I was sitting on a stool at the end of the bar at Brennan’s Irish Pub in Manhattan Beach, where I was employed as a bartender, and winding down from a two-day-plus binge celebrating my fortieth birthday, when, through the front swinging doors, Jim Plunkett entered, followed by Ted Hendricks, Dave Dalby, Bob Nelson, Steve Sylvester, and Matt Robinson, all of the Los Angeles Raiders, who had moved down here from Oakland and just broken camp in Oxnard and were experiencing their first sample of beach bar life.
It was a late Sunday afternoon toward the end of August, and beside me was Lita Colandrea, my most-of-the-time female companion who was trying to convince me to stop drinking before I killed myself, but I kept insisting on one more and the bartender, Donnie Sipka, continued to serve me beers and shots as he chuckled at my relentless mindlessness.
The Raider crew passed behind me and sat down five or six stools down, along the rectangular bar, facing the entrance. I told Sipka I had their first round and to welcome them to Brennan’s. After they were served beers, each new Raider raised his mug and nodded at me, thanked me, and after Sipka conversed with them for a few minutes, Ted Hendricks, all 6-feet-7 or 8 inches, stood and walked over to me and said, “I hear it’s your fortieth birthday.”
“That’s right,” I said
Hovering over me, he said, matter-of-factly, “Forty’s big.”
“Yes it is,” I agreed. “I’ve been at it for two days worth of big.”
He nodded. Then: “I like your hat.”
I was wearing my yellow cap with elongated bill, a very, very long duck bill. I had about ten other caps and goofy hats in front of me, as a person celebrating his fortieth needs a variety of headwear over the long haul.
“Thanks,” I said.
Ted nodded toward my headwear. “I’m a hat man, too,” he explained.
“So I’ve heard. I have about thirty-some hats and caps, Ted.”
“I have around a hundred” he said, offering me his huge hand. “You know me, but I don’t know your name.”
“Dell, Ted. My name’s Dell.”
“Would you be too offended if I asked to try on your hat, Dell?” he asked. “I know I get irritated when people ask to try on my hats, but since we’re hat men, I thought it might be okay.”
“Sure,” I said. I handed him the cap. He tried it on, pulled it tight, and pointed to one of my many caps, which included a blue one with elongated bill but also with earflaps in red letters, “BULLSHIT PROTECTORS.” I often wore this cap when a woman was taking me to task, carping at me, and pulled down the flaps when they ranted, lifting them when I had my say. I explained this to Ted while I tried it on as Lita sighed and shook her head in a longsuffering manner and Ted nodded in complete understanding. Then Ted asked me to stand, if I was able, so we could slap bills. I stood, and big Ted leaned down and we slapped bills, bobbing our heads in rhythm, making a bit of a racket as his teammates looked on. When we finished slapping bills Ted motioned to Sipka and ordered two shots of wild cherry brandy and two shots of anisette. He turned to me. “For your fortieth.”
“Ted,” I said. “I’m on my last legs, man.”
He issued me a look I’m sure terrified all offensive players in the NFL for almost 15 years and said, “Forty’s big,” and lifted his shot of wild cherry. I tinked his glass with my shot and we downed our shots, and repeated the process with the anisette. Then he took off my cap and handed it to me. I told him he looked good in it and could borrow it if he wanted to, as I was content with my earflap cap, but he said, ”No, I can’t because those guys over there and the guys in the locker room’ll destroy it. But thanks.”
“I understand completely, Ted,” I said. “Thanks for the shots.”
He wished me a happy birthday and returned to his teammates who, on the second round, sent me down a beer and a shot, and I pulled the earflaps tight and raised the shot and downed it while Lita tried to get Sipka to cut me off.
A week or so later, Lita—a New Yorker and person without peer as a thrift store scavenger finding treasures—and I were in Santa Monica visiting old-world clothing stores. In one of these stores she discovered, among a batch of headwear, a ball cap with the exact elongated bill as my yellow one, only in black, with silver letters on the crown that read MADDEST HATTER. Silver and black were the Raider colors and I quickly purchased it and brought it to the bar and placed it in one of the cupboards.
By this time, Ted had found an old, very used limousine and hired a rumpled, usually out-of-work handyman local to serve as his chauffeur who parked it across the street from Brennan’s at the more upscale Pancho’s while Ted did his drinking in both bars. On an early Monday evening, this limo pulled up across the street and Ted got out, accompanied by a pretty lady, and started to go into Pancho’s. I bellowed out his name from my station behind the bar. He turned and spotted me through the open doorway and I motioned him over. He came across the street with his gal and when he arrived at the bar I placed the black cap before him.
“For you, Ted,” I said.
He looked at the cap. He picked it up. He looked at me. He read the crown. He looked at his lady. He looked at me. He seemed unable to find words. Then: “You actually thought enough of me to buy me this great hat?”
“I saw it, and it said Ted Hendricks all over it,” I explained.
He tried it on. A perfect fit. He looked at his lady. She nodded her approval, smiling. He looked at me. “Thank you,” he said, pulling out some bills. “I’d like to pay you…”
“It’s on me, Ted. Us hat guys, we stick together.”
His lady caught my eye and issued me an understanding look that was somehow confidential. Ted said, “You still have that yellow hat around?”
I wore a variety of headwear at work on weekend band nights because all of us bartenders were clown acts and borderline comedians and chameleons, part of the scene at a very hot bar. So I retrieved the cap and put it on and Ted said, “Let’s slap bills.” I leaned forward and Ted leaned down and we slapped bills, renewing our perfect rhythm as we bobbed heads up and down while the crowd looked on. Then Ted placed a big bill on the bar and said, “Two wild cherry brandies and two anisettes.”
I poured out four shots. We tinked glasses twice and downed them all and then Ted very quickly turned and headed across the street toward Pancho’s, leaving the big bill. His very classy and pretty lady looked at me and said, “You have no idea how moved he is that you thought enough of him to buy him that beautiful hat. He loves it.”
I watched big Ted, known as “Kick ‘em in the head Ted,” and “The Mad Stork,” which he hated, enter Pancho’s, future Hall of Famer, rated as one of the two or three greatest outside linebackers in the history of the NFL, a man so notoriously hostile on the gridiron that he’d become a living legend.
“I thought he might cry,” I said.
“He’s that way,” she said, and walked across the street to meet him. §
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his rescue dog, Wilbur. For more of his work, visit his website, dellfranklin.com, where this article first appeared.