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The offensive line is experienced although lacking in depth. Center Sam Gruneisen, Tackles Ron Mix and Ernie Wright, Guard Walt Sweeney and Tight Ends Jacques MacKinnon and Willie Frazier can recall the days when the Chargers could count on championship checks to spend, although Frazier was in Houston at the time. One guard position is undecided, with Gary Kirner and Ed Mitchell struggling for the job.
Gillman finally made up his mind about Quarterback Steve Tensi. He traded him to Denver. Tensi spent last season as understudy to John Hadl, who has had a strange career in San Diego. Hadl, a hard worker, has been tutored intensively by Gillman, has had some fine years and has won championships, but nearly every season his position has been in question. With Tensi gone, it is in question no further. The backup man is Kay Stephenson, who was one of Steve Spurrier's substitutes at Florida. Gillman will shop around for more help. A Hadl injury would ruin the offense.
As long as Hadl is well, he has the Western Division's best group of receivers to catch his passes. Frazier has superior speed for a tight end. The split end, Gary Garrison, has been called another Lance Alworth, which is supreme praise. The flanker is Alworth himself, a remarkable athlete. The runners are superb, too, with Gene Foster at fullback and Paul Lowe, 30 years old but apparently in the best condition of his career, at halfback. In the off-season Gillman traded Fullback Keith Lincoln to Buffalo for Defensive End Tom Day. Some of the players privately applauded that move, saying jealousy between Lincoln and Lowe was not doing the team much good.
It is no secret that jealousies and cliques have caused considerable friction among the Chargers in the past, just as such frailties have bothered other teams. One of the things Gillman is trying in order to keep his athletes happy is an investment counseling plan. Three San Diego businessmen—Attorney Norman Seltzer, City Councilman Ivor de Kirby and Insurance Broker Paul Carter—have formed a committee to advise the Chargers what to do with their money.
"I'm a specialist in football," says Gillman, "and I need professional help in advising the ballplayers about their investments. We invite the athletes to come in with their ideas. The committee will analyze them. If the investment idea is good, we'll back them to the hilt."
Charger ownership has helped Alworth obtain financing for an apartment project in Little Rock, Lowe buy a liquor store, Mix invest in mutual funds and Wright get co-signers on a land deal. "I suppose it's perfectly natural that some young people don't think much about security," Gillman says. "But pro football players have special problems. They must think in terms of retiring at 35, not 65. Starting a new career at 35 can be a shock." A unique feature of the program is that Gene Klein and Sam Schulman, the Chargers' managing owners, guarantee the investments against loss. If there is a loss, it is absorbed by Klein and Schulman, who are executives of a theater chain.
Gillman feels the Chargers are definitely on their way back. "This could be our best club in years," he says. "This is a sounder and deeper team than it was last year. If we play to our potential and avoid injury we could win it all."
That idea has not entered the head of Lou Saban, the new general manager and head coach at Denver. At least, not for this year. But Saban hopes to win it eventually, and he has plenty of time to try—his contract is for 10 years at a reported $50,000 per year. Saban quit suddenly at Buffalo after winning the AFL championship in 1965, explaining that there was nothing left up there for him to conquer. After one year as a college coach at Maryland, he went to Denver, where there is plenty to conquer. Saban immediately tore down the entire organization, which certainly needed it, and began building it up again. "Your main goal is to instill the winning habit as soon as possible," he said. "Bronco fans have been patient, but patience is a bad word."
Saban moved the club's office outside the city limits of Denver, built a new practice field and a field house and began overhauling his squad. Corner Back Willie Brown and Quarterback Mickey Slaughter were traded to Oakland, Defensive Tackle Ray Jacobs was shipped to Miami, Offensive Tackle Eldon Danenhauer and Offensive Guard Bob McCullough retired. Running Back Abner Haynes, Linebacker Jerry Hopkins and Defensive End Danny LaRose were traded to Miami for Cookie Gilchrist and Guard Ernie Park. Safety Goose Gonsoulin was put on waivers the first day of training, Lionel Taylor was traded to Oakland along with Guard Jerry Sturm.
And so it went. Saban changed the team's uniforms. He guided Denver to the best draft in its history and then signed 18 of the 19 draftees (the only one who didn't sign chose medical school instead of pro football). Five Bronco rookies were on the College All-Star team. Name college players like Floyd Little, Pete Duranko, Tom Beer, George Goeddeke and Neal Sweeney found themselves in Denver's new orange jerseys. Veteran Tight End Al Denson was moved to flanker. Tensi came in for a try at quarterback and with only four days to learn Denver plays led the team to its win over the Vikings. Suddenly there was competition at every position. Even Cookie Gilchrist may get replaced at fullback by Wendell Hayes. Gilchrist, incidentally, had signed a contract at Miami that would expire midway in the current season. "I told him if he wanted to play for Denver, he'd have to sign a new one for the entire season. He did it," says Saban.