Color me dead," said Hal Bedsole of the University of Southern California. "The leading candidate for Flop of the Year. I'm looking to the past for my happiness." He poked at the $4.75 lobster special on his plate at the Beefeaters Inn in Hollywood. His cheerless smile bent to one side, as though only half his face was working. He had been punched in the mouth by an Oklahoma football player, and there was a swelling at the corner. He explored the crime with the tip of his tongue. "It's ironic. Last year when I was catching passes there was never any malice," he said. "This year I haven't caught a pass yet that counted, but already I've caught seven good elbows and one sucker punch. When the Oklahoma guy hit me, the referee came running up and said, 'I'm watching you, No. 19.' No. 19 is me. That's the kind of season I'm having.
The fat lip ("that's what happens when the other team gets to know who you are") was, of course, a lesser hurt. Bedsole had dropped three passes that afternoon as USC, unbeaten in 12 games and the defending champion of college football, lost to Oklahoma 17-12. As the game progressed, each dropped pass was a little more critical than the one before. For a 6-foot-5 All-America end who by the estimate of many pro scouts is one of the four or five best college football players in the country, irrespective of position, it was no small tragedy. Bitterly ashamed, Bedsole held only himself liable. He cried after the defeat. He sat for a very long time beside his locker. "Have you ever cost 44 guys a football game?" he asked over and over. Brunette Cathy Walters, his comforter at the Beefeaters, said that even the greatest are entitled to a bad day. "Like hell," said Bedsole, uncomforted. "You can't have a day like I had and still be No. 1. We were No. 1, don't you understand? The best in the country. Where do you think they'll put us now?
"That last pass," he said. "I wanted that one so bad I couldn't catch it. I like to be the Come-through Kid, score the touchdown that counts. I never drop a touchdown pass. No one ever caught me from behind. I know my stats [statistics]. I scored 11 touchdowns last year, one every third pass I caught. I know when the fourth quarter comes and I'm shut out that I'm due. But the last one today—all I cared about was 'Get it, Hal, you've got to get the first down.' "
It was late in the fourth quarter, and USC had the ball for the last time, fourth down at the USC 25-yard line. "We needed eight yards," said Bedsole. "I ran out 15 to make sure, then curled in, and Pete [Beathard, the USC quarterback] put it right here. Perfect. A perfect pass. I dropped it." He looked at the lobster as if it had just bounded off his chest onto the plate. "I used to have a very big head," he said. "It's getting smaller all the time."
The next week against Michigan State, Bedsole missed or was missed by six more passes to bring his season's embarrassment to 14 straight incompletions, no yards gained, no touchdowns scored. This compared with his two-year total of 60 completions, 1,352 yards and 17 touchdowns (he holds seven major USC pass-receiving records). Then, finally, in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, he caught one. He came across field, altering his pattern when he realized Beathard wasn't going to throw to him, and cut into another receiver's area just in time to make a miraculous diving catch of a poorly thrown ball. He caught it two inches off the ground and hugged it to his chest, the way a war bride holds her first letter from the front. He fell in the end zone for the touchdown that won the game for USC 13-10. The Come-through Kid was back in business.
The following Monday, Bedsole had business on campus. He parked his red 1963 Impala in a lot where most people have to pay but where he bulls with the attendant and parks free. "None of the guys would believe I'm paying for this car, either," he said, "but I'm paying all right. I make a little money. I get around. I'm a hustler. When I was a kid I used to charge my older brother Eddie a quarter to play catch with him. I'm a con man. I have things going for me. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are my busy days. That's when I sell my game tickets. Last summer I worked as a sales representative for a marble company. Saved $500."
He said he had been thinking a lot about what the Come-through Kid was going to do about professional football, and he had decided that when negotiations began this winter he would have an investment counselor and an attorney take care of everything. Bedsole cited the case of a Ram player. "He didn't have any counsel," he said. "He's been playing pro ball three years now. That's a third of his career at least. And what does he have to show for it? Nothing." Bedsole said he was not about to sell his soul to pro football, that "five or six years" would be plenty and after that he would fall back on his education. "I'm going to be prepared. I'm going for my masters at USC. That's definite."
At the registrar's office Bedsole went in to make a schedule change, though it was Monday and the deadline for changes had been Friday. He ignored the long line and moved in behind the counter to smooth-talk the women there into giving him preferred treatment. They did. "I can't see standing in line if you don't have to," he said. "And think of the ladies. Probably not once in an eight-hour day does anybody say anything personal to them. I do."
As he made his way across the USC campus, not once did another student hail him to say what a great catch he had made on Friday night. He did not seem to notice. "It may sound strange," Cathy Walters had said at the Beefeaters, "but Hal just doesn't need a lot of friends." Hal said he had not seen Cathy since that night. Their three-year courtship has not been smooth. "I don't know whether we'll get married or not," he said. "Her parents think I'm a bum."
Hal Jay Bedsole is not a bum, of course. What he is, however, is not easily told. He is "misunderstood," says his former roommate. "A hot dog, but underneath a very sensitive guy," says Don Simonian, former USC sports publicist. "Sensible, yes, but not very sensitive, not Hal," says a teammate. "He used to be a conceited know-it-all, but he's changed, he really has," says the girl who may or may not marry him. "He's grown up a lot—you saw the way he took the Oklahoma loss," says his coach. "His only weakness is his mouth," says a professional scout. "He's really a very shy, quiet kid with an inferiority complex," says a neighbor. "He's misunderstood," says his mother.
Bill Nelsen, the 1962 Trojan quarterback now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was Bedsole's roommate last year. "At first I couldn't stand him," says Nelsen. "Then I discovered he was really a very self-conscious guy. Very complex. Of course, he's cocky to beat the devil, and that's what most people see. He went to practice when he wanted to in high school and junior college. He was the big-action man. He always got his way. He wore No. 16 all the time, and when he discovered I had No. 16 at Southern Cal, he came up to me and said, 'Do you like that number?' That was the first time I'd ever met him. I told him I liked it fine. And I kept it, too. We became good friends." Nelsen wrote Bedsole a long letter this summer advising him of the importance of a college senior acting like a college senior.
Simonian, who was USC's sports publicist until the success of USC's football team gave him an ulcer last year, says, "Hal's an operator. The first guy to want to check things out when you hit a new town. He gives that Saturday Hero bit, and he means it. He used to say to me, 'O.K., Don, what kind of publicity are you getting me today?' But when the season was over, he was the first to come to me and say he appreciated my efforts."
Bedsole was born in Chicago two weeks after Pearl Harbor and moved as a child with his mother and stepfather, Herbert Lambrecht, and twin brothers to Northridge in the San Fernando Valley. Last year his brother Eddie was killed in a Chicago auto accident. Soon afterward the USC team went to Champaign, Ill., to play the University of Illinois. The week of the game Bedsole came to Simonian. "He was very upset. He told me he had never seen his real father, but he knew he lived in Chicago. He asked me, 'What will I do if some stranger walks up to me and says, "Hello, Hal. I'm your father"?' These are the things that don't show on the surface."
His teammates used to call Bedsole "Prince Hal" in appreciation of his lordly singular ways, his disdain for practice, his disinterest in blocking or tackling, his convenient Mickey Mouse injuries. "I'm injury-prone," Hal explained, "so Coach McKay lets me take it easy during the week." He enjoys the notoriety. "Mike Garrett [sophomore halfback] calls me Primo," he grins. "For primo donna." He goes to great lengths to perpetuate the image. Last year he appeared on the practice field in dark glasses, Hollywood style. Fullback Ben Wilson, then Trojan team captain, got some dark glasses of his own and came out waving his arms and twittering, "Hey, look at me! I'm Hal Bedsole." Bedsole ate it up. But when he became aware before the Colorado game this year that Beathard's practice patterns were using the Come-through Kid more as a decoy than anything else, he was affronted. "You know, Coach," he said to one of Head Coach Johnny McKay's assistants, "when you've got Citation in your stable you race him."
Bedsole went out for the USC baseball team last spring. His motivations were immediately suspect. "Hal will do anything to get out of football practice," said a teammate. Nevertheless, there he was in the starting lineup when the Trojans played the Los Angeles Dodgers in a preseason exhibition. First time up he hit a long double off Ron Perranoski and was thrown out at third trying to stretch it to a triple in the face of frantic signals from the third-base coach. The next time up he drove one against the wall and pulled up short at first. "An all-world record for a single," he said. "This time I was playing it safe." Not really. He engaged in an analysis of the situation with the first baseman and got picked off. A few days later he was back at work on the football field. "I want to learn how to block and tackle," he told End Coach Mike Giddings.
Giddings, a tough ex-marine, says Bedsole never put out as well as he did this spring and fall: "He actually learned some defense." Against Oklahoma, Bedsole had a grim time trying to catch the ball, but he was superb—"for a fellow still learning"—in all other departments: he made two jarring tackles, he blocked an Oklahoma field-goal attempt and he laid the principal block in a touchdown run by Halfback Willie Brown. The truth was that had he not blocked the field goal, USC would have been out of the game long before he muffed his last pass. In USC's 17-14 loss to Notre Dame last week he dropped one sure touchdown pass and let another get through him for an interception that resulted in a Notre Dame score. But he also made three fine catches, one-handing a 43-yarder to keep a Trojan touchdown drive going, and was in on five tackles. He suddenly seems incapable of being anything but very good or very bad.
For Hal Bedsole it was not always so. He cannot remember a time when he was not good at athletics. When he reached junior high he was 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds, could run 100 yards in 10.7 seconds, could take on his twin brothers at the same time and had no trouble getting his way. "I wasn't a bad kid," he says. "I just never made any bones about being good. My philosophy has always been if you want to do something, do it, but I've learned what I always do is give people the wrong idea. Somebody sees you drinking a beer, and two days later they've got you passed out in a bar. I visited the San Francisco 49er camp last summer just because I wanted to, and the next day the story was out that I had been there with my business manager to talk contract. Boy, Coach McKay loved that."
At Reseda High in Northridge, Bedsole was a quarterback on the football team, a catcher on the baseball team and "dabbled in track" (he put the shot 54 feet and in college ran the hurdles when he was in the mood). He eventually quit baseball because he didn't like the coach. He was high school football player of the year in 1959, but the only time McKay saw him play, Reseda lost to Huntington Park, quarterbacked by Craig Fertig, 46 to 6 in the championship game. Fertig is now USC's second quarterback behind Beathard, and, Bedsole says, "every day of my life he reminds me of that game. He relates it to everything I do."
Grades kept Bedsole out of USC immediately so he spent a preparatory year at Pierce Junior College, where he made Junior College All-America at quarterback. This impressed McKay so much that Bedsole was fifth team in his first year at USC. By mutual agreement he kept his quarterback's number—19—and changed his position. He was made an end. "I could see myself throwing a $12,000 scholarship down the tubes," said Bedsole, "but I wanted to play. Anywhere." Said McKay: "Bedsole can be just as good or bad as he wants to be."
Bedsole chose to be quite good. By the end of that first season Don Klosterman, chief scout of the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League, was convinced that "He will be the best offensive end in college football by the time he's a senior." Simonian listened to the tributes and began promoting the possibility, wishing at least once a week thereafter that he had not. As Bedsole's wondrous statistics spiraled, so did his untidy reputation. Finally, before the Rose Bowl game last January, he walked out of the Alumni Awards Banquet at the Palladium. Somebody else had been chosen Southern California's lineman of the year. Bedsole, All-America or not, had drawn a blank before 1,000 people, and he was sick with rage and disappointment. He does not take disappointment well. For a time it appeared McKay might demote him right off the Rose Bowl squad, but instead he talked to him—"good and tough"—and let him stay.
In the Rose Bowl, USC defeated Wisconsin 42-37, and Bedsole was brilliant. He caught four passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns, one a spectacular 57-yard pass-run that girl friend Cathy didn't see because she was out at the time getting a hot dog. What Cathy did see, however, was Bedsole slamming into Wisconsin Quarterback Ron VanderKelen when VanderKelen was down and five yards out of bounds in the first quarter. It was one of three personal fouls charged against Bedsole for the day. "That has to be an all-world record," he says. When VanderKelen went down, half a dozen Wisconsin players jumped Bedsole for his eagerness. Actually eagerness had nothing to do with it, said Bedsole. What he really had in mind was to put VanderKelen through the Wisconsin bench, head first, like a woodscrew. "I don't know what got into me," he said. "All I could think of was that I had chased him 10 yards and I wanted to get him. I really ripped him, too. His guys hit me with their helmets, their fists, anything. I got my lumps and I deserved every one." He was not so humbled, however, that he could not say afterward that he thought he was a better end than Pat Richter, the Wisconsin All-America.
Hal Bedsole's candor still makes people wince; ex-marine Giddings has to get nose-to-nose with him at a minimum of once a week, and his advanced case of butter fingers has Beathard, McKay and half the West Coast worried stiff. But no one quite believes that en route to becoming a gentleman Hal Bedsole has forever lost his football finesse.
"The thing you must remember about Bedsole is that everything comes so incredibly easy for him," says Pro Scout Klosterman. "He'll come around. If you told him to run a zip-and-out and do a flip and a handstand and catch the ball with one hand and play the trombone with the other, he could do it. He has fantastic legs. He is the most devastating runner after the catch I've ever seen, and he's almost as fast as Willie Brown. On a drive pattern he is positively fierce [tackling Bedsole in the Rose Bowl cost Wisconsin Halfback Billy Smith seven teeth and a fractured jaw]. He's like Boyd Dowler without Dowler's raw speed, or he's like Chris Burford of our club with more speed, I heard one scout say he was convinced Bedsole wouldn't make it as a pro because of his attitude. 'Poison!' he said. 'Who needs him?' I'll tell you who need's him. Anybody in football."
Color Southern Cal's Hal Bedsole very much alive.