It was so weird to see an NFL arm-wrestling competition in Las Vegas thrust into controversy this week. Weird, because in the early 1990s I made several pilgrimages to Vegas to watch (and cover, sort of) NFL arm wrestling.
For years, a guy named Tony Celeste put on tournaments under the auspices of Arm Wrestling International. One of his annual events featured NFL players. Every spring, I’d get a call from Tony. I was working for NFL Publishing at the time, editing and writing for official league publications.
Tony Celeste had a voice and cadence right out of The Sopranos. “Phil, my friend, how are you doing?” he’d say on the phone. “We’re sure hoping you and your lovely wife can join us again this year. We’ve got an unbelievable lineup.”
Now that I am a real-life journalist, I have internalized the notion that you don’t accept gifts from people or organizations you’re writing about. At the time, I was packaging propaganda for the NFL. There is nowhere to sink from there. Tony would put me up for a couple days at the Imperial Palace casino, site of the tournament, and the lovely wife and I would hang out in Vegas for a couple days. Later I’d write a few paragraphs for the national insert in that year’s GameDay programs. Ba-da-bing.
This was before Las Vegas architecture went nuclear, before casinos were shaped like Egyptian pyramids and Eiffel Towers and UFOs. Even then, the Imperial Palace was a Strip time capsule. (I’m told it’s called The Linq now, after a massive renovation.) The hotel wasn’t shabby, necessarily but it was hopelessly outdated. The ladies at the front desk wore skimpy, draped outfits that were meant to evoke the mystery of the Orient, but would have been more appropriate on a hot alien with whom Captain Kirk might have locked lips.
I remember almost nothing of the arm wrestling. Not much of a spectator sport, in my opinion. I do recall that retired Raiders O-lineman Mickey Marvin competed. For some reason, I remember a Bears defensive back named Maurice Douglass was there. Not much else.
But I remember Tony Celeste. He’d bounce around the event, checking on the talent, introducing the matches and generally making sure the wheels were turning. He was a compact man, and quite a sight in combination with his wife, Jean, a former champion arm wrestler whose biceps and hair dwarfed his.
“Phil, what can I get you?” Tony would say. “We’re so happy to have you here. Anything you need, ever, you just say the word and I’ll make it happen.”
One time, I took him up on his solicitation. “Tony,” I said, calling him out of the blue, “it’s Phil Barber. Wondering if you could do me a favor.”
I explained that Kara and I would be passing through town, and wondered if he might be able to use his connections to score us a hotel room. “Who are you again?” he asked.
Now the NFL, the league that has greenlighted the relocation of a franchise to Las Vegas, is up in arms that some of its workers would willingly enter a casino there. League officials are threatening to fine players for the transgression. Maybe these officials would claim they didn’t know about those previous arm-wrestling tournaments. They might have read their own game programs in the early 1990s.