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For the NFL opener, let’s go back in time to outdated rosters and Johnny Unitas’ flattop – Charlton Sport Library #1

September 5, 2012

The American sports fiscal year begins tonight, as the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys (of Danger in Dallas fame) battle in the midweek opener to the NFL season. It’s truly remarkable what a weekly smorgasbord professional football has become, with a Sunday feast followed by an entire week of talk radio/ESPN digestion and anticipation of doing it all again the very next weekend. It’s a seventeen week cycle leading into the playoffs and the biggest television event of the year, the Super Bowl. The NFL bestrides the sports landscape like a colossus in a helmet and shoulder pads, concussion concerns be damned.

Lest we forget, however, the NFL wasn’t always the alpha male of sports that it is today. There was once a time when baseball wasn’t just the national pastime, but also sat atop the pyramid. And this little oddity is a relic of those bygone days, back at the beginning football’s Super Bowl era.

This 1969 mag was the only edition of Charlton’s “Sport Library” that was ever published, and it didn’t even cover the entire breadth of the sport that it was supposed to tackle (no pun intended). The NFL and AFL were still separate entities at this point, and the junior league, fresh off its first Super Bowl triumph, was quite possibly scheduled for a subsequent edition. So you’re only getting half of the old pro football pie here. And, just so you don’t get your hopes up, there are no jaw-dropping sequential stories within chronicling the lives and times of old greats like Gale Sayers and Fran Tarkenton. Instead the book is just what it its title suggests: an illustrated league-wide program, summarizing the year that was and looking ahead to the upcoming season.

Yet it’s not without its charm.

Veteran artist Tony Tallarico drew the portraits and wrote the blurbs that accompanied each team’s entry. It’s kind of neat to go through and read the simple contemporaneous evaluations of in-progress careers, without the crystallizing help of hindsight, and I’d be remiss to not present the true heavyweight great in these pages, Johnny Unitas. Here he is in all his close-cropped glory, with a hint of that most roiling of football dilemmas, the quarterback controversy:

Washington, D.C. is my adopted home, so I’d be doubly remiss in skipping over the entry for the Redskins. It’s somewhat noteworthy for its side-by-side pairing of quarterbacking legend Sonny Jurgensen with his long-time broadcast partner, Sam Huff. These two guys have been calling Redskins games on the radio for a long, long time, and their rather unique brand of “analysis” has endeared them to generations. Sadly, the partnership may be nearing its end, as they’ve grown a little more confused and crotchety of late (Geriatrics Say the Darndest Things), and Huff’s not going to be calling all the games this year. Oh well. Anyway, here they are — Jurgensen about to drill you with a tight spiral and Huff (who came out of retirement to play in ’69) about the knock your head off:

  

This would also be the one year that legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi would guide the Redskins, having been coaxed back into the league to right that ship. Cancer would take his life far too early the very next year, but here’s his unique gap-toothed Ernest Borgnine-ish smile, embodying all the optimism that a new roster and a new season represents:

The last feature before that year’s schedule is a retrospective on Super Bowl III, when Joe Namath — with his guarantee of victory and his Dingo boots — led the New York Jets to their colossal upset of the juggernaut Baltimore Colts. It’s here that Tallarico comes the closest to actual comic storytelling, giving a quarter by quarter breakdown of the action — accompanied by rather stilted action shots — as the impossible became the inevitable. Here’s the first page so you get the gist:

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. I talked to someone who’s forgotten more about comics than I’ll ever know, and he said that this is actually rather hard to find in nice condition, because there was actual week by week utility to it, especially in those dark days before instant information — or cable TV for that matter. When you see these, they’re often well-worn. Just a footnote.

If you love football, enjoy. If you don’t, move right along. Nothing to see here. (Probably should have put this at the top.)

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