If Fred Dryer were playing today he would be an ESPN fixture, a social media darling and a human highlight reel on most NFL Sundays.
At 6-6, he was a towering, blonde-haired, Hollywood handsome quarterback destroyer who also knew how to talk and loved to do it. But Dryer played primarily in the 1970s, when those things counted for a lot less than they do today, and so is remembered more for his post-playing career as an actor.
Dryer starred in, among other things, a popular TV crime series called “Hunter” that ran for eight years before going into international syndication and making him a multi-millionaire. Regardless of all that post-career success, Fred Dryer should be remembered for a lot more than acting.
In his 13 seasons as a relentless pass rusher for first the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams, Dryer amassed 104 sacks, a number confirmed but unofficial because the sacking of quarterbacks did not become officially tallied by the league until 1982. That didn’t stop Dryer from pulling down quarterbacks so frequently that 40 years after his retirement he would tank 28th all-time, ahead of a number of Hall-of-Fame pass rushers, including Charles Haley, if his production had been recognized.
Dryer was both a great pass rusher and a reliable presence at right defensive end. If he was in your lineup you could be assured of two things: He would find his way to the quarterback, and he would find his way onto the field every Sunday.
In his first 12 seasons after the Giants made him a No. 1 draft pick in 1969 (13th overall), Fred Dryer never missed a game. Not one. And the only time he missed a start came in 1972, when he backed up future Hall-of-Famer Jack Youngblood for much of his first season in Los Angeles.
The Rams quickly realized using Dryer as anything but a starter was a waste of talent, and he was inserted into the starting lineup the following season on the opposite side of Youngblood. He registered 10 sacks. He upped that to 15 in 1974, tying him with Youngblood for the unofficial NFL lead, and was second to Youngblood in 1975 with 12.
His arrival in Los Angeles was a testament to Dryer’s iconoclasm and his ability. Often at odds with Giants’ management in his three seasons in New York, Dryer played out his option by refusing to sign a contract for the 1971 season. His desire was to return to his native southern California because, as he once put it, “Everything is vertical in New York. I’m a horizontal person.”
His decision not to sign a new contract before the 1971 season made him free to sign with any team the following offseason, but the Giants would have to be compensated if he did, a requirement Joe Kapp once called “the Ransom Rule.”
Whatever it was, then-Patriots’ general manager Upton Bell was willing to pay it for Dryer, whom he felt was one of the league’s best defensive ends and pass rushers. Bell offered the Giants first-and- sixth round picks in the 1972 draft and a second-round choice in 1973, and they accepted. That gave the Patriots Dryer’s rights but it did not preclude him from signing with another team.
Bell flew to Los Angeles and, despite Dryer’s public statement that he would not come to New England, persuaded Dryer to sign a one-year deal for $75,000, a $25,000 raise, with a club option for a second season.
The contract was agreed to but not yet signed, and when Bell informed Patriots’ owner Billy Sullivan he refused to pay, and Dryer ended up signing with the Rams instead for even more money. The Patriots got the Rams’ first-round pick as compensation, which was turned into fullback Sam Cunningham.
Cunningham would become the team’s all-time leading rusher by the time he retired but what he would not become was Dryer. Years later Bell described his reasons for signing Dryer in his memoir, “Present at the Creation.”
“There was no way we could have drafted better than Dryer, as the first two picks that year proved,’’ Bell explained. “They were Walt Patulski and Sherman White, both defensive linemen. Neither did much in the NFL. Dryer did a lot. Just not for us.”
One of the things Dryer did was become the only player to record two safeties in the same game. That came on Oct. 21, 1973, his first full season as a Rams’ starter, against the Green Bay Packers. With the Packers trailing 20-7 late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Scott Hunter dropped back to pass in the end zone and found himself run over by a freight train named Dryer. Soon after, Dryer paid the same end-zone visit to Hunter’s backup, Jim Del Gaizo, for a second safety.
Dryer also scored a touchdown two years later, returning an intercepted pass 20 yards for a score against the Eagles. After the game the always loquacious Dryer promised that if he ever scored again he would set his hair on fire in the end zone. Fortunately for him, he stayed out of the end zone for the rest of his career.
Dryer went to the Pro Bowl in 1970 and 1975, started in Super Bowl XIV for the Rams and was widely considered among the top defensive linemen in the game for much of his career. Yet he was better known as an iconoclast in a world of conservatives.
Once during a heated moment late in a close game, one of his overwrought teammates said there was no tomorrow. They had to win this game. Immediately Dryer walked away from the huddle and headed to the sidelines. One of his stunned teammates asked what was wrong. Dryer turned to them and said, “Nothing, but if there’s no tomorrow I’m not going to waste my last day playing football.”
His teammates laughed, he returned to the huddle and the Rams won. That was Fred Dryer in a nutshell, a winner with a sense of humor.
During the course of his career, Dryer became obsessed with nutrition long before it was fashionable. At one point in his career he claimed to be ingesting 70 raw eggs a week. Later he would cut red meat out of his diet. Whatever he was doing during his 13 NFL seasons, Fred Dryer most often was doing what great pass rushers get into the Hall of Fame for doing. He was throwing quarterbacks onto the ground a lot more frequently than most of his peers.
Did he do that often enough to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Not as of yet. But when you top 100 sacks and start every game for 11 of the first 12 years of your career you most definitely have a strong case worthy of debate by the selection committee.