Putting a nickname on an athlete is a trickier business than one might suppose. The idea is to pick out some distinction of appearance or behavior and symbolize it. Often the best and simplest symbols are animals, since animals have qualities that are universal. A fox wherever encountered is a fox, and when a receiver like Bill Howton is called The Red Fox one knows at once not only the color of his hair but something of how Howton used to run pass patterns. In professional football there are a badger, a hog, a snake, a skunk, an alligator, a weasel, a tiger, a bull, a hare—a menagerie of symbols. What makes symbol-selecting difficult is that the nickname must be precise and easily recognizable, whether it is an animal symbol or not, and it must be comfortable on the tongue. One could hardly walk up to Red Grange and say, "Hah yew, Galloping Ghost?" Nor could one approach Vince Lombardi, who played on a Fordham line called the Seven Blocks of Granite, and inquire, "What's new, Block?" However, one could address Clyde Turner as Bulldog or Alan Ameche as Horse or, in the quasi-amateur aspect of the game, Paul Bryant as Bear and not feel awkward about it. And in all of sports there has never been a more apt or more accurate nickname than the one borne by Lance Alworth of the San Diego Chargers (see cover). It does not please him, as is frequently the case with nicknames, but the image it evokes is of Lance Alworth running, jumping, dodging, all with incredible grace, and that style is Lance Alworth.
They call him Bambi.
Bambi was a deer pursued by wicked hunters with guns that went bang! in a child's tale written by Felix Salten. Maybe children no longer read Bambi but, as it is a cruel and sentimental story, it was perfect material for a Walt Disney movie of 15 or 20 years ago and everybody knew Bambi then, when the current pro football players were of an age to appreciate him. In 1962, when Lance Alworth—a pretty evocative name in itself—was a rookie with the Chargers, he came off the field one afternoon to find Charlie Flowers, a former Mississippi All-America, staring at him with the expression Bob Kane must have had when he woke up with the inspiration for Batman.
"You're Bambi," said Flowers.
December 13, 1965
"What for?" Alworth asked.
"For your big brown eyes and the way you move," said Flowers.
And he was Bambi. Alworth has tried growing his hair long and dyeing it red to change the impression. He has neglected shaving and gone about scowling, but that merely made him look like Bambi at a masquerade. The only time he escaped the symbol was when a few of the Chargers began calling him Governor Faubus after an Arkansas political campaign in which Lance made speeches in behalf of his friend Orval Faubus. That nickname, besides being a joke, was artificial and could not endure. Nobody can say exactly what class is but everybody is aware of it when in its presence, and Lance has too much class to be called Governor Faubus for long. He is the best spread receiver in professional football and is the classiest-looking at his job. If Alworth played for the New York Giants or Jets—in that city where all a second-string quarterback named Earl Morrall had to do was show up to get a network radio program—he would earn $100,000 a year in salaries and endorsements. Alworth is not on relief in San Diego, a sunny, palm-rustling town in a pocket between the Pacific to the west, the Cuyamaca Mountains to the east, Los Angeles to the north and the Mexican border outpost of Tijuana to the south but, being from the provinces and the generally underestimated American Football League, Alworth does not have the star status he deserves.
An exception is the state of Arkansas, where Alworth was an All-America halfback at the university in Fayetteville. It would not be enough to say that the people of Arkansas have affection for Alworth. They have passion for him. At one pro exhibition game in Little Rock the stands were jammed with people who had come to see Lance. On the second play of the game Alworth was knocked out. He was carried off the field by Ernie Ladd and Ernie Wright, which made an interesting photograph in the Little Rock papers the next day, since Ladd and Wright are Negroes. Lance returned at the half to wave at the crowd and assure them that he was all right, and he appeared twice on television, but his coach, Sid Gillman, did not put him back into the game. The people were not there to see the Chargers or their opponents, the Houston Oilers, but to see Alworth, and club officials expected a noisy protest from the stands. There was none. The people simply loved Bambi too much to want him to risk getting hurt.
At the College All-Star Game in the summer of 1962, Alworth was trying to explain to a Big Ten tackle the emotion Arkansas has for its football players. "When I go home they don't recognize me," said the tackle. The All-Stars were on a bus driving through Evanston, a Chicago suburb, and the tackle pointed out the window to a car with Arkansas plates. "See if they recognize you," the tackle said. As the bus passed the car Lance leaned out the window and did what they refer to in Arkansas as calling the pig—yelling, "Whoooo, pig, sooey!" the Arkansas battle cry. From the car came shouts of "Whoooo, pig, sooey!" and "Hey, Lance!" The tackle was convinced. The tackle did not know that the people in the car were University of Arkansas Publicist Bob Cheyne and his family, but it is not likely that it would have made any difference who was in the car. Anybody in a vehicle with Arkansas plates would have known Lance Alworth.
Alworth led the nation in punt returns at Arkansas in 1960 and 1961 and the Razorbacks won 25 of 31 games during his career, but his ground-gaining was unimpressive. Arkansas played the wing T, and Lance was used as an outside running threat. Forced to cover Alworth, the opposition allowed the Arkansas quarterbacks to cut back against the flow of pursuit for good yardage. Alworth was seldom employed as a pass receiver, although he did score on a 67-yard pass against SMU in 1961. He was a run-pass-kick athlete who could do anything better than anybody else, and by merely stepping onto the field he helped Arkansas win or tie three straight Southwest Conference championships when the Razorbacks were not that strong.
Lance went to Arkansas through a combination of Frank Broyles's charm and Johnny Vaught's rules. Born in Houston, Alworth grew up in Brook-haven, Miss., where he won 12 high school athletic letters. He had learned football in the oil camps of Mississippi and Louisiana among college football players working at summer jobs. "They called the game roughhouse," he says. "I was in the second grade and played with the big boys on a hard, graveled lot. One boy would kick off and 15 or 20 of us would go after the ball. The one who got it ran as far as he could. When he was downed he'd throw the ball over his head and somebody else would get it and start again until somebody took it across the goal. When we finished, our faces would be scraped to shreds, but it was fun."
Ole Miss signed Alworth after his senior year in high school, but Coach Vaught had rules against married players and Lance, at 17, had married 15-year-old Betty Allen. While Vaught was thinking up some exceptions to his rules, Arkansas Coach Broyles and his wife, Barbara, entered the situation, and soon the young Alworths were en route to Fayetteville. "If you're a high school kid and Frank talks to your parents, you're going to Arkansas," Lance says. "He comes on with that solid, Christian, considerate, engaging manner of his, telling them how he's going to take care of their boy, and you're gone." Alworth is still consumed by devotion for Arkansas. His Charger roommate, All-AFL Fullback Keith Lincoln, sat with Lance, watching the Arkansas-Texas game on television this year. "Lance got blue in the face from yelling, and first thing I knew I was standing on the bed yelling for him," says Lincoln.
Alworth lives with Betty and their two children in a two-story house in a fashionable section of Little Rock, where he has recently retired from the advertising business because, he says, "I worked from 8 in the morning until 11 at night and was mentally and physically exhausted as I've never been before. I won't do that again. I like to play golf and fish too much." He considers himself a citizen of Arkansas, and as such worked for Faubus. (He believes the man was misunderstood during the Little Rock integration troubles in 1956.) Lance went out and shook hands for Faubus, but he also shakes hands with every Charger before every game. He accepted with grace the kidding his teammates gave him when he returned from the Faubus campaign. Crosses were burned above Alworth's dressing cubicle in San Diego. Negro Halfback Paul Lowe, who was born and brought up in the Watts district of Los Angeles, led Freedom Marches and made civil rights speeches in front of Alworth in the locker room. On Lance's first day back from the Faubus campaign, white Linebacker Paul Maguire, since traded to Buffalo, stepped into a huddle and said, "What's going on here? I thought this was a segregated scrimmage." The Negroes laughed, and so did Alworth. "In my honest opinion, the southern players get along with Negroes better than most players from other parts of the country," says Lance. "Maybe we try harder because of where we're from, but as far as I'm concerned we're all the same. There are no racial factions on this team. We have the speeches and Freedom Marches in the locker room only when everybody is feeling good. There's nothing bitter about it."
Lance was signed for the Chargers by Al Davis, now the coach and general manager at Oakland, and it was a con job of rare smoothness. Alworth had been the first draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League but did not discuss salary with them. "Davis had me sold on San Diego," Lance says, "and when I met Red Hickey [then coach of the 49ers] I asked for a no-cut contract. Red is from Arkansas, but I don't know him well. He spent 10 minutes telling me why I couldn't have a no-cut contract. I told him I had a no-cut offer from the other league, and he said, O.K., he guessed I could have one from San Francisco. I didn't much like that attitude. I didn't care which league I went to, except Davis had promised I could play sooner at San Diego and that was what I wanted."
Alworth's career with the Chargers began off-key. Several players were kicking 40-yard field goals for fun in practice when Line Coach Joe Madro shouted for them to stop before someone got hurt. Alworth, who had absorbed a number of beatings as a college football hero and had soaked up a skinful of buckshot while leaping a fence with a watermelon under his arm, could not imagine getting hurt kicking a field goal. As he kicked one last time, another player pushed him. Lance's foot hit the top of the ball and flew up with a tremendous snap. A muscle in his right thigh, above the knee, popped and rolled up like a window shade. Alworth was put into a cast and warned by a doctor not to straighten his leg for two weeks, but the Charger trainer (who has been replaced by efficient young Jim Van Deusen) ordered Lance out of the cast and told him to run his leg into shape. Later, two men held Alworth on a table while the trainer tried to massage what he insisted was a "blood pocket" out of Lance's leg. "I could feel that muscle squibbling around. He'd mash it down and get the blood to bulge up and then the muscle would squibble loose again. I had tears in my eyes when I finally made them let me up. I figured, well, it was all the same in football from high school on. Nobody would believe you were hurt. They'd say for you to come on and get at it when you couldn't walk, and they'd lug you off the field like a sack. But last year when I had a bad knee, Jimmy Van Deusen asked me three days before the championship game if I could run on it and I told him no and he believed me. I appreciated that."
Alworth—as Bambi, the gifted, the quick, the graceful—survived that first experience and played four games as a rookie, catching 10 passes and scoring three touchdowns. His statistics since then have been remarkable. In the three following seasons, including this one, Lance has had an average of more than 20 yards per catch and, carrying out the primary mission of a deep receiver, which is to score, has made a touchdown once every five receptions. And that is not on a small number of catches. In 1963 he caught 61 passes for 1,206 yards and 11 touchdowns. Last year it was 61 catches for 1,235 yards and 13 touchdowns. So far this year Lance has 62 catches for 1,428 yards and 12 touchdowns—picking up 147 yards and two touchdowns just last Saturday against the Jets. In his first two seasons Alworth was not working against defenses as tough as he would have faced in the NFL, but in the past two seasons there has not been that much difference between the leagues. And Alworth has not had a Johnny Unitas throwing to him. He did have Tobin Rote, but in a fading period, and now he has John Hadl, who has become a clever quarterback but never will be chosen to illustrate a picture book of classic passers.
Alworth, moreover, managed his accomplishments of 1963 and 1964, both All-AFL years, without learning the moves that are to a pass receiver what feints are to a basketball player. He got by on his 9.6 speed and his sure hands. This year has been different. Lance has faced so much double coverage that he has been forced to resort to foolery. "The move gets me away from the first man," he says. "If there's a linebacker out there with me and he crowds me and hits me, he can knock me off the pattern. But if he stands back a couple of yards he doesn't have a chance, because the only linebacker quick enough to do that and stay with me is Bobby Bell of Kansas City. I saw Bobby Bell almost catch Paul Lowe from behind once, and if he can do that to Lowe he can do it to me. Usually I can use a move to get away from the linebacker and then worry about the corner back. If there are two backs on me, John [Hadl] will spot it and throw to somebody who has single coverage. It's funny how I used to think a move was just a head fake. I'd run a square-out pattern and not even do a square-out, just kind of circle around, but the backs played me so loose I was open anyway. After studying films, I know better. Charlie Hennigan [of Houston] has the best moves in either league. Every step, he's doing something."
The receiver's most important task, obviously, is to catch the ball when it arrives. That requires concentration as well as touch. Alworth's only flaw is that he tends to become careless, which he admits, and not watch the ball into his hands or run out his patterns when he is not the primary receiver. Now Lance tries to catch a number of slant-in patterns early in the season. "If you catch those, when people are all around you, it means you're concentrating," he says. "I'm aware of the defensive backs, especially in practice, but if I can catch a slant-in and tuck the ball away it means I have a good grip on the ball. There's nearly always something there with a slant-in, an opening between the linebackers or the deep men, and you're running when you get the ball. For a while this year I was dropping the ball—more balls than I've dropped in my whole life—and I was afraid I'd lost it, like a golfer loses it, but it came back. An outside receiver needs quickness and hands. Lots of people have one or the other. I've been lucky."
Although he is devoting more care to his moves, Alworth does not run patterns as they are drawn on the board, and Gillman does not expect him to. The Chargers often throw the ball to a "breaking point"—a specific location on the field—and allow the receiver to arrive there however he thinks best. When the receiver is Alworth, he is frequently seen several feet off the ground, seemingly hanging in the air in a high, balletish leap, while the defensive backs who went up with him are falling back to earth. That leap, that uncanny ability to hang, is as characteristic of Alworth as his grace or his speed. It is a knack that puzzles him. "I can't really jump very high when I try," he says. "In high school as a basketball player I could never cram the ball into the basket. But I have pictures of myself going up for rebounds with my hands above the rim. If I'm concentrating on the ball I don't realize how high up I've gone. A couple of us had a kicking contest with Sam Snead the other day and Snead kicked the top of a seven-foot door. He's 50 something, isn't he? I'm 24 and I couldn't kick anywhere near as high as he could."
Of course, there was no football at the top of that door. Going for a football, Alworth is magic. "Sometimes I jump when I don't need to, I guess," says Lance, "but one reason I jump is to get my body into the ball so it can't be knocked away, especially on third down. And when you're up in the air you don't get hit so hard. They sort of push you. If you're on the ground when you catch it, they pulverize you." Alworth flanks either right or left, usually to the strong side but occasionally to the weak. As a play begins he sometimes stands upright, hands on hips, right knee slightly bent and right foot back a few inches, head turned toward Hadl to hear the snap count and the audible, if there is one. Then he does a little dance step as he starts toward his rendezvous with the ball. But Alworth uses the upright stance only when the footing is uncertain. He prefers to move out from a sprinter's stance, digging hard off his right foot for acceleration, particularly on short patterns. He and Hadl have learned to anticipate each other by now, and their mutual respect has increased. "Lance is the best receiver I ever saw. He makes the clutch catches," says Hadl. "Football," Alworth says, "is recognition, and John can read defenses as well as the coaches can. He spends from four to six hours a day looking at films. He complains about it some. All of us complain about having so many meetings. We meet more than any team I ever heard of, but when the game comes every man knows what he is supposed to do, even though we don't always play like it. Sid Gillman is a fantastic person, with a brilliant mind, and he has taught John a lot. Early this year in a scrimmage, John walked up to the line, spotted a blitz that the defense wasn't supposed to have yet, and called time-out. Last year we'd have run the play anyway and wondered what went wrong. Sid can make anybody a great football player who listens to him. The fans and writers were asking if we could win this year with Hadl, now that Rote had retired. Hadl put us into the championship game last year, which people don't seem to realize. But the fans act like they're trying to boo him out of here the way they booed Jack Kemp out of here. I don't know what they expect."
Hadl calls a San Diego running game which moves well with Lowe, the league's leading rusher, rookie Gene Foster and Lincoln. One factor in its success is that Alworth blocks, a rarity for a spread receiver. "Art Powell [the Oakland end] keeps telling me wide receivers shouldn't have to block," Lance says, "but he doesn't have Sid Gillman harping at him about it. If I block, it helps the passing game and the running game and it helps me. When I go up to a defensive back he can't be sure whether I'm there to block him or catch a pass. All I have to do is get in somebody's way and any of our backs can go the distance. The backs help me by blocking on blitzes to give me more time to get open, so why shouldn't I help them? I've scored two or three times catching the option pass when the defense thought I was blocking and hurried up to meet the run. Besides, blocking feels good."
It was an Alworth block, stubbornly maintained, that freed Lincoln on a 66-yard run with a flare pass in the second game against Buffalo this season, and several times in that same game Lance knocked the safety man off his feet on sweeps. The memory of those blocks must frighten Gillman as he sits meditating at his mountaintop retreat, with orange trees, a swimming pool and a view of the ocean and Tijuana, but nevertheless he insists that Alworth hit the blocking dummies in practice and not spare himself heavy duty in the game. At 6 feet and 185 pounds, Lance is large enough to damage a corner back with a block and clever enough to slip past the man with a touchdown pass. Against Kansas City this year, the Chargers had fourth and one at their own 49 and Hadl threw a quick out-pattern to Alworth. The play was designed for short yardage, but Lance spun by Fred Williamson and went 51 yards to score. "Only Alworth could have made that play to beat as good a corner man as Williamson," says Gillman.
In his double role as coach and general manager, Gillman has had many contract disputes and this summer several Chargers were near mutiny. The San Diego defense is at the top of the AFL in statistics, and the anchor of that defense, 300-pound Tackle Ernie Ladd, is playing out his option, as is Defensive End Earl Faison. Ladd probably will sign a new contract, but Faison maintains he will leave the club. Gillman is as dedicated to winning as he is to bow ties, but he is not an easy man to deal with. ("In Sid Gillman, the milk of human kindness has turned to yogurt," says Sonny Werblin of the New York Jets.) Alworth also was among the late signers, but not because of Gillman. Lance had been advised that the two pro leagues were about to merge and that he should wait and see what happened. There was no merger and Alworth signed, but he still has a yearning to play against NFL defenses—although with an AFL team.
"Any athlete with pride wants to compete against the ones who are supposed to be the best," Lance says. "The fact is, I don't believe the NFL is the best. I watch plenty of NFL films. Their defenses are not as complex and advanced as ours have become in the AFL. Most NFL teams use the old 4-3 defense, with red dogs coming off of it. Hardly anybody ever does anything that simple in our league anymore, which is why our games don't have as much scoring as theirs. And their corner backs are just people. The only edge the NFL has over us is three experienced quarterbacks—Johnny Unitas, Frank Ryan and Sonny Jurgensen. Our top four teams and the NFL's top seven are not far apart. I hope we get to play against them someday and shut them up."
It is a shame that Alworth's someday seems so far off. A look at him bounding with his long, high stride through an NFL secondary would pleasure the country as much as the fact would satisfy Alworth. And it will take that sort of competition to get Bambi recognized for what he is—the finest spread receiver in the game—before the hunters finally catch him.