The San Diego Chargers' revamped backfield brings to mind the old scriptwriter's cliché, the one that goes: Can't figure out how to end the scene? Run over everybody with a truck.
That's what happened last Saturday night in San Diego when the Chargers unveiled the tandem trucking combine of 6'3", 235-pound tailback Chuck Muncie and 6-foot, 275-pound fullback Pete Johnson and beat the Los Angeles Rams 17-10. Muncie has long been a force for the Chargers, but Johnson is a new and awesome vehicle in California. On second-and-one early in the Ram game, Johnson took the ball into the line and disappeared. Players from both teams stacked up around him. Slowly the entire scrum moved upfield, with Johnson inside like the motor in a tank. A gain of four yards. "I didn't tackle him one on one, but I did get in on some piles," said Ram strong safety Nolan Cromwell after the game. "With Pete you just put your arms out and hope for more people."
The Chargers traded 177-pound running back James Brooks to the Cincinnati Bengals for Johnson in May. Besides gaining a hundred pounds of flesh, San Diego (6-10 last season) also got a blocker for Muncie and the best third-and-inches man in the game. "One of our biggest problems last year was taking it in from short yardage," says coach Don Coryell. "As big as he is, Muncie is still a tailback. We needed an inside man, a power man."
Another reason Coryell brought Johnson to San Diego was to take advantage of the new NFL rule that allows blockers to extend their arms and push defenders out of the way on running as well as passing plays. "I think there's going to be more running in general this year and with bigger guys," says Charger assistant general manager Paul (Tank) Younger, who along with Dan Towler and Dick Hoerner formed the Rams' Bull Elephant backfield of the late '40s and early '50s. "And that's because the bigger guys can take more punishment, and dish it out."
Both Brooks and Johnson were happy to swap places. Brooks was tired of blocking middle linebackers for Muncie, and Johnson had wearied of haggling with the Bengals about money. Last season, his seventh in the NFL and seventh as the Bengals' leading rusher, Johnson made $125,000. Fifty-five NFL running backs got more. With the Chargers he makes more than $200,000.
Johnson felt nobody in the Bengal organization stood up for him last year when Pete Rozelle suspended him for four games after he admitted in court that he had purchased cocaine. Muncie also has been identified with drug usage in the past. He has checked into detoxification centers twice, but, like Johnson, he has never been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. "It's over with," says Muncie. "I've survived. People yelled at me from the stands before, and I'm sure they'll yell at both of us now. The way to shut people's mouths is just run over the other team."
Johnson, a happy-go-lucky man, says the sweetened contract and change of scenery have been the equivalent of a valve job for him. "There's no 'like' involved here," he says. "I love San Diego." As a reward to himself, Johnson recently traded in his old party van, "The Cisco Kid," with its TV, bar, refrigerator, etc. and bought a new van, which he has named "FM 101" because, he says with a sly grin, "I love music."
Lounging in a blue surgical suit one afternoon at the Chargers' La Jolla camp, Johnson looked like either an immense surgeon or an exceedingly healthy patient. The suit is left over from his visit to a Columbus, Ohio hospital for the birth of his son, he says. Other facts are less certain. Like his weight. Some say Johnson now weighs more than 280 and at times in his career has gone as high as 300. Lately he has been telling writers he weighs 450, "just for the hell of it."
O.K., a simple question. Are you married? "No, not really," he says. "Well, yeah, sort of. Say that I am." Even the big guy's name is shaky. Born Willie James Hammock, he changed to Pete Johnson as a teenager, for reasons he never bothers to make clear.
Ironically, Muncie's name, too, is a bit clouded. The last name of everyone else in his family is spelled Munsey, but somehow the name was misspelled on Chuck's birth certificate. Moreover, his given names are Harry Vance. Where did "Chuck" come from? "My brothers hated the name Harry," says Muncie.
The sixth-ranking active rusher in the NFL, with 6,651 yards, Muncie, 31, is thrilled to have a load like Johnson in front of him. "Pete got Archie Griffin two Heismans at Ohio State," he says. "Maybe he'll get me a ring." The heavyweight backfield stuff goes only so far with Muncie, however. When Charger publicist Rick Smith suggested posing Johnson, Muncie and 237-pound backup running back Jewerl Thomas with elephants, Muncie balked. "No elephants," he said. "I'd rather be compared to a big bison, something that's strong and fast enough to get away, too."
For Johnson, the question of mass lingers on. "I've been compared to a tank, a bowling ball, a truck, a refrigerator and other objects," he says. "The other day a writer said I reminded him of an all-weather tire. That was a new one."
Coryell would like to see Johnson play at about 250 or 255, but he's not fining the fullback to get him there. "He's got that great big fanny and legs as big as my waist," says Coryell, "but you touch him and it's hard."
The Chargers hope all this backfield bulk will give them a running attack similar to that of an old guard-in-the-backfield, pull-everybody-and-look-out single-wing team. At times Coryell might even put Muncie, Johnson and Thomas together in a straight-T back-field. Or he might use a lone back and three tight ends—6'5", 250-pound Kellen Winslow, 6'4", 235-pound Eric Sievers and 6'4", 250-pound Pete Holohan. "A steady diet of these big people and a little DB's gonna hurt," says Younger.
Is this the end of Air Coryell? Is Dan Fouts just going to hand off and back away? "I certainly hope not," says the coach with a grimace. "It just means if we have to run for a win, we will."
Muncie's sports career nearly came to an end when he was six and was run over by a truck, breaking a thigh, leg, hip and arm. "It was a dump truck filled with gravel," says Muncie. "I was in traction for six months and in a body cast for about six more." Muncie was never expected to walk normally again and had to wear an elevator lift in his left shoe. "Then," he says, "all of a sudden my leg grew and I could run again."
Now he has his own personal dump truck to clear a path for him.
With Muncie (left) and Johnson, Air Coryell may ground itself.