At the March 16 press conference held to introduce him as the new football coach at San Jose State University, John Ralston spotted what he considered a serious omission in the news release distributed to the media. All the particulars of a coaching career spanning more than 40 years were there—his back-to-back Rose Bowl victories with Stanford in the early 1970s, his leading the NFL's Denver Broncos to the first three winning seasons in franchise history, his election last year to the college football Hall of Fame. But something was missing from the last paragraph: "He and his wife, Patty, reside in Menlo Park, Calif.," it read. "They have adult twin daughters, Sherry Brown and Terry Zaffonato, and five grandchildren."
Ralston is not a large man. From 1947 to '50, he played linebacker for Pappy Waldorf at the University of California while weighing no more than 178 pounds. And he may not weigh that much now. He has an open and friendly face. He laughs easily. But there is a burning intensity in his large blue eyes, and his voice is robust, commanding, an altogether impressive instrument. He stepped to the rostrum determined to make amends for the oversight. "My family is larger than it says here," he began evenly. "Patty and I had a son, Larry, and I know he would have loved being here today. But he died on New Year's Eve in 1991. Of AIDS."
Ralston stepped back for a moment to gather himself. "I wasn't sure he was going to make it," says Lawrence Fan, San Jose's sports information director. "I almost stepped in myself. It was a very, very emotional moment." But Ralston recovered his composure and finished the press conference, bantering wittily with the reporters and television crews. He had said what he needed to say, for the death of his son had become the defining moment in his life. And, chances are, he would have never returned to college coaching had it not been for that devastating loss.
"Larry's death pulled everything together for me, all my thoughts and emotions," he says. "I'd spent most of 1991 in Europe, scouting potential players for the World League of American Football. I'd coached before that in Holland and in the Soviet Union. I'd campaigned to make American football an Olympic sport. But, Jesus, you lose a son and you say to yourself, What on earth am I doing? So I sat down with Patty and said, 'I want to coach college football again. I want to be with young people. I want to affect their lives, teach them not just about football but about life.' "
November 15, 1993
So when Ron Turner, the third head coach in four years to leave San Jose for another job, quit after one season to join the Chicago Bears as offensive coordinator, Ralston immediately applied to replace him, knowing, he says, that at 66 and having been away from the college game for more than 20 years, "I hardly fit the profile." Turns out the profile fit him. San Jose had a recent unfortunate history of hiring, in the words of athletic director Tom Brennan, "up-and-coming 'coordinator types' who have utilized their experience here to advance their careers. We had become a stepping-stone. And this rapid turnover had seriously affected our recruiting. We needed someone who would stay around and build our program. We needed stability."
At his age, and with his vast experience, Ralston scarcely figured to use the San Jose job as a stepping-stone into bigger ponds. He also fit some other criteria Brennan had established: Ralston is a proven winner, and he is well connected in both the athletic and business communities in the Bay Area and beyond. Ralston had been general manager and coach of the old USFL Oakland Invaders and vice-president of the San Francisco 49ers. He is both a fund-raiser and a public-relations man for a new football league he began trying to establish last year for non-college inner-city youths. And he is such a compelling public speaker that Brennan envisions him rousing long-dormant alumni and San Jose businessmen to a gift-giving frenzy. Ralston should also be able to bring more big-time teams onto San Jose's future schedules.
But Ralston brings much more to the party. "I don't care whether John's 20 or 60," says the 41-year-old Brennan. "He's a tremendous communicator. I've never been a coach myself, so I don't belong to any old-boy network. I like to deal with things unemotionally and as systematically and objectively as possible, but the joy John expressed in being an educator again was, I must say, very convincing."
John Ralston has never wanted to be anything but a football coach. He was born in Oakland on April 26, 1927, but in 1935, several years after his parents had divorced, he moved with his mother to the northern Michigan town of Norway. There, sitting by the window of his grandparents' home, he watched the coach of the Norway High School team slog faithfully through the snow to work. It seemed to the boy that there must be something honorable and important about such a job. And when he went to a Green Bay Packer-Cleveland Ram game in 1940, he was hooked. "There they were," he recalls, "Don Hutson and Cecil Isbell and Buckets Goldenberg. My heroes."
Ralston joined the Marine Corps upon graduating from high school in 1944. After the war he returned to the Bay Area, where he enrolled at Cal and played for Waldorf in 1947, the Cal coaching legend's first year at Berkeley. Waldorf took what he himself called a "sleeping giant" to three consecutive Rose Bowls in his first four years. It has been 37 years since Waldorf coached at Cal and 12 since his death, but he lives on in the hearts of his former players, men now mostly in their 60's, through an organization founded to perpetuate his name: Pappy's Boys.
Ralston, a charter Pappy's Boy, was among the first to fall under the great man's spell. "I was a lousy player," he says. "The only reason I played was so I could coach someday. Pappy knew that, and he encouraged me. Oh, what an influence that man had on my life! Everything I've ever done. I've thought of him. How often do I say to myself, Now, I wonder what Pappy would do here?"
Ralston worked as a student assistant for Pappy, coached high school for five years after his graduation in 1950 and then joined Waldorf's last staff at Cal in 1956. He stayed on for two years after Pappy left, then became the head coach at Utah State in 1959. In four seasons there Ralston had a 31-11-1 record, with two bowl appearances—the Sun and the Gotham—and coached such future NFL stars as Merlin Olsen and Len Rohde. He left for Stanford in 1963 and stayed for nine productive seasons, winning twice in the Rose Bowl, coaching a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jim Plunkett and including among his assistants an ambitious young coach named Bill Walsh.
The Stanford years were among Ralston's happiest. His three children—the twins were 14 months older than Larry—were all at Woodside High School, where Larry distinguished himself as a swimmer and a tennis player. He was a ball boy for his father's Stanford team, but after playing freshman football at Woodside, he went to John and said, tears in his eyes, "Dad, I just don't want to play football." Ralston hid his disappointment. "Well, then, don't," he said.
"Larry was great at individual sports," Ralston says. "He took pride in his physical condition. But it's funny. When I was raised, team sports were everything. Teamwork was considered vital. World War II was all about teamwork."
When Ralston accepted the Denver Bronco job in 1972, Larry enrolled soon afterward at the University of Colorado in nearby Boulder, pledging his father's old fraternity, Sigma Nu. Ralston was delighted. "Sometimes he'd bring the whole shooting match from Boulder for games and parties afterward in our house," Ralston says. He laughs. "I think [Larry] basically majored in fraternity life at Colorado. I know he seemed to have a multitude of girlfriends. He was just a super guy, good-looking, smart. But he surprised me some months after graduation by saying he wanted to go to law school. I didn't think he had the grades."
Larry made it, though, graduating from Western State University College of Law of San Diego and later setting up practice in Los Angeles. "He was a trial lawyer," says Ralston, "but his real interest was international law and politics. He had a special interest in the Soviet Union."
When Larry was 27, he called his father aside in the family breakfast nook in Menlo Park and pointed to an imaginary graph on the table. Ralston remembers the conversation: " 'These are opposite ends of the sexual spectrum,' he told me. 'Here, Dad, is you. And here, at the opposite end, am I. I've been with a lot of women, but it doesn't work for me. My life-style has changed.' He had acknowledged his homosexuality. His sisters already knew.
"I must say it bothered me a little at the outset," says John Ralston. "He'd always been such an open and honest guy. I can't imagine what he must have gone through, feeling he had to hide that part of his life from us."
But Ralston and Patty accepted it. "You just don't choose that sort of thing," he says. "I get up in arms when I hear people say you have a choice in your sexual preference. You just don't, that's all."
The revelation in no way changed the Ralstons' relationship with their only son. His friends became theirs. "When I'd go to Los Angeles on business," says Ralston, "Larry would give a dinner party for me. He had the nicest friends—talented, professional people."
In 1987, while on a trip to Brazil, Larry fell ill with a form of pneumonia. Patty, a registered nurse, flew south on the first available plane. She stayed at Larry's bedside for two weeks, until he was able to return to Menlo Park. The doctors told her it was only a matter of time. Larry had AIDS.
The next few years were anguished ones for the tightly knit Ralston family. Some days Larry was well enough to have friends visit, to cook dinner, even to go roller-skating with his mother. Other days he would be mute with suffering, unable to rise from his bed. It was a matter of time. The Ralstons, meanwhile, joined the informal worldwide network of AIDS parents, trying to get help for their son. Ralston talked to everyone he could, including Arthur Ashe. He sought the best medical counsel. The old coach wouldn't give up without a fight. "John's reaction was, Who'll fix this thing?" says Patty. "Larry accepted his disease much better than his father did."
On Dec. 20, 1991, Larry asked to be released from Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City so he could die at home. He had a request to make of his parents. During the time Ralston coached in the Soviet Union, his son had visited him in Moscow but had never seen Red Square. Would they go there for him? He died shortly before the start of the new year, at age 37. In March 1992 the Ralstons kept their promise, flying to Russia, where John coached some of his former Moscow Bears in an all-star game. In Moscow the Ralstons went to a Russian Orthodox church. "It was beautiful, but poor, very crowded, smoky, dirty and gray," Patty wrote in the diary she kept in Larry's memory. "Many old people in the church with no teeth, raggedly dressed, stooped but yet lighting candles, singing and praying. Dad and I each bought a candle and lit it for you, Lar. So you really are memorialized in Moscow, as was your wish."
John Ralston faced a brutal schedule in the first half of his first season at San Jose. Of his first five opponents, three—Stanford, Cal and Washington—were nationally ranked when he played them, and though his Spartans came close against Louisville and Stanford, losing by just seven and three points, respectively, they were sadly overmatched in each game. (As of Nov. 1, they had beaten their last two opponents, New Mexico Sate and Louisiana Tech.) No Ralston-coached team had ever had such a poor start, and no San Jose State team had begun that badly since the 1923 Spartans went 0-6. Ralston hates losing as much as any coach, but in what he calls his "new flexibility," he is not without hope, dismissing the defeats as "a learning experience designed to make you better."
His players still don't quite know what to make of the energetic older man who speaks so eloquently to them. "He's not at all what I expected," says quarterback Jeff Garcia, who is among the nation's leaders in total offense. "I think he'll have a huge positive impact on football here. He's inspirational, a great speaker and motivator. He must have a tremendous love for this game."
Well, that's part of it, certainly. But there's something else, something a bit deeper in the man's soul. "It's being back with young people again," says Ralston. "I just know I can do something for them. It's like...." And he clears his throat. "It's like having 65 sons."