The Time I Played with the World’s Baddest Athletes: Part One


McLain pitching
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The Denny McLain story is well told. He went 31-6 in the Detroit Tigers’ World Series victory year of 1968, winning the MVP and Cy Young awards. And then, the bottom fell out. Convicted in 1996 of embezzlement, mail fraud and conspiracy, he spent six years in prison.

But let’s be positive. He came to our offices on the same day as Detroit Red Wings’ “enforcer” Bob Probert to tape commercials for Metro 25 Car Care Centers with our client, Duane Rao. It was one of the smoothest and least-stressful shoots I’d ever been on.

The two athletes fooled around enough to lighten things up—probably out of their own apprehension—but buckled down when the time was right, and we got what we wanted.

Duane himself became a local media celebrity. I was at the Detroit airport with him on one occasion when a waitress asked, “Hey, aren’t you the guy in the car with Denny and Proby?”


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“If someone on the other team was laughing, I’d pretend he was laughing at me.” That tactic contributed to Dick Butkus’ being widely regarded as one of the greatest and most intimidating linebackers in pro football history.

When asked by a reporter if he was as mean as his reputation, Butkus replied, “I wouldn’t ever go out to hurt anybody deliberately. Unless it was … like a league game or something.”

Today, the Butkus Award, instituted in 1985, is one of the leading individual honors in football, recognizing athletic achievement and service to the community.

He came on the Big Boy Restaurant set script in hand, ready to shoot. He knew exactly what “position” to play, and he played it to perfection.


With Duane, Steve, and SMZ staffers
I’m to the right of Fedorov, along with SMZ staff and video crew.

Duane Rao, president of Metro 25 Car Care Centers, had probably—like me—never been on a pair of skates. An imposing figure, he was all-city quarterback at Detroit’s De La Salle high school, and star freshman QB at University of Michigan before an injury put him on the sidelines for good. But ice skates? I doubt it.

That’s one reason we had him safely in a car when we shot two spots with him and Detroit Red Wings stars Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov.

The skaters themselves were great sports about doing our shtick. They each spent time following the shoot signing pucks, sticks, and hats for a grateful crew.

The Fedorov spot remains one of my favorite little gems.


Stram, Me & Lipson SCANNED
Shooting at Michigan Stadium—“The Big House”—with Coach Stram and video director Bob Lipson

“You can’t win unless you have good people with great attitude. They are the ones who won the games. I didn’t win any games. You never saw a coach make a tackle.”

Hank Stram, head coach of the Super Bowl IV champion Kansas City Chiefs, was an original. When we got the opportunity to star him in Hiram Walker’s 1986 Sales Video, we jumped at the chance. We knew he’d be the perfect motivator for these hard-boiled liquor guys. He didn’t disappoint.

Before the shoot, he met my co-writer, director and me down in New Orleans, and we had a grand time. I don’t think we ever talked about the project; we just basked in his glow.

Does he qualify as “bad”? Take a look at the first part of the clip, from NFL Films. That was bad. The second part is from the Hiram Walker video. That was good!


Matuszak & Me SCANNED
My shoulder hurt for weeks

Talk about bad: In 2005, Sports Illustrated named John Matuszak one of the top five all-time “bad boys” of the NFL.

“The Tooz” was 6 feet, 8 inches of terror on the turf. He won two Super Bowls with the Oakland Raiders, and was one of that team’s best-ever defenders. And was pretty much hated by everyone, including the team’s players, coaches and owner.

For us, during a Chicago shoot for Hiram Walker (the same video as Hank Stram’s), he was a big teddy bear, with a real flair for comedy. In this clip, he demonstrates the consequences when a liquor salesman comes to his store unprepared.


Big John went on to make several movies and numerous TV series appearances. His 1989 death from an accidental overdose of painkillers was truly regrettable.


Sparky Group Shot SCANNED
Sparky was so entertaining that my SMZ colleagues did anything to attend the tapings.

What can you say about Sparky that he didn’t say about himself—kiddingly, of course.

He’d do Take 1 and say “Man, that is it!” We’d ask for another take, he’d do it and say “Oooh, you’re never gonna get one better!” That was Sparky.

He did whatever we wanted. Look through a tire and make a funny face? Okay. Wear a cap with two different peaks—one for George, the Metro 25 spokesman, and one for Sparky, the Tigers manager?—no problem!

On the field, Sparky was the first manager to win World Series titles in both leagues. On the set, he was a funny and fun-loving guy who never looked at his watch to signal that he had other places to go and you’d better wrap it up.

Working with Sparky—doing silly stuff that sold the heck out of the product—is one reason I got into this business.

6 thoughts on “The Time I Played with the World’s Baddest Athletes: Part One

Add yours

  1. The car phone with the cord – I remember those. Boy we have come far since then. And the prices on the Elias Brother meals (with seconds) are crazy.


    1. You are exactly right, Steve–Davis Gloff it is. He was the perfect type to react to big Dick Butkus. This reminds me that it was your choir that performed on our “Creation” spot–also for Big Boy–which won the Detroit Emmy Award as best TV spot in 1982. Up against the giant budgets of the Big Three.


  2. Jon Katz is the bestest mostest advertising guru I’ve ever had the honor and pleasure to work with. Thank you JON! — Jim M Jung, Metro 25 Tire-V.P. Sales and Marketing & MetroCell-President


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