‘First Gronk’ Mike Long is a true original
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The first-ever AFL exhibition game was played on July 30, 1960, on a steamy Friday night in Buffalo. In the fourth quarter, No. 87 of the Boston Patriots hauled in a 7-yard touchdown pass and gently handed the ball to an official, a very un-Gronk-like thing to do.
"I was happy as hell, but no one ever did any of that [spiking] stuff," said Mike Long. "It was called hot dogging."
Long, 77, is the original Patriots No. 87, the first Gronk. Never heard of him? Well, he keeps a sense of humor about his limited role in team history.
"I thought up a riddle," he said. "What did Gronk say as a rookie when they were giving out game shirts?"
" 'I want Mike Long's number.' ''
Long, a 6-foot, 188-pound end from Brandeis, played in only two games in the AFL's inaugural 1960 season, but some teammates remember him fondly.
"The original Gronk was a tremendous pass receiver, a gritty guy, and a blue-collar type guy, that is for sure," said former Boston Patriots quarterback Tom Greene, who tossed that TD pass more than 55 years ago.
Long says he is thrilled to see Rob Gronkowski wearing his old number.
"He's the best tight end I've ever seen," he said. "I can't think of anybody who has ever been better. He does everything. He blocks, he tackles, and he can catch and run."
Long was also a half-century ahead of the fun-loving Gronk when it came to partying. When Long got a $500 signing bonus from the Patriots, his first move was to buy kegs of beer for a celebration at Brandeis. Then he got his MG sports car repainted.
Long eventually became a stock trader, played rugby, married a French woman, had two children, and owned a restaurant in southwest France for years.
He's well-read, refined, and very hospitable.
"Well, I cooked up a French meal," he tells a guest who arrives at his Portsmouth apartment near Strawberry Banke. "Ever have cassoulet?"
Both Long and Gronk love French cooking. Gronk told Men's Fitness magazine that his favorite home-cooked meal is his mother's chicken soufflé, made with chicken, soup, bread, and cheese on top.
On a recent Sunday evening, the delicious aroma of the simmering lamb stew, sausage, white beans, carrots, turnips, parsley, and cloves wafts into the Long living room, where the Patriots game is on the TV.
As Long washes it down with a bottle of French Bordeaux, the memories come flowing out faster than a football from Tom Brady's hands.
"I did OK for a hick from Marlborough [Mass.]," he said.
He pulls out an old, worn scrapbook. As a speedy, redheaded teenager at Marlborough High, he first made the newspapers when he caught a touchdown pass against Clinton, despite losing a shoe en route.
His memory is as sharp as a tack.
"The field was wet and the grass spongy," he said.
He starred at Brandeis but also sparked a feud with Northeastern. It started, he said, when NU center Bo Lyons elbowed him in the face and his plastic face mask shattered, cutting him in the mouth. He lost teeth and received 42 stitches.
"It was a cheap shot," said Long.
The Huskies disagreed.
Long's coach, Pro Football Hall of Famer Benny Friedman, was so incensed that he made sure Brandeis didn't play NU in any sport for years, according to Long.
Friedman, who revolutionized the role of the quarterback in the NFL in the late 1920s and '30s, helped make Long a better receiver. Long earned All-East honors as a two-way end and served as captain of the 1959 team. The old Boston Traveler called him "one of best receivers in the east," and he made the Brandeis Athletics Hall of Fame.
Breaking into the AFL
As Long was finishing his college career, the upstart AFL was feverishly looking for players. The Patriots held workouts at UMass, and competition was fierce.
"They lined us up, and there were 11 offensive teams," Long said. "I counted 'em. I was on the last team."
But Long had a great exhibition season, made the team, and became a starter. He signed a contract for $8,500.
"I thought that was big money," said Long, who doesn't begrudge today's stars their huge salaries.
"More power to them," he said.
But there were bumps in the road, particularly when Abner Haynes of the Dallas Texans, who would be named the AFL's first Rookie of the Year, intercepted a long pass that Long was about to haul in during an exhibition game.
"Haynes plucked it and went about 50 yards," Long said. "I went off the field and [coach Lou] Saban started in on me."
He yelled at Long while Dallas went three-and-out and prepared to punt.
"I was so upset about Saban yelling at me that I forgot to go in," Long said. "They kicked with 10 guys on the field."
Saban was still ticked off the following Monday.
"The first guy he starts criticizing is me," Long said. "I thought: 'I'm finished. He's going to cut me.' "
Instead, Saban offered him a game jersey.
"He'd say: 'What number do you want? You can pick from the 80s,' " Long recalled. "So I picked 87. I don't know why. 82, my college number, was gone. So I picked 87, and so here you are.''
He caught a pass in the Patriots' first regular-season game, a 13-10 loss to the Broncos on Sept. 9, 1960, at Boston University's Nickerson Field.
"It was rather uneventful for me,'' Long said. "They only threw me one pass."
In the second game, at the Polo Grounds against the New York Titans, he caught another 5-yard pass.
But from then on, his career path was like the pass pattern he ran: a buttonhook. He was demoted to the taxi squad.
"I never knew why," he said.
Greene says it's a shame that Long didn't get more playing time for a Patriots team that finished 5-9 in its inaugural season.
"I think Mike got swept out before he really got a chance to establish his worth," Greene said. "I think if he had, he would've been a 10-year player. Mike got caught in the backwash of our losing."
Life after football
Instead of sulking, Long went to Europe.
"I wanted to see the cathedrals and the museums," he said.
He joined the Marines in 1962, met his future wife, Simone, at a party at the French consulate in Boston, and later served as a captain in the reserves.
He also played for the Beacon Hill Rugby Club, starting in 1969.
"Unlike Gronk, Mike was more cool and suave, like an Irish James Bond," said former teammate Steve Durant. "Unflappable, cool, and in control."
Another teammate, Mike McKenna, agreed.
"Mike is a real gentleman,'' he said. "Humble. He kept an eye out for me. Never mentioned his past. I've always looked up to him."
When the stock market tanked in the mid '70s, Long traveled to France with his wife. They had a drink in a lovely French restaurant in Margaux, about 15 miles from Bordeaux and in the heart of the wine country.
"I found out it was for sale and bought it on the spot," Long said.
They raised two children there. Long had a wine cellar with 1,000 bottles, and he never checked on the Patriots.
Later he became a currency expert based in Paris and London between 1980 and 2001. But when his wife died, he returned stateside.
He attended the Patriots 50th anniversary dinner, where former teammate Gino Cappelletti told him there's a razor-thin line between success and failure in football.
Long recalls a game in which a struggling young Cappelletti was brought in to attempt a game-winning field goal with just seconds left.
"He knows that if he made the kick, he'd be good for the season, but if he missed it, he'd probably get cut,'' Long said. "They snapped the ball. Freddie Bruney, a wild man from Ohio State and a good football player, puts the ball down. Gino says: 'I froze. Couldn't move.'
"So Bruny finally looked up and said: 'Kick it. Kick it!' And he kicked it through the uprights. And he said, 'That was the difference between me playing pro ball and getting cut.' "
Long shakes his head.
"Did I have a richer life away from football? Who knows? If you went to Brandeis, you had to study, otherwise you'd get thrown out, and I think I learned something there. But who knows?"
He also worries about concussions. He jokingly says he used to give them, not get them. But then he gets serious.
"It was tragic what happened to Junior Seau and all these other guys," he said.
He believes the game's future may be in jeopardy.
"How many mothers are going to let their kids play seventh- and eighth-grade football?" he said. "That could be the demise of football. People are going to do what's safest for their kid."
As Long watches the Patriots play the Eagles on television, New England is underperforming. Tom Brady is being pressured, and his receivers are dropping passes.
Gronk is not playing in the game because of an injury, and he is sorely missed.
"He's the perfect tight end,'' Long says. "Oh, Gronk can block. He'll go against a 300-pound tackle and hold him off."
Long complains about the amount of penalties being called in the NFL now and rule changes.
"Now they're talking about no low tackles,'' he says. "If you don't hit Gronkowski low, how are you going to take him down? You're not. You're going to have to hit him low."
The two 87s have never met.
"I hear he's a nice guy," Long says.
What would you say to him?
"How do you do?" he says with a smile.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.