Late at night Daryle Lamonica sometimes lies in bed with his eyes open and sees himself throwing a little pass to Charlie Smith, who then runs through the snow along the sideline in Shea Stadium for about 25 yards and scores a touchdown against the New York Jets. The next scene that appears in Lamonica's mind is a celebration. The Oakland Raiders have climbed atop benches and steamer trunks in their locker room and are cheering each other and toasting their second straight AFL championship. It is Dec. 29, 1968. In Manhattan a dozen authors are putting away their Joe Namath manuscripts and calling the Raiders' publicity director for background stuff on Lamonica.
The following events in Lamonica's fantasy take place in the Super Bowl, where a tall, confident quarterback is calmly outwitting the Baltimore defenses, planning his moves like a chess master and throwing one touchdown pass after another. Now he is known as Super Daryle. It has taken a long time, but clean living has paid off, the best man has won, and Daryle Lamonica has taken a place in the Golden Dome pantheon—reserved for Notre Dame heroes—as champion quarterback of the world.
These visions recur with such clarity because Lamonica believes they so easily could be true, should have been already and soon will be in some form or other, perhaps beginning this Sunday afternoon when the Raiders meet the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFL championship.
There was slightly more than two minutes to play in that 1968 AFL title game, and Oakland was losing 23-27 but had driven to the New York 24. Lamonica lobbed a pass behind the line of scrimmage to Charlie Smith, who not only did not catch the ball but did not pick it up when it fell to the ground. Jet Linebacker Ralph Baker had the foresight to do so, the pass was correctly ruled a lateral rather than an incompletion and the Jets got the ball and eventually the Super Bowl victory that made Namath an international celebrity.
January 5, 1970
"I have no doubt we would have beaten Baltimore, too," said Lamonica recently. "If it just hadn't been for that one pass to Charlie Smith. Well, I've had a lot of sleepless nights over that one, but I'm convinced it was a good call. With his speed Charlie could have ripped right on into the end zone. I wouldn't hesitate to call that play again, but this time I'd drop back a little deeper so it couldn't be a lateral."
Lamonica was sitting in a booth in a coffee shop in Alameda, Calif., next door to a building near the Oakland Coliseum where he has a four-room apartment. The day before, he had been duck hunting around Fresno. And the day before that he had thrown six touchdown passes in less than two quarters against Buffalo, the team that traded him to Oakland two years earlier. Now he was back in his neighborhood, and nothing was happening. Joe Namath couldn't have sat in that coffee shop for three minutes without being approached by fans wanting autographs and a look at his curly and abundant locks. But all that happened to Daryle Lamonica was that the boy with the coffee pot kept coming back before he was needed, and a couple of old men in another booth glanced over now and then.
This anonymity is odd. In 1967 Lamonica was the AFL's leading passer. In 1968 he was second to Len Dawson, and this year he was third behind Greg Cook of Cincinnati and Namath. But Lamonica threw for 34 touchdown passes in 1969, or exactly as many as Cook and Namath put together. In regular-season games over the past three years Lamonica leads Namath in touchdown passes (89 to 60), has fewer interceptions (60 to 62), is close in yardage (9,775 to 9,888) and has completed an almost identical percentage (about 51%). Lamonica's Raiders had a better regular-season record in those three years than Namath's Jets (37-4-1 to 29-12-1). In addition Lamonica threw two touchdown passes against Houston in the 1967 championship game, two more against Green Bay in the Super Bowl, passed for five touchdowns against Kansas City in last year's Western Division playoff, passed for 401 yards and one touchdown in the championship game against the Jets and was named the league's Most Valuable Player in 1967 and again this year. Moreover, in Oakland's 56-7 playoff win over Houston a fortnight ago, Lamonica completed 13 of 17 for 276 yards and six touchdowns. In the Jets' 13-6 loss to Kansas City in the other playoff game, Namath completed only 14 of 40 for 164 yards and no touchdowns. Faced with all this evidence, how come most people think Namath is the better quarterback and how come Namath has more notoriety?
"I'm just not very colorful," Lamonica said that day in the coffee shop. "I don't pop off and I don't go for the mod clothes. Joe and I don't have much in common. I'm no candidate for a Bachelors III franchise. I'm not saying I don't love to have a good time. I like a drink and a girl. But I'm discreet. I stay out of the public eye. What Joe does is his business. I don't put him down for it. I respect him. He works hard at being a good quarterback. If he didn't he couldn't be a winner. But we've got different ideas about how to relax. Joe does what he pleases, and so do I. My idea of the way to relax is to take off into the woods on Monday after a game, go hunting or fishing, break a sweat, let the old tissues unwind out in the open air. Joe relaxes with a different set of people than I do."
Why is Namath acclaimed as the best quarterback in the AFL? "Well, playing in New York doesn't hurt his chances for getting publicity," Lamonica said with a broad smile. "I feel I'm a better quarterback than Joe Namath is, and I can beat him anytime we play, both in statistics and on the scoreboard. Of course, I don't always do it, but that's how I feel. I want to be known as the No. 1 quarterback, and you do that by winning. Joe didn't have a great year last year, but his team got to the Super Bowl and won. That's what counts. The Jet coaches did a great job beating the Baltimore linebackers. Joe didn't rip them up like he said. Several times he threw passes into the Baltimore zone that he shouldn't have thrown, but he has a great arm and he zipped the ball in there anyhow. He called a good game, but he had a great game plan. And the Jets had a great defense. If the other team scores only seven points, you ought to win."
The Raiders and Jets have played each other five times, including last year's championship, since Lamonica became a regular. The Jets won two out of the three games at Shea Stadium, the Raiders won two of two in Oakland, one of which was the famed "Heidi game," when the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final nine seconds. In the five games Lamonica has more yards (1,557 to 1,352), more touchdowns (12 to 8), more completions (92 to 84), but also more interceptions (9 to 7), and Oakland has scored more points (145 to 129). All these figures are interesting, though they are hardly proof of superiority for either man or team.
Lamonica, however, is certain that the Raiders are the better club and that there have been few quarterbacks in his class. Some call this conceit. At the 1968 Super Bowl, Lamonica freely compared himself to Bart Starr and didn't come off with all the worst of it. At the time he had been a starter for one season—after four years of playing behind Jack Kemp at Buffalo—and the comparison struck many as premature. But it was true that the Raiders were 13-1 in Lamonica's first year, even though he was so unfamiliar with the playbook that such veterans as Center Jim Otto and Guard Wayne Hawkins had to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage when he called for formations that weren't in the Oakland repertoire. Lamonica got through that year on determination and physical ability rather than expertise. If he seemed very high on himself later, he had the record to back up his opinion. Still, a lady columnist wrote that the 28-year-old quarterback rated among the game's 10 most conceited players, and this stung him.
"I didn't want my mother to read anything like that," Lamonica said. "I've never met the person who wrote it, but obviously she can't tell conceit from pride. I do have a lot of pride and I have a lot of confidence in myself. I have to have confidence because I'm a leader, and it has to show. If I throw a bad ball or even if I throw five or six bad balls in a row, my team doesn't need to worry that I'm going to fold up and quit. I'll hang in there and keep throwing and pretty soon we'll hit a touchdown and win the game. Listen, our whole team has pride. Our defense, for example, doesn't just want to win. They want a shutout. They hate it if you complete a pass against them or make a yard. For me, I'm throwing to win. If I only complete three passes in an entire game but they all go for touchdowns and we win, then I'm happy. There are quarterbacks who throw safe passes to get the big percentage of completions. That's not me. I'd rather look lousy and win than great and lose."
Lamonica grew up on what most people, especially Easterners, would say is a farm, but in California is called a ranch. His family raised peaches, and Daryle spent much of his time outdoors. "My mom is Irish, my dad is Italian and there's a little pinch of Cherokee for spunk," he said. "I've got a true Italian temper. My mother has taught me to control it, but to keep that inner desire never to lose. The result is a real killer instinct. You've got to have that to play this game well. Jim Dunaway [a Buffalo defensive tackle] and I are like brothers, but in a game he's nothing but an X to me. All the players are Xs or Os. I'm in my own little world. This game is a fight for survival, and the more points you put on the board the less chance you have of losing. I don't call off the dogs on anybody."
This philosophy was quite apparent in the Buffalo game last October. With only seconds left in the first half, Lamonica had already thrown six touchdown passes and Oakland led 42-7, but when the Raider offense took over the ball Lamonica threw a long second-down pass, trying for a seventh touchdown that would have tied the single-game AFL record held by his substitute, 42-year-old George Blanda. The pass was complete but the receiver was forced out of bounds at the Buffalo six. There was more to it than simply wanting the record, which Lamonica says he wasn't aware of. The Raiders were determined to pour it on against John Rauch, their former coach. And Lamonica wanted to keep reminding the Bills of a trade they never should have made.
The trade came at a point in Lamonica's life when he thought he finally had made good after years of frustration. The fact is, he had, but not in the manner he expected.
Tom Meehan, a former sportswriter for The Fresno Bee, started recruiting Lamonica for Notre Dame when Daryle was a high school sophomore in Clovis, Calif. Meehan, a former police captain, high school coach, marine and scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, is now president of Matrix Capital Management Corp., which handles investments for professional athletes. He has been a major influence on Lamonica, who went to Notre Dame in such an emotional state that when he heard the band play the Victory March he got goose pimples. He still does. An acquaintance describes him as "a Golden Dome man all the way. You know, the body is a temple and all that."
But Lamonica arrived at Notre Dame at the wrong time. The Irish were down. The coach was Joe Kuharich. The offense and defense were equally weak, and other teams were taking revenge for decades of Notre Dame domination. Lamonica was an Irish quarterback in the forgettable period between Paul Hornung and John Huarte. His record was undistinguished. Notre Dame didn't have a winning season while he was there. Before his senior year—1962—the NCAA Football Guide said, "Frank Budka should win the quarterback fight from Daryle Lamonica and Ed Rutkowski. If Budka clicks, Notre Dame should have a much better season than the one forecast." The top college senior quarterbacks of 1962 were Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker of Oregon State, Glynn Griffing of Ole Miss, Billy Moore of Arkansas and Bill Nelsen of USC. The best juniors were George Mira of Miami, Billy Lothridge of Georgia Tech, Jack Concannon of Boston College, Pete Beathard of USC, Bill Munson of Utah State and Don Trull of Baylor. Joe Namath of Alabama was a sophomore, as were Roger Staubach at Navy and Craig Morton at California.
There was no room for Lamonica on the major All-America teams. The guys he had looked up to had been the legendary Notre Dame quarterbacks—Stuhldreher, Lujack, Bertelli, Williams, Hornung—but Lamonica finished his college career as just another name, although one that had an interesting sound to it, a name people remembered without quite knowing why. It is well that they did, for Lamonica and Nelsen are the only quarterbacks among the 1962 senior stars who made it in pro football, even though others tried.
Green Bay drafted Lamonica in the 12th round, and Buffalo selected him 24th. He chose Buffalo because he thought it would be easier to beat out Kemp than Starr, but for four years he was used mostly in relief when Kemp was hurt or having a bad day. At the close of the 1966 season Lamonica asked Coach Joe Collier to promise him that he could play equal time with Kemp the following exhibition season. Assured that he could, Lamonica returned to California and went hunting in the mountains. He was pleased because he liked playing in Buffalo despite a native Californian's aversion to snow, and he believed getting equal time in the exhibition games would be tantamount to winning the starting quarterback job.
On the day of the 1967 pro football draft Lamonica shot a bobcat with a pistol. He had wanted a stuffed bobcat for his den, and this was a good one, and he stopped off in Clovis to show the dead cat to some of his friends. They told him what they had just heard on the radio: Lamonica had been traded to Oakland.
Exactly who at Oakland deserves credit for the trade depends on who is to be believed. Al Davis, managing general partner of the Raiders, says he had been trying to trade for Lamonica for two years, and some of his ex-employees—Davis has hordes of ex-employees—recall many occasions when Davis said wistfully, "If only we had that big guy from Buffalo," meaning Lamonica. Rauch, who resigned as the Raiders' coach at the end of last season, says the responsibility for the trade belongs to himself, Player Personnel Director Ron Wolf and former General Manager Scotty Stirling. "Davis left it up to us," says Rauch. "I made the phone call that made the trade. It was during the draft, and we had only a few minutes for the decision." But Davis says, "Rauch never had anything to do with any player deal all the time he was at Oakland. We had to carry Rauch for three years and now he claims credit for getting Lamonica! That's too much to swallow."
Anyhow, Lamonica was traded to Oakland along with Receiver Glenn Bass and two draft choices. Buffalo received a superb split end, Art Powell, Quarterback Tom Flores and a No. 2 pick. To many observers it seemed Buffalo had made the sharper bargain. But as it turned out, the trade was a disaster for the Bills and a bonanza for Oakland. Powell played only five games before he got a knee injury that eventually forced his retirement. Flores was knocked unconscious in an exhibition game, got another good rap during the season and lost his effectiveness. In 1968 Buffalo lost five quarterbacks to injuries and Kemp missed the entire season because of a knee operation. The Bills had been AFL champions two years in a row and Eastern Division champions three, all while Lamonica was there, but their luck changed when they traded him. They have won five of 23 games since.
Rauch spent many hours drilling Lamonica on the Oakland offense. When communications became strained between them, young John Madden—now at 33 the Oakland coach—took over. "I talked a lot of football with Al Davis," said Lamonica. "Davis is brilliant. He can turn a simple play into a great one. A man would be a fool not to listen to him. Also at Oakland I've roomed on the road with Cotton Davidson [an ex-quarterback who is now on the taxi squad], and he's been a tremendous help to me. Sometimes I keep him awake all night asking questions."
It should be pointed out—as Lamonica is quick to do—that a strong young offensive line has certainly not hindered his performance. Guards Gene Upshaw and Jim Harvey (both 6'5", 250) and Tackles Harry Schuh (6'3", 260) and Bob Svihus (6'4", 250) operate around Jim Otto, a 250-pound, 10-year veteran center. They are so effective that Lamonica was dumped only 11 limes this season and Blanda once—the least in the league. "A quarterback has to expect bangs and bruises," Lamonica said. "It's part of the game that the other side tries to smash the quarterback. But my line makes me feel guilty sometimes. They're doing all the work, and I'm standing there throwing passes." In addition, Lamonica's three main receivers—Fred Biletnikoff, Warren Wells and Billy Cannon—are probably as good as Don Maynard, George Sauer and Pete Lammons, the trio of Jets who have become famous as targets for Namath.
To figure out how to get the ball to his receivers, as well as what running plays to call, Lamonica draws a football field on a piece of paper four nights before a game. Using Madden's game plan and ideas of his own, Lamonica broods over the diagram in his apartment. He imagines various situations, then selects plays he might use. "When I get in the game, I've been there before," he said. "Playing the game in my mind first helps me be alert. The other team may do something different and it may take three quarters to adjust the blocking, but then you can attack. You can sense when a quarterback has got it. He grasps it and comes alive. He gets three or four touchdowns. Mental preparation is a quarterback's livelihood, along with blocking and execution. Working with John Madden is great for me. He knows football and he can sell it. He won't put a play in the book if he can't convince me it will work. Even then, I go into a game with an open mind and let the defense dictate what we'll do. This offense of ours can score 40 points on anybody."
Early this season the Oakland offense faltered, the fans booed and there were suggestions that Lamonica be replaced with Blanda. The trouble was that Lamonica was trying to play his way out of several injuries. "If people boo and feel bad, how do they think we feel?" he said. "We want to represent Oakland and win, but I can't stop the game and say, 'Look here, I've got a sore arm and a sore wrist and I'm dragging my leg with a strained hamstring.' The position is my responsibility, regardless of what's wrong with me. Booing would never run me out of pro football, but I hope I'm through playing by the time all the teams have artificial grass. Somebody has done a great selling job on this artificial stuff, but not to the players. Every player I've talked to hates it. You have good footing, and maybe it cuts down on knee injuries, but you get terrible burns and the stuff is so hard it's like falling on your living room floor with two 260-pound guys on top of you. That artificial grass is good for the owners and promoters, but they don't ask the players. We have three times as many painful injuries as on real grass."
There is no synthetic turf in Tulane Stadium, where the Super Bowl game will be played this month. Lamonica often thinks about his previous Super Bowl appearance and he plans for his next one. "That other time, I had butterflies so big I thought they'd carry me out of the stadium," he said. "What we lacked was experience. Two or three plays can beat you in a big game. That's what happened to us. After the game Bart Starr said we were a fine young team, that our mistakes beat us. That reassured me. I know we're not losers and we're not afraid of anybody. We'll be back."
Lamonica drummed his fingers on the tabletop in the coffee shop. The boy with the coffee pot leapt forward, and the two old men looked up. But Lamonica didn't see them. He was staring at his hands. "What I want is a world championship ring," he said.
And what then?
"After that I want one for each finger."