Dan Fouts' football career would seem to lend itself to tidy, instructive little anecdotes. Indeed, the ingredients are there for a veritable anthology, were it not for the black-bearded protagonist's penchant for stepping on all the punch lines. Fouts, at 28, is currently the hottest quarterback in the NFL after some unseasonably cool years in San Diego. When he threw for 303 yards in the Chargers' stunning 45-22 loss to Oakland on Oct. 25, he became the first passer in NFL history to exceed 300 yards in four consecutive games, an accomplishment he predictably dismissed at the time with the gloomy observation, "It doesn't mean anything—we lost."
But with Fouts at the controls of the game's most diversified pass offense, the Chargers have not lost that often. After last Sunday's 20-14 win over Kansas City, they were 7-3 and shared the AFC West lead with Denver. Fouts leads the league in passing yardage and percentage of completions and, according to the NFL's Einsteinian formula for computing passing excellence, is No. 3 overall.
These are irrefutable facts. Consider now the Boys' Life story. Fouts, a native San Franciscan, is the son of Bob Fouts, who was the play-by-play broadcaster for the 49ers in the 1950s and '60s, when Dan was growing up. The youngster was a ball boy for the team, mingling on the sidelines at old Kezar Stadium with the likes of John Brodie and Billy Kilmer. It was there, amid the down markers and the extra chin straps, that he first came under the scrutiny of his future high school coach, Vince Tringali, an old-school disciplinarian who would exert a profound influence in developing Fouts' singularly tough-minded approach to the game.
"A coach just naturally looks all over the field," says Tringali, "and so I noticed this kid on the sidelines throwing the ball back to the referee. I didn't know who he was, but I could see he had a heck of an arm."
November 12, 1979
A pretty fair story: ball boy vows to become professional football star himself after taking inspiration from his idols, is discovered by the coach, who takes him up the first step on his quest. And it is a true story—except for the inferences.
Fouts was a self-assured and comparatively sophisticated youngster, not one to stand in awe of even the most celebrated of professional athletes. After all, Brodie and former 49er great Y. A. Tittle could be seen most any evening in his living room, so close was his father's association with the team. On those Kezar sidelines, young Fouts simply went about the business of retrieving and returning footballs.
Did he dream then of someday playing on an NFL gridiron himself? "I don't know of any kid who can think that far ahead," he says. "Standing on the sidelines at Kezar, I never really thought much about being on the field. I didn't have any sense of great drama. I was just having a good time watching the game."
And Tringali as Svengali? "Did Vince say he could see back then that I was a great passer? Why, the referee wouldn't even let us throw overhand." Oh well.
Fouts likes a good story as well as the next man, but he prefers that it be precise in every detail. His own dedication to veracity has occasionally caused him embarrassment, such as when he virtually testified against his teammates in a court hearing by saying he would rather play with a contender than with them.
Fouts is considered to be among the most courageous of men in a business where courage is a prerequisite and he is one of his game's fiercest competitors, but he subscribes to the philosophy that all things should be held in perspective. "I try to keep an even keel," he will say, looking, with his beard and sober mien, somewhat like Henry James' brother, William. "Your successes are so fleeting in this business, you can't get too excited about them. But it's a good life, probably because it's so short."
He does not have the strongest arm in football, but he has one of the finest touches, the ability to put just the right speed and loft on the ball. In the Oakland game he demonstrated this time and again in the face of a heavy rush, in the first quarter rainbowing one pass over groping linebackers to John Jefferson in the middle, then beating the blitz with a line drive to Jefferson for a 57-yard touchdown.
Fouts did, in fact, start his career with his good friend Tringali, leading the St. Ignatius High School Wildcats to the West Catholic Athletic League championship in 1967, his junior year. As a senior, he did not pass that often, and he was overshadowed by Jesse Freitas (later a Charger teammate) of Serra High of San Mateo, who had a receiver named Lynn Swann on his team. Fouts enrolled at the University of Oregon, the only Pacific Eight (now Pacific Ten) school to recruit him, and he quickly established a reputation for dramatic entrances when, in his first game, he filled in for the injured Tom Blanchard in the second half against California and pitched the Ducks to a 31-24 win. In three seasons he broke 19 school records while passing for 5,995 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Drafted in the third round by San Diego, he broke a collarbone in an all-star game and was unable to play again until the fourth game of the regular NFL season, against Pittsburgh. Once more he proved he knew how to make an entrance. Johnny Unitas was playing out the string for San Diego in 1973, and on this particular day he was all but unraveled by the Steelers, completing only two of nine passes in a first half that ended with Pittsburgh leading 38-0. Enter Fouts. He completed 11 of 21 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown and led the Chargers to two more TDs—one concluding a 90-yard drive—to bring the final score to 38-21. Unitas' career was over; Fouts' was beginning.
Unfortunately, inheriting the Chargers' quarterback job in those days was a little like inheriting Chrysler stock today. The team was 2-11-1 in his rookie year and 5-9 in 1974, mere preliminaries to what is now known in San Diego as the "Bataan Death March" of 1975, during which the team lost its first 11 games, three of them shutouts. "It was a terrible team," says current 49er Coach Bill Walsh. Quarterbacking the Chargers was, if nothing else, educational. Painfully so. Still feeling his way in the professional game, Fouts became an instant object of fan derision. In contending with this unpleasant development, he drew on his experiences as a ball boy, recalling with what grace Brodie had tolerated the abuse heaped on him by Kezar's bibulous boo-birds. Things ultimately got so bad for Brodie that a special screen had to be erected over the tunnel leading to the 49er locker room to protect him from a skulling by beer-can marksmen in the stands. Fouts was at least spared this humiliation.
Walsh took over as offensive coordinator in 1976 for the head coach at the time, Tommy Prothro, and a stereotyped offense was transformed into a pass-oriented attack that exploited all of Fouts' burgeoning talents. Walsh tarried only a year with the Chargers before moving on to head coaching jobs at Stanford and with the 49ers, but he retains Fouts' enduring respect. "He's such a great teacher." says Fouts. "He worked with me on my fundamentals. You have to have good fundamentals as your base. Once you do, you can concentrate on other aspects of the game, like reading defenses."
Walsh is no less effusive in praise of Fouts. "It took his technical development for people to realize his other qualities—his assertiveness, his leadership, his intelligence. And I'm not sure there is anyone as tough as he is in standing up to the rush. He is naturally courageous. If somebody asked me who the best clutch players were, I'd put Fouts in a category with Bradshaw and Staubach."
Fouts completed 57.9% of his 359 passes for 2,535 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1976, and the Chargers' record improved from 2-12 to 6-8. For the first time since he turned pro, there seemed to be a future out there somewhere. Then Walsh departed, and James Harris, a more experienced and better-paid quarterback, arrived by trade from the Rams. Unhappy with his own contract, Fouts demanded to be traded. When he was not obliged, he announced his retirement. He was 26. Eventually he challenged the basic pro football labor agreement in court, hoping to win his freedom.
In court he testified that the Chargers were not of championship caliber, and the wrath of fans and press, withheld during his fine '76 season, descended upon him again. Fouts lost his case, and he rejoined his somewhat offended teammates in time for the 11th game of the 1977 season, which he started in place of the injured Harris. He still knew how to make an entrance, or, in this instance, a re-entrance, completing 19 of 26 passes for 199 yards in a 30-28 win over Seattle. Bygones were almost bygones.
"There was no outward reaction from the team," Fouts recalls.
"There are no bitter feelings on our part," says Charger owner Gene Klein, who subsequently signed Fouts to a long-term contract. "Whatever his reasons were for sitting out, I'm sure they were good and proper reasons for him. He is a very purposeful young man." For his part, Fouts simply refuses to "open that can of worms again."
The Chargers' complicated offense makes unusual demands on the quarterback, and Coach Don Coryell is convinced that Fouts is the only man to run it. "We're only doing what we do because of Dan," Coryell says. "He has such a flexible mind. He doesn't have all the qualities you'd want in an ideal quarterback. He's not a runner. He's a fine athlete, but he doesn't have the speed. But he is very, very intelligent, and he is extremely competitive and tough mentally. A pro quarterback has to be one of the most courageous persons in sports. He has no chance to prepare himself for a hit the way a running back does. And he's not as big and sturdy. We have an awful time getting Dan to throw the ball away. He wants to take his chances in there, and because of that, he's susceptible to sacks."
Fouts pays a heavy price for his courage. He aggravates a groin pull in every game, and the "hits" he absorbs leave him too battered to practice actively until late in the week. The Chargers are content to let him recover in his own good time. "We've come to the conclusion that he doesn't really need a lot of work," says Coryell.
San Diego uses the pass the way many teams use the run, although each pass play, even a screen, has a "big play" built into it. The quarterback is instructed to look first for the deep receiver, then work his way back through the branches of the "passing tree"—at the other wide receiver cutting beneath the deep man, at the tight end bursting up the middle, at the backs flaring to the sidelines. It is an attack that demands quick recognition from the quarterback, and Receiver Jefferson feels that Fouts has a basketball point guard's gift for spotting "the open man." In the Chargers' Oct. 14 game with Seattle, Fouts' various talents were on display in a single play, according to offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs. With the Chargers leading 14-10, Fouts dropped back quickly against the blitz, looked for Jefferson deep and saw that he and Charlie Joiner were both possible receivers. He chose Jefferson and hit him for 49 yards and the clinching touchdown. At the same time, a congregation of monstrous Seattle linemen hit him, one of them clipping him neatly on the chin.
"A team reacts to a quarterback in a situation like that," says Gibbs. "They'll see him take a hit like that and say, 'Hey.' " "In his toughness and his approach to the game, I relate Dan to Joe Kapp," says Guard Ed White, who has played in front of both men. "And unlike some quarterbacks, Dan's ego is under control. When we score, no matter how, he's the first to congratulate the linemen. It makes up for some of the fan and media attention that goes elsewhere."
Coryell's principal concern these days is for his quarterback's continued good health. Physically, the loosely built 6'3", 205-pound Fouts is no Bradshaw. and he takes a worse beating. Coryell would prefer that Fouts live the year round in San Diego so that he might utilize the team's weight equipment and have someone to play catch with besides his wife, Julianne. But Fouts and Julianne, who met in college, became enamored of the lush Oregon countryside and are building a house on 20 acres near the small town of Sisters.
Fouts does not consider his home in the boondocks a retreat, but rather a means of acquiring another living experience. During the season he keeps busy doing commercials for an automobile agency and a water-bed company, and he appears several times a week on a radio sports show. In the off-season, the city boy gravitates to the country. He was reared, he reminds you, at a tumultuous time—the '60s—in a tumultuous city.
"San Francisco was a great place to learn," Fouts says. "The bus stop near school was five doors from the Black Panther headquarters. Hookers approached me—a little sucker in a letter sweater—while I waited for the bus. I found myself drinking Coke out of a paper sack, like the winos. S.I. [St. Ignatius] was just a few blocks up the hill from The Haight [the then hippie Haight-Ashbury district]. I'd sit next to a guy on a bus who was reading a whole newspaper in Chinese. I think it's important to have both experiences—the city and the country."
Last week Fouts was relaxing over a post-practice beer in the bar of San Diego's Islandia Hyatt House. The television set was turned to the Seattle-Atlanta Monday night football game, but Fouts watched it only intermittently. The game finally won him over when he saw out of the corner of an eye a perfectly executed quarterback draw play by Seattle's Jim Zorn. "Beautiful," he said, exulting in the achievement of another member of the fraternity. "Some people would call that a broken play." A waitress, recognizing him, took his order, then said, "Hey, you'd think you'd get enough of football." Fouts took mock umbrage. "Why, lady," he said, his blue eyes brightening, "football's my life." Then he smiled and corrected himself. "No, that's not quite true."