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WE LOST A GREAT ONE

My Headband of Choice Read: "DISTEL."

Chris Ello
September 07, 2018 - 9:18 am
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In the weeks leading up to Super Bowl XX, at the end of the 1985 season, the most controversial figure in the National Football League was Chicago's brash quarterback Jim McMahon. The dominant Bears were on their way to solidifying their place among the game's greatest teams, but most of the attention was focused on McMahon's headband.

It was just a simple white headband, really, except for the fact that McMahon was wearing it everywhere -- on and off the field -- and using it to promote his shoe brand of choice "ADIDAS." (Seems weird, I know, but 30-plus years ago, this qualified as a major controversy). The NFL Commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, ordered McMahon not to wear the headband during the NFC Championship Game. He wanted no favoritism shown to any shoe company on such a large stage.

But McMahon wore the headband during a 24-0 rout of the Los Angeles Rams anyway. Except the headband no longer read "ADIDAS." Instead, it read in big, block letters, "ROZELLE." McMahon had earned the final say and tweaked the Commissioner at the same time.

By the time the Bears mauled the New England Patriots 46-10, two weeks after that, to finish their remarkable season with nearly perfect record of 18-1, headbands were all the rage.

I wore one myself, to work the day following the Super Bowl. It read: "DISTEL." This was my way of both honoring and -- truth be told -- having a little fun at the expense of a special friend of mine, my boss at the time, Los Angeles Times Sports Editor Dave Distel.

Distel died over this past weekend at the age of 74, but his legend did not die with him. Back in 1985, in fact, he simply died laughing when he saw me report to work, outfitted in the McMahon-style headwear.

"DISTEL." I'll always remember the laugh were shared that day, and many other days just like it. I still smile  thinking back on it.

Dave Distel's passing got me thinking about my own lucky career. A sports writer out of college, hired by Distel in San Diego when I was just 22-years-old, I had the chance back then to learn about the world of sports journalism from one of the best to ever do it.

How good was Distel? A cigarette always in one hand, and a glass of tequila often in the other, he penned some of the best sports writing of an entire generation. Sent to Orange County to cover the then California Angels' beat, Distel called the team's ballpark "The Big A." The Angels still call their stadium that today, more than 30 years later.

Sent even further south, to start a San Diego Edition of the Times, Distel chronicled the Chargers' wide-open passing attack led by coach Don Coryell and quarterback Dan Fouts, and famously named it "Air Coryell." And he came up with many others.

He hired spectacular writers like Bill Plaschke, Tom Friend, Bob Nightengale, Chris Cobb, Kirk Kenney, (Me?) and Scott Miller. Practically anybody writing sports who's from or currently in San Diego, was influenced by Distel. He had a pretty good eye for interesting stories.

He once sent me down to the Presidio Park Golf Course and instructed me to do a quick feature story on a nine-year-old kid who was ahead in the Junior World Golf Tournament by something like 35 strokes. I caught up with the phenom, whose name was Eldrick Woods, and his father, after the second round.

Found out, among many other things, that the kid liked to called by his nickname, Tiger. Maybe I should have fashioned another headband.

Distel moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after he retired from sports writing in the early 1990's. While living amongst the snow there, he came across a small-town murder, which had captivated an entire town. Following the story from every angle, Distel wrote a riveting true crime novel called, "The Sweater Letter."

Like everything else he wrote, it captivated you from the first page until the last. I still have a signed copy in my office.

Anyway, Distel would probably want me to stop writing by about now. He taught he that the best sports writing was a story that said the most, using the least amount of words. Fantastic advice. The same goes for a good sports talk show. Safe to say, even before I learned of his passing, I still thought about Distel often.

I still will.

In fact, don't be suprised if I do my show the next couple of weeks wearing a headband.