|No love lost for the NFL|
|Wednesday, September 5, 2012|
Big John LoVetere paid with pain for little gain
WATERTOWN -- If former National Football League tackle John LoVetere could go back in time and start all over as pro ball player, he would punt.
The glory of the gridiron is not all it’s cracked up to be, and the 76-year-old LoVetere (pronounced Lo-vuh-teer), who played seven seasons in the trenches as a defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, will testify to that fact.
Once a giant of a man with the strength of Samson, the Watertown citizen stands 6-foot-3-inches tall and weighs 230 pounds. But when he starred in the pros, he towered at 6-foot-5 and hefted 290 pounds on his muscular frame.
Knee replacement surgeries have knocked down his height. Diabetes and kidney problems have trimmed his weight. As for the pain in his knees, well, that he’s just had to learn to live with those deep aches for decades.Not one for waxing nostalgic, the ex-pro kept no souvenirs from his NFL days.
“I got rid of it all,” said the man, who was known to his friends as “Lovie.” Several years ago, he sold the big blue helmet he wore for the Giants as well as two footballs autographed by his teammates.
He seems to be not so much bitter as disgusted with the way pro players were treated half a century ago, like “pieces of meat.“ He shares some of those thoughts in the 45-page book, The John LoVetere Story, which his friend Mike Pinsker wrote last spring.
“We don’t get credit for what we did back then,” said LoVetere, who wore Number 76 as right defensive tackle for the Rams from 1959 to 1962 and for the Giants from 1963 to 1966.
“I didn’t know they paid anything, and they didn’t. Nuthin’. I made more money working in construction,” he said. (His first season in the NFL his salary was $6,500.)
Born in Waltham, Mass., the athlete grew up in Anaheim, Calif., where he lettered in four sports and was a three-year All-American tackle at Paramount High School.
“I played everything. I played football, baseball, basketball and track,” said the oldest of eight brothers, who was gifted with speed and strength from an early age.
LoVetere joined the Army in 1955 and was assigned to the 187th regimental combat team with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell where he made 30-something jumps as a paratrooper.
He also played two years of football for the Fort Campbell squad and was named to two service all-star teams. On the side he worked as a bouncer at a local night club. A man with good hands, astounding strength and lightning speed, he was a prototype of today’s pro linemen.
With times of 9.8 in the 100-yard dash and 4.5 seconds in the 40, LoVetere became a dedicated weightlifter. In his prime, he sported a 56-inch chest, 40-inch waist and 21-inch biceps. He bench pressed 520 pounds and military pressed 405 pounds.
It was no wonder that Ram scout Chuck Benedict spied him out, and so with no college ball playing in his background, LoVetere went directly into the professional ranks where his teammates included Bill Wade, the former star Vanderbilt quarterback.
But before he headed back to his home stomping grounds on the West Coast, the big man met a little woman who sacked his heart.
“He snuck into town, and I worked in town,” laughed Debbie, a Nashville native, who worked as a hairdresser for years. “We’ve been married 55 years.”
Their union produced two children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“It was very hard being a player’s wife back then,” Debbie recalled. “We had two kids. He would go out and play two games at a time on the East Coast. When he got traded, I had to pack everything up.”
An aggressive pass rusher with great pursuit and range, LoVetere had some superb games with the Rams, and in 1960, he blocked seven kicks, probably a record.
After the 1962 season, the New York Giants traded Rosey Grier, their legendary defensive lineman, to the Rams straight up for LoVetere.
Unhappy with his coaches in L.A., he said, as far as football goes, being traded to the Giants was “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
He told Big Apple sportswriters on the day he reported to the Giants, “I’m a hungry ballplayer. I like to bang and knock all the time. If you don’t like to bang into that line, well, you’d better get the hell out of there.”
Giants head coach Al Sherman said of the Herculean tackle, “He knows only one way to play football and that is all out.”
“I was strong back then. Yeah, I had to be,” said the man who once pounded such famed quarterback as Johnny Unitas and Y.A. Tittle to the turf. “They were tough then. There weren’t no babies.”
Unfortunately, the lineman injured his right knee in a game with the St. Louis Cardinals—a big hurt from which he never fully recovered. After the 1966 season, he left the game behind, his only trophy a disabled leg.
The injury came when his legs became tangled up with the legs of three other players, “And I was going one way and they were going the other,” he remembered.
“He tore all his ligaments and cartilage with five minutes left in the game,” Debbie said.
“I played hurt and went back in like a damn fool,” said LoVetere, who now wishes he had left pro football behind a season earlier or, better yet, never had played at all.
Exiting the NFL, which offered very little in the way of disability in that era, John and his family moved to Cypress, Calif., where he worked in construction, building sets for shows at network television studios. In Hollywood, he crossed paths with such celebrities as Don Rickles, Dean Martin, Dan Blocker, Joey Bishop and others.
In 1969, John and Debbie relocated to Nashville, where Debbie’s family continued to operate a hairdressing studio. He went to work for Westlock, then joined the Teamsters Union and was employed by McLean Trucking where he loaded trucks, worked on the docks and drove locally. He retired after working several more years at Yellow Freight.
In 1976, a friend convinced LoVetere to open Scottie’s Restaurant on Highway 70 in Watertown. The big man did everything from manage the burger palace to flipping patties, but after two years, he closed the eatery.
In 1984, the couple bought a house and 30 acres on the outskirts of Watertown where they live today with two cats. Their daughter and grandkids live nearby.
LoVetere receives a small pension from the NFL, probably more than he made every month as a player, and he draws his retirement pay from working with the Teamsters.
Three days a week, Debbie drives her husband to Lebanon for dialysis treatments.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” he said of the illness.
These days Big John can no longer drive his tractor to mow the lawn. He did enjoy playing in the senior golf scrambles held at Hunter’s Point Golf Course but a leg injury in May has put that on hold. So he watches television, favoring reruns of “Bonanza” and PGA Golf tournaments. When he does watch the NFL on Sundays, he roots for the Patriots paying homage to his Boston roots.
“He was tough and he was strong. He still is. He went through an awful lot of pain in construction. His knees hurt,” said the old pro's sweetheart of a lifetime. “Bless his heart. He’s a sweet man.”