Lance went to Arkansas through a combination of Frank Broyles's charm and Johnny Vaught's rules. Born in Houston, Alworth grew up in Brook-haven, Miss., where he won 12 high school athletic letters. He had learned football in the oil camps of Mississippi and Louisiana among college football players working at summer jobs. "They called the game roughhouse," he says. "I was in the second grade and played with the big boys on a hard, graveled lot. One boy would kick off and 15 or 20 of us would go after the ball. The one who got it ran as far as he could. When he was downed he'd throw the ball over his head and somebody else would get it and start again until somebody took it across the goal. When we finished, our faces would be scraped to shreds, but it was fun."
Ole Miss signed Alworth after his senior year in high school, but Coach Vaught had rules against married players and Lance, at 17, had married 15-year-old Betty Allen. While Vaught was thinking up some exceptions to his rules, Arkansas Coach Broyles and his wife, Barbara, entered the situation, and soon the young Alworths were en route to Fayetteville. "If you're a high school kid and Frank talks to your parents, you're going to Arkansas," Lance says. "He comes on with that solid, Christian, considerate, engaging manner of his, telling them how he's going to take care of their boy, and you're gone." Alworth is still consumed by devotion for Arkansas. His Charger roommate, All-AFL Fullback Keith Lincoln, sat with Lance, watching the Arkansas-Texas game on television this year. "Lance got blue in the face from yelling, and first thing I knew I was standing on the bed yelling for him," says Lincoln.
Alworth lives with Betty and their two children in a two-story house in a fashionable section of Little Rock, where he has recently retired from the advertising business because, he says, "I worked from 8 in the morning until 11 at night and was mentally and physically exhausted as I've never been before. I won't do that again. I like to play golf and fish too much." He considers himself a citizen of Arkansas, and as such worked for Faubus. (He believes the man was misunderstood during the Little Rock integration troubles in 1956.) Lance went out and shook hands for Faubus, but he also shakes hands with every Charger before every game. He accepted with grace the kidding his teammates gave him when he returned from the Faubus campaign. Crosses were burned above Alworth's dressing cubicle in San Diego. Negro Halfback Paul Lowe, who was born and brought up in the Watts district of Los Angeles, led Freedom Marches and made civil rights speeches in front of Alworth in the locker room. On Lance's first day back from the Faubus campaign, white Linebacker Paul Maguire, since traded to Buffalo, stepped into a huddle and said, "What's going on here? I thought this was a segregated scrimmage." The Negroes laughed, and so did Alworth. "In my honest opinion, the southern players get along with Negroes better than most players from other parts of the country," says Lance. "Maybe we try harder because of where we're from, but as far as I'm concerned we're all the same. There are no racial factions on this team. We have the speeches and Freedom Marches in the locker room only when everybody is feeling good. There's nothing bitter about it."
Lance was signed for the Chargers by Al Davis, now the coach and general manager at Oakland, and it was a con job of rare smoothness. Alworth had been the first draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League but did not discuss salary with them. " Davis had me sold on San Diego," Lance says, "and when I met Red Hickey [then coach of the 49ers] I asked for a no-cut contract. Red is from Arkansas, but I don't know him well. He spent 10 minutes telling me why I couldn't have a no-cut contract. I told him I had a no-cut offer from the other league, and he said, O.K., he guessed I could have one from San Francisco. I didn't much like that attitude. I didn't care which league I went to, except Davis had promised I could play sooner at San Diego and that was what I wanted."
Alworth's career with the Chargers began off-key. Several players were kicking 40-yard field goals for fun in practice when Line Coach Joe Madro shouted for them to stop before someone got hurt. Alworth, who had absorbed a number of beatings as a college football hero and had soaked up a skinful of buckshot while leaping a fence with a watermelon under his arm, could not imagine getting hurt kicking a field goal. As he kicked one last time, another player pushed him. Lance's foot hit the top of the ball and flew up with a tremendous snap. A muscle in his right thigh, above the knee, popped and rolled up like a window shade. Alworth was put into a cast and warned by a doctor not to straighten his leg for two weeks, but the Charger trainer (who has been replaced by efficient young Jim Van Deusen) ordered Lance out of the cast and told him to run his leg into shape. Later, two men held Alworth on a table while the trainer tried to massage what he insisted was a "blood pocket" out of Lance's leg. "I could feel that muscle squibbling around. He'd mash it down and get the blood to bulge up and then the muscle would squibble loose again. I had tears in my eyes when I finally made them let me up. I figured, well, it was all the same in football from high school on. Nobody would believe you were hurt. They'd say for you to come on and get at it when you couldn't walk, and they'd lug you off the field like a sack. But last year when I had a bad knee, Jimmy Van Deusen asked me three days before the championship game if I could run on it and I told him no and he believed me. I appreciated that."
Alworth—as Bambi, the gifted, the quick, the graceful—survived that first experience and played four games as a rookie, catching 10 passes and scoring three touchdowns. His statistics since then have been remarkable. In the three following seasons, including this one, Lance has had an average of more than 20 yards per catch and, carrying out the primary mission of a deep receiver, which is to score, has made a touchdown once every five receptions. And that is not on a small number of catches. In 1963 he caught 61 passes for 1,206 yards and 11 touchdowns. Last year it was 61 catches for 1,235 yards and 13 touchdowns. So far this year Lance has 62 catches for 1,428 yards and 12 touchdowns—picking up 147 yards and two touchdowns just last Saturday against the Jets. In his first two seasons Alworth was not working against defenses as tough as he would have faced in the NFL, but in the past two seasons there has not been that much difference between the leagues. And Alworth has not had a Johnny Unitas throwing to him. He did have Tobin Rote, but in a fading period, and now he has John Hadl, who has become a clever quarterback but never will be chosen to illustrate a picture book of classic passers.
Alworth, moreover, managed his accomplishments of 1963 and 1964, both All-AFL years, without learning the moves that are to a pass receiver what feints are to a basketball player. He got by on his 9.6 speed and his sure hands. This year has been different. Lance has faced so much double coverage that he has been forced to resort to foolery. "The move gets me away from the first man," he says. "If there's a linebacker out there with me and he crowds me and hits me, he can knock me off the pattern. But if he stands back a couple of yards he doesn't have a chance, because the only linebacker quick enough to do that and stay with me is Bobby Bell of Kansas City. I saw Bobby Bell almost catch Paul Lowe from behind once, and if he can do that to Lowe he can do it to me. Usually I can use a move to get away from the linebacker and then worry about the corner back. If there are two backs on me, John [Hadl] will spot it and throw to somebody who has single coverage. It's funny how I used to think a move was just a head fake. I'd run a square-out pattern and not even do a square-out, just kind of circle around, but the backs played me so loose I was open anyway. After studying films, I know better. Charlie Hennigan [of Houston] has the best moves in either league. Every step, he's doing something."
The receiver's most important task, obviously, is to catch the ball when it arrives. That requires concentration as well as touch. Alworth's only flaw is that he tends to become careless, which he admits, and not watch the ball into his hands or run out his patterns when he is not the primary receiver. Now Lance tries to catch a number of slant-in patterns early in the season. "If you catch those, when people are all around you, it means you're concentrating," he says. "I'm aware of the defensive backs, especially in practice, but if I can catch a slant-in and tuck the ball away it means I have a good grip on the ball. There's nearly always something there with a slant-in, an opening between the linebackers or the deep men, and you're running when you get the ball. For a while this year I was dropping the ball—more balls than I've dropped in my whole life—and I was afraid I'd lost it, like a golfer loses it, but it came back. An outside receiver needs quickness and hands. Lots of people have one or the other. I've been lucky."
Although he is devoting more care to his moves, Alworth does not run patterns as they are drawn on the board, and Gillman does not expect him to. The Chargers often throw the ball to a "breaking point"—a specific location on the field—and allow the receiver to arrive there however he thinks best. When the receiver is Alworth, he is frequently seen several feet off the ground, seemingly hanging in the air in a high, balletish leap, while the defensive backs who went up with him are falling back to earth. That leap, that uncanny ability to hang, is as characteristic of Alworth as his grace or his speed. It is a knack that puzzles him. "I can't really jump very high when I try," he says. "In high school as a basketball player I could never cram the ball into the basket. But I have pictures of myself going up for rebounds with my hands above the rim. If I'm concentrating on the ball I don't realize how high up I've gone. A couple of us had a kicking contest with Sam Snead the other day and Snead kicked the top of a seven-foot door. He's 50 something, isn't he? I'm 24 and I couldn't kick anywhere near as high as he could."
Of course, there was no football at the top of that door. Going for a football, Alworth is magic. "Sometimes I jump when I don't need to, I guess," says Lance, "but one reason I jump is to get my body into the ball so it can't be knocked away, especially on third down. And when you're up in the air you don't get hit so hard. They sort of push you. If you're on the ground when you catch it, they pulverize you." Alworth flanks either right or left, usually to the strong side but occasionally to the weak. As a play begins he sometimes stands upright, hands on hips, right knee slightly bent and right foot back a few inches, head turned toward Hadl to hear the snap count and the audible, if there is one. Then he does a little dance step as he starts toward his rendezvous with the ball. But Alworth uses the upright stance only when the footing is uncertain. He prefers to move out from a sprinter's stance, digging hard off his right foot for acceleration, particularly on short patterns. He and Hadl have learned to anticipate each other by now, and their mutual respect has increased. "Lance is the best receiver I ever saw. He makes the clutch catches," says Hadl. "Football," Alworth says, "is recognition, and John can read defenses as well as the coaches can. He spends from four to six hours a day looking at films. He complains about it some. All of us complain about having so many meetings. We meet more than any team I ever heard of, but when the game comes every man knows what he is supposed to do, even though we don't always play like it. Sid Gillman is a fantastic person, with a brilliant mind, and he has taught John a lot. Early this year in a scrimmage, John walked up to the line, spotted a blitz that the defense wasn't supposed to have yet, and called time-out. Last year we'd have run the play anyway and wondered what went wrong. Sid can make anybody a great football player who listens to him. The fans and writers were asking if we could win this year with Hadl, now that Rote had retired. Hadl put us into the championship game last year, which people don't seem to realize. But the fans act like they're trying to boo him out of here the way they booed Jack Kemp out of here. I don't know what they expect."