"The Dallas Texan trainer was massaging Quarterback Len Dawson's arm just before a recent game. Dawson, stripped to the waist, sat silently on the training table. When a visitor came in to congratulate him on a fine season, Dawson regarded him coldly and did not answer. He retrieved his arm from the trainer briefly in order to shake hands, then retired again into the brooding silence that is the salient part of his personality. It is Dawson, more than any other person, who has led the Texans to their first AFL division championship, but you would never suspect his importance to the team looking at him.
The arm the trainer was working on is thin and white and unimpressive. Dawson has the torso of a captain of the chess team and he is as sparkling as a piece of wet liver. But he leads the AFL in passing and his leadership has given the Texans the confidence they lacked in previous seasons. He has, too, the courage to accept adversity. He does not throw the ball under pressure if he has no chance to complete the pass. He takes the tackle.
Dawson was the first draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957, after setting Big Ten passing records at Purdue. He stayed with the Steelers for three years, sitting silently on the bench watching Bobby Layne play, then went to the Cleveland Browns, where he sat quietly and contemplated the heroics of Milt Plum.
Taken by a sudden fit of conversation recently, he explained, with characteristic honesty, why he never played in the NFL.
"It has to be one of two reasons," he said. "First, because they didn't have confidence in me. That's hard to believe. Why would I have been there? Second, because Buddy Parker and Paul Brown believe in finding one quarterback and sticking with him through thick and thin."
Hank Strain, who coaches the Texans and who was assistant coach at Purdue when Dawson played there, is a one-quarterback man, too, but now the quarterback is Dawson. Stram has complete confidence in Dawson and allows him to call his own plays. Once in a while Stram will send in a call, but Dawson does not always use it.
"He's independent," Stram says. "He always has been. I remember the first time I met him. We were trying to get him to come to Purdue and we were in the gym. Len was passing. He was a great passer even then. He was a fine basketball player, too, and the basketball coach came over to meet him. 'I hope you come to Purdue, ' he said to Len. 'I know you will be a big help to us in basketball.' Dawson gave him that look and said, 'You don't know that. You've never seen me play.' "
"That look" is what Dawson uses most of the time in place of conversation. "He looks at you as if he is thinking, 'Does this guy know what he is talking about?' " says Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Texans. "I can't figure him out. I know he is the most completely matter-of-fact human being I have ever met. And I know, too, that he has the complete confidence of the team. They are afraid of him, I think. He can scare a 270-pound tackle with that look."
When Dawson takes the field, however, his personality undergoes a radical change. He does not depend upon the chilling stare to reprimand players for missed assignments. He is almost as vocal as Bobby Layne, who was his close friend on the Steelers. Layne helped Dawson learn the intricacies of playing pro quarterback.
Explaining his loquaciousness on the field, Dawson says, "I like to win. I like to eliminate mistakes. During the week, the coaches are the leaders. When the game starts, it's my job. I don't want the players to have mental lapses. The worst thing in football is to give up the ball because of a mental lapse."
Technically, Dawson is a good quarterback. He has a long range and throws accurately and he has that good peripheral vision which allows him to avoid rushers and pick up late-opening receivers or receivers in a broken pattern. He is not a good runner, but he manages to make yards when he docs decide to run.
"I don't have the speed," he says frankly. "I run to keep the defense honest. Sometimes I get good yardage running because the defense comes flying in there and I step around them. If you step around a guy and make 10 yards, he'll slow up next time."
Dawson does not seek the sanctuary of the sideline when he steps around the rushers and runs. By staying in the middle of the field he has averaged eight yards a try this season.
"The only reason a quarterback goes for the sidelines is to keep from getting hurt," he says. "I've been rapped a few times stepping out of bounds. My senior year against Notre Dame some guy hit me when I was already stopped and knocked me into the second row of the stands. If a guy is going to take a shot at me, I'd rather it happen in the fat part of the field where I can at least make a few yards."
Although Dawson is the big difference in the Dallas team this year, there are other contributing factors to its rise to the division title. A massive rookie fullback named Curtis McClinton has given the Texans a running attack. McClinton weighs 238 pounds and was fast enough to run the high hurdles at Kansas. Early in the season he tried to depend upon his size and strength to bowl over tacklers. But as the season went on, McClinton found that size was not enough and he has become a smarter runner recently. Abner Haynes, the other running back, is very much like the Baltimore Colts' Lennie Moore, both in speed and elusiveness. A backfield with McClinton and Haynes in it, plus a passer and sometimes a runner like Dawson, is very hard to defend against. Dawson, in addition, has good receivers to pass to in Haynes, Ends Fred Arbanas and Tommy Brooker and Flanker Back Frank Jackson.
Rock hard defense, too
The defense is the best in the AFL, principally because of the best set of linebackers in the league, E. J. Holub, Walt Corey and Sherrill Headrick. The secondary is quick and gaining in knowledge steadily. The Texans, too, are deep in defensive backs. In a recent game against the Denver Broncos, Stram put a rookie defender in the game in place of Safety Bobby Hunt, who leads the team in interceptions. The rookie, a quarterback from Baylor named Bobby Ply, responded to opportunity by intercepting three passes, and Hunt may find it difficult winning back his job.
This team, which probably has the best players in the league, was assembled by Hunt at very considerable expense. In the bidding war with the NFL for players, Hunt has earned the reputation for having the fastest checkbook in the West. He has also had, for three years, one of the best scouting systems in the league.
Much of the talent on the team was recruited by Will Walls, a man with a keen eye for future pro players. "If Walls could sec every player in the country in action, he could give you an absolutely accurate estimate of their pro potential," one club official said. "He was the best scout I have ever seen." When Walls left the Texans to scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was replaced by Don Klosterman, a former quarterback who had had much to do with selecting and signing the talent for the San Diego Chargers. Klosterman has kept up the standard set by Walls.
After the annual draft, Hunt gets the entire staff going in an effort to sign the team's top choices at once. He also uses a couple of lease hounds from his oil operations, who give up wheedling oil leases out of reluctant farmers long enough to gather signatures from reluctant football players. When Ed Budde, the big Michigan State tackle, was drafted by the Texans, one of the lease hounds, who knew he would be trying to sign Budde, sent the player's wife two dozen yellow roses of Texas. When he sat down to talk terms with Budde, he had a ready-made ally in Mrs. Budde. The Texans this year signed three high draft choices—Junious Buchanan of Grambling, Budde, and Bobby Bell of Minnesota—almost immediately. Oddly, Hunt himself is the least successful signer though he offers the fattest contracts.
"When I talk to a boy, I can't say I'll check with someone else to see if we can meet his demands," Hunt says. "I'm the someone else."
This Sunday, the Texans will meet the Houston Oilers in Houston for the AFL championship and should beat them. The Texans are definitely a better all-round team, one that will take advantage of Oiler lapses. George Blanda, the Oiler quarterback, has an unfortunate habit of hanging passes for interceptions and the Texan defense will be ready for the hanging. The Texan runners—McClinton and Haynes—are better than Charles Tolar and Billy Cannon, since Cannon has slowed down this year. The Texans lead the league in both offense and defense. Houston is second, but it is a rather distant second.
And then, Dallas has Dawson. He is easily the best quarterback in the American Football League. And titles are won with quarterbacks.