What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is not being done as part of a blog-a-thon. Instead, this is a monthly event hosted by MovieRob called Genre Grandeur. The way it works is every month MovieRob chooses a film blogger to pick a topic and a movie to write about, then also picks a movie for MovieRob to review. At the end of the month, MovieRob posts the reviews of all the participants.
For November of 2021, the honor of being the “guest picker” went to Marc of French Toast Sundays. The topic is “Live Action Disney Films.”
This movie can be a lot of fun if you can follow three simple suggestions:
As for the film itself, Gus opens in Yugoslavia (which still existed in 1976) as Stepjan Petrovic (played by Jackson Bostwick) is playing in a soccer match with his family in attendance. As the sports star, Stepjan draws more attention than his brother Andy (played by Gary Grimes). Because of an injury suffered from an accident in which he fell down a well, Andy is unable to play soccer and is relegated to farm work. This is when he discovers that beast of burden Gus the Mule can hoof a soccer ball tremendous distances on Andy’s verbal cue “Oich!”
Meanwhile, halfway around the world from the Petrovic farm, Hank Cooper (played by Ed Asner) owns a professional football team called the California Atoms. Led by the neurotically inept Coach Venner (played by Don Knotts), the Atoms are chronic losers. Complicating matters is the fact that Cooper is heavily in debt to a couple of mob bookies Charles Gwynn (played by Harold Gould) and Cal Wilson (played by Dick Van Patten).
Cooper tells the bookies he can’t pay what he owes them, so as an alternative they propose a one-time, big-stakes wager. If the Atoms win the Super Bowl this season, all Cooper’s gambling debts will be erased. If not, Gwynn and Wilson get ownership of the team.
Cooper takes the bet, but still wants to draw more fans. As a result, he wants a spectacular half-time attraction. Cooper’s secretary Debbie (played by Liberty Williams) is Yugoslavian and she reads a story about Gus in a newspaper her parents have from the “old country.” Debbie travels to Yugoslavia and hires Gus and Andy.
Gus’ ability to boot a ball not only wows the crowd, but catches the eye of Cooper and Coach Venner, who concoct the idea to use Gus to kick field goals. Naturally, the first time they put the mule in an actual game, the opposing team protests, but nobody can find anything in the rule book which excludes Gus.
The lark works, and now Gus is a tremendous weapon. His ability to put the ball between the goalposts from anywhere on the field basically means anytime the Atoms have the ball, they have an almost an automatic three points.
An advantage of that scale immediately makes the California Atoms a contender. As a result, they rocket up the standings to lead their division.
The complication comes in the fact that Gus and Andy are a matched set. Gus only kicks footballs on Andy’s command, and the Atoms can’t win without them. Since Debbie speaks Serbian, she is assigned to caretaker duty for Andy and Gus. As is the formula for even an old-school Disney flick, a romance begins to burgeon between Debbie and Andy.
However, the Atoms’ winning streak is bad news for the gamblers Gwynn and Wilson. Seeing their odds of owning the team getting slimmer with each field goal, they hire two dim-bulb thugs named Crankcase (played Tim Conway) and Spinner (played by Tom Bosley) to derail Gus. Through various schemes, Crankcase and Spinner are successful enough to make the Atoms lose two games. but they fail because the team still makes the play-offs…which means their chance of winning the Super Bowl is still very much alive.
Now, Spinner and Crankcase have no choice but to up the ante. They play on Andy’s feelings for Debbie; just before the Atoms’ play-off game, Spinner lures Andy to the hospital by telling him Debbie has been injured in a car accident. What Andy doesn’t know is Crankcase is laying in wait at the hospital to kidnap him.
Of course, with no Andy, Gus won’t kick, which means the Atoms can’t win. In no time, the Atoms fall behind. But in the fourth quarter, all the California Atoms need is a field goal to win the game. Being the only other person who speaks Serbian, Debbie dons Andy’s uniform and gives Gus the “Oich!” command. Gus responds, the Atoms put three points on the board, and they are Super Bowl-bound.
Growing even more desperate, Spinner and Crankcase realize Gus is the key. Before the Super Bowl, they switch Gus with a regular mule. Their plan begins to show flaws immediately as they hole up with Gus in a hotel room. While Gus breaks up the hotel room, Andy realizes the mule he has at the Super Bowl isn’t Gus.
While Cooper and Andy leave the game embarking on a helicopter search, Gus smashes his way out of the hotel hide-out…and slap-stick hilarity ensues. Gus dashes into a store with Crankcase and Spinner in hot pursuit. To picture what happens next, imagine the fight between Jonathan Winters and the gas station attendants from It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World taking place in a supermarket. The end result: Spinner and Crankcase end up in handcuffs, Gus escapes and is spotted by Andy and Cooper, who use the helicopter to get him to the Super Bowl in time for the fourth quarter.
Once Gus is in the game, the California Atoms make a comeback. The set up for the ending is exactly what you would expect. There’s :03 left on the clock, the Atoms have the ball on their own 5-yard line, and trail 16–15. Gus lines up for the game-winning field goal, but the muddy field makes him slip and miss the ball. During the resulting scramble, Gus knocks the ball to Andy, who dashes down the field to score the Super Bowl winning touchdown.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Today, the world of place-kicking is ruled by little guys who have mastered the single skill of putting a foot into a football to drive it for “Gus”-like distances down the field.
But that wasn’t always the case.
From the first days of football, the world of place-kicking was a world ruled by mastodons with square-toed boots who swung their leg-hammers to blast the ball into the sky.
For decades, an offensive lineman named Lou “The Toe” Groza was the leading scorer in the history of the National Football League as he was the “big guy with the big shoe” for the Cleveland Browns in their “glory days” of the 1950s and 1960s.
For the longest time, the record for the longest field goal belonged to a guy with half a foot and a specially-designed shoe-club. In 1970, Tom Dempsey kicked a 63-yard field goal (shown in the video above) for the New Orleans Saints to beat the Detroit Lions on the last play of the game. That record stood for over 40 years.
Despite appearances, Dempsey was no “side-show” attraction; he led the National Football League in longest field goals made in each of his first three seasons. His ability to split the uprights from nearly “Gus”-like distances allowed him to have a eleven-year career notching 738 points as a scoring weapon for the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers, and Buffalo Bills.
Say what you will, but the place-kicker is monstrously important to any football team; they are almost always their leading scorer, and every fan knows how many games are won and lost on last-second kicks. That means while the idea of a field-goal kicking mule may be a bit far-fetched, teams scouring the globe for a guy who can put points on the board from great distances is 100% pure, uncut reality..
In America, the sport we call “soccer” is known in the rest of the world as “football.” But now, many guys who kick American footballs for a living got their sporting start with the world variety. The melding of those football-kicking worlds came a decade before Gus the field-goal kicking mule, but they both have their roots in Eastern Europe.
That brings us to the tale of Péter “Pete” Kornél Gogolák…the first “soccer-style” kicker in American football. While Gus came to us from the now-disintegrated Yugoslavia, Gogolák was born as the son of physician in the war-torn Hungary of 1942. Surviving the Second World War and the Nazis, the Gogolák family was forced to flee post-war communist Hungary after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
As new immigrants to America, the Gogolák family settled in Ogdensburg, New York. Upon graduating high school, Pete took his kicking talents to nearby Cornell University. It was in the college game where Gogolák perfected his adaptation of “soccer-style” kicking to American football.
For purposes of clarity, “soccer-style” involves approaching the football at an angle striking the ball with the instep, as opposed to the “conventional” (or “straight-on”) method in which the approach to the ball is perpendicular to the goal line and the ball is struck with the toes. The advantage (which wasn’t accepted at the time) was the “soccer-style” offered both greater distance and accuracy.
When Gogolák graduated in 1964, there were two professional football leagues in the United States; the upstart American Football League (AFL) and the established National Football League (NFL). The NFL teams passed on Gogolák when it came time for their draft, but the same could not be said for the AFL’s Buffalo Bills, who selected the “soccer-style” kicker in the twelfth round.
Now, the unorthodox style which garnered Gogolák attention in the collegiate game made him the first “soccer-style” kicker in professional football. In no time, he proved to be more than a curiosity. In the 1965 season, Gogolák hit 28 of 46 field goal attempts and 31 point-after-touchdown (PAT) conversions for a total of 115 points, making him the second highest scorer in the AFL. His scoring prowess resulted in the other players in the league selecting him to the All-AFL team and he was a crucial component of the Buffalo Bills repeating as AFL champions.
After two years with the back-to-back AFL champion Buffalo Bills, a star was born. Sport Magazine cemented that by listing Gogolák as of its rising young stars of 1965. This was a big deal; just look at some of the names on that list. There was Jack Nicklaus (arguably the best golfer ever to swing a club), Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali, the boxer for whom the term “Greatest of All Time” was coined), and Bill Bradley (future National Basketball Association champion and United States Senator from New Jersey).
The company Gogolák’s name was keeping on the landscape of American sports did not escape the attention of Wellington Mara, the owner of the NFL’s New York Giants. Champions of the NFL in 1963, by 1966 the Giants had fallen on hard times. They were now little better than mediocre, and they especially struggled with their kicking game. The year before, the Giants’ kicker Bob Timberlake shanked all but one of his fifteen field goal attempts; the “G-Men” were so desperate for kicking they tried fullback Chuck Mercein in the role…with no success.
As a result, Wellington Mara made a decision which would change the face of football forever. When the Buffalo Bills drafted Gogolák in 1964, they signed him two-year deal which paid him $10,000 for the first year and $13,500 for the second. That was pretty good money for the time; you could buy a fully-loaded, brand-new Ford Mustang for $2,300. You could find a pretty damn good house for $13,000.
The catch was Gogolák’s deal included an option on the second year; one in which he could opt for a lower salary, but in return the Bills would have to match any offer from another team…essentially making Gogolák what would later be known as a “free agent.”
Gogolák took the option and played out the 1965 season for $9,900, This allowed Wellington Mara to out-bid Buffalo Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson by tripling Gogolák’s salary to a reported $32,000 per year. Not only was this a serious escalation in player salaries, it effectively cancelled the “gentleman’s agreement” between AFL and NFL owners not to poach each other’s players. Since the AFL was found in 1960, the two leagues did compete to sign new players coming out of college; things got serious in 1964 when the owner of AFL’s New York Jets Sonny Werblin snatched future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Namath out from under the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals by offering him over $400,000.
Werblin’s move to secure the rights to Namath by more than doubling what the St. Louis Cardinals were offering set the stage for Mara’s signing of Gogolák to be widely seen as the “Shot Heard Around The World” kicking off what would become known as the “War Between The Leagues.” Once Mara opened the door, the bidding war for players between AFL and NFL owners was on. Players moved freely between the leagues since there was no written agreement not to sign each other’s talent. Salaries began to escalate in the bidding wars, and in an act of revenge, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson appointed the pugnacious owner of the Oakland Raiders Al Davis as the AFLs’ commissioner.
In an eight-week campaign reminiscent of Sherman’s March to the Sea in the American Civil War, Davis brought the “hard hand of war” to the NFL by orchestrating player signings into the AFL…all (allegedly) bank-rolled by Ralph Wilson, who was known to the the “banker” for the AFL. Davis’ war on the NFL was so successful that in only a matter of months in the spring of 1966, the war that started with the signing of Pete Gogolák ended with a peace treaty which became the outright merger of the rival leagues.
This merger had two lasting impacts. First, the phenomenon known as free-agency would not appear in full in the newly-formed NFL until the 1980s. Part of this curtailing of player movement meant several high-profile NFL players (such as Roman Gabriel, John Brodie, and Mike Ditka) had deals they signed with the AFL negated.
Even if you aren’t a sports fan, you know the other thing that came as a result of this merger. While the deal to join the AFL and NFL into one league was signed in June of 1966, it wouldn’t be “official” until 1970. In the mean time, a deal was reached to have the champion of the AFL play the champion of the NFL in an exhibition game.
Called the World Championship Game, the first one was played in January 1967 in Los Angeles between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
It drew only moderate fan interest, but by the next January’s match between those same Green Bay Packer’s and the AFL representative Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders, the new merged league’s marketing gurus coined a new term for the game – “The Super Bowl” – and a sports phenomenon was born. Played in Miami in January 1968, the second World Championship Game was actually the first one to be called the “Super Bowl,” even though the first game in 1967 is often referred to as “Super Bowl I.”
Even though it was called a “championship” game, the Super Bowl did not actually confer the title “league champion” to the winner until Super Bowl V in 1970; the first one played after the merger between the two leagues was officially complete.
So…if you’re ever talking about football and somebody says kickers aren’t “really” football players, you can point them to the place-kicker who brought about the merger of the AFL and the NFL, which led to the creation of a billion-viewer sporting event.
Imagine how different would the history of professional football be if Wellington Mara had Hank Cooper’s luck by finding a field-goal kicking machine he could pay with a bucket of oats?
The Moral of The Story:
Regardless of whether your name is “Gus” or “Gogolák,” rules can never be confused with convention. If you’re within the rules of the game; it doesn’t matter how you do it…it only matters that you can do it.
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