After the first four games of the season, the World Football League computer was fed every statistic from the size of Larry Csonka's helmet (7½) to the gas mileage Anthony Davis gets on his Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow (about eight mpg). Then the computer was asked which is the best team in the league, all in all. The answer—prepare yourselves for this down there in San Antonio and Memphis—is the Southern California Sun. They could have asked Sun Coach Tom Fears the question six weeks ago, and he would have told them the same thing.
But not even Fears expected the Sun to rush to a 4-1 record and the top of the Western Division the way it has—to a great extent on the play of rookie Quarterback Pat Haden, who didn't even figure to be a starter, and rookie Running Back Anthony Davis, who at 5'9" and 182 pounds was judged too small to perform as a regular for the New York Jets of the NFL. The first two times Davis touched the ball last Friday night in a wild 58-39 win over the Philadelphia Bell in Anaheim, he threw a left-handed 51-yard touchdown pass and ran 84 yards for another six points on a kickoff return. Haden, the league's leading passer, threw for three Sun touchdowns before he retired in the third quarter. "Frankly, I didn't think we would use Haden much this year," Fears says. "Now I think he's the best rookie quarterback I've seen since Joe Namath."
Haden and Davis are hardly unknowns, starring as they did on television the past few seasons in such heady dramas as the Rose Bowl and the Notre Dame games. They did it a few miles up the freeway from Anaheim, at a place called the University of Southern California. They now are playing in relative obscurity, the WFL not having a network TV contract and in fact not being overloaded with paying fans thus far. But Haden and Davis are doing for the Sun what they did for USC—helping to produce a winning team with an offense that starts going for touchdowns as soon as the players run out of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, Haden will play only three more games for the Sun this year. At the end of this month, with the WFL schedule half over, Haden reports to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. (He says that next year he hopes to arrange things so he can play the whole season.) Haden's postgraduate plans were the reason that the Rams waited until the seventh round to draft him, and why Fears considered him as little more than an extra arm on the practice field in training camp. Who wants a quarterback who can play only half a season? You don't need a computer to answer that one. But without Haden, the Sun might now be sinking in the West.
September 7, 1975
What was supposed to happen, what Fears was counting on, was for Daryle Lamonica, who played on 11 division championship teams at Buffalo and Oakland, to move right in as quarterback. Lamonica lost his starting job at Oakland and played out his option last year, saying he thought the Raiders would have beaten Pittsburgh and gone to the Super Bowl if Oakland Coach John Madden had stayed in the hotel instead of showing up at the game. "We had some great game plans," Lamonica says. "First down you run to the right, second down you run to the left, third down you pass." Lamonica is known for his fondness for throwing long—he has hit 32 touchdowns from 40 or more yards. Never mind that Madden's record at Oakland is 59-18-7 as head coach, Lamonica says Madden still ought to be an assistant. Madden no doubt thought Lamonica ought to be in some town other than Oakland. Anaheim, for example.
Lamonica signed with the WFL last year and watched from a distance as the league appeared to disappear in a typhoon of debts, including unpaid salaries. When the old WFL went bankrupt and the new WFL was organized, Lamonica accepted a salary for this season that is roughly half of what he had been promised. But Lamonica thought he would eat up the WFL. Instead, he was hit so hard in a July exhibition game that he got a bilateral hernia.
That left the Sun quarterbacking to Haden and Mike Ernst, who had previously hung around with Cincinnati and Denver. Despite the handicap of wanting to continue his education, Haden became the man. An English major in college, with a grade-point average that is not ordinarily consistent with blond California athletic heroes, Haden astonished the Sun coaches by understanding what they were talking about almost at once, even if the coaches themselves weren't sure what they meant. "In the first three days of camp we gave him 70 plays and he memorized them immediately," says Babe Dimancheff, offensive coordinator of the Sun. "I gave all our quarterbacks an exam where they had to chart not only plays but defenses, too. Out of 60 questions, Haden missed one."
"I've been very lucky," Haden says. "I'm playing at home on a good team with some old friends [including Davis and Receiver John McKay, son of the USC coach, with whom Haden lived for several years] and things have fallen into place. But my priority is my education. After Oxford, I'll sit down and think what I want to do with my life. If football is still fun, I'll keep it up." Haden has been invited to join the rugby team at Oxford and was requested to attend an early rugby training camp in Australia. "But I like my body too much to do that," he says. "Rugby is the kind of punishment a guy like Anthony Davis could take. I'm not afraid to give him the ball 25 or 30 times in a game. He's not only smart and a great player, he's durable."
When people read that the Sun had signed Davis to a five-year contract for a sum reported to be as much as $2.5 million, certain creditors of last year's Sun began to arrive in General Manager Larry Hatfield's office to inquire why their bills could not be paid if there was that sort of money to hand out. "It's hard to explain that this is a different deal from last year," Hatfield says. "To be successful and eventually pay off everybody, we need quality players like Davis, whose salary is highly exaggerated, but most of our creditors understand the situation. I wondered if we would be able to get credit at all this year, and it turns out a lot of people are willing to trust us again."
The fans, though, are still somewhat dubious. At the July exhibition game against Memphis, in which Lamonica was hurt, the Sun sold 14,000 tickets at the box office in the 90 minutes before kickoff. "People were waiting to see if Csonka, Kiick and Warfield would really come to town with Memphis," says Sun Vice-President Don Andersen.
In the tradition of baseball and the old AFL, the Sun has resorted to giveaway nights—15,068 fans paid for tickets last Friday night and were offered chances to win six 10-speed bicycles—but what the Sun needs to attract bigger crowds is more of what Davis and Haden did, not to mention the four touchdown passes Dave Williams, an NFL dropout, caught in the first half. Davis threw one of those passes, making him 5 for 5 in his college and pro career, though later in the evening he threw one incomplete. He also ran for 115 yards from scrimmage, 101 on kickoff returns and gained another 22 yards catching passes.
"I'm tired, man," Davis said, sitting in his locker-room cubicle after the game. "You've got to bite and scratch for every yard. If the NFL is tougher than this, I'd like to see it."
A number of Sun players were strolling around naked, which is the usual costume for showering, when someone noticed that an attractive woman in tight yellow pants was inside the locker room with a TV camera crew. "Hey, she's crazy, get her out of here," one player yelled. Davis smiled. He had studied speech and drama at USC and holds a Screen Actors' Guild card, and a woman in the dressing room is not that uncommon in show business.
Having recovered from his hernia operation, Lamonica was to have played part of the game that night, but he had broken some blood vessels under his right arm and was held out again. "What the team does as a team is what matters," Davis said. Nonetheless, he had wanted his 100-yard game rushing, and he was pleased he had got it.
Davis lives in Villa Park, outside of Anaheim, with his $42,000 Rolls-Royce, his collection of 40 hats and two Doberman pinschers named Sweetness and Scooby. "I hate to say it, but those Dobermans take care of a lot of my business," he said. "I wouldn't want to be a stranger come walking into my yard." Like Haden, who has moved out of the McKay home and into his own apartment, Davis has plans beyond football. He wants to act in movies and do TV sports commentary—like another USC All-America named O. J. Simpson. "One of the kids I grew up with is the son of Buckwheat in The Little Rascals," Davis said. "Buckwheat probably never knew it, but he inspired me. I'm going to play football as long as it's fun. If I feel that big claw dragging me down, I'll know it's time to quit and move on to something else. I was offered a lot of acting jobs at USC, but I couldn't take them because I was an amateur. We got hold of the same scripts, anyhow, and did them in class. I didn't miss anything. Playing football at USC, I learned things about myself I never would have known otherwise. One thing I learned is you've got to keep trying to get better every week, or that big claw will get you."
Fears says Davis is the quickest back he has ever seen, not as fast overall as Lenny Moore or Gale Sayers, but quicker for the first few yards, which is often when it matters. Fears also says the Sun is better than the expansion team he coached in its first three years in New Orleans. Fears himself has changed somewhat since those days. A tough, fiercely straightforward man, he was a Hall of Fame pass receiver for the Rams and a blocker who could bury a linebacker. He has done well financially outside of football, owning a restaurant, four condominiums and an avocado ranch. A few years ago, he showed one of his teams a photograph of O. J. Simpson, clean shaven and smiling, and said, "This man is good for football." Then Fears showed the team a photo of Joe Namath wearing a goatee and said, "This is not so good." Now Fears has a black-and-gray goatee and a new hairpiece that make him look like the youngest, baddest 52-year-old man in the world. As a player, he had few peers. As a coach, he would someday like to be regarded as an equal of Vince Lombardi. "But so much depends on luck and circumstance," he says. With the Sun, and a little help from his USC carryovers, Fears might have found them both.