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LIFE IN A JOCK HOUSE

Oct. 28, 1968
Oct. 28, 1968

Table of Contents
Oct. 28, 1968

Yesterday
Green Bay
College Football
Motor Sports
Horse Shows
Boxing
Jock House
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Departments

LIFE IN A JOCK HOUSE

The author, a journalistic interloper wearing a buckle in the back, was a quiet member of the raucous USC fraternity that was packed with everybody's All-Americas

On almost every college campus—whether far above Cayuga's waters or, as in the case of the University of Southern California, under a smog bank in downtown Los Angeles—there is at least one club, dormitory or fraternity loaded to the attic with athletes. The Bear Bryant Hilton at Alabama. Cannon Club at Princeton. Phi Delt at Penn State. Some point it out to visitors as a shrine ("And over there, that's where O. J. Hanratty lives"). Others sneer at it as "the place where we keep the animals." But everywhere, admired or maligned, this institution is always known as The Jock House.

This is an article from the Oct. 28, 1968 issue Original Layout

However many genuine, ex-, would-be or pseudo athletes there are, a few nonjocks are invariably allowed to join, too. After all, somebody has to organize the winter formal.

So it happened in the late 1950s that I was a member of one of the nation's most musclebound fraternities, the Kappa Alpha chapter at USC. KA had Jon Arnett, an All-America halfback and broad jumper; Al Geiberger, the Trojans' first All-America golfer; Marlin and Mike McKeever, twin All-America linemen and shotputters; Chuck Bittick, American record holder in the backstroke; and Ernie Zampese, whose 38-yard touchdown run clinched the 1956 victory over Notre Dame. Plus lots of others. There were schools that would have traded their entire athletic departments just for the jocks in our house.

KA, like most of the other fraternities, was located a little north of the campus on West 28th St. It was a stretch of two long blocks, lined by palm trees and named, in a fit of originality, Fraternity Row. Ours was a new building, but most of the houses were the tottering remains of old mansions, unloaded by the original wealthy owners when the neighborhood started to crumble. Next door to us, in probably the worst dump on the whole block, were the Alpha Rho Chis, who were all architecture majors.

There were sororities, too, on the Row, mixed in haphazardly among the fraternities, and just crammed full of good-looking coeds with Pasadena-San Marino debutante backgrounds and rich daddies. It was a very convenient place for an athlete to meet an heiress at least and maybe even marry one—like Ron Miller, a football player on the 1951-1953 teams, who wed Walt Disney's daughter, Diane. At Disney's death a tally showed the Millers owned 43,977 shares of Walt Disney Productions. Diane was a Theta, where traditionally the most glamorous and probably the richest girls pledged.

Then we were all young and snappy. What a feeling it was just to walk back from morning classes to lunch on the Row, dressed in the Joe College uniform of the day: polished-cotton khaki pants with a buckle in the back, vertical-striped Ivy League sports shirt and loafers. Or, for variety, Bermuda shorts with low-cut tennies and sweat socks. Or if you were really cool, a tattered maroon PROPERTY OF USC ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT sweat shirt, much preferred over lettermen's sweaters. If you weren't a jock and wanted to live dangerously, you could maybe sneak a property shirt from the bottom drawer of our 6'3", 231-pound tackle, George Belotti, who in turn had swiped it from the equipment cage in the gym.

We would swagger up the Row and ogle the phalanxes of tender sorority girls pedaling by on their bikes, holding onto the handlebars with one hand and trying to keep their skirts down with the other. Then we would arrive at the big modernistic facade with the bronze Greek letters KA in one corner and turn in there, the house of Charley Paddock, the fastest man alive of the 1920s, and Olympic sprinter Frank Wykoff of the '30s and the hulking Pucci brothers, one of whom went on to fame and glory as Frank Sinatra's bodyguard.

Not that everything or everyone was glorious. There were 50 or 60 guys living in the house with only one subscription to the Los Angeles Times. Talk about hardship! I remember that if I decided to skip my 8 o'clock class and sleep in, by the time I got downstairs for breakfast there would be at least five of the brothers huddled over the sports section, studying it intently as if—by amazing luck—they had got hold of an advance copy of the final exam in Business Ethics. By the time a late riser got it, there were maple-syrup stains on the pictures and dried egg yolk on the baseball standings.

Also there was the danger of getting an inferiority complex. On one wall of our chapter room we had a gallery of varsity letter-winners, everything from an Olympic high jumper to a third-string fullback, going back to the days when USC was a lonely outpost in the middle of the mustard fields. Student-body presidents and Phi Beta Kappas passed on and were forgotten, but if a 98-pound weakling earned a letter holding extra points, up on the wall went his photograph, enshrined for posterity.

We had in the house a short pudgy Irishman named Harrigan who dreamed of being on that wall. He was nominally on the water polo team, and he probably was a fair swimmer, but compared to most of his teammates he couldn't swim his way out of the bathtub. He was also losing his reddish-blond hair and had a secret potion to rub into his scalp two or three times a day. There was a daily conspiracy to discover where he had the bottle hidden and switch liquids. No telling how much vodka, sea water, vinegar and gin Harrigan applied in an attempt to stave off baldness.

Letterless in two years of trying, he decided not to go out as a senior and instead use those sunny afternoons to good advantage, hustling pretty Pi Phis or hoisting beers at Stubby's Trojan Barrel. But the rest of the team wouldn't hear of it. He was amiable company and comic relief from the drudgery of practice. If no ball was available they could always throw Harrigan into the net. So they convinced him that he should join the team again. It is doubtful if he got even his toes wet in more than two matches, but at the end of the season Coach Kohlhase, who just happened to be a KA alumnus, gave him a letter, a reward for three years of swallowing chlorine.

The next morning Harrigan quietly installed a photograph of himself, smiling radiantly, on the wall of fame. I suppose it is still there, a few feet along the top row from Charley Paddock.

Very little else could be guaranteed to remain where you left it. For instance, there was the time two roommates came home from the library late at night to find their quarters stripped bare, right down to the carpet tacks and Kingston Trio record albums. After a long search they found their furniture, neatly and accurately arranged on the roof. Another brother made the mistake of leaving his broken-down jalopy under the back stairs. Somebody dropped a 16-pound shot on it from the top of the stairs and it made such a satisfying loud clunk that everybody else had to have a go at it, completely wrecking the car.

Since the house was never locked, there was trouble from outsiders, too. When there was a Saturday afternoon football game over at the Coliseum the entire Row was deserted, a ghost street. One Saturday a group of our guys came back from the stadium early and found two strangers casually loading our living-room and dining-room furniture into a van. The thieves were summarily thrashed and turned over to the police. We had a Ping-Pong table in the chapter room that was stolen on a weekend, although a few of us suspected it was an inside job and that it had been taken out and burned by some of our own who objected to the noisy 2 a.m. challenge matches.

The most prized booty ever brought into the house—and a souvenir that none of us would have dared destroy—was obtained by a valued brother named The Baron (the nickname has been changed to protect the guilty). The item was the spoils of a panty raid, one of many such forays that The Baron led down the Row. It was a brassiere, which, of course, was the champion souvenir of any raid.

This, however, was not just a brassiere, but one of such generous proportions that it left very little (though, at the same time, quite a lot) to the imagination. The Baron mused for a while, and then decided that it would only be honorable to stage a Cinderella contest to uncover the rightful owner. Sadly, the sorority involved would not cooperate in the proposed venture.

The Baron could be counted on to provide some kind of entertainment most of the time. He was a second-string football player and, until he gave up baseball to concentrate on playing the horses, The Baron had been a fairly good prospect in that sport, too. He was an outfielder and he could hit, run, throw, do anything—except stay in training. Each time he tossed the ball back to the infield it would have nicotine stains on it.

Was there a Thank-God-It's-Friday beer bust nearby? The Baron would be there, paper cup in hand. A tubful of rum punch at a luau? The Baron would sit in it. The Baron had amazing recuperative powers, though. No matter how many beers or Singapore slings he consumed or what hour he got in, he would wrap up in his blanket (he never heard of sheets), fall onto his bare mattress, catch a few winks and be up before everyone else. Quite often a group of us would be hurrying over to school for 8 o'clock classes and would see him coming the other way from the drugstore with a Coke and the Daily Racing Form.

At lunch he would plunge his hand into the dining-room aquarium, pull out our pet goldfish and march indignantly up to the pledge responsible for its care. Shaking the poor fish under the pledge's nose, he would launch into a long and complex lecture on its anatomy, feeding, mating habits, etc.

Nights at the KA house were seldom dull. My roommate and I used to try to study at the big table in the chapter room, with all those lettermen beaming down at us from the wall, and only once in a while would the conditions be favorable for trying to memorize who said what to whom in the third act of King Richard II. Certainly this did not come easy when Harry Rothschild had all his tools out trying to figure a way to beat the pay telephone. Or when a group was loosening all the screws in George Baffa's metal bed so that when he got home late from parking cars at the Beverly Hilton the whole thing would collapse the second he jumped in. Or when somebody was trying to organize a taquito run to Olvera Street.

A taquito is a sliver of beef wrapped in a tortilla, fried and dipped in an avocado-chili sauce. Two for a quarter plus whatever your favorite heartburn remedy costs. We knew about "Burn, baby, burn!" years before the Watts riots.

Two of the biggest KA gluttons were a couple of junior varsity football players named Fischel and Brenner, and one warm California night they skipped dinner at the house and staged a taquito-eating contest. They started like sprinters, putting away eight apiece with no trouble at all, then they relaxed slightly on their stools and settled into a steady routine of chewing, swallowing and putting out the flames with Pepsi-Cola. Fischel slowed up noticeably at 15 and by the time they reached the 20 plateau he was a bit pale. At 22 he vowed to have Mexico banned from the United Nations and after 23 he gave up and threw in the napkin.

Brenner not only consumed his 24th and 25th taquitos but, as the coup de gr√¢ce, he finished up by drinking an entire cup of sauce! His eyeballs were chili-pepper green the next morning, but he lived. Never did make varsity, though.

There was always some sort of contest going on. A pledge named John McLane, a varsity outfielder who later played minor league ball, once bragged to Al Geiberger that he had shot an 81 on his first round of golf. Despite McLane's proved prowess as a javelin thrower, high school quarterback and baseball whiz, Al didn't believe him and the ensuing discussion led to a putting contest on the living-room rug with a water glass serving as the cup. McLane won, but Al—now one of the leading money winners on the pro golf tour—still didn't believe him, so they went out to a driving range. McLane hit a nine-iron shot 175 yards. Al believed.

Geiberger was so skinny, 6'2½" and less than 160 pounds, that he was nicknamed The Human One-Iron. Practically everybody in the house had a nickname—Mandrake, The Count, The Great White Whale, Tweetybird—and Geiberger didn't resent his at all. He was the most shy, gentle, amiable guy who ever ambled around 18 holes. It was a wonder to me that Geiberger ever made it through Hell Week, the last and worst ordeal of pledging, a nasty five or six days and nights of having to eat onions like apples and undergoing 3 a.m. exercise sessions conducted by USC's most muscular man, Varsity Fullback Gordon Duvall. Today Al has peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to bolster him during a long round; then he had to keep going on onion power. But he made it. And while he was the ace of the USC golf team he won 34 out of 36 matches.

Other jocks didn't pay too much attention to the golfing contingent until they got to be seniors, When they realized they would probably soon have to give up their collegiate sports. Al taught 20 or 30 of his fraternity brothers to play the game, including the McKeever twins.

Several years later, in 1966, when Al won his first major tournament, the PGA at Akron, he went on television right after his victory, and declared: "I won this one for my good friend, Mike McKeever. I wish he could have been here to see it."

Mike was in a coma then from an automobile accident, and later he died.

At SC, where they were both All-Americas, the McKeevers were usually together. After graduation they even had a double-wedding ceremony. I always thought that the McKeevers were actually fraternal twins rather than identical, but it really didn't matter because only their very closest friends could tell who was who. They even had nearly identical scars on their chins, so the easy way out was to call them both McKeever and forget the first names. When Mike started dating a pretty blonde Kappa, Judy Primrose, later to be Homecoming Queen and still later to be his wife, she was puzzled at his behavior. She passed him on campus several times and he ignored her, so she resolved not to go out with him again. Of course, it was Marlin who was ignoring her, not poor Mike.

The twins were intensely competitive, even against each other, but when either was threatened by anything, they stood together, tough, defiant and unyielding. I remember joining with a friend to challenge them in a bar shuffleboard game at the Trojan Barrel. Even in such an insignificant thing as that they ceased all friendly kidding and went at the game with a glint of fierce combat in their eyes. We did not win a game against them; in fact, we didn't even come close. And they did not smile when we paid off.

Having twin Irish linemen, who enrolled only after a rugged recruiting battle with Notre Dame and other football powers, was a publicity bonanza for USC. Marlin was an end and Mike a guard, so the coach gave them almost matching numbers, 86 and 68. Photographers, columnists and sports cartoonists couldn't get enough of them. They got bit parts in movies. They earned good grades in finance and talked of opening a brokerage, McKeever & McKeever, someday. But they didn't get extensive press coverage and make All-America teams just because they were twins. They were good.

Mike was a bit faster and got slightly better grades. On the field he ranked higher in the defensive statistics (tackles, assisted tackles, etc.), but that was probably because he was in the center of the action while Marlin was out at end, where the other team could more easily avoid him. As juniors they were named Associated Press co-linemen of the week for their play against Baylor. A lot of people thought they were surely the best twin football players ever and maybe the best twin athletes ever.

Although I think they were about equal in ability, Mike certainly managed to be more controversial. He was thrown out of the 1959 Stanford game for unnecessary roughness, which didn't cause much uproar, but after the Cal game at Berkeley the Cal coach accused him of elbowing and piling on Halfback Steve Bates, who suffered a crushed cheekbone, loosened teeth and a broken nose. The ensuing imbroglio was about the most bitter in the long history of San Francisco-L.A. sports ruckuses. Mike denied any premeditated mayhem and his coach backed him up, but USC's president viewed the game films and issued an apology to Cal. Mike got quite a going-over in the press, especially in the Bay Area papers.

In the KA house, of course, he was considered completely innocent. In fact, to this day there are fraternity brothers of mine who won't subscribe to certain national magazines because they think those publications were unfair to Mike. Support went beyond the membership, too. The cook's husband came to pick her up one day looking as if he had run into a locomotive head on. He'd been in a barroom brawl the night before, defending the good name of Mike McKeever.

There were some distinct practical advantages to having plenty of jocks around the house, apart from the value they had in attracting attention and new members and girls. When a UCLA fraternity swiped our charter, the McKeever twins and some other players went across town to retrieve it. They met no opposition. When some idiot was throwing tomatoes at the house, making nice big red splats on the clean white facade, big George Belotti, who was later a center for the Houston Oilers, caught him and dumped the whole crate of tomatoes over his head.

The jocks also helped us to excel in interfraternity competition. They were not allowed to compete against "amateurs" in their specialties, but most of them were terrific in at least one other sport. Arnett won the Row golf tournament. Sam Tsagalakis, a fine placekicker, was good in handball. Fullback Gordy Duvall annually won the interfraternity 100-yard dash and shotput.

Of course, USC was too big a place with too many intercollegiate teams for us to have a corner on the jock market. The great Olympic shotputter Parry O'Brien had been a Phi Psi. The legend was that he was such a fanatic about his specialty that he would get up in the middle of the night and practice by moonlight out in the alley behind the house. A fellow I knew inherited O'Brien's room and there was a neat round hole in one wall where Parry had tossed a shot right through it. Apparently there had been no moon that night.

The Sigma Chis not only had the most beautiful fraternity song, The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, but also the claim that their chapter alone had had more All-Americas (Morley Drury, Jesse Hibbs and so on) than UCLA. We replied, as if it were a vital matter, that they were living in the past and now merely had the front-line animals while KAs were making the long, thrilling TD runs, e.g., Gordy Duvall's 77-yard sprint against Washington and Ernie Merk's 93-yard punt return against Minnesota. And innumerable broken-field classics by Jon Arnett.

Among the multitude of all-world jocks on campus, Arnett was king. First, of course, he had that streamlined, vaguely French movie-star name that just could not belong to any anonymous left tackle. A guy named Jon Arnett had to be a glamorous runner, and he was. He was built low to the ground and could hold the road beautifully while turning corners at top speed, like a sports car. So, naturally he was nicknamed Jaguar Jon, or just Jaguar to the brothers. He had been a good high school tumbler, so if a tackier hit him and didn't grab hold instantly, Jon would do a nifty back-flip with a half-twist, land on his feet like the other kind of jaguar and zip into the end zone. He made so many dazzling runs in one game and scored so often that a brand-new father watching on television vowed. "If he scores one more time, I'm going to name my son after him." Sure enough Jaguar scored again, and thus became the namesake of Jon Arnett Nakamura.

In 1965 Mike Garrett became the first Trojan to win the Heisman Trophy and he certainly deserved it. But Jaguar should have won it almost a decade before. He did not because several Pacific Coast Conference schools were caught making illegal payments to their prize recruits, and the athletes got punished along with the institutions. Arnett, with many others, was restricted to five games in his last season. He chose to play the first through the fifth games, and in that period led the nation with a 125-yards-per-game rushing average, completed eight of 11 passes, kicked seven extra points and, playing in an era of one-platoon football, also led the team in making tackles.

Whatever USC was paying out under the table, it couldn't have been too much. Jaguar drove around in a rundown '49 Chevy that didn't even match my ugly green '54 Nash. He had to borrow the $400 to pay for the car and it was in the shop half the time. The only way he and Halfback Ernie Zampese could pay their debts was to win at the almost nightly poker or bridge games or take bets out to Santa Anita racetrack and then not place them, gambling that the horses would lose.

In his senior year every pro football team was in touch with Arnett, the Herald-Express ran his ghost-written life story, he was managing the golf team, and thus getting to play L.A.'s best courses for free, and the telephone at the KA house rang every other minute for Jon. The bulletin board by the phone seemed to be his private message center: "Jaguar, call the Packers" or "Jaguar, call the Eagles collect whatever time you get in—urgent!" Eventually someone put up a sign by the phone: "Arnett, call everybody!"

The Rams made him their No. 1 draft choice and gave him a big bonus, so naturally one of the first things he did was to get himself a reliable set of wheels. Dressed in Levi's, faded sports shirt and loafers, he went out to a well-appointed Oldsmobile dealership on Wilshire Boulevard in the high-rent district. The salesman ignored him for a long time, taking care of all the other customers first. When the man finally deigned to speak to him, Jon pointed out a handsome gray Olds and promptly peeled off $4,000 in bonus cash to pay for it.

It would not have done to let him get high-hat, though. He came back from class one day to find a sign, "The Jon Arnett Museum," tacked on his door. His roomie, a nonjock future dentist, had ransacked his drawers, his closets and even the trunk of his car, and dumped his most-valuable-player trophies, his All-This-and-That plaques, his fan mail, his golf clubs, his handball gloves, etc. all over the room—it looked as if a tornado had struck a sporting goods store.

Despite the horseplay, we fancied ourselves as gentlemen—at least when ladies came visiting. The motto on the KA escutcheon was Dieu et Les Dames, meaning that God and women should be respected and honored. Once each month there was a Mother's Day, when the mothers would come to the campus, eat with their unusually well-mannered sons at the fraternity and sip tea at a subsequent get-together in the living room.

Late one morning on a Mother's Day, Arnett, as was his practically daily habit, strolled down the second-floor hallway to the shower room, turned on all the hot-water faucets to make it like a Turkish bath and took a short nap on the tile floor. Refreshed, clean and naked as a newborn fawn, he was halfway back to his room when suddenly there appeared two ladies taking an impromptu tour.

"Hi, Mothers," said Jaguar without breaking his stride, "what's for lunch?"

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATIONHe ate 25 hot taquitos and his eyeballs turned chili-pepper green.