On Sept. 2 Babe Laufenberg walked slowly off the Redskins' practice field in Carlisle, Pa. with feelings of dread and resignation. Jerry Rhome, Washington's quarterback coach, gingerly approached.
Ten days earlier, Laufenberg had made a gallant pitch to be the No. 2 quarterback by throwing two touchdown passes, including the game-winner with four seconds remaining, in Washington's come-from-behind exhibition victory over the New England Patriots.
The next week he did not take a snap in the final exhibition against Tampa Bay. So Laufenberg sensed what was coming when Rhome approached him. The next day, the Babe was another agate line on the Redskins' alltime roster. Time to get out the old road map.
Some Skins took Laufenberg out that night for more than a few beers. "At least it helped me sleep," he says. The next morning, Laufenberg changed the recording on his phone-answering machine: "...if you are calling about employment, please contact my brother Jeff, who is my agent, at...."
The San Diego Chargers called first, and Laufenberg tried out on Sept. 9. "We put him at the top of our list should we lose a quarterback," said Charger director of scouting Ron Nay. That same week there were more calls, and Laufenberg traveled for tryouts with the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers. Those sessions, usually supervised by an assistant coach, lasted from 15 minutes to an hour, with Laufenberg throwing to any available receiver. Meanwhile, he was searching for someone to rent the Falls Church, Va. town house he had bought early last spring. "I thought I was secure in Washington—wrong again," Laufenberg says with a shrug.
With the roster reduction from 49 to 45 players and about half the teams using two quarterbacks, Laufenberg didn't find quick employment through the we'll-call-you-soon scenario. "Everybody's bringing quarterbacks in, for insurance," said San Diego receivers coach Al Saunders. "We've never worked out so many." After his tryout with the Chargers, Laufenberg went to his parents' home in L.A., then left, alone, for a fishing trip in the High Sierras.
"I thought a little about what would happen if nobody called, about going into business, maybe going to law school," says the 25-year-old Laufenberg, who has a business degree from Indiana. "But as long as there's still some interest, the money can't be beat. It's still my dream, and it's still what I'm best equipped to do."
On Thursday, Sept. 26, with Laufenberg away, the Buffalo Bills requested that he work out the following Monday. A 7:21 a.m. flight was scheduled.
The break—or, rather, breaks—came a day earlier as Laufenberg and his brother were throwing the football at Westchester High School. One of the quarterback's passes dislocated Jeff's finger. "Nobody does as much for his client as I do," Jeff, a lawyer, told his brother. He was home applying ice when the phone rang. "Dan Fouts hurt his knee," said Nay. "Tell your brother to be ready."
At 7:19 the next morning, the Chargers phoned Laufenberg and let him know that he was a working stiff again, the club having chosen him over veterans Joe Dufek and Jack Thompson. He tossed the few clean clothes he still carried into the backseat of his Olds, went out for breakfast, then returned to find out the Los Angeles Raiders had called, too. But it was too late. He hopped in his car, cursed the forces that conspired to render his tape deck inoperable and sped down the San Diego Freeway.
Laufenberg arrived at the Chargers' offices at noon, and Nay told him to call Jeff. "Sign on the dotted line," his brother said. The deal was done in about 10 minutes, or roughly three years less time than it took to sign that day's headline-grabber, running back Gary Anderson, who had been one of the best in the USFL at Tampa Bay.
"Looks like they stole my thunder," Laufenberg said, smiling, as he watched a San Diego sportscaster devote his entire broadcast to Anderson. Perhaps the Laufenberg story would get some second-day play.... Forget it. "Did you hear the Chargers fired [defensive coordinator] Tom Bass today?" he said. Later, just before he checked into the Hanalei Hotel, a hotel operator was asked to connect a visitor with Babe Laufenberg's room. "I'm sorry, sir, but she hasn't checked in yet," said the operator.
"I like to joke that I'm kind of the Marv Throneberry of football," says Laufenberg, whose real name is Brandon Hugh. He got the nickname from Jeff, who noted his younger brother's habit of adopting a baseball stance at any place, any time. "Anyway, I hated the name Brandon," Babe says.
"I've played for Bill Walsh [at Stanford], Joe Gibbs and Don Coryell, played behind John Elway [at Stanford], Joe Theismann and Dan Fouts, and what have I done? But that doesn't mean I don't think I can play. I think I can."
Actually, Laufenberg's odyssey really began way back when he was an outstanding quarterback at Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, where he completed 54% of his passes his senior year. He signed on at Stanford, persuaded, in part, by Fouts, who called on behalf of Walsh. But after redshirting Laufenberg his freshman year, Stanford brought in a hotshot named Elway. "I was third-team after two weeks," Laufenberg recalls. So he hit the road.
His next stop was Missouri, but that lasted one semester. A better-than-average student, Laufenberg had become "spoiled" by Stanford's philosophy toward academics and athletics. "And there was some degree of culture shock," he says. "I'd never been out of California before." He went back home to L.A. and played one year at Pierce Junior College before Lee Corso, then the coach of Indiana, courted him. He had good reason. Laufenberg threw for over 1,600 yards in seven games for Pierce. At Indiana, Babe set school records for most passes completed in one season (217), single game (34) and career (361).
Laufenberg was drafted by Washington in the sixth round in 1983 and spent his first year as the third quarterback and his second on injured reserve.
The Chargers say they are looking to Laufenberg as a backup to Mark Hermann during what is expected to be a three-to-six-week recovery period for Fouts. Until he gets a chance, the Babe will assume the proper backup quarterback stance on the sidelines, clipboard in hand, headphones in place—and road map in the jacket pocket.
The Skins gave Babe the thumb, Fouts went down, and Laufenberq went to Chargertown.
The Babe gave a hand to former USFL star Anderson, another Charger newcomer.