One Sunday afternoon last autumn Houston Oiler Quarterback George Blanda was bounced off the hard earth of Houston's Jeppesen Stadium by a blitzing linebacker and arose looking as if he heard music no one else could hear. At the bench, Houston Coach Pop Ivy beckoned to young Quarterback Jacky Lee, who snapped his chin strap and trotted onto the field to replace the staggering Blanda. Halfway to the huddle, Lee stopped. Blanda was angrily waving him away. Lee looked back to the bench. Ivy was waving him toward the huddle. As the home crowd waited and the television cameras came in tight on the scene, Lee stood between the bench and the huddle, between Ivy and Blanda, uncertain whose orders to take. Finally Lee decided George Blanda was the man who was running that team. Lee returned to the bench. Up in the press box former Oiler Coach Lou Rymkus said, "If I was still the coach I'd go out there and punch Blanda in the nose." Down at the bench Ivy sat in silence with his own thoughts, and Lee disgustedly squatted down for another afternoon of watching George Blanda play quarterback.
Pop Ivy is now a scout for the New York Giants. The latest Oiler coach, the fourth in five seasons, is Sam Baugh, the man Ivy hired as an assistant less than a month before Ivy was fired on June 1. But George Blanda is back to run the team again, and Jacky Lee is back to wait for Blanda to get out of the way. And, when training camp opened last month, into that strained situation stepped yet another quarterback—rookie Don Trull (see cover), who set three NCAA passing records at Baylor and arrived in Houston with a fat contract, high hopes and a good deal of patience. He will need all he can find of the latter because he might be standing in line for a while. Lee, who has the best throwing arm in the American Football League, has already been in line for four years while the Oilers won three Eastern Division and two league championships on the craft and experience of the 37-year-old Blanda.
If the prospect of sitting around for a few years bothers Trull, he does not admit it. Sitting around for a few years is the apprenticeship nearly all rookie quarterbacks must endure to learn a game that is different from the one they played in college. Trull has even less chance than the other three top rookie quarterbacks (previous pages) of becoming a starter immediately, despite the fact that he threw a touchdown pass in an exhibition game against the Patriots last Sunday. Nobody else has both a Blanda and a Lee ahead of him.
But Trull is not discouraged. He found himself in a similar situation once before at Baylor, and he came out of it an All-America.
In Trull's sophomore year the two quarterbacks were Ron Stanley and Bobby Ply. Both were so good that Baylor Coach John Bridgers could not decide which one to start. Stanley and Ply were as jealous rivals as Blanda and Lee. But when Ply got hurt and Stanley flopped against Texas, Trull took over in the seventh game and was the hero of Baylor's Gotham Bowl win over Utah State. He became the NCAA's leading passer for the next two years. Trull has the intelligence, the leadership qualities and the determination to pull off such a trick for the Oilers if the circumstances should be right. The reservation—and it is a serious one—is the strength of his arm. Trull has yet to prove he can throw the deep pass that is so necessary for a winning pro quarterback.
When he checked into the Houston training camp last month (Mira, Beathard and Concannon were practicing with the College All-Stars, but Trull had not been invited), Trull went quietly to work. He had a locker between Blanda and Lee, who do not go out of their way to speak to each other, and he was cooperative but embarrassed as a Houston newspaper photographer posed him on top of a firetruck in a fire helmet as the man who could rescue the Oilers from a repeat of last year's 6-8 season. Blanda sat chewing a cigar in the sauna bath the Oilers have installed in their locker room. Lee, who in 1960 came to the Oilers from Cincinnati with almost as impressive a record as Trull brought in 1964, ignored them both.
"It doesn't worry me that the Oilers would go out and buy a high-priced guy like Trull," Lee said. "It makes sense to go out and get one of the best. Blanda obviously can't play a whole lot longer. Then it will be just me and Trull."
Lee does not try to disguise the fact that it will be a happy day for him when Blanda goes—even though one story is that where Blanda may go is into the Oiler front office as head coach when Baugh's contract is up in December. Lee and Blanda have an intensely competitive relationship. "Jack is a fine athlete," says Oiler Talent Scout John Breen, "but Blanda beats him at everything they play—ping-pong, gin rummy or golf. You know why? Jack tries so hard he loses something, his poise or his cool or whatever you call it. It's not there because George is around."
Frustrated over his inaction, Lee considered playing out his option at the finish of the 1962 season. He was then making $16,000 per year. He intended to hold out for $21,000 but instead was offered a three-year contract for $25,000 per year and signed as fast as he could find a pen. At that price, Lee thought he was bound to play. But Lee played less than ever in 1963. Even when Blanda injured a knee, Pop Ivy gave Blanda a crutch by installing a spread formation to protect him rather than go with Lee.
"I went to Ivy," Lee said bitterly, "and told him to hire a rank second-rater for a measly $15,000 and let him stand around behind Blanda if that's all they wanted a quarterback for. Ivy told me he would like to play me, but he had to win, and if he lost it was going to be with Blanda, not with me. What little I was in there, people criticized me for throwing the bomb too much. Well, when I got in we usually needed four touchdowns in half a quarter. Did they expect me to use the running game, throw short, set up first downs?"