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John Gordy, at 73; led first NFL players union strike

JOHN GORDY JOHN GORDY (Associated Press/File 1961)
By Claire Noland
Los Angeles Times / February 2, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - John Gordy, a former Detroit Lions lineman who led the NFL players union in 1968 when it negotiated the league's first collective bargaining agreement, has died. He was 73.

Mr. Gordy died Friday from complications of pancreatic cancer at the University of California Irvine Medical Center in Orange, his wife, Betty, said.

A star offensive lineman at the University of Tennessee in the 1950s, Mr. Gordy was picked by the Lions in the second round of the 1957 NFL draft. He started at right guard his rookie season, when the Lions won the NFL championship, their last title.

By 1968 he was a seasoned veteran and president of the NFL Players Association, which he had helped found. Mr. Gordy led the union's efforts to press the league's owners on a slate of demands, including higher minimum salaries for veterans and rookies, bigger paychecks for exhibition games, independent arbitration, and a greater contribution to the pension fund.

On July 3, 1968, after talks with the owners stalled, the NFL Players Association voted to strike. The owners countered by declaring a lockout. But on July 14, the owners relented and the brief strike was over.

Though the players could celebrate winning a collective bargaining agreement from the owners, the concessions they received were small. The owners compromised by agreeing to contribute about $1.5 million to the pension fund but maintained minimum salaries of $9,000 for rookies, $10,000 for veterans, and $50 per exhibition game, and no independent arbitration.

After the merger of the National Football League and the American Football League, more labor disputes lay ahead in the 1970s and '80s.

However, Mr. Gordy's contributions were lasting, according to Richard Berthelsen, interim executive director of the NFL Players Association.

"John was one of the cornerstones of our union," Berthelsen said. "Everybody thought very highly of John. He led NFL players into their first strike. It was a short one, but he wanted to prove the point that they would do it."

Mr. Gordy returned to the Lions but suffered a serious knee injury in training camp and retired before the 1968 season.

John Thomas Gordy Jr. was born in Nashville. His father was Papa John Gordy, a Dixieland jazz musician.

Mr. Gordy didn't play football until his season year in high school but won a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He was a two-year starter at right tackle and captain of the team his senior season. That year, 1956, the Volunteers, led by tailback Johnny Majors, won the Southeastern Conference and finished 10-1, ranked No. 2 in the nation.

After a standout rookie season with the Lions, he left the team to be an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska. He returned to Detroit in 1959 and starred at right guard through the 1967 season. He went to the Pro Bowl three times in the mid-1960s.

Mr. Gordy also had a substantial role in the 1968 film "Paper Lion," based on George Plimpton's book about the Lions and starring Alan Alda as Plimpton.

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