By Russell Neyman.
Pro football’s Hype Weekend – that’s a period when there is no football of any kind except for talking heads over-promoting and over-analyzing next week’s Super Bowl ad nauseam – and for nearly 30 years it was also the date for the annual Gonzo Bowl. If it had not skipped a beat, today would have been the 45th edition. Every year, hundreds of us — players, spouses, officials, families — looked forward to the big game and it the accompanying ceremonies and smacktalk. I miss the game and the people associated with it..
The Gonzo Bowl was a social phenomenon; something quite special. It featured a quasi-broadcast, formal draft ceremonies, and post game awards. It invited former jocks and everyday fans to come compete, but the rules never allowed anyone to take the game too seriously. The game had formal officials – including one known as The Beer Judge – chalked fields, and special rules. It was fun to watch and fun to play in.
Before I go further, let me explain the term, “gonzo,” and its significance within my family. The word was coined by alternative journalist Hunter S. Thompson, author of books like Fear and Loathing: Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing: Las Vegas, among others. In the latter work, he provides a firsthand account of his misadventures in the Nevada desert on assignment from Rolling Stone Magazine. He drove a red convertible, constantly smoked marijuana and drank beer, and referred to himself as Dr. Gonzo.
Well, I drove a red convertible, was a trained journalist, and was known to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, so my friends naturally began to call me “Doctor Gonzo.” To put this into perspective, this nickname caught on before the Muppets character, before the word found its way into every lexicon, and before the word was found in any dictionary.
Thompson used it to describe things that were odd or out-of-place, and we embellished that meaning to mean “bizarre or unusual.” My friends and I found ourselves describing anything we found to be odd as “gonzo” and there was hardly a conversation where it did not come up.
Back to football: We absolutely loved the game and week after week, month after month, and season after season we gathered at a house I shared with Frank Costa in Huntington Beach, California, to watch whatever game was on television. In those days, the college games were always played on Saturdays and the pro games were on Sundays. There was absolutely no other football played at any other time, with the possible exception of Thanksgiving weekend.
It started with Hype Weekend.
The Super Bowl had begun nearly a decade previously, and had become a national event. Prior to that, the NFL’s championship game was really only a “big game” but when the upstart American Football League merged with the more established National Football League, it created a larger-than-ever bowl game. With that name, “Super Bowl,” came super-sponsorships, super-broadcasts, and super-promotion.
The annual cycle of games fed our frenzy. Beginning in November, all of our gang began to develop passions about our favorite college and pro teams, and we’d sit in my living room over beer and pizza, debating UCLA’s chances of playing in the Rose Bowl and whether the then-local Los Angeles Rams could somehow rally to play in the National Football League championship game. (They rarely did.)
As the 1973-74 season wound down, with virtually all college bowl games played on New Years Day, we turned our attention to the upcoming pro playoffs. As the third weekend of January approached we suddenly realized that there was no game to watch; that the NFL had decided to insert a blank weekend one week prior to the Super Bowl to maximize the promotional potential. It became known as Hype Weekend.
“No football this weekend?” my brother exclaimed. “What are we going to do?”
“I’ll tell you what,” I replied. “Let’s have our own bowl game. Pass the word around that we’ll play tackle football at that field behind Marina High School.” It logically followed that we began referring to it as “gonzo football.”
That first game, played in January of 1974 when I was in my mid-twenties, was a shirts versus skins game played on a muddy soccer field under a light rain. No one recalls the score or who won, but it was great fun. We all staggered home sore and exhausted. The following weekend we all gathered at my house to watch the Super Bowl, but much of the talk was about the fun we had and how we might expand the concept. Right there and then we decided to make it an annual event.
Promotion of a social event came naturally to me. In college I had organized annual football and softball games, creating pre-game excitement with faux newspapers with tongue-in-cheek narratives and fictional interviews designed to stir up controversy. In addition, I had recently established my own advertising business, so I had many of the tools to design logotures, publish fliers, and promote it.
In my slightly twisted mind, I had a gonzo-esque vision of how the game would be conducted. I saw it as fundamentally amateur athletics, but I wanted a slightly campy twist. I imagined one of the old Little Rascals shows, with players wearing pots and pans on their heads and improvised padding. The scoreboard would be hand-painted, and the team names would have a good guys/bad guys flavor. I wanted to play football, but I wanted to parody the game, too.
The following year, my brother Roy and I set out to clearly mark the Marina High School field, stealing two large sacks of flour from Mother’s pantry to serve as line chalk. We also asked a high school football referee to officiate the game, and expected at least two dozen players within the hour. As we bent along one goal line spreading the white powder, we noticed several families arriving and positioning picnic baskets and blankets along the sideline.
“Oh, oh,” I said. “Looks like there’s something going on here today. Maybe we can’t have our game here.” Roy walked over to talk to the people, asking why they were there. Returning to where I was maneuvering the bag of flour, he reported back to me. “They’re here to watch football – ‘The Gonzo Bowl.’” Right there and then we knew the game was an established tradition.
Everyone wanted to add something to the shtick. By the fourth year, Roy cut a large “GBIV” stencil and sprayed game logos on everyone’s tee shirts. The following year we had shirts silk-screened and added numbers to them. By GBVII we realized that we really couldn’t continue to play tackle, so we switched to what we called “impolite flag” with modified eight-man flag football rules.
The families joined in the fun. My mother began making a huge pot of chili that she served at halftime, and it became a popular reason to attend. Dad served as the first Beer Judge, with the tough task of “keeping the game even” and “keeping everyone cool.” Essentially, he would work independently of the other officials, watching for players who were taking things too seriously or playing too rough. He’d walk over to the problematic individual, tap him on the shoulder, and tell him to “go have a beer and don’t come back onto the field until you’ve finished it.”
Obviously, that wasn’t the smartest tactic. If he was already a bit out of control, requiring him to get intoxicated had the potential to exasperate the situation. The following year, we merely required those players to sit out a series of plays, but the phrase. , “being beered,” was permanent.
About GBIX a plumber, Ron Brown, came to play but his team captain effectively told him he wasn’t good enough. It so happened that Ron was an amateur videographer and he had brought his camera with him. He set up his camera atop his work van, and began taping the game, adding a sarcastic narrative to the proceedings. That was the start of a ten-year series of pseudo-broadcasts of the game that proved even more entertaining than the game. He chided players, mocked the format, and generally set out to say embarrassing things about everyone. As leader of the event, I was one of his favorite targets.
The teams were almost always evenly matched and the game was almost always close. One reason was because the Beer Judge was coached beforehand to conveniently “beer” key players to keep the game in check. Players were send to the sideline for a myriad of reasons, ranging from having mis-matched socks to parenting ugly children, but when the Beer Judge told you to do something, you were required to do it. One year somebody printed up tee-shirts that read, “The Beer Judge is God.”
There were plenty of traditions that added color. The pre-game party was called The Fertility Rites, and the highlight of that event was the so-called “player draft.” While all except the team captains were selected randomly, we also selected the two teams in groups of seniority, trying to evenly divide the old guys between the two teams. The two teams were known as the Notodds (with even numbered jerseys) and the Unevens (odds).
Another adjunct event was the Bragging Rights Party, featuring an edited version of Ron Brown’s play-by-play, plus the awarding of the Most Valuable Player award. That trophy was, in typical gonzo style, always odd. It featured everything from an old football shoe to a bronzed jock strap.
From mid-December through the end of January, when Hype Weekend took place, my advertising agency became the center of the game’s organization. I usually dedicated one staff member to prepare, mail, and follow up on who was playing and doing what. It actually took a bit of coaxing to get some of the original players to show up, but along with that I also heard stories from spouses that that game was the one thing that motivated their husband to get off the couch and get some exercise.
There was, of course, a high degree of turnover among the participants. People moved away or grew fat or were worried that they might be injured and faded away. Roy, who was a key member of the earliest organizing efforts, moved to Saudi Arabia, and other key players went through hard times that kept them from attending.
Ron Brown and his wife now had small children to attend, and when he announced that he could no longer spend two or three days filming and editing the video, we lost a large piece of our fun. The other old-timers – Scott Stevens, Tim West, Harvey Hodgekiss, Bob Carey, Dennis Helsper, Dave Beighton, and Bob Smith – also quit coming for various reasons. But there was also a constant flow of new and energetic players recruited by the regulars.
We had quite a few talented athletes, some who gained a certain notoriety at other levels of play. Mark Templeton was a “ringer” who somehow slipped into the game (the rules forbid prohibited players who had played at the high school or college for the previous two years) and went on to set an NCAA record for pass receptions. Two or three former college quarterbacks also played, one being Jeff Clayborn, who played for Notre Dame.
As the old man of the group – I was four or five years older than most of the guys when it began – I decided that I would play until I was fifty, which would be through Gonzo Bowl 25 in January of 1999. For the first 15-20 years I was the primary quarterback, but as the years went on I was regulated to playing other positions. Under or rules, every offensive player was eligible to catch passes, and even in my forties I managed to score a touchdown nearly every game.
While most of the other original players dropped out, claiming that they were too old or too busy to play, I was determined to keep my streak going. In the ninth game – the same year Ron Brown created Gonzo Bowl Broadcasting – I had broken my shoulder a few weeks earlier and was in danger of having to sit one game out. But I managed to sneak onto the field during punts and kickoffs, technically playing but mostly avoiding contact, to keep my streak of consecutive games alive. No other individual played in all of them.
Before Gonzo Bowl 25, when I was fifty, I announced my retirement. Everyone game me a signed football and congratulated me and, theoretically, I became a spectator. My brother Roy and I planned to turn over the organizing duties to others and simply man the broadcast booth, thinking it was our turn to provide fictionalized accounts of the game. As it turned out, however, there was a shortage of players, so Roy and I donned shorts and cleats and played anyway.
In the fourth quarter of that 26th game, with my team trailing by two points, I was playing center and somehow sneaked into the soft middle of the defense while all of the younger, faster players ran deep. Our quarterback, a Sheriff named Dave Vullo, spotted me and I caught the ball, scoring on a feint at the goal line. The Beer Judge thought that it was a fitting way to end my Gonzo Bowl career, so he “beered me for life.”
I no longer owned an ad agency, had a troublesome knee, and my new career demanded that I be at a trade show that same week every year, so I could no longer serve as the impetus for the game. It was time for someone other than me to run the operation. With my encouragement, a few of the second-generation players managed to keep the game going, but it lasted only a few more years. The last official game was GBXXVII. I attended as an official and enjoyed watching my son and stepson play.
It’s very possible it will gain a new life some day, re-emerging with a new generation of players with a new set of rules. My son, Alex, is a natural promoter and he is younger now than when I was for that first game on the back field at Marina High School.
There’s a link to the history of the game;