It began, more or less, like this: The Los Angeles Rams' brain trust was sitting around a small room in Anaheim last March when in walked this old boy named Dieter Brock, who said he wanted to play quarterback. If you are part of that team's brain trust and you have any self-respect at all, you snort derisively and ask questions like, "Who is Dieter Brock?" The Rams' brain trust snorted. The Rams' brain trust asked. The stranger picked up a football and started to throw.
For 20 minutes he alternately threw blistering heat and lofty 70-yarders at five Rams receivers, until head coach John Robinson halted the demonstration. "I've coached a lot of great quarterbacks in my day, including Dan Fouts when he was at Oregon," Robinson told a bystander. "This guy may be the best I've ever seen throwing the ball."
No one was snorting anymore, but they were asking that question all the more now. "Everybody wanted to know 'Who is Dieter Brock?' " says wide receiver Otis Grant, who caught several of the stranger's passes that day. Brock explained quietly that he had been away for a long time, playing ball in Canada for 11 years. But that didn't entirely clear up the mystery, either. "I personally don't have cable TV," says Grant, "which means no Canadian games even if I wanted to watch them, which I don't. So I personally had never heard of the man. Who is Dieter Brock?"
"I knew nothing about the guy," says Rams defensive end Gary Jeter. "Nothing. I had never heard of him." Who the devil is Dieter Brock?
August 18, 1985
"He seemed to just appear one day from out of nowhere, like Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo. in Damn Yankees or Roy Hobbs in The Natural," says Robinson. In fact, the coach had seen reels of film of Brock before suggesting the try-out. "I just hope," adds Robinson, "he hasn't had to sell his soul to the devil."
The Rams' brass, of course, wanted to know Brock's age before handing him the starting quarterback position. The team has a long tradition to uphold of signing only broken-down old signal-callers. In 1977 the Rams brought in 34-year-old Joe Namath, only to see his knees and his career finally disintegrate. Dan Pastorini came aboard in 1981 at age 32 and stayed one season. And Bert Jones arrived in 1982, only to suffer a career-ending back injury after four games. In fact, since Roman Gabriel was traded away in 1973, not a single Rams quarterback has been able to put together two full seasons as a starter with the team. As the Los Angeles Times recently noted, "The club's luck with aged leaders rivals that of the Soviet Union."
Well, Brock is 34, the oldest player on the Rams' roster after 35-year-old Jack Youngblood. And if the doddering old guy manages to stay on his feet until the team's opener against Denver Sept. 8, he will be the seventh starting quarterback the Rams have had since 1980. In other words, he has all the qualifications the Rams usually look for in a quarterback, except one: an established name that he can disgrace. Jeff Kemp, the team's 26-year-old incumbent starting quarterback—and now apparently dispossessed of that job—has a theory about why the brain trust turned to Brock. "Since nobody knows who he is," Kemp says, "with Dieter they can create whatever image they want." So who is Dieter Brock?
Part of the answer is that he's an Alabama native who spent 2½ years at Auburn in the shadow of 1971 Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan, then transferred to Jacksonville (Ala.) State, then spent 9½ seasons playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and 1½ for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. During those 11 seasons he threw for 34,830 yards and 210 touchdowns, completing 57.4% of his passes. He was the CFL's MVP in 1980 and '81, and over the last five seasons Brock passed for 20,441 yards, more than any other quarterback in any league. He has more career 300-yard passing games (37) than any quarterback in the history of professional football, and more total passing yardage than any active player.
Brock once completed 42 of 47 passes in a game against the Ottawa Rough Riders. But it is the tremendous strength of his arm, rather than his touch, that has made him a legend in Canada and is on the way to making him one in L.A. "I don't think there's anybody who doesn't go 'Oooh' when he throws the ball," says Robinson. His brother Bill recalls a memorable pass completion during a practice at Auburn: "One of his receivers ran a hook pattern, and before he could get his hands up, the ball hit him in the helmet and stuck between his helmet and face mask. They had to pry it out."
In Calgary he once threw a ball 93 yards in the air while fooling around on the day before a game. "The air's kind of thin up there and I had a little breeze behind me," Brock says. "Of course, I was flinging it 75 yards the other way, so I figure that averages out to about 85." Sometimes Brock amused himself in practice by firing balls through the goalposts while perched on one knee 55 yards out. He also likes to throw a weighted football to build up his arm. "I always hated that part of the workout," says his longtime friend Larry Lancaster, a Birmingham letter carrier who has caught some of those weighted balls. "We'd start 30 or 40 yards apart, and then before I knew it he'd have me backed up against a wall 70 yards away. There were many times I came home with my arms all bruised up from catching the ball. One of his college coaches said Dieter could throw the ball through a car wash without the laces getting wet."
What apparently worried NFL scouts when Brock came out of college in 1974 was that he would spend his career throwing a lot of long incompletions and interceptions. "The World Football League held its draft before the NFL did, and they took 10 or 12 quarterbacks in the first six rounds," says Brock. "I wasn't one of them." When Winnipeg made him first one offer, then another, he went north, without even waiting for the NFL draft.
In the CFL the surprise wasn't that the Alabamian tried to throw the ball with lumberjack force every time, but how quickly he learned to control his arm. "The knock on Dieter early in his career was that he went for the deep ball all the time," says Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon, who preceded Brock down from the CFL last season after six years with the Edmonton Eskimos. "He can throw the ball as far as anybody Eve seen. But it wasn't until he started dumping the ball off more that he was named MVP twice."
In 1981, Winnipeg gave him a new $1.2 million, five-year contract, and the NFL still didn't seem to know he was alive. But two years later, after the newly born USFL began choking quarterbacks with money, driving up salaries in all of pro football, Brock decided he wanted to "finish up my career in the States." He skipped Winnipeg's '83 training camp and exhibition season and after six regular-season games, jumped the team and was suspended. Winnipeg traded him to Hamilton. The Tiger-Cats agreed to let Brock play out his option in '84 in the hope that they could entice him to stay for a few more years. But their offensive line, which allowed 76 sacks, didn't help much. Brock was more determined than ever to go long—extremely long.
The Rams just hope Brock sticks around long enough to put some punch into their passing game, which last year was the second worst in the NFL. When owner Georgia Frontiere introduced Brock to the press the day after his dazzling tryout, she squeezed one of his rippling Popeye-size biceps and said, "If you have any doubts about his arm, come up and feel it. And that's just his left arm!" In a somewhat more scientific procedure, the Rams tested Brock's body-fat content at only 4.5%, placing him among the leanest on the team. "He's a tremendous physical specimen," says the club's strength trainer, Garrett Giemont. "Dieter doesn't throw the ball, he launches it. Houston has to be notified every time he goes deep."
Houston was indeed notified last week—the football team and not, as Giemont meant, NASA—when Brock made his NFL preseason debut and led the Rams to a 7-3 win over Moon's Oilers. Brock completed five of 12 passes for 49 yards while Kemp hit six of 12 for 47. Despite the evenness of those totals, the competition for the starting quarterback position, which Robinson had kept nominally open, now seemed virtually closed, with the job Brock's to lose.
Kemp played well enough last year to help the Rams win nine times in his 13 starts and make the playoffs. He finished the season ranked eighth among NFC quarterbacks in passing and was bitterly disappointed when the Rams went after Brock. "So many quarterbacks have come through L.A. that I wasn't that surprised," Kemp says. "I think it's a feeling they have that there's a quarterback out there who's going to take them to the Super Bowl. But there is no one player who is going to be the savior. We threw less than anyone else in the league last year, but I was running the offense that was called for me. I don't think I was ever really given the opportunity to show what I could do."
But Robinson felt he had seen enough of what Kemp could do and far too much of what workhorse running back Eric Dickerson had to do. Dickerson set an NFL rushing record with 2,105 yards last season, and promptly started talking about having his contract renegotiated. He has already missed the first two weeks of training camp, with no settlement in sight. (Dickerson did report to a mini-camp in the spring, and people asked him what he thought of Brock. "He's soooo old," Dickerson replied.) "I think the thing we did last year was simply refuse to pass," Robinson says. "We ignored obvious passing situations and tried to run our way through them. We won nine of 13 games that way, and at the end people were on me to open it up a little with Jeff Kemp. I just looked at them and said, 'Do you realize what you're saying?' " But Robinson has also promised that if Brock turns out to be a bust, even his $2.1 million four-year contract won't help him. "This was a very important decision," Robinson says. "But I'm not going to die, or let this team die, just to try to justify the fact that we gave Dieter a big press conference."
So who is Dieter Brock?
Strange as it sounds, that's the very question a lot of people back home in Alabama have been asking for years. Because, you see, Dieter Brock is actually a guy named Ralph. His father, Billy William Brock, had named the family's first son Billy Joe, and so his wife Maria, who is German, got to name the next boy. When she chose the name Dieter, Billy William blanched. So Maria suggested making Dieter the boy's middle name, which Billy William allowed was a fine idea. Then he named the boy Ralph. It wasn't until Ralph Brock had been playing in Canada for four years that he spoke up and revealed to the public his lifelong preference for the name Dieter. "People at home didn't fully realize at first who this Dieter Brock person was," says Lancaster.
If things work out the way the Rams hope, soon everyone will know.