In San Diego there are no Dodgers, there are no Rams. The Chargers are it. All to themselves, they have a city with a metropolitan population of 1,200,000, 16th largest in the U.S.—a population that has a history of doubling every 10 years. Two of the biggest boosters in town are Sports Editors Jack Murphy of the Union and Gene Gregston of the Tribune, who would like to write about major league sports and still spend their weekends at home for a change. With all of this support, the Chargers drew 29,210 to a game with the Houston Oilers three weeks ago and had to turn others away because improvements at Balboa Stadium were not yet complete. Most important of all, the Chargers seem prepared to present San Diego with that one great cure-all for apathy, a winner. At least, no one has been able to beat them yet.
The man responsible for this state of affairs is not Hilton, who only pays the bills, but his head coach and general manager, Sid Gillman, a refugee from the Los Angeles Rams. Gillman is a short, squat individual of 50 years with some sort of dynamo running inside him and a face that lights up like a jack-o'-lantern when he is happy. He was an all-Big Ten end at Ohio State in 1933 and has been coaching through the 28 years since with such results that he has resembled a pumpkin much of the time. He won an NFL Western Conference championship in 1955, his first season with the Rams, but when the record dropped to 2-10 in 1959—subsequent events indicate that not all the fault was Gillman's—he was fired. Hilton caught him on the first bounce.
Gillman's first job was to scrub together some football players. He beat the NFL to some high college draft choices, including one the Chargers had to go to court about, Mississippi's All-America Charlie Flowers. He divided the country into sections and sent his staff into every nook, cranny and coal mine, seeking out football players overlooked or passed up or turned down by the NFL. From this operation he mined such jewels as Paul Lowe, a brilliant, elusive halfback from Oregon State who couldn't adapt to the San Francisco 49ers system ("We adapted our system to fit him," says Gillman), and a freckle-faced kid with a cannon for an arm named Jack Kemp. Lowe was employed, fittingly enough, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Kemp was unemployed, having spent the three seasons since his graduation from little Occidental on the taxi squads of four NFL teams and one Canadian team. Gillman also held a tryout camp. "We invited anyone who could walk, crawl or ride a bicycle to attend," says Gillman. "We looked at 207 football players, if you want to call them that. We signed eight." The Chargers won 10 of 14 games and the division championship in 1960 and lost to the Houston Oilers in the playoff 24-16. Six games deep in the 1961 season they are undefeated.
This is a far superior product to the one the Chargers fielded last year, however, reflecting to a certain extent the improvement of the league as a whole. Gillman has always been an offensive coach, yet his greatest pride at the moment centers around his defensive team. It is worth looking at. The four middle linemen weigh an aggregate of 1,087 pounds, and Gillman doesn't mind feeding them if they continue to demolish opposing offenses as they have. Ron Nery, the lone holdover from 1960, is the smallest. He stands 6 feet 6 inches and weighs 244. Bill Hudson, the defensive captain, spent four years in Canada; he is 6 feet 4 and weighs 277. The other two are rookies. Earl Faison, a magnificent end on a miserable Indiana team a year ago, was the No. 5 draft choice of the Detroit Lions. He is 6 feet 4 and weighs 256. Ernie (Bigger than Big Daddy) Ladd, from little Grambling College, was the No. 4 draft choice of the Chicago Bears. He stands 6 feet 9, weighs 310 pounds and is agile enough to have been considered an outstanding basketball player. So far Ladd simply overpowers his mistakes; in another year, Gillman believes, he won't make any.
There are also three fine linebackers, led by a very tough rookie from Washington, Chuck Allen, who has grown to 219 pounds since his Rose Bowl days, and a secondary that has now spent a year eliminating some of its tendencies toward error. Pass defense was a scorned item in the AFL in 1960 when there were scores such as 50-43 ( San Diego vs. New York), 41-35 ( New York vs. Dallas) and 45-25 ( Houston vs. Denver), but in six games the San Diego deep defense of Charlie McNeil, Bob Zeman, Claude Gibson and Dick Harris has intercepted 22 passes. "Don't forget," says Harris, "those four fellows up front are putting a lot of pressure on the passer. It's pretty hard to throw when you're flat on your back." As a unit, the Charger defense has allowed six opponents only 82 points.
Gillman will have nothing to do with the senseless argument that swirls around the relative merits of the AFL and NFL. "Of course we're not up to their caliber," he says. "Our progress has been amazing and maybe with one more draft we will be just as good, but not yet. Mr. Wismer sometimes talks too much." Harry Wismer, the enthusiastic owner of the New York Titans, has challenged the New York Giants to a game, while implying that his team would win without working up much of a sweat. But Gillman does believe that the Charger defensive line is NFL class and within another year will be the best in pro football. He is also very fond of Lowe, who is so good that Bo Roberson, the Olympic broad-jump silver medalist from Cornell, has spent most of the time on the bench. Last year Lowe had the best rushing average in the league, 6.3 yards, and was outgained in total yardage only by Dallas' marvelous Abner Haynes. And Gillman wouldn't take Johnny Unitas for Jack Kemp.
Kemp is 26 years old, a beautifully built athlete who stands 6 feet tail and weighs 205 pounds. Except for his size, he looks like the little boy down the block who one afternoon throws a rock through your picture window and the next morning comes back to sell you a subscription to The Saturday Evening Post. He has reddish hair, an engaging grin and that invaluable touch that puts a football team into high gear. "It's hard to describe," says Ron Mix, the 245-pound all-league offensive tackle from Southern California, "but whatever it is, Jack's got it."
Kemp was an All-Southern California Conference quarterback at Occidental, where he frequently made up pass plays in the huddle and twice earned Little All-America honorable mention. The pros received this information with overwhelming apathy, but the Detroit Lions drafted him, just in case. In Detroit, Kemp found two quarterbacks already in residence named Bobby Layne and Tobin Rote.
Kemp went to the Steelers, where he played behind Earl Morrall and Len Dawson. He went to the Giants, who already owned Charlie Conerly and Don Heinrich. The next fall the Giants signed young Lee Grosscup to a no-cut contract and decided to make Frank Gifford into a quarterback, too. So Kemp went to the Canadian League and spent half a season playing behind the All-America rookie from California, Joe Kapp. He finished out the '59 season at San Francisco, earning a few hundred dollars just to hang around waiting for something to happen to Y. A. Tittle or John Brodie. Finally it did. Tittle was injured in the Baltimore game, and Coach Red Hickey of the 49ers decided to activate Kemp. "You can't," said the late commissioner, Bert Bell. "It's illegal. He played half the year in Canada." So Jack went home to L.A. and waited for Gillman to call.
Last year Kemp was the all-league quarterback and runner-up to Haynes in the most-valuable-player balloting. He completed 211 passes in 406 attempts for 3,018 yards and 20 touchdowns. He ran for eight more. "The difference," says Jack, "is that I got to play. Sid went with me despite my mistakes. In the NFL, every time I got into a game, all I could think about was doing well enough to stay in the game. Last year I could think about touchdowns."