Monday, January 23, 2012

Taking Flak: My Life in the Fast Lane

The 1978 and 1979 Houston Oilers football teams came along at a perfect time in the city’s history.  Houston, an oil boomtown for much of the seventies, was attracting jobs and workers from all around the country at an amazing clip.  Local children amused themselves by counting the Michigan license plates they spotted on Houston’s freeways, and their parents felt a level of enthusiasm about the future that will probably never be matched.  But all was not well because the Houston Oilers were suffering some tough seasons and their fans were not happy about it.

Coach Bum Phillips, running back Earl Campbell, and quarterback Dan Pastorini changed that in 1978, the first of two successive seasons that the Oilers and the Pittsburgh Steelers would meet in the AFC Championship game.  Oilers fans, despite their team losing both games, could remind themselves that the Steelers won both Super Bowls that followed their defeats of the Oilers.  Coach Phillips and Earl Campbell owned the city; it was not that way for Dan Pastorini. 

Taking Flak, written by Pastorini and co-writer John Lopez, is Pastorini’s very personal account of what those heady days were like for him, how he reached that pinnacle, and how his life would turn into a total disaster just a few short years later.  Pastorini covers it all but still leaves the reader wishing for more – he is that good a storyteller.  (Full disclosure: I was a fan of the team and Pastorini in the seventies, and I purchased my autographed copy of Taking Flak at a Houston Texan’s football game on January 1, 2012.  I enjoyed the chance to meet the man and to shake his hand – his display of courage and skill on the football field is one of my better memories of those days.)

Taking Flak starts at the beginning with Pastorini’s California upbringing as the youngest child in a family that had to hustle to make ends meet.  The kid, such a natural athlete that he sometimes competed on his older brother’s baseball team, soon realized that he could throw a baseball or football farther than anyone around.  He was convinced that he would become a professional ballplayer or drag racer and, in time, he would be both, as well as a professional speedboat racer.

Dan Pastorini
By the time he was a Houston Oiler, Pastorini was into pills, booze, and flashy women - often to the point that his self-destructive lifestyle became a conversation of topic around town.  And, of course, in this era of professional football, team doctors were known to give their players whatever it took to kill the pain long enough to get them through the next game.  The stories that got out about Pastorini’s scuffle with a rather obnoxious sportswriter, run-ins with local cops, his affair with Farrah Fawcett and his ten-year-marriage to June Wilkinson, and his relationship with team owners and coaches was just the tip of the iceberg.  He tells it all in Taking Flak, and he takes full responsibility for all the missteps along the way.

Dante Pastorini is lucky to be alive, but his personal future may be brighter today than it ever has been.  Read his story, shake your head a little, and applaud a man who is finally getting it right.

Rated at: 5.0

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