Color me dead," said Hal Bedsole of the University of Southern California. "The leading candidate for Flop of the Year. I'm looking to the past for my happiness." He poked at the $4.75 lobster special on his plate at the Beefeaters Inn in Hollywood. His cheerless smile bent to one side, as though only half his face was working. He had been punched in the mouth by an Oklahoma football player, and there was a swelling at the corner. He explored the crime with the tip of his tongue. "It's ironic. Last year when I was catching passes there was never any malice," he said. "This year I haven't caught a pass yet that counted, but already I've caught seven good elbows and one sucker punch. When the Oklahoma guy hit me, the referee came running up and said, 'I'm watching you, No. 19.' No. 19 is me. That's the kind of season I'm having.
The fat lip ("that's what happens when the other team gets to know who you are") was, of course, a lesser hurt. Bedsole had dropped three passes that afternoon as USC, unbeaten in 12 games and the defending champion of college football, lost to Oklahoma 17-12. As the game progressed, each dropped pass was a little more critical than the one before. For a 6-foot-5 All-America end who by the estimate of many pro scouts is one of the four or five best college football players in the country, irrespective of position, it was no small tragedy. Bitterly ashamed, Bedsole held only himself liable. He cried after the defeat. He sat for a very long time beside his locker. "Have you ever cost 44 guys a football game?" he asked over and over. Brunette Cathy Walters, his comforter at the Beefeaters, said that even the greatest are entitled to a bad day. "Like hell," said Bedsole, uncomforted. "You can't have a day like I had and still be No. 1. We were No. 1, don't you understand? The best in the country. Where do you think they'll put us now?
"That last pass," he said. "I wanted that one so bad I couldn't catch it. I like to be the Come-through Kid, score the touchdown that counts. I never drop a touchdown pass. No one ever caught me from behind. I know my stats [statistics]. I scored 11 touchdowns last year, one every third pass I caught. I know when the fourth quarter comes and I'm shut out that I'm due. But the last one today—all I cared about was 'Get it, Hal, you've got to get the first down.' "
It was late in the fourth quarter, and USC had the ball for the last time, fourth down at the USC 25-yard line. "We needed eight yards," said Bedsole. "I ran out 15 to make sure, then curled in, and Pete [Beathard, the USC quarterback] put it right here. Perfect. A perfect pass. I dropped it." He looked at the lobster as if it had just bounded off his chest onto the plate. "I used to have a very big head," he said. "It's getting smaller all the time."
The next week against Michigan State, Bedsole missed or was missed by six more passes to bring his season's embarrassment to 14 straight incompletions, no yards gained, no touchdowns scored. This compared with his two-year total of 60 completions, 1,352 yards and 17 touchdowns (he holds seven major USC pass-receiving records). Then, finally, in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, he caught one. He came across field, altering his pattern when he realized Beathard wasn't going to throw to him, and cut into another receiver's area just in time to make a miraculous diving catch of a poorly thrown ball. He caught it two inches off the ground and hugged it to his chest, the way a war bride holds her first letter from the front. He fell in the end zone for the touchdown that won the game for USC 13-10. The Come-through Kid was back in business.
The following Monday, Bedsole had business on campus. He parked his red 1963 Impala in a lot where most people have to pay but where he bulls with the attendant and parks free. "None of the guys would believe I'm paying for this car, either," he said, "but I'm paying all right. I make a little money. I get around. I'm a hustler. When I was a kid I used to charge my older brother Eddie a quarter to play catch with him. I'm a con man. I have things going for me. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are my busy days. That's when I sell my game tickets. Last summer I worked as a sales representative for a marble company. Saved $500."
He said he had been thinking a lot about what the Come-through Kid was going to do about professional football, and he had decided that when negotiations began this winter he would have an investment counselor and an attorney take care of everything. Bedsole cited the case of a Ram player. "He didn't have any counsel," he said. "He's been playing pro ball three years now. That's a third of his career at least. And what does he have to show for it? Nothing." Bedsole said he was not about to sell his soul to pro football, that "five or six years" would be plenty and after that he would fall back on his education. "I'm going to be prepared. I'm going for my masters at USC. That's definite."
At the registrar's office Bedsole went in to make a schedule change, though it was Monday and the deadline for changes had been Friday. He ignored the long line and moved in behind the counter to smooth-talk the women there into giving him preferred treatment. They did. "I can't see standing in line if you don't have to," he said. "And think of the ladies. Probably not once in an eight-hour day does anybody say anything personal to them. I do."
As he made his way across the USC campus, not once did another student hail him to say what a great catch he had made on Friday night. He did not seem to notice. "It may sound strange," Cathy Walters had said at the Beefeaters, "but Hal just doesn't need a lot of friends." Hal said he had not seen Cathy since that night. Their three-year courtship has not been smooth. "I don't know whether we'll get married or not," he said. "Her parents think I'm a bum."
Hal Jay Bedsole is not a bum, of course. What he is, however, is not easily told. He is "misunderstood," says his former roommate. "A hot dog, but underneath a very sensitive guy," says Don Simonian, former USC sports publicist. "Sensible, yes, but not very sensitive, not Hal," says a teammate. "He used to be a conceited know-it-all, but he's changed, he really has," says the girl who may or may not marry him. "He's grown up a lot—you saw the way he took the Oklahoma loss," says his coach. "His only weakness is his mouth," says a professional scout. "He's really a very shy, quiet kid with an inferiority complex," says a neighbor. "He's misunderstood," says his mother.