One of the youngest unestablished impermanent floating all-star games in football finally found a home last week in Atlanta, and it seemed at the same time that the new Atlanta Falcons of the National Merged American Solidarity Football Happiness League found a first-rate quarterback as well.
The quarterback is Randy Johnson, a thin, quick-armed Texan who makes a habit of scattering passing records all over the South in all-star games. On Saturday night in Atlanta's stadium-in-the-round Johnson stuck passes into a variety of jerseys and led his West teammates to an easy 24-7 victory over the best from the East.
Though he was the only small-college player in the game—he played for Texas A&I on the remote coastal prairie of his home state—Johnson looked as if he deserved as high a salary as any of the young millionaires on the field. He completed 24 passes for a Coaches All-America Game record, erasing a mark set by George Mira, and accounted for 237 yards and two touchdowns. Throwing to everybody but the West head coach (UCLA's Tommy Prothro) and even running for one touchdown, Randy kept the East constantly off-balance, moving his team almost at will. When the game was over he was voted the outstanding player by nearly as large a majority as Roosevelt had over Landon. It was the third time Johnson had won such an award. He was also the most valuable player in both the Blue-Gray and Senior Bowl attractions in December and January. And now, before Atlanta Coach Norb Hecker can get him to camp in North Carolina, Johnson must take his arm to Chicago for the College All Star Game in August to see if he can make it a grand slam.
"This is really something," said Johnson after he had destroyed the East. "The crowds keep getting bigger. I played before 15,000 at Texas A&I. Then it rose to 20,000 in the Blue-Gray and 35,000 in the Senior Bowl. This was almost 40,000. I just hope everybody can keep catching the ball."
They couldn't very well miss in Atlanta, since he kept putting it under their chins. People like Arkansas' Bobby Crockett and Jim Lindsey, Nebraska's Freeman White and Tony Jeter and Texas Tech's Donny Anderson had only to turn around all night long and there was the football.
"The East cooperated pretty good," Randy said in his soft, polite voice. "They rushed their ends and allowed me to do what I like best—drop straight back. We'd planned all week to do a lot of roll-out stuff, but I didn't have to."
He said, "I asked Mr. Prothro if I could adjust right at first, and our coaches [Arkansas' Frank Broyles and Nebraska's Bob Devaney were the assistants] smiled and said, 'Have fun.' "
When Prothro took his first look at the West stars, who as a whole were higher-priced rookies than those from the East—the last batch of big-money rookies, it should be added—he said, half seriously, "With boys like these, we ought to win by 25 points." He didn't miss by much.
At workouts it was difficult to tell what anyone was worth. The weather was hot and sticky in Atlanta, and the practices were brief. The players worked in shorts and mesh shirts, took frequent breaks to sample the wine of the South, Coca-Cola, and to chat with onlookers. Donny Anderson, the colorful and sometimes controversial $600,000 Green Bay rookie from Texas Tech, won the award for chatting, mostly with young ladies.
"Look at that," said a pro scout one afternoon at Georgia Tech's Rose Bowl field, where the squads exercised. "I've heard so much about that kid, but he just slouches around."
"Wait until they tee it up," said Jack Faulkner of the Los Angeles Rams. "He'll show you something."
Anderson did exactly that. He scored one touchdown, on a flat pass from his roommate, ran as tough as Paul Hornung, the veteran Packer whom he may well beat out of a job, punted beautifully (once dead on the East one-yard line) and regaled the press with statements like, "I date every night I can," and "Hornung and I both like light-colored suits—no greens or browns."
Johnson had some other help, especially from his equally high-priced defense. Texas' Tommy Nobis personally stopped three East drives, was everywhere, once halting an East drive down close and another time stopping an East gamble for a first down, thus setting up the first West score.
East was leading 7-0, it was fourth and an inch on the East's own 34 when Coach Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State—who also lost to Prothro in the Rose Bowl—ordered the gamble. The ball was given to $300,000 Jim Grabowski, but he met $600,000 Nobis at the hole. The reason for the difference in money was obvious. Nobis crunched Grabowski backward two yards. When Nobis and a couple of his best defensive helpers, Minnesota's Gale Gillingham and USC's Jeff Smith, were done for the evening, the East had a minus-32 yards rushing.
The Coaches' game was a financial success even before the Falcon's top draft choices, Johnson and Nobis, took the field. Atlanta is a college-football city, and the advance sale guaranteed nearly 40,000. During its five years in Buffalo, a pro city, the game had floundered, never attracting more than 25,000 people, most of whom had to ask where Georgia Tech was. So the coaches moved the game and increased their usual $20,000 profit to $100,000.
"The game's a religion down here," said an eastern coach, observing the crowd. "Here it is July and almost 90°, and look at those people."
In the stands the Falcon brass was beaming about Randy Johnson.
"For throwing the ball," said Atlanta End Coach Tom Fears, "Randy is better than any rookie Eve ever seen. And that includes Norm Van Brocklin."
"He's the best rookie prospect Eve seen," said Bud Erickson, the Falcons' general manager.
"Johnson and Nobis," smiled Falcon Owner Rankin Smith. "I certainly am pleased."
He certainly should have been. Another football season had begun, and the Falcons already were heroes.