The “Dan Pastorini Essay” by Mark Bowman

People have asked me for many years….”How did you become good friends with Dan Pastorini…?”
A couple of years ago, I wrote a 3000 word essay to properly express my thoughts and the impact he has had on my life…. I pulled out some video of us throwing the football back in 1988, and put it up on You Tube for the first time ever today…. It’s just something I feel pretty strongly about and put my thoughts to paper… Dan said it moved him greatly when he read it…. If any of you want to take the time, I think you might find it revealing….
Also, here’s an extended 7 minute video cut of the football throwing session we had at Rice Stadium and the essay…… ENJOY…..!
Dan Pastorini Essay by Mark Bowman

There is a notion in this country that our professional sports heroes are held up to be “role models” for our nation’s youth. We are such a media centric society that we relate to athletes much in the same way as the Romans followed the gladiators in ancient times, reflecting many of the human qualities we all share and seeing a bit of ourselves in their daily challenges as they compete on the athletic battleground. Most modern day athletes are often quoted as not wanting to take on the responsibility of being a “role model” for kids, but the responsibility is inherent in the role, regardless of the individual athlete’s personal appetite for the extra responsibility of being a role model.

I have a personal opinion on this dynamic and the reluctant pedestal that these athletes are asked to stand upon, figuratively and literally. The sports fans and citizens of Houston, Texas had such a role model in the 1970’s and his name was Dan Pastorini. I was a young teenager born, raised and living in Houston in 1971 when Dan Pastorini was selected in the first round by the Houston Oilers football team. He was touted to be the strong armed, “whiz kid” quarterback that would lead the Oilers to the promised land (and hopefully the playoffs and Super Bowl) for the next ten years. Listening to the press talk about his strengths and potential, I must say that I was excited for the prospects for the Houston Oilers to finally regain their status as a respected juggernaut, as was the case during their early 1960’s AFL reign.

So, when Mr. Pastorini arrived in town in 1971 and the media started making him the focal point of the team, kids like me started to take notice of this guy. First of all, he seemed “different” to my eyes and ears. During interviews, the guy kind of looked like a movie star, instead of a quarterback. Also, one thing that stood out is that he seemed highly articulate and was able to express himself in a way that conveyed leadership, poise and most importantly to a kid going through puberty, he seemed to have a very robust toolset in which to “charm the ladies”…. When you are a teenager, you normally have very few opportunities at that stage in your life to “charm the ladies”, so when you see someone older and wiser out there with that skill set, you stop and take notice. Even as a kid, I realized that you may only get one chance to impress a girl you are attracted to, so it is probably best to maximize your impact on the front side of the equation. When I saw him out with June Wilkinson in that sports car around town from time to time, it just crystallized my idea that the guy knew what he was doing. I thought June Wilkinson was probably the most beautiful woman I had ever seen to that point in my life. I would see her coming to watch Dan at some of Oiler games in the Astrodome and I can still vividly remember her style and elegance and that diamond “7” necklace she wore around her neck. At that point in my life, I realized that I would eventually like to have a special lady in my life like that too.

I find it interesting that my first recollections of Dante would be relative to his skill with the ladies, as opposed to his skill on the football field. That would soon change once I saw him throw a few deep balls in the Astrodome. This guy could throw the ball over 80 yards on the fly and was a good enough athlete to also be the team’s punter! Then I started wondering if the good Lord had given this one individual too much of the “goodness”. He definitely appeared to the “coolest guy in Houston” from my perspective.

Since I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, NFL Films was furthering the romanticism of the National Football League by showing their many highlight films and showcases. Who couldn’t remember the legendary John Facenda’s voiceover detailing the specifics of a touchdown pass while the ball spiraled perfectly in slow motion into a receiver’s hands and the symphonic music playing in the background. Whenever that mental “sports fantasy camp” ever came into my head, it was Dan Pastorini throwing the pass to me, not Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath or Roger Staubach. After all, Dante had a reputation for throwing the “deepest ball” in the NFL. If you caught a TD pass from Pastorini, you EARNED it…… I would have given anything to have spent an afternoon running routes for Dante and replaying that scene from my youth in actuality when he was playing for the Houston Oilers in the 70’s. Little did I know how that would change in years to come.

Dante was pretty much the face of the franchise from the time he got here until the 2nd half of the 1970’s. That was about the time a guy named Bum came to Houston and became our head coach. Houston had a very competitive team in 76 and 77, but Bum’s genius became apparent when he wrangled a deal with Tampa Bay to secure the first pick in the draft in 1978. That’s when Earl Christian Campbell came to Houston and we started to have several “faces of the franchise”. Dan’s leadership of the Oilers in 1978 and 1979 has pretty much become the stuff of which legend is made and those heroic Houston Oiler teams will go down as one of the most beloved teams in NFL history across the nation, never mind just Houston. As the oft-overused term goes, “You just had to be there….” I was, and it was a truly spectacular time – a once in a lifetime happening in Houston, Texas.

I remember the day I heard Dan was traded to the Oakland Raiders. I was riding in a car on my way to Taos, NM to go skiing back when I was in college and heard the newsflash come across the radio. It was announcing that Dante had been traded straight up for Ken Stabler. I literally cursed out loud and couldn’t believe it. After all, this was OUR guy – the guy that was going to help “kick the SOB’ing door in” next year in Pittsburgh. I also felt very strongly that Al Davis had gotten the better of Bum in the deal. I felt the point was proven when the Oilers lost their first game of the 1980 season with Stabler at the helm, while Pastorini threw for over 300 yards that same day and led the Raiders to victory. I looked at Ken Stabler as “washed up” at that stage in his career and Dan was still operating at a very high level. He personally gave the Steelers EVERYTHING they could handle in the 1979 AFC Championship Game, unfortunately his last game with Houston Oilers.

Fast forward to approximately 1987….I was not aware of this fact, but my father, Joe Bowman, Houston’s “Straight Shooter” was an acquaintance and friend of Dan. They first met at a Jerry Lewis telethon in 1971, working the local Channel 2 feed of the broadcast. The way Dan tells the story, my Dad walked up to the Oiler rookie QB and said, “Looks like you have had a pretty long day in the name of charity” or words to that effect. Dan replied that he had noticed my father putting in the same long hours into the Telethon. My dad started telling him stories about his work with the Western actors in Hollywood and showing him tricks and fast draw techniques. I had no idea about any of this until I was walking through the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo facilities in 1987 with my father. I hear a voice that called out, “Joe!”. We both looked up and saw it was Dan Pastorini !

Well, my dad much to my surprise, walked over and warmly greeted him and they started talking like old buds… I was just standing there taking it all in when Dad introduced us. During the conversation, I asked him if he ever “threw the ball around”…. I told him that I used to be a wide receiver and would love to run some routes for him if he ever had the desire. He said he hadn’t done it in a while, but thought it sounded like fun and gave me his home number and told me to call him. I couldn’t believe my ears, but took his number with my mind swimming with the “voice of John Facenda”……

But guess what? – I never called him. I thought I should just be discreet and not bother him. I figured the last thing Dan needed, given all the demands that being a public figure brings, was a “new buddy”. My Dad and I ran into Dante 2 or 3 months later in a very similar scenario. Dan calls my Dad over and they start talking, but he never even LOOKS at me, much less acknowledges my presence.

After about 10 minutes of conversation with my Dad, he lifts his arm and starts pointing at me, yet still looking at and talking to my Dad. His exact words were, “Joe, I’m still waiting to go wear him OUT with the ball”. I then chimed in and said, “Listen, I know you gave me your number, but I know you are a busy man, and I don’t want to “bug you”… He said, “You’re not bugging me, I wouldn’t have given you my number if I didn’t want to do it”. At that point, I just replied – “OK, I’ll give you a call early next week”. So I did, and he suggested we go to Memorial Park in Houston and meet there.

I was of the mindset that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. I went straight to Oshman’s Sporting Goods and bought a brand new official NFL football, the exact ball the NFL uses in games. After all, that’s what they use in the pros… I drive to Memorial Park and about 5 minutes later right on schedule – here comes Dante pulling up in a black Corvette. I get out of the car and walk over to his Corvette and after he says hello, I instantly see a BRAND NEW NFL Football that he has just purchased at Oshman’s just before he came over. So I guess we had just missed each other at the store, but were obviously on same wavelength in our approach to this “throwing session”.

We go find a nice level spot, get about 15 yards apart and throws the first ball. It came in with a perfect spiral aimed directly at my sternum and it was WHISTLING in the wind as it came into my hands. He made some comment about me having “good hands”. We took a very disciplined approach to the session, ran approx. 120 routes of all kinds, short, outs, curls, 15 yards across the middle and then some deep balls. Post mortem: he threw about 120 passes, only TWO hit the ground. He was putting the ball exactly where it needed to go and I didn’t let him down by dropping it.

I can also tell you that after catching 120 whistling passes from Mr. Pastorini, your hands have taken a pounding. He definitely had touch on the shorter passes, but there is no way to tone down a world class arm. We started going out to Rice Stadium, the site of Super Bowl VIII, and doing the same routine out there. Much better in my opinion, because of the Astroturf and a much smoother surface than the potholes out at Memorial Park. For one of these sessions, I brought a tripod and a video camera and set it up on the far 35 yard line, we went to approximately mid-field for the initial short stuff and just let the camera record what transpired. He had brought a friend out to this particular session, and after a while just said, “Let’s throw some deep balls” and tells his friend – “This guy has good hands – watch this!…”.

He lines up behind the far 40 yard line, calls a post pattern and says “just cruise” – I’m going to throw this little “pelota” 60 yards just to prove I can do it….” He calls, “Hut-Hut”, and I am running a 60 yard post pattern for all I’m worth. When I start to locate the ball around the 30, I realize it is going to take everything I’ve got to get to it…. I’m getting close to the goal line, and here it is again – the ball is WHISTLING again….! At that time I realize that it is going to take all 6’4″ of me and full extension to get my hands around it and when it gets to me, I catch the BACK HALF of the ball because of the velocity of it, but hold it. I then realize he hit me directly on the goal line for exactly 60 yards. It was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.

I guess you could say those experiences were the genesis of a friendship and camaraderie that has lasted for almost 30 years now. So many urban legends have been told about the “wild man” Pastorini because it makes for lurid press and sells papers, but not nearly enough stories have been told about what a good, generous and giving man Dan Pastorini is. I’ve never seen him turn down an autograph request. I have watched him on many, many occasions walk over to a man or woman “in uniform” serving our nation, and just introduce himself and simply say “Thanks”. He is one of those rare people that has made a choice to “self-actualize” his dreams, be it football, his racing expertise, both in water and on land, his charity work around the country, yet still continue his zest for life and still move ever onward to the next frontier and challenge.

Over the past quarter century, we have spent a lot of time together, be it dinners, music events, football or just hanging out and catching up. I have found Dan to be a man of the highest character and truly a mentor and big brother to me on many facets of life. He has been exposed to a lot over his lifetime and his commentary and perspective on so many aspects of the “collective” experience on this planet has certainly taught me a lot and helped shape my perspective on many things.

I also have to mention that Dan was extremely supportive after the passing of both my parents, and in particular, made some very special comments about my father to The New York Times and the Houston Chronicle after his passing. He also invited me to attend and sit at the table with his family in Chicago in 2005 to share the experience of him getting inducted into the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. Even though I live in Austin now, we still see each other and talk regularly, grab breakfast when I’m in town, or just go sit in my seats on the front row of the end zone in Reliant (NRG) Stadium and catch a Houston Texans game. His commentary during a game is pretty insightful given his background and he likes the view from the end zone because it mirrors what he saw as a quarterback, how defenses show you a “look”, and the choices you have in your check downs looking for an open receiver. You wouldn’t believe how many times, when he is making observations in that live setting, that his instincts are dead on, even though the game has changed a great degree from his playing days.

As I look back, there have been few men in my life outside of my father, that have influenced me in such a comprehensive way. Especially when you look at the influence he had on my observations as a teenager and how it shaped some of my perceptions that exist still to this day…. So, when athletes say that they aren’t a role model for children, it shows how short sighted the comment can be. It’s really a matter of whether a professional athlete in the public eye ACCEPTS the inherent responsibility of having kids observe your behavior and in many cases, mimic that behavior. That’s one of the cooler things I observed about Dante as a teenager relative to playing sports. Did you ever notice what he did after he threw a touchdown pass? He didn’t high-five everyone in sight, point at the opposing bench and pump his fist in the air. He calmly snapped his chin strap off, walked back to the sideline and calmly shook the hand of ‘ol Double Zero and got back to the business of the next possession, drive and eventual touchdown.

When I asked him about it years later and told him it was a template for my demeanor while playing sports when I was growing up, he merely explained it in this manner: “I thought that I should probably act like I had been in the end zone before, and more importantly, like I would be coming back and doing it again….” Good advice, indeed…..

And they say professional athletes aren’t role models? I beg to differ……….

Mark Bowman – Austin, TX