He was the only St. Louis pro athlete to protest during the national anthem.
He was white.
He was alone out there, back in 1968.
He was Dave Meggyesy, a linebacker for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals.
Amid the Vietnam War, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle declared how players should stand during the anthem — in line, helmet under left arm, right hand on heart, facing the flag.
“I didn’t do that,” said Meggyesy, now 75 years old. “I had my helmet down in front of me and bowed my head, and clearly I was out of sync with everybody else. … I was kind of following in the path of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, thinking — what could I do that could indicate my objection to the war, as well as the ordering of me to be a patriot? ...
“A columnist wrote a fairly scathing column about me. And there was sign, a big bed sheet that fans hung at the stadium that said, (implying communism) ‘BIG RED THINKS PINK.’”
There’s no more NFL in St. Louis, but so it seems, there’s a little St. Louis in a lot of the NFL — the legacy of Meggyesy, the passionate Cardinal who protested to bring attention to social issues.
“It’s going on again, we’re seeing it again,” Meggyesy said. “The league is 70 percent black, and guys are saying: ‘Look, we’re speaking for people who don’t have the standing, who don’t have the visibility. That’s who we are, we’re part of this community.’ So it’s amazing, it really is wonderful. And of course, (President Donald) Trump stirred the pot — and deflected the issue toward one of patriotism and not around the real issue, which is the relationship between the police and the ‘policing’ of the black community. …
“In a lot of ways, the degree of divisiveness that was in the culture in 1968 is here now.”
Meggyesy played hard for St. Louis, and talking to him today, that’s what makes him the most mad about the response he got from coaches and ownership — if he played hard and well, what did it matter if he was against the war? Yet he believes he was benched because of that, not because of his athletic abilities. Talking to him today, you can hear the anger in his voice, the helplessness in his pauses. In a way, Meggyesy can relate to the unemployed Colin Kaepernick.
“I was a little bit involved with the civil rights movement when it started, supporting petitions and things like that,” said Meggyesy, who played college ball at Syracuse. “And with the Vietnam War, I got more involved. The St. Louis Committee Against The War office was in my house, actually. I paid for buses to go to Washington and New York to two of the big rallies that happened. …
“(After the anthem protest), I got the call from my defensive coach, Chuck Drulis, who basically said, ‘Do you want to continue to play football?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve been told by the owner that you better stop your activities or you’re not going to be in the league.’”
During the next season, Meggyesy had 37 teammates sign an anti-war petition, calling for the immediate withdrawal of the troops in Vietnam. His plan was to send it to a congressman. But someone intercepted the letter and took it to a reporter. It was nearly published by United Press International. The Cardinals PR man nipped it in the bud.
“The next day, (head coach) Charley Winner says, ‘Dave, you owe the team an apology for the distraction you’re creating.’ And I’m going, ‘What the (bleep) is he talking about?’ He said, ‘That letter! That Vietnam thing!’ So I went up in front of the team and said, ‘Look you guys, I really apologize, I don’t know how this guy got it. I got it back. I told you it wasn’t going to be public. It’s not. And if you want to sign another one, come to my locker after practice and we’ll sign another one.’ And Winner just about choked when I said that. Within two weeks, I was on the bench.
“That was really painful. We played Green Bay, last day of the season. I’d played special teams. I’m on the plane back, and Larry Stallings was another linebacker. He sat down and said, ‘Dave, I don’t know what happened with you and the coaches, but you not being in there really hurt our defense.’”
Meggyesy is fascinating. Complicated, too. He’s thoughtful and thought-provoking.
And before the 1970 season, he quit football, ceasing seven years of an ambivalent relationship with the NFL.
“I was so angry and distraught,” he said. “It laid the ground for me writing ‘Out Of Their League.’”
It was football’s “Ball Four.” It was big news. This newspaper ran a series of book excerpts. Meggyesy wrote of players’ drug abuse — notably painkillers — and of rampant racism across the league. He described the NFL as “dehumanizing.” And the author captured the raw NFL, dissecting the violence.
To this day, the book has legs to stand on, while sadly, some of the players themselves don’t.
Meggyesy promoted his book on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and the host asked him: “How bad was football, did it louse up your values?”
“I don’t know if it loused them up,” replied Meggyesy, with bushy hair, a bushy beard and a tie-dyed T-Shirt. “I think it kind bent my head around in some strange ways.”
With guest Janis Joplin smoking to his side, Meggyesy spoke of football — “The whole raison d’etre of football is violence. Institutional violence.” Later, while telling a story, he said, “One of the interesting things we do as pros is we say the Lord’s prayer before the game. It’s like everybody blesses the guns.”
In the years after retirement, he worked for the National Football League Players Association, representing the rights of the next generation of athletes. He taught a little at Stanford and other universities. Today, he’s passionate about involvement with the Sports Energy Consciousness Group.
“We’re really looking at the whole relationship of consciousness, the inner game, sports performance,” he explained. “As my friend Mike Murphy says, ‘Sport is our emerging western yoga.’ People are looking at it with that broader view, that it really is a consciousness practice. And of course you hear the traditional coaches say, ‘Well, sport is a character builder.’ Yeah, but what kind of character are you trying to build?”
As for the protests in pro sports today, “It’s clearly a fascinating time we’re living in,” Meggyesy said. “It’s understanding the relationship between sport and society — there’s always a connection and a relationship. You can’t step away from that.”