Sometimes I wonder if the long, exhausting six-week preseason training camp of professional football was devised as a penance for me for having broken the vow I made in the waning minutes before my final game as a high school senior. "This is the last football game I am ever going to play," I had promised myself.
I have since told the Authority to whom vows are directed that I was just kidding. After all, I was then just a nervous, nearsighted young end who was about to play against the school's biggest rival. It was a night game, and night games meant blurred passes coming in my direction, because the school's lighting system had the power of a string of flashlights.
Imagine what would happen if I dropped a pass against the big rival! At Hawthorne High School that almost would have been grounds for revocation of Varsity Club membership.
So I made the vow that was intended to forever purge my stomach of that queasy wish-I-were-anywhere-but-here feeling. But four months later, when the University of Southern California offered me an athletic scholarship, I decided not to count the vow as official.
Now, in 1963, another term of penance is about to begin. The veterans of the San Diego Chargers report tomorrow to Rough Acres for training camp.
After breakfast I packed tennis shoes, Bermuda shorts, two summer shirts, a guitar, toilet articles and books. I knew Paul Lowe would bring a deck of cards, so I left mine at home. The standard attire in any training camp is T shirt, Bermuda shorts and shower thongs or tennis shoes. Everybody is too tired to wear anything but the bare essentials.
I placed the essentials in my 1958 blue Chevrolet, accepted a goodby-my-son kiss from my mother and began the drive to Rough Acres. East on Highway 80 for 66 miles. The sun was glaring white. The surrounding area was rocky hills, mountains and flatland that defied the growth of normal vegetation. Even the stink-weeds looked sickly. Here and there a fairly clear section of land supported a ranch or a town. Places with appropriate names like Tierra Del Sol and Wild Acres. A couple of miles past a sign that announced the population of Boulevard to be 50, I turned down the serpentining dirt road that led to Rough Acres Ranch.
Rough Acres looks like the dude ranch it is meant to be in the future. Down from the main lodge are diamond-shaped stone duplexes, forming a long horseshoe. There are a few trees. To the left of the living area, as one looks down from the lodge, is the football field. And as far as one can see is the barren, rock-covered land. The practices will be miserable in this setting. This I know. It might be nice for vacationers to sip a drink in the sun, but to practice football in this heat!...I decided to ask Coach Sid Gillman for $1,000 more than I had intended to ask for.
The coach answered my knock on his office door wearing a pair of workout shorts, no shirt. Clearly the advantage was mine. I did not believe a man in shorts could discuss business, especially with his stomach hanging over the shorts.
"Tell you what I'll do," he said. "You sign this contract, and if we win the division title and if you make All-AFL, I'll give you an extra $500."
I laughed at all those ifs.
Finally we reached a point where we were $1,000 apart. "Ron," he said, "I have too much respect for you to quibble over $1,000."
"Coach," I said, "I have too much respect for $1,000 not to quibble."
He laughed, we met halfway, and I sold my body for another year.
I checked the room list and found I would be rooming with Jacque MacKinnon. Jacque and I are good friends and get along well together. He had come into camp with the rookies to get into condition. He bounded into the room late, announcing, "The kid with the blond hair and the blue eyes and the big heart is here." He always calls himself that.
I asked him about the camp.
"Sid has really stuck it to us this time," he said. "I'm not fond of practice anyway, and this heat doesn't help, but I expect tough practice. But when they're over I want to relax, and you can't do it around here."
"What about after lunch?" I asked. "Don't you have time to relax then?"
"Time!" he said, throwing his hands up. "Sure we got time, but it's too hot. Look, if you're lucky enough to fall asleep in the afternoon, you wake up in a pool of sweat. And at night it's no better. It's still hot, and the insects come out to play and—well, hell, you've seen how it was today. Wait until you're tired from practice, too, then you'll see what I mean."
I can hardly wait.
Everything is set for the beginning of practice tomorrow. Uniforms have been issued, physical and dental examinations have been taken, and Sid held a squad meeting.
"Gentlemen," he said, "a camp is not a country club. We are going to have fun, but when we work, we work. We must get in top physical condition for the 19 games. In addition to our normal workouts, we are going to begin a concentrated program of weight training and isometrics. One of the outstanding men in the field, Alvin Roy, will be in camp in a couple of days to begin instruction.
"If you have an appointment, keep it. It'll cost you one dollar a minute if you are late. And if we have reason to believe that you were late intentionally, the fine goes up to $10 a minute. Any excuses better be good ones. Now, if you really want to test us be late for curfew. Curfew is at 10:30. We put in a hard day and feel we need the rest. The fines for being late will be doubled for each repeated infraction. And last among our moneymaking procedures is the notebooks. These notebooks contain everything in our system. They are our lifeblood. It'll cost you $200 if you lose a notebook.
"One thing I must caution you on is gambling. There are very few of us who can gamble for high stakes. When we lose a lot it affects the team morale. Penny ante is all right. And when I say pennies, I mean pennies."
The meeting ended.
"Well," said Paul Lowe as we walked down the hill toward our rooms, "here we are again. How about some poker? Penny ante, of course."
In a few minutes seven of us were in Paul's room, sitting in chairs around the bed, betting pennies just as Sid said we must. Paul, Don Norton, Dave Kocourek, Ernie Ladd, Charlie McNeil, Ernie Wright and myself placed our dollar bills in the pot. Someone said: "I bet 100 pennies." Someone else: "I call, and jack you 200 pennies."
In two hours I had lost 4,700 pennies.
The first day of practice. Had I ever left this dressing room with its long rows of lockers, I wondered, as I pulled on my pads along with the other big bodies that were sandwiched in the limited space. Soon there would be more room. Empty lockers would begin to appear each day as a reminder of the insecurity in a professional training camp.
Each day players will be looking for some clue to find out how they are doing. Checking the publicity-shot list for your name is a favorite indicator. Offensive linemen have a more tangible indicator—Coach Joe Madro. When he stops yelling, swearing and making suggestions to a player, then you know that the player's time in camp is limited.
Joe is a chunky, craggy-faced perfectionist with a startling command of the language. Joe's method of expressing himself is a mishmash of Don Rickles, Aldous Huxley and Henry Miller.
He was in rare form for opening day.
"All right, gentlemen—and though I address you as such, I hope that none of you turn out to be gentlemen on the football field.
"We are going to start at the beginning this year in the hopes that this will stunt any growth of lambsie pies.
"Lambsie pies! The Houston Oilers said we had some lambsie pies in our offensive line after they beat us in the championship game two years ago. Well, I guaran-damn-tee you they won't say that this year. First we are going to hit the sled from a six-point stance, then from a four-point, and then from your regular three-point. I hope that this will teach you to fire out. Fundamentals! That's what we are going to work on."
After that it was all business:
"On the go! On the color! Get set! Blue, go!
"That's fine—good uncoil, arched body, head up!
"Bring the elbow high, form a wedge in there.
"Don't wind up, Shea! If you wind up, you transmit power on a curved line. We want power on a what, Pat? On a straight line!"
Poor rookies, I thought throughout the practice. Joe's probably got them scared to death. They'll learn soon that Joe doesn't really hate anybody.
When practice ended, a lot of the veterans got together to work on their particular phases of the game. Henry Schmidt and Ron Nery were working with Sam Gruneisen and Ernie Wright on pass rush and pass protection; Dave Kocourek and Don Norton were running pass patterns for Tobin Rote; Dick Harris and Bud Whitehead were working against Dave and Don; Sherman Plunkett was doing wind sprints in an attempt to trim down from his reporting weight of 324 pounds. The field was as busy as it had been during the regular practice session.
Practice started out on a pleasant note today. On my way to the field Bob Bur-dick, our publicity man, told me that he would need Earl Faison and myself for some pictures. We spent the next five minutes posing with Miss San Diego Charger of 1963. I casually let her know that I was single, and she bluntly let me know that she had only recently graduated from high school.
Earl and I jogged back to practice. We reached the group just in time for the one blocking and tackling drill that players check the workout schedule for every day—hoping it isn't there. One-on-one it is called by the coaches; the players call it the pit drill, and this is a more fitting name. A defensive man and an offensive man line up opposite each other within the confines of two blocking bags that are spaced about two yards apart. Behind them is a back who must carry the ball within the same confines. Surrounding all of them is the rest of the team, rooting for its respective group.
It is tough enough blocking those big defensive mooses when they don't know whether to expect a run, pass or draw, but in the pit drill they know it is going to be a run and they know what count it is coming on.
Knowing these disadvantages did not make me less humiliated when I was defeated on my two trips to the pit. Had nobody been there to witness the defeats, I would still have felt bad. With the whole team and coaching staff watching, it just killed me.
Immediately after lunch a special meeting was held, and Sid introduced Alvin Roy to the squad. Alvin Roy, Sid said in his introduction, represented what every pro football team would have in the future: a strength coach.
After the meeting, the squad went to an open area beside the dressing room where weight-training facilities had been set up. Mr. Roy demonstrated the exercises that we would be doing each day and then checked the squad individually to make certain we were using the proper technique.
It was 2 o'clock when the demonstration ended. Practice began at 3—which meant reporting to the dressing room at 2:30. We had not had any time to sleep or rest between practices, so Paul Maguire, Don Norton, Sam DeLuca and myself decided to go to the lodge and have some iced tea in hopes it would pap us up for the afternoon workout.
We sat around a dining table drinking, talking.
"As if our two practices a day isn't enough," said Paul, "as if two meetings a day isn't enough, now this."
"The weights are going to be good for us, Paul," I said. "During my senior year at USC, 25 of us lifted, and of that group only one person was injured that year, and he only sprained his ankle."
"Well," said Paul, "when I was at The Citadel, 25 of us drank, and my group had 30% fewer cavities."
"Yeah," said Don, "it's not fair that they should make you lift, Paul, because you don't need it. You got a great build. You don't need it—not much." And Don laughed loudly, giving Paul's stomach a slap.
"What you mean?" said Paul. "I've lifted before."
"Uh huh," said Don, "16-ounce Burgie cans."
The first scrimmage of the year is going to be held tomorrow afternoon. It couldn't be more important to me if it were a league game.
In this morning's practice I was too slow in pulling out of the line on a sweep play, and Paul Lowe ran up my back and kicked me in the calf. A bruised calf—that should be really great in the scrimmage tomorrow! Getting in and out of my stance a couple hundred times a day is beginning to take its toll also; the small of my back is so sore that it is difficult to straighten up.
Twelve minutes in the whirlpool will help, but rest is the only sure cure for these ailments. Since I had to be fit by tomorrow, I decided to sort of worm my way through the afternoon's practice. Just do the bare minimum. Not volunteer for anything. If they called for a man to jump in at a position, I would move toward the empty spot—but not .fast enough to actually reach it before some eager-beaver rookie who was certain to move toward the spot also. I didn't even bother to warm up during the 15-minute period allotted for this. I was hoping that practice would start off on a slow pitch and I could gradually warm up on the coaches' time.
It was my lucky day. Joe became long-winded as he explained a new play we were taking on; then there were a couple of time-consuming questions, and the first period was over. After working on individual pass protection with the defensive line (a 15-minute period in which each man gets only a couple of turns), the line and the backs got together for team practice. After practice, I told our trainer, Kearney Reeb, that my back hurt. He prescribed some exercises to strengthen it and told me to climb into the whirlpool tub.
The meeting tonight consisted of a review of all the plays we had taken on so far. There was a change in assignments for one of the plays. Joe cautioned the rookies not to go crazy because he was making some last-minute changes. He should have cautioned all of us; I was beginning to get nervous and anxious, thinking about the scrimmage tomorrow. Anxious, because it would be the first team banging of the camp, and for some idiotic reason I felt like hitting people.
Joe closed the meeting with his usual, "Now, you better study those plays, especially you rookies."
I decided to forgo all the thrilling things one can do with his free hour at Rough Acres Ranch and concentrate on my plays. I went to my room and studied until Coach Noll came around for bed check.
Had an unknowing observer walked into the dressing room today, he would have sworn that the Chargers were getting ready for a regular-season football game rather than a scrimmage. The usual prepractice jabber was absent. Some men were silently putting on uniforms that were still damp from the morning practice. Others were taping pads on their hands and arms, or having them taped on by the trainers. A few of the rookies were making a last desperate attempt to master the assignments from the play books. Everybody had their game faces on: somber faces, tightly set jaws and lips that took deep, loud, nervous breaths.
In the early part of training camp, players make the team by knocking their friends around. This is one reason why scrimmages are not popular. The other reason is that a player feels if he gets injured in a scrimmage it is a pointless, unnecessary injury. If one must get injured, make it during a game, not on the practice field.
Earl Faison was already resting a sore knee and was being withheld from the scrimmage. Bob Mitinger started in his place at left defensive end. George Gross, the strong, bulky, 275-pound rookie from Auburn, started at left defensive tackle. Tobin Rote took advantage of the relative inexperience of these two (this is Bob's second year) and called a draw on the first play of the scrimmage. The job of the right guard and myself is to set up as if we were going to pass-protect, the guard enticing the defensive tackle to rush to the inside, I enticing the end to rush from the outside, and as soon as they take the bait, we pop into them with a shoulder and wheel them away from the play. Bob Mitinger is so quick that I decided to throw my body at him instead of just a shoulder. It worked, and our fullback, Gerry McDougall, bulled through for 15 yards before being smothered by defensive backs and linebackers. It was going to be a good day, I thought as I jogged to the huddle.
On the next play I had to block down on the defensive tackle. Gross must have read the play perfectly, because as I came down on him he was braced and waiting, exposing only a low shoulder and knee to hit. He moved into me, dipping his shoulder and shrugging my block off, and got into the tackle. Maybe it wasn't going to be such a good day after all, I thought to myself as I walked back to the huddle, mad at myself for missing the block, looking at Paul Lowe brushing himself off after being thrown to the ground at the line of scrimmage.
The defense had warmed up and were coming hard. The rest of the scrimmage was a slambang affair. Hard charges...hard running...tired...gang tackling...big pile ups...gain yards...lose yards...out of breath...fumble...complete passes...miss blocks...swear...make blocks...be thankful...bruised muscles...coaches yelling...faster...harder...and then the final whistle blew and it was all over.
It happened today—Joe almost cracked up. I noticed it in the meeting tonight as the squad was reviewing the films of the scrimmage. You would have thought we had lost a league game the way Joe carried on. True, the offense didn't exactly blast the defense off the field, but that is normal for a first scrimmage. The defense doesn't have as much to learn, and so they are usually ahead of the offense in their development. We catch up to them as soon as we receive and polish our entire system.
As we watched the films, Joe ran each play back many times, stopping the projector before the play was completed, making assorted caustic comments and then running it over again. He soon had all of us dizzy and nervous from watching ourselves never complete a play. The screen would show us run to the line of scrimmage, get into our stances, begin to make a block, and then Joe would throw the film into reverse. So the screen would then show us coming off our blocks, back into our stances, raising up from our stances and running backward to the huddle, and finally disbanding the huddle. It was slapstick comedy at its best.
Ernie Wright started counting the number of times that Joe was rerunning each play. When the total on one reached 17, Ernie leaned over and informed me that Joe had just broken a four-year record. Joe heard him.
"So you're getting tired, huh, Ernie," said Joe. "Well that is exactly how you looked on that play—tired! Maybe if you would lose some weight you wouldn't feel that way. Tell me, how can a young fellow like yourself stand to have a barrel gut?"
No comment from Ernie. It would not have been heard anyway, because the rest of the linemen were laughing loudly over Joe's remark. It was not that funny—but Ernie is one of the two linemen supposedly safe from any nasty remarks from the coaches. I am the other one.
Joe ran off another play, making comments.
"Plunkett, don't raise up so soon when you are trying to get downfield," he said. "You must fire out hard in order to get past those defensive men. Look what happened to you. You never got past the line of scrimmage. You'd make a helluva good statue. If we could just freeze you, we'd stick you in a park and make the pigeons with poor aim happy."
Joe kept up a continuous monologue throughout the hour-and-a-half meeting. Nothing escaped his sarcasm.
In fairness to Joe, he actually has good reason to be overly excited about the first exhibition game. We are going to play the league champions, Kansas City (formerly the Dallas Texans), and our performance should indicate if we are going to be as improved as we think we will be.
Fred Gillett was cut from the squad yesterday. It was an inevitable occurrence, but we hated to see it happen. He was a pleasant fellow, and a pretty talented fullback, too. However, in the pros a position on the team is hard to earn. The fullback combination of Gerry McDougall and Bobby Jackson was too strong to crack.
"I must have been crazy to come out here anyway," said Fred as he was packing his suitcase. "It has been a great experience for me, though, and I'll never forget it. I really feel good now—you know, all the pressure is over and I can relax. But I love the game. I would have loved to have made the team, but...."
"What are you going to do now?" I asked.
"Well, if I could have stuck around for the year, I would have had enough money to finish building my race car. That's what I would like to do some day, be a competition driver. Now I'm not sure what I'll do. I hope I can catch on with some other club. There can't be two good fullbacks on every club in the league. Maybe I shouldn't have come out here anyway; I have a beautiful wife at home, and I come out here and fool around with a football. Here, have you seen her picture?" And he showed me his wife's picture for the last of many times.
"I don't know how I'm going to get all these clothes in that suitcase," he said. "She packed it for me."
What a hell of a thing, getting cut. Fred must have felt all torn up inside, but he wouldn't show it. There couldn't be many things worse than being told that you are not good enough in something you love and have done for 10 years or more. I have always felt uneasy around a man that has been cut. What is there to say? Everything sounds so inadequate. But sympathy for the fellows that are cut doesn't last long, because most of the players are busy worrying about themselves.
The long-awaited day arrives tomorrow—the first game of the season. We play Kansas City, but who we play is not what lends importance to the day. With the first game come the better things in life to a football player: money, rest and free time. The money we earn for each exhibition game is just a symbol showing that we are professionals. Sixty dollars is the paycheck.
What we really welcome is the free time and rest that accompany the start of weekly games. Workouts are cut to one a day. A meeting takes the place of the morning workout. We have taken on most of our offensive plays now, so, unless the coaches decide to have meetings for the sake of having meetings, we should have a couple of free evenings each week.
The rookies have been getting a mental and physical working over. They are getting a shock course in professional football. Special meetings are held for them so that they may learn the system before the first game. The veteran defensive men have been rough on the offensive rookies whenever they have had the chance. But the rookies have held up well under the abuse.
Earl Faison and Ron Nery have treated them the nastiest. When one of the rookies would line up against a veteran for a blocking drill, Ron, feigning grave concern, would warn the veteran to be careful, that this was a vaunted rookie he was facing. Ron loves to humiliate new men with his patented defensive end moves. He has his moves numbered. The other members of the defensive unit always join in the fun by yelling out the number of the move they want to see him dump the new man with.
And Earl did more dumping than Ron. Earl normally is a pretty nice fellow on the practice field, and usually does as little as possible, saving everything for the game. This week he was different. As Joe put it, "Staying at Rough Acres has given him a nasty disposition." Ernest Park, Walt Sweeney and Tyrone Robertson were all on the receiving end of Earl's testimonial on his ability. They spent part of the time on the ground, but they learned a great deal about offensive tackle play from one of the best defensive ends in football.
We had a brief workout this afternoon, just enough to break a sweat. Afterward, at the evening meal, the linemen got together to discuss how we could best do our jobs. Pat Shea had never played against Paul Rochester, so he sought some advice from me, since I had played guard last year and faced Rochester then.
"You've got to use a lot of techniques on him on pass protection," I said. "He's the type of guy I like to cut on occasion, because he charges hard. Of course, he uses his hands well, too, so you have to be careful not to try cutting too often. You know, just use it to keep him honest.
"Also you can try firing out on him, and then dropping back. I like to do that, but sometimes it gets me into trouble if the defense has a stunt going. If the man is slow in his stunting movements, then it doesn't matter; but if he is fast, then I'm liable to miss him and open the gates on the quarterback."
"Rochester looked pretty quick in the movies we saw of last year's game," said Pat. "And Dallas fools around with stunts. I think I'll wait until there have been a few fire-out pass protections called, and then decide if the fire-out would work on normal drop-back protection."
"That's a good idea," I said. "Start off using the usual pop-and-fight method, and throw in the other stuff when you think it will work."
"Why don't you junk everything and just grab ahold of him every play and not let go?" said Sam Gruneisen.
"Yeah, that's great," said Pat, "if you don't get caught. I'll play it straight, unless things get desperate."
I did not know who would be playing over me, so I quickly uttered the offensive linemen's prayer: that this unknown fellow would be skinny, slow, weak, stupid and love football but hate body contact.
Game day, or rather, game night. The difference between a day game and a night game is that instead of getting sick at one meal, you get sick at three. Coach Gillman, in an effort to stop the pregame sickness that stems from a nervous stomach, told us yesterday that a liquid protein supplement would be substituted in place of the usual meal of steak and potatoes. He advised all players who usually throw up before a game to drink their meal, because, theoretically, it would be digested by game time, whereas the solid food might still be lying in your stomach.
"That's right," Paul Maguire had chimed in, "if you drink this stuff, you will be able to throw up a lot easier—no big chunks of meat to get caught in your throats."
Paul had drawn more vocalized boos from his comment than the subvocal boos that Sid drew from his announcement, so I guess most of the players feel he has a good idea. A few hate to lose their steak. Personally, I would prefer the steak before an evening game and the liquid before a day game. On day games I wake up nervous, but for evening games I know I have the whole day to sleep and rest, and the result is I am more relaxed for the pregame meal.
Today my rest came in between phone calls, all of them for Jacque. He had worked as maitre d' at Joe Hunt's restaurant in La Jolla during the offseason, and it seemed that every bar buddy he had made was dunning him for tickets to the game.
Apparently the rest I missed was not important, however, because I felt full of energy the entire game. Part of the reason for the added energy came from the incentive of having been chosen, along with Emil Karas, to act as co-captain for the opening game. During the exhibition season a different set of co-captains is chosen each week, but that does not dim the honor. It is a great thrill to be the official spokesman for a group of fellows whom you admire, respect and like.
On the field I knew how to fulfill the responsibilities of captain; in the dressing room, however, I felt inadequate. I felt, as captain, I was expected to say something to the squad before the game. What to say is the problem. Each player is a mature, dedicated athlete who knows what he has to do without being reminded that we must play hard, we must win. And yet there we were, minutes before game time, some sitting, some standing, all sweating from the heavy uniforms, the pregame workout, the nervousness. It seemed like something had to be said. Coach Gillman had told us to relax and have a good time out there, and if we made any mistakes to forget them and keep playing good football. Then he had left us so that we could have a few moments to ourselves before the game. When he left, the room became quiet.
Now, what I put down here as having been said to the squad will not be a verbatim report, because what I said was spontaneous and total recall is impossible. It was something like this:
"Fellows," I began, not sure what would follow, or what could follow, a beginning like that, "what Coach Gillman said is true; if we go out there with the idea that we are going to have a good time, everything will fall in place and we'll do well."
Oh, what to say, I thought, knowing I was groping, embarrassed for having reiterated the coach's words. And then I knew what had to be said, the only thing that was right to say to these men.
"We all know the importance of winning, and know what must be done to do so. We have a responsibility to the club and to our teammates to do that, but we must remember that our first responsibility is to our families and to ourselves; we must make the ball club. This is our job, our livelihood, and it is during the exhibition season that the squad is chosen—just a few weeks to show that you deserve a position on this team. And that's why we must go out there and play as hard as we can for the whole game.
"And for those who are mainly running on the special teams tonight, remember they're important also. There are players each year who are kept on the squad because they show the coaches they are tough on the kickoff team, the punt team and the rest. Pat Shea is a good example of this. Last year he was a special-team player during the games, but during the week he developed his line play until he became a fine football player. So let's go hard on everything. We can have a good time, but remember it's our job."
The speech will never win any awards for articulateness, and it certainly did not break open a ray of enlightenment upon the men, but sometimes it is good to try to say the things one feels, or to hear them said.
As it turned out, tonight's game was a game like any other game—and we won. Keith Lincoln or Paul Lowe caught the opening kickoff and returned it to the 30-yard line. The reason I wasn't sure which one it was is because I was trying to block somebody. That's the way it is for linemen on most of the plays in a football game; we don't always know who carried the ball, or who caught the pass, because we are busy trying to do our job. All we know is that the huddle forms farther and farther down the field if all goes well, and moves backward if something goes amiss.
On the first series of downs it moved backward. After the first play our right guard, Pat Shea, trotted back to the huddle cursing himself. He had pulled the wrong way on a sweep, colliding with the left guard, Sam Gruneisen, and leaving the ballcarrier without any blockers. On the next play Tobin Rote was smashed to the ground as he faded back to pass. He got up slowly, holding his chest. He called a pass play that failed, and the punting team came in.
The defensive unit was probably cursing us for having given up the ball so soon. There is a friendly but intense rivalry between offensive and defensive teams. The newspapers are constantly saying that our defense is responsible for all the Charger victories. The defense has read it so often that I think they fully believe it. I doubt if the two defensive coaches, Chuck Noll and Walt Hackett, want to discourage this feeling their boys have; it is good to be confident and a little cocky.
During the 1961 season the newspapers gave the defense all sorts of glorifying name's, like the Fearsome Foursome and the Seven Pirates. The way the sportswriters feel about our offensive line, I'm surprised they have not dubbed us the Seven Lumps of Sugar.
The defense held the Chiefs, forcing them to punt, and we came back in, this time with John Hadl at quarterback. Tobin's injury made it impossible for him to return to the game. Later we found out he had torn a rib from his sternum and would be out of action for a month. Hadl came in and showed that he was greatly improved over last year, and ready to become the topflight quarterback we knew he would be some day. He moved us down the field, mixing power plays with sweeps and short passes. We reached the nine-yard line, and John called two straight power plays to my side. It was my job to move out the linebacker on each of the plays. The backer, Holub, is big and was standing right in the hole, so I decided to hit him low rather than high, where he is the strongest. I was only able to push him back two yards before the hole was jammed up. I decided to hit him high on the next play. I fired into his chest with my head and shoulders; it was a good hit, but he shrugged me off and made the tackle. There isn't any justice, I thought. The blow deserved better results. John didn't give up on me, and called for a sweep to my side. I was able to hook the defensive end, the pulling guards made their blocks and Paul Lowe scored the first touchdown of the season.
In the second quarter Paul reversed his field on another sweep and scored from 65 yards out. John kept up his accurate passing and smart play-calling and we scored once more before the half ended, this coming on an 18-yard pass to Jacque.
The defense, meanwhile, had allowed Kansas City to score twice. We walked to the dressing room at half time with a 19-14 lead.
I get almost as nervous before the second half as I do before the start of the game. I wonder if the opposing coaches have told their defense to do something new, or if a different man will be playing over me. To me the second half is a new game. Both teams come out rested and with fresh incentive to play. It seems to go faster, though, because it is the last half, and, as far as time is concerned, we are going downhill.
But it ended sooner than I thought it would for me. After we had scored again in the third quarter, the coach gave the rest of the game to the rookie linemen, and I watched the remainder of the game from beside the water bucket. It is truly an enjoyable way to spend the bulk of the second half sipping water and relaxing as you watch your team finish a game that is already won.
The game ended 26-14, Chargers. Then it was time to drag ourselves to the dressing room, slowly pull off the sweaty, dirty uniforms and take a long, cool shower, head back, eyes closed, letting the water wash away the dirt and ease the aches. It is a time to replay the game in your mind, and try to remember what you did well and what you did poorly. And hope you did well enough to keep your starting position or, if you are a rookie, hope that you showed enough promise to justify the coaches keeping you around another week, because you'd show them then.
The good times and money are only a short distance away. Training camp will be over, and league play will begin. The pressure will keep growing, the nervousness will not stop, but nobody minds walking to the bank with a nervous stomach.
I am certain also that when the training camp does end I will feel an accompanying sadness that will belie all the complaining I did during the camp's duration. I will not delude myself, or anyone else, by saying that the sadness comes because I miss the hard work and the nervous anxiety. The day that I gain some enjoyment from being hit in the throat with an elbow, or from seeing a friend heartsick because of having been cut from the squad, I will know it is time to quit football.
Yet these things, too, are a part of the something that is missed when camp is over. It is the feeling of having experienced pain and weariness and mental anguish and having met each in a way that made you feel good afterward. Perhaps you did not meet and answer every challenge in a way that would be considered noble the first time it was encountered. There always came a second chance. And you were better prepared the second time because you had done a little soul-searching and decided what is important.
There may have been a time when you became so tired during a game that you loafed until you no longer felt the ache in your chest and sides. Then you were disgusted with yourself for having done so. The challenges must be met with honor if you intend to go on respecting yourself. Existing on a steady diet of challenges, such as a training camp provides, makes a person nervous and tense. I sometimes long for the day when I can relax completely. But when? After my football career is over, then there will be the challenges that must be met in everyday life.
I believe that someday I will be thankful for the lessons of self-discipline that were learned while playing football. And sometimes I wish that every boy in America were given the opportunity to spend a few weeks in a training camp. Not because I think it is important to be an athlete, but because it would serve as invaluable preparation for the day when they set out to make a niche for themselves in this competitive world. They would learn early that it takes hard work to become a success. They would learn that when there are setbacks, and when you are knocked down, you must get up. If they saw only the value of this—getting back up again—then it is certain that their chances for accomplishment in any vocation would be enhanced.
And in the space of just a few weeks, they would discover the greatest value of all: having close, trustworthy friends. Friends you can confide in, joke with, share success and failure with. This is what I shall miss when training camp ends: the close companionship and the continual laughs that occur when 50 guys are together. I will miss the daily card games with Lowe, Wright, Kocourek, Harris, Ladd, Faison, Hadl and McNeil. I will miss the "world problem solving" sessions with DeLuca and Coan; the arguments that Lincoln and Ladd go into each noon as they played off for the World Pingpong Championship; the singing and guitar-playing sessions with Norton; the sound of bare feet outside after bed check, which meant that somebody was sneaking out for a late date. When I think of all these things, camp seems to have been one big laugh. However, this will not slow me up in gathering my clothes, books and other belongings and making the trip home. And if any of the players should pass me and say:
"Isn't this great? Leaving this place—boy, I thought it would never end. Isn't this great?"
"It sure is," I will agree. If I say anything else, he will think that I have run under one kickoff too many.
Hamming it up for the camera, Ron lifts weights as part of training routine. Many pro teams are using weights and isometric exercises this year.
Ron throws a shoulder at Defensive Tackle Bill Hudson during intersquad scrimmage.
In a one-on-one drill that linemen loathe, Ron takes on Defensive End Earl Faison as teammates cheer for the player representing their unit.