TALK ABOUT TOUGH
The legacy of Dante “Dan” Pastorini ’71 lies just beneath the surface every time an NFL quarterback takes a snap. Pastorini, who played 13 years in the National Football League, mostly for the Houston Oilers, was renowned for gritting his way through crushing injuries. During his career, he suffered 12 concussions, 16 broken noses, and 10 separated shoulders—to name just a few of the maladies listed in his new autobiography, Taking Flak: My Life in the Fast Lane (AuthorHouse, 2011), co-written with John P. Lopez.
In 1978, he faced one of the most consequential of his setbacks. Laid up with three broken ribs, Pastorini was looking doubtful for a crucial game when two men walked in his hospital room with a baseball bat and a bag. Pastorini feared they were gamblers intent on meting out punishment. Instead, one pulled out a vest that looked like a tiny life jacket, put it on, and stood there unperturbed as his companion swung at his ribs.
“I want one of those,” Pastorini recalls telling them.
The next Sunday Pastorini was back on the field guiding the Oilers to their first ever play-off appearance, his ribs swaddled by a Kevlar flak jacket that was soon to become the rage across the league. Today modern versions of the vest Pastorini pioneered bulge under the jerseys of virtually every NFL and college passer in the country.
If only Pastorini had found similar buffers against the slings and arrows off the field, he’d have had a much easier life, though Taking Flak wouldn’t be nearly so interesting. Freakishly gifted as an athlete, Pastorini turned down larger schools like UCLA to follow his brother, and fellow football player, Louis ’66, from Bellarmine College Preparatory to Santa Clara.
The younger Pastorini’s booming kicks ranked him as the best punter in school history, but it was his arm that truly turned heads. He once threw a baseball clear over Swig Hall. His talents led the Oilers to make him the third pick of the 1971 draft, which proved to be a curse as much as a blessing for the young quarterback.
In the early 1970s, Houston was a football-mad boomtown full of temptations Pastorini couldn’t resist—chiefly an endless list of women undeterred by his shifting marital status.
“I had eight years of Jesuit Catholic education, but it didn’t stick,” he writes.
On the field, Pastorini always brought his A-game, leading the Oilers to consecutive conference championship games and within one famously blown call of the Super Bowl. The mistake helped lead to another of Pastorini’s legacies: instant replay.
But off the field, Pastorini’s life was star-crossed, as he details in the candor that gives Taking Flak its most arresting and wincing details. He dated Playmates, starred in movies, and posed in Playgirl. But his fast-lane lifestyle set him on a path of five failed marriages, two bankruptcies, and a host of heartbreaks, including estrangement from his daughter and run-ins with the law.
Even his competitive gifts brought anguish. In the mid-’70s, a successful turn as a professional drag boat racer ended in a bizarre accident that killed two spectators, including a 10-year-old girl.
“I’ve been called Barabbas,” he writes. “And I often felt haunted the same way, like I didn’t deserve the gifts I had.”
But Taking Flak is also a tale of redemption, as Pastorini tells of his journey to sobriety, reconciliation with his daughter, and lasting love.
“I ran hard for a lot of years, but now I have direction,” he writes at the end of the book. “I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but there’s a comfort that I feel every morning when I wake up.”