For The Great One, as he is modestly referred to on the shores of the Pacific, events were not exactly shaping up to the name, not since UCLA lost the national championship by a point to USC last November. There followed losing efforts in the East-West and Hula Bowl games and the embarrassment of the pro football draft. Gary Beban, all-everything for three outrageously wonderful college years, was drafted 30th. Worse, the Los Angeles Rams didn't even want him when they discovered that Beban liked money almost as much as they did. They traded him to Washington. Beban was fast gaining a reputation as a loser.
"It's just a lot better when you win," he said Friday before the Coaches All-America Game in Atlanta. "Even though losing an all-star game isn't that earth-shaking, it hurts your pride. The draft—and what followed—well, they weren't pleasant experiences either."
The Coaches Game itself, he realized, could become a trap. For one thing, quarterbacking the East squad was Greg Landry, and if you have never heard of him, join the army. To almost everybody, outside of the pro scouts and the people he played against in the Yankee Conference, Landry of the University of Massachusetts was an all-nothing. But a glance at his statistics makes you wonder why. During his college playing days, he averaged over 1,000 yards a year passing and 500 rushing. Tall, dark and long-armed, he began to excite rave reports from almost all the pro scouts. "Outstanding prospect," one wrote. "Good size [6'3", 200 pounds], will get bigger, fine leader and competitor, strong arm, shouldn't run so much but a solid pocket passer." The Detroit Lions drafted Landry in the first round and signed him to a three-year, no-cut contract worth $200,000. The Montreal Alouettes had offered him even more. Why, if he was that good, had he sequestered himself at Massachusetts?
"I'd narrowed it down to Michigan State, Pitt and Massachusetts," Landry said. "At the time I didn't know I could play pro football, so I figured I'd stay close to home in New England. If I got known well enough, that might help me get a better job."
July 7, 1968
Massachusetts is not that small a school (13,375 students), and recently it has been building itself into something of a regional football powerhouse. Coach Vic Fusia, no fool, erected a pro-type attack around Landry, and now Landry must be considered one of the more polished prospects to reach the pros in the last few years. "The thing I liked about him," said Fusia, "was his consistency on second and long, third and short and third and long yardage. You know, he got the first down 76% of the time in those situations?"
If Landry wasn't going to be competition enough for Beban, then surely Larry Csonka, the 235-pound line blaster from Syracuse, who was appreciated fully last season, would be. Csonka is only the latest in a line of remarkable runners to come from Syracuse. In 14 years Jimmy Brown, Ernie Davis, Jim Nance, Floyd Little and Csonka piled up 11,720 yards on the ground, and Csonka led them all. He will fit right in with the pros when he has learned his plays at Miami. "He's deceiving," said one scout in Atlanta. "He doesn't look like he has much finesse, but few tacklers get a clean shot at him. Besides sheer power, he's got some tricky moves."
Gary Beban made some tricky moves himself on the way to Atlanta. He finished final exams at UCLA on June 13, was married June 14, took a brief honeymoon and signed with the Redskins in the same week and then rode into Atlanta on the wave of publicity that always accompanies the Heisman Trophy winner. But he had something to say about all that. "I really think the Heisman is getting to be a career award more than a yearly thing," he said. "I'm grateful for the award, but I don't think anyone could have had a bigger year than O.J. [Simpson of USC] did last year."
But if Beban wowed 'em with his graciousness—as he always does—he stunned Atlanta sportswriters with his gracelessness in practice. The first pass he threw wobbled like a Wiffle Ball in a fraternity pick-up game. Beban threw again. More wobbles. Once more—same thing. By the end of the week it was headlines that Heisman Winner Beban hadn't thrown two spirals. "Look," he said, "they all count the same. I threw a lot of wobblers for touchdowns at UCLA and they all counted six points."
And so they did last weekend in Atlanta. Looking very much like his old, smashing self, Beban brought the West from behind to win the game 34-20. He threw 20 passes, completed 15 of them for 222 yards and two touchdowns, proving he hadn't lost the old college touch. He made the West attack an exciting thing to watch. It had to be that good, and so did Beban. For the longest while it looked as though the East offensive—Landry and Csonka, Csonka and Landry—Would be too much for the West. They put on an extraordinary show, with Csonka being voted the game's Most Valuable Player. It was, in fact, a whale of a game. The only thing lacking was a crowd. On a pleasant evening in supposedly football-happy Atlanta, only 21,000 showed up, leaving an ominous 37,000 pale-blue seats embarrassingly exposed to the players.
Four minutes into the game Jimmy Smith, a speedy defensive back from Oregon, took a punt and sailed 77 yards for a touchdown. But Landry came back to move the East 54 yards in 13 plays to tie the score, completing three straight passes for 31 yards along the way. Minutes later Smith—flushed with his first return—tried to grab another punt on the run and fumbled on his 11, setting up an East score that made it 14-7.
The East had dominated the first quarter and five minutes of the second period, running, in that time, 32 plays to the West's three. But then Beban stepped in and swept his team 69 yards to score, completing seven of 10 passes—all spirals. The extra point was blocked, and at the half the East led 14-13.
Beban came back directly in the second half with a 29-yard strike to Tulsa's Rick Eber to put the West in front 20-14. Landry answered this in the fourth quarter with Csonka and six straight completions. Csonka got his second touchdown on a one-yard plunge.
Six minutes remained in the game, just time to collect the MVP ballots in the press box. Csonka got all the votes but two, and at the time he deserved them. But then Beban was passing again. Another spiral, 40 yards to Phil Odle of Brigham Young. Then Beban went back, eluded a stern rush, and offered a 44-yard wobbler to Arizona State's Ken Dyer at the goal. Dyer, who had spent the week practicing at defensive halfback, outfought a pair of defenders for the ball and the West had won.
"I'd planned it that way," Beban said. "If it hadn't been a wobbly pass Kenny couldn't have caught up with it."
Few players with the skill of a Gary Beban have been accepted by the pros—and their fans—with as much skepticism. Many still insist that Beban is too small (6'1", 195) to make it in the NFL. Dee Andros of Oregon State, coach of the West, is in violent disagreement. "I don't care what they say," he said about Beban. "He proved he was one of the best quarterbacks in the history of college football. He's a winner. He's a great athlete. If he doesn't make it as a quarterback I guarantee he'll make it at halfback throwing the pass-run option. That's still the best play in football. Beban's as good an athlete as Paul Hornung or Tom Matte, if not a better one."
Beban doesn't seem to doubt his ability as a quarterback, college or pro. While finishing up at UCLA, in fact, he wrote to several of the teams he thought might draft him, advising against any such precipitous action. His reasons were good enough—young, smart incumbents were on hand, the location wasn't exactly California, where he preferred to play, the coaching philosophy differed from his own. However, on the day of the pro draft, Beban had begun to wonder if he had done the right thing.
"I turned the TV on," he said, "figuring news of the draft would be coming in soon. But it didn't, and I fell asleep. Late in the afternoon my girl [Kathy Hanson, Beban's wife now] came over, woke me up and told me I hadn't been drafted yet. That didn't sound too good, so I turned on the radio and just then they were announcing that the Rams had taken me.
"I admit the pitch my agent, Arthur Morse, and I made to the Rams was pretty aggressive. They sure didn't seem impressed. In fact, they acted as if they couldn't have cared less. A month went by. I started sweating it out, but Mr. Morse told me not to worry and to sit tight. Then, on May 1, the Rams made the Plum deal [Detroit sent Quarterback Milt Plum, Running Back Tommy Watkins and Flanker Pat Studstill to Los Angeles for Bill Munson, a promising 26-year-old quarterback who had warmed the bench for the Rams and played out his option]. The handwriting was on the wall. The Rams weren't about to carry three quarterbacks, and I'm just tickled that the deal was made with a team like Washington."
With the Redskins, says Beban, he wants to become a sponge for the next six months. It is a good idea. Otto Graham, a former All-Pro quarterback, is coach of the team. Sonny Jurgensen, one of the best quarterbacks in the business but aging fast at 33, works for Graham, as does Jim Ninowski, capable but a veteran too. The three should even be able to take a little of the wobble out of Beban's passes.
"Hey, Gary," yelled a West teammate after the Atlanta game. "Why you talkin' to those sportswriters? They only watch spirals."
"Yeah, Beeb," said another. "You sure looked horrible in practice tonight."
So The Great One shook hands all around and stepped outside to meet Kathy. Next was the All-Star Game in Chicago—but Gary Beban's mind was on Washington.