Trading wasn't always so difficult in the NFL

Posted Friday, Feb. 29, 2008  comments  Print Reprints
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On May 19, 1971, Tony Liscio was involved in a trade for “Bambi.”

It didn’t take an Act of Congress.

Or an animal-rights act.

Lance Alworth — aka “Bambi” – was a future Hall of Famer and one of the American Football League’s all-time marquee players.

So, it did create a buzz when San Diego swapped the old AFL great to Dallas for three players barely a year into the NFL-AFL merger.

How good was Alworth? He was the first AFL player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a receiver you couldn’t overthrow. Only Dan Fouts (No. 14) and Alworth (No. 19) have their uniform numbers retired by the Chargers. At the time of the trade, Liscio had started more than 80 games for the Cowboys (left tackle or left guard). He and Alworth were both 30. In order to get a “Bambi” deal to fly, Dallas had to part with two starters — 32-year-old tight end Pettis Norman and Liscio — and a fifth-year defensive tackle, Ron East.

It was a steep price to pay, but Tom Landry put a premium on older receivers who could still run.

He liked their good hands, good instincts ... long resumés.

Seven years earlier, Paul Warfield was not drafted by Dallas because veteran Buddy Dial became available to Landry.

“Warfield was our guy all along,” recalled Landry’s personnel man, Gil Brandt. “We had a commitment from him ... for something like $25,000.”

But Landry switched gears. After finishing 4-10 in ’63, he simply believed that his fledgling team could use veteran help at wide receiver more than it could use a flashy prospect.

Dial was that veteran. A Steeler since ’59, he had developed into a two-time Pro Bowler with moves on top of his moves.

In short, Dial became Landry’s Warfield.

At the time, Steelers coach Buddy Parker had grown weary of his defense (it may have had something to do with a 31-0 loss to the Giants on the final Sunday of the ’63 season) and coveted University of Texas defensive tackle Scott Appleton.

With the AFL and NFL waging a bidding war for college players, Dallas had a better chance of nailing down this Longhorn — so Parker and the Steelers thought — which set up a Dial for “Appleton pick” trade.

The Cowboys did their part.

With Warfield still on the board, they drafted “Scott Appleton, Texas” on the fourth pick overall. (Warfield was taken at No. 11 by Cleveland, and Art Modell never forgave the Cowboys for driving up the price on Warfield.)

Ultimately, Pittsburgh ended up with nothing. Appleton signed with the AFL Houston Oilers, and Dial gave Dallas two decent years (1964-66) before retiring.

Now if you’ve been paying attention, you just know Landry would make that “Bambi” trade in May 1971.

“That was 37 years ago,” said Liscio, who recalls the trade coming down like most trades of the day: Hard, fast ... and without week-long deliberations in the media over players reporting or not reporting.

“Back then, you either accepted the trade or you retired,” said Liscio, now 67. “You didn’t even dare to have a agent.”

Liscio reported to the Chargers’ training camp at UC-Irvine and almost immediately strained both hamstrings as a result of a team-mandated stretching program.

His already-problematic back had cost him the second half of the ’70 season with the Cowboys, and now that flared up as well.

“I never did play a game for the Chargers,” Liscio said. “The only week I started feeling decent ... they traded me to Miami.”

With his wife, Annette, and the kids back in Dallas, Liscio was sent packing — again — shortly after the Chargers broke camp and returned to San Diego.

This time, Liscio mulled it over, weighed his option (singular) ... and decided to retire. He would start working on his real estate license right away.

But that isn’t be the end of the story .... or Liscio’s career with the Cowboys, for that matter.

In mid-November ‘71, Landry desperately needed a left tackle.

Injuries at that position had hit the team hard: Ralph Neely fractured his leg in an off-road, in-season motorcycle accident; Don Talbert broke a bone in his foot, and Forrest Gregg was limping to the finish line of a 16-year Hall of Fame career.

Landry dialed up Liscio.

The conversation, as Liscio recalls it, went something like this:

Landry: “Tony, we really need you to come back.”

Liscio: “OK, Coach, but I haven’t run in three months. I haven’t lifted in three months. How much time are you going to give me?”

Landry: I’ll give you 30 minutes.”

They hung up. Liscio consulted with his wife, Annette, then called Landry back (beating the 30-minute deadline, of course).

“I told him OK, but everything happened so fast,” Liscio recalled. “Coach Landry phoned me on a Monday [Nov. 15, 1971], I was at the training facility on a Wednesday ... and I was the starting left tackle against the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

“On top of that, four days later, I was back out there again in the Thanksgiving Day game against the L.A. Rams.”

Liscio went into that Redskins game at RFK with his right leg taped from the ankle to the hip. His right knee was aching. Both shoulders hurt. But with the Cowboys and Redskins battling for first place in the NFC East, Liscio’s adrenaline quickly took over.

“Once the game started, I felt nothing,” he recalled.

The Cowboys won, 13-0. Liscio’s opponent that day was defensive end Verlon Biggs, who never reached the quarterback.

Incredibly, in fact, Liscio didn’t allow a sack in eight starts on his comeback. And the ’71 Cowboys never lost a game with him at left tackle. Not only did they run the table through Super Bowl VI, but Liscio and Alworth ended up being Super Bowl teammates.

The former AFL great caught a seven-yard pass from Roger Staubach for the first touchdown of the Cowboys’ first Super Bowl victory (24-3 over Miami). It came on a quick toss into the end zone to Liscio’s side.

The trade — just as Liscio’s Cowboys career — had come full circle.

Again, Liscio retired — this time for good. He and Annette still live in Dallas, and will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary this summer.

But Liscio can never forget Landry’s phone call. Or the fairytale ending it brought his NFL career.

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