By Jeff Meyers – September 19, 1974
“The doctors with the Bills told me that the Cardinals were telling everyone that I had mental problems and that’s why I couldn’t get along with people,” Ahmad Rashad said, his voice inflecting both laughter and anger at the same time.
It is easy to understand how Rashad could drive other people crazy, like cornerbacks. Willie Brown, the All-Pro of the Oakland Raiders, wound up talking to himself after Rashad turned him in circles and tied his shoelaces together during the Monday Night Game of the Week on ABC-TV.
Even Howard Cosell, given to hyperbole on some things as mundane as a stadium hot-dog vendor, was going nuts over Rashad’s two-touchdown performance that gave the Buffalo Bills a 21-20 victory. “In Buffalo,” Cosell raved, “the acquisition of Rashad is being termed the ‘Steal of the Century.'”
The victims of this outlandish thievery are the Cardinals, whose state of mind may be more in question than Rashad’s considering that they traded him straight up for second-string quarterback Dennis Shaw last January. Not that Shaw isn’t a competent professional; it’s just that Rashad has the talent to become one of the greatest receivers in the National Football League.
“There are very few people in the game who have the ability to become the best,” Rashad said over the telephone. “I’m one of those people.”
This may not be a cliche, but it should be: You don’t trade potential superstars, especially 24-year old potential superstars. Maybe you give up on a player who’s been around for seven or eight years and “hasn’t reached his potential,” as they say. But at least you’ve waited, you’ve had patience, you’ve tried to draw out his ability.
It would be easy to regard Rashad as having “mental” problems”—if indeed the Big Red really said that—because he does not conform to to the Establishment’s image of how a football player should act. To the displeasure of many, Rashad is his own man in a team sport. But to harness his ability, to use his talents, a coach has to compromise his own principles and treat him differently.
“Lou Saban (Buffalo coach) seems to appreciate my talent,” Rashad said, “and that makes me want to work harder to gain his respect. Last year (in St. Louis) I’d do something I thought was fantastic and the coaches would say, ‘Uh-uh, don’t do that,’ and the next thing you’d know I wouldn’t’ be playing. Wow, they must have knowns I could do the job.”
Big Red coach Don Coryell is trying to mold a club out of players he feels will put the team first, themselves second, and that is a noble thought. But NFL teams supposedly are in business to win games, not build character.
After the Big Red drafted Rashad in the first round in 1972 (he was rated the best running back-receiver in college that year), he confided, “I don’t really know why they picked me — they must of known what type of person I am.” What Rashad is, and always has been, is a man with the spirit and soul of a soaring hawk, unwilling to be chained by discipline of any sort.
“When the Cardinals traded me,” Rashad said, “Coryell told me I had changed drastically. I don’t think I changed at all.”
Rashad’s insistence on doing his own thing undoubtedly stems from his superb athletic ability. He has always been the best athlete on the block, able to do whatever he wanted, and his confidence and ego swelled concurrently with this success.
When he found himself being alternated last season with Walker Gillette, his immediate reaction was to withdraw into himself. He was hurt and insulted. At the end of the season, he and Gillette got into a fight in practice, and the Cardinals have used the fight to illustrate what they called Rashad’s unsociability.
“Last year I thought I had the best training camp since I started playing football,” Rashad said. “Then I opened the season on the bench. That just blew my mind. When I did get to play, I felt they weren’t utilizing me. They had me alternating with a guy they cut (two weeks ago). I just knew I should have been playing full-time and I just couldn’t concentrate on football.
“Walker and I got along — the fight was something that just happened, boom, like in a lot of fights. But this was the one they kept talking about.”
Rashad says that everything was going well last year until he changed his name to conform to his new Islamic faith. He feels that he remained the same but other people suddenly regarded him differently. In a league notorious for being suspicious of anything resembling change, Rashad was looked upon as a militant, which he definitely was not.
“I had one bad exhibition game, in Chicago, but that shouldn’t have been enough for me to forfeit my starting job,” he said. “But something else happened to put me on the bench. It had to be the name change — nothing else i did was that major.”
“It just seemed that they were trying to make a point at my expense, that they were trying to show me that you just don’t do this kind of thing in the NFL.”
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Meyers was a longtime Big Red beat writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and was kind enough to share this story. Ahmad Rashad, the former Bobby Moore, played one season in Buffalo and seven seasons in Minnesota where he became a four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.)