One Sunday afternoon last autumn Houston Oiler Quarterback George Blanda was bounced off the hard earth of Houston's Jeppesen Stadium by a blitzing linebacker and arose looking as if he heard music no one else could hear. At the bench, Houston Coach Pop Ivy beckoned to young Quarterback Jacky Lee, who snapped his chin strap and trotted onto the field to replace the staggering Blanda. Halfway to the huddle, Lee stopped. Blanda was angrily waving him away. Lee looked back to the bench. Ivy was waving him toward the huddle. As the home crowd waited and the television cameras came in tight on the scene, Lee stood between the bench and the huddle, between Ivy and Blanda, uncertain whose orders to take. Finally Lee decided George Blanda was the man who was running that team. Lee returned to the bench. Up in the press box former Oiler Coach Lou Rymkus said, "If I was still the coach I'd go out there and punch Blanda in the nose." Down at the bench Ivy sat in silence with his own thoughts, and Lee disgustedly squatted down for another afternoon of watching George Blanda play quarterback.
Pop Ivy is now a scout for the New York Giants. The latest Oiler coach, the fourth in five seasons, is Sam Baugh, the man Ivy hired as an assistant less than a month before Ivy was fired on June 1. But George Blanda is back to run the team again, and Jacky Lee is back to wait for Blanda to get out of the way. And, when training camp opened last month, into that strained situation stepped yet another quarterback—rookie Don Trull (see cover), who set three NCAA passing records at Baylor and arrived in Houston with a fat contract, high hopes and a good deal of patience. He will need all he can find of the latter because he might be standing in line for a while. Lee, who has the best throwing arm in the American Football League, has already been in line for four years while the Oilers won three Eastern Division and two league championships on the craft and experience of the 37-year-old Blanda.
If the prospect of sitting around for a few years bothers Trull, he does not admit it. Sitting around for a few years is the apprenticeship nearly all rookie quarterbacks must endure to learn a game that is different from the one they played in college. Trull has even less chance than the other three top rookie quarterbacks (previous pages) of becoming a starter immediately, despite the fact that he threw a touchdown pass in an exhibition game against the Patriots last Sunday. Nobody else has both a Blanda and a Lee ahead of him.
But Trull is not discouraged. He found himself in a similar situation once before at Baylor, and he came out of it an All-America.
August 16, 1964
In Trull's sophomore year the two quarterbacks were Ron Stanley and Bobby Ply. Both were so good that Baylor Coach John Bridgers could not decide which one to start. Stanley and Ply were as jealous rivals as Blanda and Lee. But when Ply got hurt and Stanley flopped against Texas, Trull took over in the seventh game and was the hero of Baylor's Gotham Bowl win over Utah State. He became the NCAA's leading passer for the next two years. Trull has the intelligence, the leadership qualities and the determination to pull off such a trick for the Oilers if the circumstances should be right. The reservation—and it is a serious one—is the strength of his arm. Trull has yet to prove he can throw the deep pass that is so necessary for a winning pro quarterback.
When he checked into the Houston training camp last month (Mira, Beathard and Concannon were practicing with the College All-Stars, but Trull had not been invited), Trull went quietly to work. He had a locker between Blanda and Lee, who do not go out of their way to speak to each other, and he was cooperative but embarrassed as a Houston newspaper photographer posed him on top of a firetruck in a fire helmet as the man who could rescue the Oilers from a repeat of last year's 6-8 season. Blanda sat chewing a cigar in the sauna bath the Oilers have installed in their locker room. Lee, who in 1960 came to the Oilers from Cincinnati with almost as impressive a record as Trull brought in 1964, ignored them both.
"It doesn't worry me that the Oilers would go out and buy a high-priced guy like Trull," Lee said. "It makes sense to go out and get one of the best. Blanda obviously can't play a whole lot longer. Then it will be just me and Trull."
Lee does not try to disguise the fact that it will be a happy day for him when Blanda goes—even though one story is that where Blanda may go is into the Oiler front office as head coach when Baugh's contract is up in December. Lee and Blanda have an intensely competitive relationship. "Jack is a fine athlete," says Oiler Talent Scout John Breen, "but Blanda beats him at everything they play—ping-pong, gin rummy or golf. You know why? Jack tries so hard he loses something, his poise or his cool or whatever you call it. It's not there because George is around."
Frustrated over his inaction, Lee considered playing out his option at the finish of the 1962 season. He was then making $16,000 per year. He intended to hold out for $21,000 but instead was offered a three-year contract for $25,000 per year and signed as fast as he could find a pen. At that price, Lee thought he was bound to play. But Lee played less than ever in 1963. Even when Blanda injured a knee, Pop Ivy gave Blanda a crutch by installing a spread formation to protect him rather than go with Lee.
"I went to Ivy," Lee said bitterly, "and told him to hire a rank second-rater for a measly $15,000 and let him stand around behind Blanda if that's all they wanted a quarterback for. Ivy told me he would like to play me, but he had to win, and if he lost it was going to be with Blanda, not with me. What little I was in there, people criticized me for throwing the bomb too much. Well, when I got in we usually needed four touchdowns in half a quarter. Did they expect me to use the running game, throw short, set up first downs?"
One factor that was—and is—against Lee and against the novitiate, Trull, is that the Oiler veterans are almost solidly for Blanda, who was AFL Player of the Year in 1961 when he threw 36 touchdown passes. The Oilers put the blame for Blanda's comparative failure last season on poor pass blocking and sloppy running of patterns rather than on Blanda himself. "Our linemen were confused about calling their blocking assignments, and the other teams caught on in a hurry and red-dogged the hell out of George," said one player. "But when Lee came in, we just couldn't make ourselves want to go for him. He couldn't get us in a group and lead us across the street. He's cocky, like he wants us to think he's the man but deep inside he knows he's really not. But there's no doubt he has a great arm. Maybe when George is gone we can make ourselves play for Lee—for our own good. We'll just have to wait and see about Trull."
Blanda is prepared to wait and see about Trull—especially if Blanda should become the Oiler coach—but at the moment Blanda has no intention of surrendering his quarterback job. Blanda has been employed in pro football for so long that in 1950, while playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears, he intercepted one of the passes thrown by his current coach, Sam Baugh, who did not retire until Blanda's fourth year in the game. "It was the proudest time of my football career when I intercepted that Baugh pass," said Blanda. "I was a 190-pound flash then. Played linebacker, cornerback, safety. Played anywhere. Yes sir, a real 190-pound flash."
"Blanda looks like a guard now," said Baugh as the Oilers assembled on the $2.5 million, 6½-acre hunk of real estate they use for a practice field. Off to the south rose a portent of the future, the new Harris County Domed Stadium (SI, Aug. 10), its dome looking like waffled foil in the sunlight. The Oilers and the Houston Colt .45s baseball team will play under the dome next year. To the southwest were the light towers of the more-or-less temporary Colt Stadium. To the northwest stood the 18-story Shamrock Hilton Hotel. To the north, beyond the Towers Hotel and the APC Building which houses the offices of Oiler Owner Bud Adams, were the walls and lights of Rice Stadium in which the Oilers are forbidden to play. Surrounded by those symbols of sport, Baugh, the first top pro quarterback, rehearsed Blanda, a fairly successful one, and Lee and Trull, either of whom could become one of the next top pro quarterbacks. In those four men are represented at least 30 years of the game of pro football. But rather than get philosophical about it, Baugh turned his attention to what concerns him more urgently: Who is the quarterback of this day and hour?
"I'm sure gonna keep all three of them," Baugh said. "And I have to go with Blanda until somebody beats him out. But in the exhibition games I'll play Lee and Trull more than Blanda. The way for Trull to learn is to shove him in the game and let him make his own mistakes, and then if he is any good he will learn. On the bench you see mistakes but you don't learn until you're in the thick of it. That's where you learn to evade the rush, to get the ball off, to use patterns that will take advantage of what some linebacker is doing. The only way to improve a young quarterback is to stick him in the game even if he gets you killed. He'll learn more in two years of playing than he will in four years on the bench, if the fans can stand it.
"I like Trull," Baugh said. "He's smart, quick to learn, has good action getting away from the center. His only flaw is inexperience. I think his arm is strong enough."
If the arm is not strong enough, the Oilers have wasted considerable time and money. Houston drafted Trull as a future after the 1962 season, as did the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League. General Manager Don Kellett of the Colts made several courting visits to Trull—whose college coach, Bridgers, was once on the Baltimore staff—but the Colts did not ever come close to winning Trull's affection.
For one thing, Texas athletes like to stay at home if the money is anywhere near equal, and the Colts did not progress far enough to talk money with Trull. For another thing, Baltimore has Johnny Unitas.
"Unitas was the big reason I wasn't very interested in Baltimore," said Trull. "When Baltimore asked me how much it would take to get me there, I said never mind. My playing possibilities in Houston might not look good, but think how they would look in Baltimore."
Bud Adams, who could moderately be described as flamboyant, invited Trull into his underground office in Houston during the contract discussions. After Trull was properly awed by the black mahogany desk, the fountain, the llamaskin rug, the planter boxes of white gravel and Adams' life story inscribed on the wall in Cherokee (with ice tongs also painted there, for Adams' father was an iceman before getting into the oil business), Adams offered Trull a Lincoln Continental.
"What would I do with a Lincoln Continental?" said Trull. "That's not my kind of car. I only have one suit of clothes."
They settled for a Thunderbird. But more important was the $25,000 bonus. Because Trull had passed Baylor to a Bluebonnet Bowl win over LSU on December 21 and had thus become eligible to sign before the January 1 bowl games, the bonus could be paid in the tax year of 1963 at a large saving for its recipient. Part of the money went into stocks, but part of it went for the down payment on a $30,000 four-bedroom home in the Maplewood South section of Houston. A skeptical mortgage-loan man visited the Oilers to be sure rookie quarterbacks really make enough money to qualify for a loan. In Trull's case, they do.
Big rookie contracts are a morale problem for pro football teams and a source of some often brutal kidding for those who get the contracts. "They've kidded me a lot," said Trull, "but I don't think any of it has been sour. I sure hope it hasn't."
Trull is the sort who takes kidding easily and responds by laughing. In a huddle at Baylor a teammate looked up at Trull and said, "With all those teeth in that wide mouth you look like an alligator coming out of the swamp." After that, Trull was called "Gator," a nickname he still carries and grins about.
But Trull is not so amused by those who doubt his arm. "At Baylor we never went for the long ball," Trull said. "Most teams played us deep anyhow, so we went for the short ones, used finesse, set 'em up. It will take work, but I can throw deep."
Former Baylor End James Ingram, also an Oiler rookie, agrees. "I believe Don can throw the long ball if he works on it," said Ingram. "We used the long ball at Baylor only as a threat, and Don hit Lawrence Elkins (who set an NCAA record last season by catching 70 passes) once for 70 yards." Talent Scout Breen, who recommended Trull, said, "The day of the bomb is over. In the early years of the league [the AFL], you could throw the bomb for easy scores because our defensive backs weren't so good. Now you can't. You need it now as a reserve weapon, and Trull is adequate at it."
An advantage Trull does have to offset the period it will take to strengthen his arm is that he was trained in college as a drop-back, pocket passer of the type the pros favor. Mira, Beathard and Concannon were not, and while some observers think the pros may swing more toward roll-out passers eventually, it is still the pocket thrower who is winning. Trull walks as if he has pebbles in his shoes, but he has the ability to run if the Oilers' blocking pocket collapses.
That is an ability Blanda no longer has. Blanda is a tough leader and is a good thrower of the long ball, but he does not have the legs to run out of trouble and tends to throw interceptions (67 in the past two seasons) when under a thundering rush. Lee is excellent at the long ball and has the arm to rocket a pass 35 to 40 yards on a flat trajectory, an arm that has caused several other AFL clubs, Denver in particular, to try desperately to trade for him. "Lee is the best quarterback in our league and the best back-up quarterback in the game," said Denver Coach Jack Faulkner. But Lee does not yet have the confidence of his teammates and may never get it while Blanda is around.
"I might play another two or three years," Blanda said. "I get along all right with Lee. It's just that some guys are affable and some aren't. Me, I'm never mad at anybody. I don't know anything about Trull. I'm sure he must be good or they wouldn't have signed him."
The debates and the curiosity about Trull are liable to continue for some years. After the Coaches' All-America Game in Buffalo in June, one of Trull's receivers said, "I think if a guy is going to hold up a pro club for $100,000 his receivers shouldn't have to field grounders all night." But another of Trull's receivers said, "I think if Trull had played the whole game we would have won." Oiler fans are the ones who will carry on with such conversations. Even when the mano a mano between Blanda and Lee is concluded, Trull probably will merely move up another place in line. At his salary, there are worse jobs.