I could play. I could run; no matter where I caught it, I could run with it."
The success continued at Oregon, where Rashad was the No. 1-rated wide receiver and running back on the team one year. But leaving college, he didn't want to be a back anymore. "You get beat up," he explains. "I was the first offensive player picked in the 1972 draft. With salary plus bonuses I made about $65,000. But that didn't matter much to me either. I just didn't think that all life was wrapped up in that. I was just into living, the experience of life. I just knew there was a bigger experience outside that practice field. I knew that. My brothers and sisters weren't playing football and yet were enjoying themselves. I used to wonder what everyone else did during the fall?"
Rashad's first experience in the pros was far from memorable. "A guy from St. Louis calls and says 'we just drafted you.' That was it; nothing more. Nothing like 'glad to have you aboard.' Most guys were like 'yeah, I got drafted by so and so and they're glad to have me....' But St. Louis started negotiating right away. They figured 'if we act like we don't like him, then we don't have to pay him so much.' The strategy backfired because I didn't want to be there."
Rashad, mindful of his father's counsel to "always have options," had another option. "I was really into my religion at that time. It was very important for me to spend time developing myself as a Muslim; reading, learning, things like that. My teacher was a guy named Rashad Khalifa, who lived in St. Louis. Football was like a job; I couldn't wait for practice to end so I could go over to Rashad."
Then he changed his name from Bobby Moore to Ahmad Rashad. "That was funny. We had coaches who would say 'Goddamnit, your name is Bobby Moore. Coach Don Coryell would say 'get over here, whatever your name is!' I went from being Bobby Moore to 'whatever your name is.' I put my name on the front of my helmet. 'My name is right here,' I'd tell him. So I always had that attitude, which pissed him off. He would say: 'Where's that wide receiver 'A-med Rash-id?' " Rashad laughs, recalling the time.
Rashad's career as a football player didn't take flight until he was with the Minnesota Vikings for seven years beginning in 1976. "Playing with Fran Tarkenton was one of the biggest reasons. I had never played with a QB of that caliber before. Joe Ferguson was young, and we ran the ball all the time in Buffalo because of O. J. Then I wrecked my knee my second year there. In St. Louis we sucked: Jim Hart was pretty good, but we didn't have a line. So we didn't throw any passes. So all of a sudden I've got Fran Tarkenton, and me and Fran are like connecting." With Minnesota, Rashad went to four consecutive Pro Bowls, where he was also the MVP in 1979.
After 11 years in St. Louis, Buffalo and Minnesota, the 33-year-old Rashad decided to call it quits in 1983. "All the great players we had were gone. We had a lot of young guys who didn't really want to make the commitment. Here I was busting my ass every day, and we had a lot of young guys who didn't really care whether we won or lost, but were just glad to be in the league. That killed me. Before we had Tarkenton--and Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Alan Page...." Rashad breaks the thought, naming the great "Purple People Eaters" on the defensive line. "These guys were never late; they would never miss a practice.
"My last year, guys would show up whenever they wanted to. Oh man, I just couldn't take it! No commitment, just no commitment; when there has to be a commitment that you guys are together, you're gonna play--you can't play half-assed or they'll kill you! You can't be lollygagging out there or you'll lose your head. 'I'm taking a night off,' " Rashad mocks. "It's not like basketball or baseball. You take a night off in football and that'll be the last night you'll play." And Rashad was surprised to happen into hotel rooms and find young players doing lines of cocaine; so casually they didn't even try to hide it. "When I decided to quit and go home I never went back--I never even went back to clean my locker out. Bud Grant didn't try to talk me out of it."
Despite his early departure, Rashad left his mark on the league. One day, before retiring, Grant came up to him and pointed out Charley Taylor's total of 649 catches, then the all-time leader. "See that," Grant said. "You can do it." Three more years of 60 catches a piece and he would have done it. "I was physically able to play, but not mentally able," Rashad says, weary of the antics of the new players. He retired with 495 catches, 10th on the all-time receiving list at the time.
But the hard reality of retiring was softened for Rashad. He had already begun broadcasting at a CBS affiliate, WCCO television in Minnesota. "I was working in television and after practice I went to the studio to work on my craft in television."
Now Rashad is involved with several NBC programs. "NBA Off the Court," a more in-depth show than his "NBA Inside Stuff," will premier for the 1994-95 season with profiles of players and coaches and longer features. But he admits his biggest current gig is cohosting "NFL Live" with Greg Gumbel on Sundays. He is also host of "Notre Dame Saturday."
The table is cleared as Rashad lights up his Don Lino Robusto. "I just had one the other day. It's a great daytime cigar." Rashad believes that the right choice of cigar is necessary: some cigars are too strong to smoke before a full meal. His taste in cigars is eclectic. He enjoys a Cuban Partagas Series D No. 4. "I like different cigars at different times of the day. I light one Avo Intermezzo cigar. If I light up in my driveway, it's finished by the time I reach New Jersey [the location of the NBA Entertainment studio]. So I tell time by cigars. Don Lino is a little shorter. It has a lighter, milder taste. I like a fat cigar with a 50-ring size. After a meal some are a little heavier. But the Don Lino is very smooth. You can't smoke a Cuban in the daytime; it's too strong. I also like the short, fat Cohiba Robusto. But you can't smoke that in the daytime either."
Rashad cannot get away with smoking in his home, however. His wife, Phylicia, once a regular on "The Cosby Show," won't tolerate it. "I built a separate shack behind my house just for my cigars. The cigar shack has a television and a couch.
"There's an old saying: 'Smoke less, smoke better.' I smoke probably four or five a day, maybe too many. I was coughing the other day, and my daughter goes with me to the doctor and the doctor says 'you smoke?' And I say 'Yeah, I smoke one or two a day. And my daughter cuts in and says, 'Dad, you smoke more than one or two a day.' 'OK, three or four,' I say.
"It's funny, I always wanted to smoke a cigar, but I used to think I would be too young to smoke. I started smoking when I was playing for the Vikings. I was reading books on cigars. Cosby was smoking, and I used to take his. So that would give me a chance to test them. But they would be big, long ones, and I always thought I would look funny with big, long cigars. And then as time went by and I ended up getting married to Phylicia, people thought I smoked cigars because Cosby smoked cigars. I have known Cosby since I was in college," he says. "Since I was 19 or 20. He introduced me to her on the set."
Rashad's proposal to Phylicia was a famous break-in-the-football-action betrothal on television on Thanksgiving in 1985. "I proposed on the set. She didn't know it was coming. That's probably my single biggest moment on TV. I meet people that I know aren't sports fans who have seen copies of it and say 'that was such a wonderful thing.' She was in the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, so the parade ended and she was at Macy's. I had told her when she got off the float to go in and look at TV. She went nuts."
Despite Rashad's foray into cigars, his partner Marv Albert claims he knows nothing about it. "I have never seen him smoke," says Albert. "He'll do anything for publicity. The next thing he'll claim is that electric trains are his favorite hobby, just to get into print." With Albert, one needs the grin or the slight alteration in the voice to detect the humor. "He is the dean of sideline reporting," Albert says dryly, "setting new standards every time, game by game. He's replaced the czar of the telestrater [Mike Fratello]."
The Albert-Rashad connection is one of perpetual one-upmanship. "He basically laughs at anything I say, and then he says it's not funny," Albert says. Despite Albert's constant zingers--during the Dream Team II games he hoped that Shaquille O'Neal wouldn't tear down the basket because the delay would lead to "20 more minutes of Ahmad"--Rashad feels he has the last word, since when the Knicks decided to have a "Marv Albert Night" for his long service to broadcasting, they made "Mike and the Mad Dog" of WFAN the masters of ceremony. Rashad refers to them as "Dog and the Fat Man." "The one guy [Chris Russo] looks like a deranged idiot," Rashad says. "And the other [Mike Francesa] is swelling out of his suit."
If the comments seem a bit strident, it is because Rashad was stung hard by the WFAN pair after his Michael Jordan interview several years ago--right after reports surfaced that Jordan had suffered huge gambling losses. Rashad was widely criticized for not asking Jordan "tough" questions during the interview. Jordan, feeling the lash of the press after his midnight jaunt to Atlantic City during the Knicks-Bulls series in 1993, wouldn't talk to reporters for days.
Then one day Jordan saw Rashad at Chicago Stadium and said 'get a camera; let's get this out of the way.' Says Rashad: "I asked, 'Do you have a gambling problem?' 'No.' 'Are you sure you don't have a gambling problem?' 'No, I don't.' 'Does your wife think you have a gambling problem?' 'No, she doesn't.' So what else am I supposed to say? 'No, you're lying?' I know the answer before I ask it anyway. I know he doesn't have a gambling problem.
"Everyone knows that Michael and I are the very, very best of friends," says Rashad. "So they see us doing an interview and say 'how can he ask him tough questions if they are good friends?' I asked him the same questions that anyone else would have asked. I took the questions, I showed them to the producer [Rick Diamond]--we wrote them up together--and I said 'do you think we should ask him anything else?' He said no. Diamond agreed with me that had anyone else done it they would have asked the same questions. They have a couple of gangs, a couple of talk-radio stations here--Fat Dog and the Mike Man--whatever the hell they are. They like went off on me for two weeks."
Says Albert: "It's tough. As his friend, I would probably not have done the interview." Then he jokes: "I would like to have seen Ahmad with the sunglasses, instead of Jordan." One thing seemed certain. There would not have been an interview if not for Rashad.
But then because television is, as Rashad says, "subjective," he later drew praise from some of the same people who had criticized him. When Rashad grilled Scottie Pippen for taking himself out of the final 1.8 seconds of the Knicks-Bulls playoff game last spring, New York Post writer Phil Mushnick praised him.
What he won't talk about at all is his friendship with O. J. Simpson, who was his roommate when they played together on the Buffalo Bills in 1974 after Rashad's unhappy stint with the St. Louis Cardinals. "O. J. and I were very good friends, and he knew I was going to quit pro football," recalls Rashad. "He said 'don't quit; maybe we can get you here.' " Rashad was traded to Buffalo, but he tore up his knee that season. The friendship endured even though Rashad moved on to Minnesota in 1976. "He was the best man at my wedding in December 1985," says Rashad, expressing some surprise that he's been spared grilling by the media about his friend. But all that Rashad will say about the murder charges leveled against Simpson is "I have no comment."
There are viewers who think that "crossover guys" like Rashad can't really be taken seriously. The notion here is that basketball is an intellectual exercise akin to splitting the atom. Actually Rashad thinks it's an accomplishment that people look at him announcing basketball and forget that he was a football player. It means he has crossed over.
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