Most football fans wouldn’t recognize Carl Eller if he walked the streets in his old Minnesota Vikings helmet tackling surly teenagers.
Eller last played 25 years ago, before ESPN, satellite cable, and the World Wide Web turned players into brand names, always available like potato chips in a 24-hour mini-mart.
Yet on Saturday the anonymous Eller, the cornerstone of Minnesota’s Disco era ‘Purple People Eater’ Defense entered the pro-football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio, and he did it with style, substance, and a whole lot of soul.
Eller was supposed to recede into the shadows, with the day belonging to two recently retired commercial icons; quarterback John Elway and half back Barry Sanders. Elway retired in storybook fashion after winning consecutive Super Bowls. Sanders left the game a whirling dervish of an enigma, walking away at age 31 his health intact and within spitting distance of the most hallowed rushing records in the game. This was billed as their moment and they dressed for the part.
Elway and Sanders stood erect and trim, beaming from their signature gold Hall of Fame blazers. Next to these golden boys, Eller looked like he had wandered over from a nearby golf course in a yellow sports coat, only lacking the plaid pants.
Yet when it was his turn to make a speech, Eller the afterthought, shocked the Canton crowd by having something to say.
“What can I do with this honor?” he said. “I want to use this platform to help young African-American males to participate fully in this society and to set a new direction in their lives…I want that direction be toward the great colleges and universities of our society, not to the prisons and the jail cells…It breaks my heart, and it breaks all of our hearts… This is not the future we fought for in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.”
He then earned cheers from a crowd of John Elway and Barry Sanders fans by saying. “Our country has turned its back on African-American males. Some have even given up hope. But I haven’t given up on you.”
Eller has earned the right to voice his frustrations about a nation that has more African-American men in prison than in college. Since retirement he has been the Executive Director of Triumph Services, a chain of chemical dependency rehabilitation facilities located in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Eller is a certified chemical dependency counselor and was the National Football League consultant on alcohol and drug abuse matters. As a consultant to the NFL, Eller helped develop the league’s first Employee Assistance Program.
Bluntly, he has spent many more years working on this issue than he ever did head slapping offensive linemen. Yet still criticism was rained upon his head for stealing Elway and Sanders thunder and being “political” Denver Post columnist Jim Armstrong wrote, “Memo to John Elway: Thanks for making the speech fun and not going all political on us. For a minute there, I thought Carl Eller was going to do a Michael Moore and call for Dubya’s hide.”
Some at ESPN radio wanted to nominate Eller for their “just shut up award” and even debated if Eller was “racist” for speaking about racism. (These are the same folks who think Bush is a “peace president” or John Kerry is an icon of charisma and elect-ability.)
Others called in to say that those who think Eller should just shut up, should in fact “just shut up”. (Ahh, debate).
But arguing whether or not Eller has the right to speak misses the point.
Eller took a ceremony about as exciting as Shriners Award night and had the temerity to say something that wouldn’t be immediately disposable.
It’s called having a backbone, principles, and being a human being instead of a brand.
DAVE ZIRIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His sports writing can be read at www.edgeofsports.com.