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White Heat

The fire still burns for Terry Bradshaw, former Super Bowl MVP quarterback.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

It is Sunday morning on CBS' NFL Today and more than 6 million people are watching. NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw is airing it out in the West 57th Street studio. "It's put-up-or-shut-up time for John Elway, Jerry Glanville and Randall Cunningham," he announces, warming to his take-that, animated self. The script is no longer in his hands as it was in the 1970s in a huddle at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. But he is still the guy others listen to.

Bradshaw's summation about Elway is a disguised challenge: "I have a hard time with a player who's had three bad years in a row," he explains later in his hotel suite. "And then he gets rewarded with a huge contract."

From Atlanta coach Glanville, Bradshaw simply wants results. In a game of word association, the name Glanville might suggest two stale elements of style: a fetish for strolling the sidelines in black threads and his once having left two tickets for Elvis at the main gate. This action was universally regarded as amusing by sportscasters and most every Joe Bag O'Donuts who tunes in or calls a radio station. Meanwhile--minor detail--the Falcons have 21 wins and 31 losses during Glanville's four-year term. Bradshaw isn't letting anyone forget that record.

But Bradshaw's lengthy analysis of Cunningham brims with pith and insight--not only into Cunningham, but into himself as well. "Cunningham has always been a guy who is more interested in his numbers than in the team. I listen to him; I watch him and I come away with the impression that this guy is more impressed with himself than I am. Consequently, he won't speak to me either."

Bradshaw pauses and goes on to connect apparently fractured ideas, being a little more expansive off-air than he usually is on-air, and that's saying something. "Then he wears these hats saying, 'Let Me Be Me.' I have a hard time with these guys in leadership roles that won't lead," Bradshaw explains.

As luck of the scheduling draw would have it, and at the insistence of Cunningham's intrepid agent, Bradshaw gets to deliver his Cunningham lines in person ... before those 6 million people. "He doesn't much care for your partner," Cunningham's agent warned show host, Greg Gumbel (Today Show host Bryant's brother), who took the call. "But he does like you." Promos teased viewers, trumpeting Cunningham's arrival. People who knew the game from the inside out wouldn't be leaving the screen for pregame nachos. A tension convention was approaching.

To make this a more comfortable confrontation, the CBS crew arranged three plush chairs away from the desk. Gumbel sat between the two quarterbacks, who seconds before were tossing a football around. Bradshaw and Cunningham were turned toward one another, with Gumbel full face to the camera as if waiting to referee a mayoral pissing session. Cunningham sat back-to-chair, upright and uptight, impassive. Bradshaw hunched forward, the sitting equivalent of a down lineman.

Bradshaw first compliments Cunningham's early season heroics. But then the leadership question, the question that had to come, the question that has tugged at Cunningham more than linebackers do. As Bradshaw speaks, Cunningham's eyes grow narrow. "Some of my teammates thought your statement last year about me being a good athlete was racist," flies Cunningham's baffling rejoinder. Say what? Gumbel intercepts, asking Cunningham if he thinks the remark is racist. No, Bradshaw had "a job to do," Cunningham offers. To be sure, there is a tired and perhaps unwitting tendency to characterize black athletes as abundantly talented, while white athletes are all intelligent and scrappy. Bradshaw replies that there are great athletes, black and white.

Bradshaw regroups and returns to his focus--the leadership issue--since Cunningham's tepid quid pro quo was about as successful as an arm tackle of Jim Brown. Or as Bradshaw might say, "that dog won't hunt." The twang in the voice doesn't indicate racism in the heart, and more than a few football fans would describe Cunningham as a great athlete, but not a great quarterback. Consider: though Cunningham is already in his ninth year, he also is 30 and has won just one of five of his playoff games with the Eagles. Now, he says that he has always been a leader. Maintaining this in the face of the evidence and Bradshaw's pointed barbs, however, just doesn't work.

The segment ends with Bradshaw triumphantly drumming the chair to the rhythm of studio music. Cunningham gazes off, blankly, as if he'd just thrown a playoff interception he couldn't fathom, as if an early frost had descended on West 57th Street. All things considered, it is a propitious moment for a commercial break.

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