Lance Rentzel: The Laughter Hasn't Died

When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow by Lance Rentzel Saturday Review Press, 265 pp., $6.95

ON NOVEMBER 23, 1970, Lance Rentzel was arrested for exposing himself to a ten-year-old girl. Soon afterward, Joey Heatherton asked for a separation, comedians composed the Lance Rentzel Hit Parade, which included such song titles as "Easy to be Hard" or "Baby Love," and an unknown genius distributed a bumper sticker reading Keep It In Your Pants, Lance. All the laughter had died in sorrow.

Rentzel's autobiography would appear, at first glance, to be a risky adventure. One wonders why anyone, let alone a football star preoccupied with his masculinity, would write a book describing his sexual problems. Fortunately, much of All the Laughter dwells not on Rentzel's propensity for exposing himself to young girls, or on his relationship with Joey Heatherton, but rather on his football career. His description of the route from his high school days in Oklahoma to his first season with the Los Angeles Rams provide some tragic and many amusing insights into both college and professional football.

Perhaps the most telling part of the book is Rentzel's description of his three-year stint at Oklahoma University under the famed coach Charles B. ("Bud") Wilkinson, now serving as Chris Schenkel's sidekick on ABC Television. Rentzel describes one practice during his sophomore season in August 1962, when Wilkinson ordered a full-pad scrimmage in 100 degree heat. According to Rentzel, two players lost all the salt in their bodies and coiled up in agony, while another player went wild and attacked Wilkinson with his fists. At the end of practice, says Rentzel, the field "was covered with bodies that could not rise."

RENTZEL SAW LITTLE ACTION that year despite a spectacular debut in the O.U.-Texas game. Rentzel had hitched down to Dallas on the day before the game since there was no room for the fifth team on the plane. He spent most of Friday night partying, and ate two hot dogs and some cotton candy at the state fair Saturday morning. Much to Rentzel's surprise, Wilkinson sent him into the game at the end of the first half, and in his first two varsity plays he caught two passes for 85 yards, and one touchdown. Rentzel remained on the bench for the rest of the season, but the team, led by that "magnificent madman" Joe Don Looney and another "Wild Turk" John Flynn, went all the way to the Cotton Bowl where they lost 17-0 to Bear Bryant's Alabama squad.

The season ended with the notorious "O" club initiation, a ritual for all first-year varsity lettermen. The initiates were ordered to crawl backward for fifty yards with "grapes up our asses," forced to drink menstrual fluid, and constantly shocked with battery-powered cattle prods. Coaches observed these activities to ensure that the proceedings "didn't get too sadistic."

In 1963, Rentzel became a starter at halfback. During his senior year he led the Big Eight Conference in yards-per-carry, and in 1965 he was selected as the second-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings. Rentzel was leaving O.U. as a Golden Boy, the handsome athlete from a rich family who was a fine football player and a tireless playboy. Yet, at one point in the book, Rentzel writes bitterly, "What had I really learned in those four years? Nothing."

At Minnesota, Rentzel encountered difficulties almost from the start. He was injured so frequently that his teammates nicknamed the whirlpool "the S.S. Rentzel." Norm Van Brocklin, the Vikings' coach, disliked Rentzel's carefree attitude and derisively called him "Joe College." Finally, in September 1966. while nursing yet another injury, Rentzel read George Orwell's 1984, became very depressed, drove to a playground, and exposed himself to two girls. Promising to submit to psychiatric treatment, he was let off on a charge of disorderly conduct. Rentzel played out the rest of the season, and, in early 1967, was traded to the Dallas Cowboys.

IN DALLAS, Rentzel seemed to have finally found a home. He started for the Cowboys in 1967, became an all-pro in 1968. On April 12, 1969, he married Joey Heatherton after a courtship widely covered by national media.

But one year later, everything turned sour. The Cowboys began to crumble during the first part of the season. On Nov. 15, Dallas lost, 38-0, to the St. Louis Cardinals (this was during the pre-Crone era). Three days later, Rentzel saw 2001: A Space Odvssey, and reacting strongly to the movie, his depression hit new depths. The following afternoon, he drove out aimlessly after practice before finally exposing himself once again.

Rentzel's attempt to analyze his sexual problems are painful to him, and to the reader as well. He maintains that because of an over-loving, smothering mother, he had an intense desire to be able to prove his masculinity. When he failed live up to his or anyone else's expectations, when he dropped passes or mismanaged a night club, the only way he could reassure himself that he was not a loser was to exhibit his masculinity, to expose himself. Rentzel strives to be honest here, but his analysis is suspiciously similar to that of his psychiatrist, Dr. Louis J. West, who writes an epilogue briefly describing Rentzel's problems. One has the feeling that Rentzel examined his hang-ups to show West that, indeed, his psychotherapy has been successful.

When Rentzel turns to his relationship with Joey Heatherton, the writing looks more like a script for a soap opera than anything else. At one point, Rentzel says that Joey "seemed to have everything I wanted in a woman--sincerity, intelligence, talent, glamour, and incredible beauty." Later, he relates how Joey once neglected to tell him that she was going to be in New York for the weekend. The star receiver, angered by her apparent selfishness, compares the experience to "being hit by a linebacker from the blind side." Come on, Lance.

Despite these weaknesses, All the Laughter is a pleasant surprise. Rentzel's anecdotes are amusing, his experience bizarre. Sadly, writing a book has not purged his life of problems. Rentzel was recently indicted on charges of possessing marijuana. Since he is already on probation for exhibiting himself, his next book will have to be written in jail.