If there is one thing you must never do over an August weekend in Los Angeles, it is hang around town in that 90° smog. The alternatives are manifold. You can pile into the Rolls or the Ma-ser, strap a board on the top, if that's your bag, and head for the beach. Tijuana for the bullfights is O.K. Or Catalina on the family yacht. So are the mountains, if you have one of those $250,000 second homes at Lake Arrowhead. But get out of town.
Last weekend was no exception, save for one little Friday night surprise that sneaked up on a lot of wives and girl friends who should have been reading the sports pages instead of just sitting there hunched over Dear Abby or watching the tears roll down Pat Nixon's cheeks while Dick was accepting the Republican nomination. Football had arrived. With the skis only just stashed away in the garage and Mom still wondering how to keep the kids away from the hippies on the Sunset Strip through the long summer vacation, here was the old man making excuses about having to go down to the Coliseum on Friday night to watch the Rams play the Cleveland Browns. "But it's barely August yet," was the overworked complaint of the week.
This has become an annual problem in Los Angeles. The L.A. Times has been staging its midsummer pro-football preview for charity since the days when football players thought face masks were something you wore on Halloween. In the first one 23 years ago the Rams had just moved west from Cleveland, Bob Waterfield was the first-string quarterback, Harry Truman was getting on-the-job training in the White House and Bob deLauer, an old USC center who now runs a beauty salon for poodles, kicked a 45-yard field goal to beat the Redskins 16-14. Through fat years and some so lean they would make Jack Spratt look like a defensive tackle, the Rams have been doing this thing against the Redskins and Cowboys; and now the Browns. A total of 1,716,496 have turned up and provided a harvest to the Times charity that comes to slightly more than a dollar a customer.
That, in a word, is not bad for an exhibition game, but last week's confrontation of Rams and Browns was not an exhibition game any longer. It was a "preseason game" by ukase of Commissioner Pete Rozelle. This confidential new edict from the commissioner's office that went out to all the clubs last week is a little like a recent message from Rome about The Pill. There is no way the commissioner can abolish exhibition games in the minds of the populace, but as far as the National Football League is concerned, they are preseason games. Everyone is supposed to pretend that victory is the sole objective. "It is extremely important," says the commissioner's pronunciamento, "that nothing be done or said that downgrades these games in the mind of the public."
August 18, 1968
As far as the Times charity classic is concerned, there was no need to worry. The buildup that preceded the Rams' second victory of the 1968 season—a last-minute 23-21 squeaker over the Browns—almost drove the Republican convention back among the want ads. Most of the headlines involved a couple of Ram holdouts who threatened to spend the coming season in their living rooms watching the action on the tube unless they got a raise. One of these was David (Deacon) Jones, a fully ordained All-Pro defensive end without whom the Rams' celebrated Fearsome Foursome would be little more than a large threesome. The other was Jack Snow, a skinny split end who looks as if he could use the money for groceries but who catches a great many useful passes for the Rams when he is working. In time's nick, as they sometimes say, the two chaps capitulated—at about the same time as Nelson Rockefeller's delegates did, and with equally flamboyant headlines in the Times.
And so, with Friday evening finally at hand, the Times, which is in charge of Southern California in all matters of consequence, ordered the smog to disappear. It did, and for the first time this summer the Visine eyedrops stayed in the medicine chest as something called fresh air blew in off the Pacific. The natives draped their love beads over their Nehru jackets, and altogether 64,020 people, seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, careened over the freeways and into the Coliseum. Across town a dispirited trickle of 15,000 glumly watched the Dodgers, whose season it was supposed to be, lose another game to the Phillies in their mad dash toward 10th place.
At a major event like this, the Coliseum press box is a place where reporters try to squeeze in among the celebrities. Bob Hope was there making a pitch for the USO and wondering why he ever sold his piece of the Rams. Billy Wilder, the director, showed up with his writers. Walter Matthau was so spotlessly turned out you might have thought he was Jack Lemmon. Horace McMahon represented the New York police department. With the blessings of showbiz, the preseason football season was underway right on the heels of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was quickly apparent during the warmup that the crew-cut athlete of yesteryear is as extinct as plus fours. Roman Gabriel, the Ram quarterback, could join the Beatles' act and not look out of place. Dr. Frank Ryan, his counterpart on the Browns, wears a distinguished crop of gray hair as befits the mathematician he is. Tommy Mason, the running back, and Roger Brown, the dainty 300-pound tackle, have grown the outstanding sets of sideburns although the competition was strong. Ernie Green and Leroy Kelly, the running backs who have almost made the Browns forget Jimmy Brown, and Bernie Casey, the Rams' flanker, wore particularly effective models of the new Afro hairstyle. Only the old bald guys like Maxie Baughan, the linebacker, are left out of the hair act, more's the pity.
The game started 15 minutes late, because Times officials took pity on all those folks who were caught in the great freeway off-ramp squeeze. In due course the first-string players were given their customary introductions, but not without causing the Rams their first injury of the game. Fullback Les Josephson put so much zest into his dash onto the greensward that he tore a muscle in his calf and was out for the evening.
For the first 30 minutes of the contest you might have thought the Browns were scrimmaging against a pickup team from Cucamonga. With Kelly and Green carrying, they ran their pitchout sweeps to the right with ridiculous ease, knowing that Deacon Jones, who normally would have been in the way, was kneeling on the sidelines watching the action. When this got tiresome Ryan varied the attack with short passes to the left, in the zone that would have been occupied by Baughan had he, too, not been out with a mending knee.
The second time the Browns got the ball they took it to the Rams' 10-yard line, where they didn't bother to kick a field goal, because it all seemed so easy. Due entirely to the generosity and confidence of the Browns, the first quarter was scoreless, and the first-stringers on both sides retired to the bench to watch the substitutes get their exercise and try to catch some coach's attention.
Nothing changed, though. With Bill Nelsen, newly acquired from the Steelers, running the Browns, the team immediately took the ball to the Rams' five and again disdained the field goal, losing the ball on downs. When they finally did try for a field goal, the Rams blocked it. That seemed to take all the charity out of the Browns. The next time around Nelsen took them in close and scored with a short pass to Eppie Barney, who was standing in the end zone yawning. All this while, the Rams gained a total of 28 yards and no first downs to the Browns' 214 yards and 11. For some reason the score was only 7-0 at the half, but one felt it could just as easily have been 107.
It went along that way through much of the third quarter after Charlie Leigh, a wonderfully promising rookie whom the Browns found playing sandlot ball, had returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a 94-yard touchdown. The first-stringers were back in the game, but it made very little difference until Gabriel finally got his team moving as the third quarter was running out. For the first time they crossed midfield amid much slightly mocking applause from the previously silent stands. Bit by bit, they moved 60 yards downfield with Gabriel lobbing a short touchdown pass to Rookie Jeff Jordan, a big running back from Washington who had been having trouble holding on to the ball.
The Browns casually replied with a touchdown of their own, a 40-yard job from Ryan to Gary Collins, who was loping along by himself whistling a tune and wondering where all his opponents had gone. With less than four minutes left, Gabriel brought the score to 21-14 on a corner pass and a circus catch by Pat Studstill, whom the Rams acquired from the Lions in the trade for Quarterback Bill Munson. At that point, very few people in the Coliseum would have given much for Coach George Allen's record of not having lost an exhibition—oops, preseason—game since 1966.
The minority point of view, however, was expressed by Dick Bass, another of the Ram first-stringers who had to spend the evening on the bench getting well.
"Don't worry," Bass told a fellow standing next to him. "We'll pull it out."
"How do you mean, pull it out?" the man asked.
"Easy," Bass told him. "We'll score again, then we'll block a kick and that will be it."
And that's just the way it happened. After the onside-kick attempt, which the Browns recovered, Eddie Meador stole a Ryan pass and brought it to midfield. Four plays later Mike Dennis, a rookie back, got behind the Brown defenders, and Gabriel tossed a 33-yard pass right into Dennis' belly as he was backing across the goal line. Score tied with a minute and 53 seconds left.
Thanks to a clipping penalty on the kickoff, the Browns had to put the ball in play on their own five. There was really only one thing to do. Eat the ball, settle for a tie and let Pete Rozelle write another memo if he didn't like it. But that simple prescription didn't take into account the sudden entry of an enormous figure in a white jersey carrying No. 75. Deacon Jones, who had been importuning Coach Allen all evening to let him into the game but who had been allowed to play only a few minutes, galloped back into action from the sidelines to the cheers of the crowd.
It was not just the Deacon's presence that lifted the Rams. On the first play he almost caught Leroy Kelly behind the goal line for a safety. Two more running plays accomplished nothing, and there were still 58 seconds left, so Don Cockroft went in to punt from the end zone. Nine Rams poured in on him, and it was Dave Pivec who got his hand on the ball as it left Cockroft's foot. It bounced out of the end zone for a safety, and the Rams retired for the evening feeling invincible. All of them seem confident that 1968 is their year.
"I don't know exactly how to put it," Merlin Olsen said afterward. "We just have this attitude that we're always going to win. It's a kind of spirit that the team has." Merlin, who plays alongside the Deacon in the Fearsome Foursome, is a serious, rather studious little thing of 6'6" and 270 pounds, and maybe he should know.
As for the Deacon, he was still in uniform and surrounded by admirers after most of his teammates had showered, shaved and headed for their first 24-hour liberty since camp convened in mid-July. Towering over his audience like some hyperheroic legend, wearing a smile that refused to come off, the white, white teeth punctuating the black skin, the Deacon was back in the cleated world he owns. He was happy. He was telling how it is. "It's funny," he was saying, still unable to get rid of the big smile, "but I'm not tired at all—after standing there on the sidelines for two hours."
But it was those brief moments he spent in the game that may have given the Rams what they needed for the season they think is theirs.