Bill Munson is, at the moment, the quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams; last year he was the quarterback of Utah State University, and the gap between Utah State and the Rams is roughly the equivalent of the gap between the northern and southern cliffs of the Grand Canyon. Munson has bridged this gap, because he can throw a football quickly and he does not worry about what will happen to him after he throws it. He has succeeded in a trade where immediate success is a rare thing.
His success is made unique by the fact that he has been a blocking back and defensive end for most of his football career, which started in high school in Lodi, Calif. Though Lodi had a good team—17-3 in Munson's last two years—Munson was unwanted by the college scholarship dealers, and he languished for a year at Foothill Junior College befor Utah State discovered him and gave him a scholarship.
Silent by nature and nonaggressive in appearance, Munson is one of those athletes who become combative under the pressure of play. Poise seems to characterize his every move on or off the field, but underneath there is some worry.
"I'm nervous," he said the other day. "I'm not afraid of what I can do. But I know the Rams don't like to go with a rookie quarterback, and I'm a rookie, so it worries me. It's money in their pockets to win, and I don't want to lose. I want them to respect me. If they respect the quarterback, a club with all this talent will win. If they don't, the talent doesn't mean much. You know what I mean?"
October 4, 1964
Munson is a young man with wide, sloped shoulders and the cold, squarely lined face of a Bob Waterfield plus the arm and enthusiasm of a Norman Van Brocklin. He was drafted first by the Rams, 16th by the Houston Oilers in the American Football League, and he was the Rams' first draft choice on the recommendation of Waterfield, who spent last fall looking at all of the college quarterbacks.
In the normal course of events, Munson would not have started a game for the Rams for three or four years; most rookies need that much time to acclimate themselves. He was flung headlong into competition when Roman Gabriel, the first Ram quarterback, was hurt.
"Maybe it would have been better if I could have sat on the bench," he said the night after the Rams tied the Detroit Lions 17-17 in a game they should have won. "I still don't recognize defense too well. I mean, they had the zone, and I didn't know where they were hiding it. And Coach Svare says I see a little too much, and I guess he's right. But I learn fast this way. Faster than you can learn on the bench."
What Harland Svare said about Munson's seeing too much is a compliment, in a way. When a pro quarterback drops back to throw, he looks down a lane for his receiver. When Munson looks down this lane, he sees a linebacker drifting through it and holds the ball. He should see him—but not let his attention become fixed. A Van Brocklin gets rid of the ball right away, knowing the linebacker will have moved out of the lane by the time the ball arrives on target.
"It takes years to learn to throw now against what will happen;" Svare said. "Munson will learn it. He is a fine rookie."
Munson was first spotted by Vic Schwenk—now a Ram backfield coach—in 1961 when Schwenk was a scout. He was looking at Merlin Olsen, a big defensive tackle. Olsen was playing at Utah State, and Schwenk watched him in a varsity-alumni game, as did a dozen other pro scouts. The alumni were short of personnel, so Johnny Ralston, now head coach at Stanford, assigned some poorly regarded sophomores—including Munson—to the alums. Ralston never thought much of Munson as a quarterback and used him mostly as a defensive back—second-string, at that.
"Everyone knew about Olsen," Schwenk said later. "I flagged Munson."
Schwenk's report set the Rams on Munson's trail, and in 1963 Bob Water-field, the old Ram nonpareil quarterback, was given the assignment of rating four college quarterbacks. Three of them everyone knew about: George Mira of Miami (now San Francisco), Pete Beathard of University of Southern California (now Kansas City Chiefs) and Jack Concannon of Boston College (now Philadelphia Eagles). The fourth was Munson.
In Munson's senior year at Utah State Ralston moved on to Stanford, and the new coach, Tony Knap, instituted the I formation and sat back to watch Munson throw. Knap had a lot to watch. Last year Munson threw 201 times for 120 completions and 12 touchdowns and had only three interceptions. By comparison, Navy's Roger Staubach, throwing 40 fewer times, had six interceptions; George Mira had 14.
Waterfield's report on Munson was so glowing that Ram Owner Dan Reeves assigned Johnny Sanders, director of scouting for the club, to backstop Waterfield. "Both of them went out on a limb, far, far out on a limb, for Munson." Reeves says. "They climbed so far out that there was no way back."
So the Rams, a club that has drafted quarterbacks consistently every year—there are now five ex-Ram quarterbacks in the league—drafted Munson first, much to the bewilderment of the professional football world. With Roman Gabriel and Terry Baker—two former first draft picks—in camp, there was no obvious need for a quarterback.
"The first person to contact me was Johnny Sanders," Munson said the other day. "I kind of laughed. You know. I had heard so much about the Rams drafting quarterbacks. Houston had drafted me 16th, but they had Blanda and Jacky Lee, and they had drafted Don Trull as a future. There didn't seem to be much ahead for me there. And they didn't show much interest in me, either. But Mr. Sanders came to see me four different times, and the Rams were real interested. So I signed with them."
"He had no negatives, based on our scouting reports," said Svare. "From the first time I saw this boy throw, I knew he was a natural."
Munson did not realize how high he stood. "I was afraid of being cut all the time. I dreamed about it. But the rookies came to camp five days early, and we had time to get in the groove before the veterans showed up. I was settled down when they came to camp, but I was still scared."
He survived training camp and the exhibition season without too many trials. Then he suffered as traumatic an experience as any rookie quarterback can suffer—he was thrown in as the starting quarterback in the Rams' first league game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I was tense," he said. "Real tense. I like to be tense up to a point because it means I'm ready. But not that tense."
"Still no negatives," Svare said, with notable understatement, after Munson had beaten the Steelers 26-14. "Bill got a rough introduction to the game. But he's got that one big asset you can't teach. He knows when to throw the football. And quick! He has a great feel. A great feel for throwing, a great feel for knowing when to hit the man as he opens up."
Like Waterfield, who won a league championship in his rookie year with the Rams, Munson seems far more sophisticated than anyone would expect a first-year man to be. Art Hunter, the Rams' veteran center, saw that early. "It seemed to me," Hunter insisted after working in front of Munson, "that this boy had played in this league before. You had the impression this kid was a ringer, a guy using someone else's name, who'd played in this league for four or five years. From the day he walked into camp, there was no question. This man is a great-to-be—believe me."
Munson was not quite that good against Pittsburgh in the first Ram league game. But against Detroit, after a shaky beginning, he was amazing.
When the game began he overthrew open receivers three times. But the third time he came into the game to run the Ram offense, he was sure and poised.
"I felt the pressure," he said. "As the game got closer, I felt it more. I wanted to do good for the team. I wanted to earn their respect. I didn't blame them for not wanting me at quarterback. I just wanted to do good."
Munson did not have to study the defenses and call his plays against them, since all of the plays were sent in by Ray Wietecha, the Ram offensive coach. "I didn't mind that," he said. "I have the right to change plays but, to tell you the truth, I didn't change any. We ran every play the way it was sent in. That way I could concentrate on execution."
He concentrated well enough on execution to get 17 points against the Lions' difficult defenses. Once in a while, when a pattern was broken, he improvised and did that well, too. In the last minute of the game, with the score tied, he needed a first down.
"The play sent in was a square-out to Red Phillips to the right," he said. "I dropped back and looked at him. Night Train Lane was over there, and he played this one off the top of his head. He should not have been where he was, but he had Red covered up and I was getting a rush and I gave ground to my right with some of the Lions on me and I looked around to get rid of the ball and I saw Dick Bass and threw it to him. It was not a play, it was desperation." The desperation move succeeded for a Ram first down.
Munson's main problem—being accepted by the Ram veterans—is solved, though he will not admit it. Lack of acceptance has killed some rookie quarterbacks—notably Glynn Grafting, the New York Giant rookie who never inspired the Giant veterans with any belief in his ability.
"They never gave me any trouble," Munson said. "We don't have any conversation in the huddle. Of course, the plays are sent in, and maybe that accounts for it, but no one argues with me."
"As long as I have been in pro football," says Red Phillips, one of the prime receivers in the Ram battery, "I've never seen a rookie as far ahead as Munson. He has qualities you never expect to see in a rookie—the quick delivery, the hard, hard ball, hard to intercept."
There was no room for argument in Munson's third starting assignment. Last Sunday he walked onto the field in the Los Angeles Coliseum as calmly as if he had stepped out of his back door to mow the lawn. Even under violent pressure from the young, strong Minnesota Vikings, he mowed them down 22-13. When Munson walked off the field the Rams—against all the beliefs of pro football experts—led the Western Division under a rookie quarterback.
Viking Coach Van Brocklin, who was the last rookie quarterback comparable to Munson, shook his head in admiration when the game was over. He had sent his defensive team in to disconcert Munson. The Vikings blitz well, and they had blitzed often, but they had not disturbed the unshakable Munson poise.
"That's where Munson's murder," Van Brocklin, who was at least mayhem under the same circumstances, said. "On a blitz he drops them in there and real fast. He's a helluva kid, real remarkable, great vision and great reaction."
"He knows instinctively what to do with the ball," Svare said after the Los Angeles victory. "Bill gets better every week. Not once did he throw from panic. He's a natural. I wouldn't touch that throwing motion of his in a million years."
Luckily for the rest of the league, it won't be around that long.