SI Vault
Alfred Wright
August 19, 1968
On August weekends in Los Angeles some people try to get out of town, but last Saturday night 64,020 mad dogs defied the heat and careened over the freeways to watch the Rams win a thriller by blocking a punt (above) for a safety—a play that could mean more than just a preseason victory
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August 19, 1968

A Big Lift Toward The Title

On August weekends in Los Angeles some people try to get out of town, but last Saturday night 64,020 mad dogs defied the heat and careened over the freeways to watch the Rams win a thriller by blocking a punt (above) for a safety—a play that could mean more than just a preseason victory

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If there is one thing you must never do over an August weekend in Los Angeles, it is hang around town in that 90� smog. The alternatives are manifold. You can pile into the Rolls or the Ma-ser, strap a board on the top, if that's your bag, and head for the beach. Tijuana for the bullfights is O.K. Or Catalina on the family yacht. So are the mountains, if you have one of those $250,000 second homes at Lake Arrowhead. But get out of town.

Last weekend was no exception, save for one little Friday night surprise that sneaked up on a lot of wives and girl friends who should have been reading the sports pages instead of just sitting there hunched over Dear Abby or watching the tears roll down Pat Nixon's cheeks while Dick was accepting the Republican nomination. Football had arrived. With the skis only just stashed away in the garage and Mom still wondering how to keep the kids away from the hippies on the Sunset Strip through the long summer vacation, here was the old man making excuses about having to go down to the Coliseum on Friday night to watch the Rams play the Cleveland Browns. "But it's barely August yet," was the overworked complaint of the week.

This has become an annual problem in Los Angeles. The L.A. Times has been staging its midsummer pro-football preview for charity since the days when football players thought face masks were something you wore on Halloween. In the first one 23 years ago the Rams had just moved west from Cleveland, Bob Waterfield was the first-string quarterback, Harry Truman was getting on-the-job training in the White House and Bob deLauer, an old USC center who now runs a beauty salon for poodles, kicked a 45-yard field goal to beat the Redskins 16-14. Through fat years and some so lean they would make Jack Spratt look like a defensive tackle, the Rams have been doing this thing against the Redskins and Cowboys; and now the Browns. A total of 1,716,496 have turned up and provided a harvest to the Times charity that comes to slightly more than a dollar a customer.

That, in a word, is not bad for an exhibition game, but last week's confrontation of Rams and Browns was not an exhibition game any longer. It was a "preseason game" by ukase of Commissioner Pete Rozelle. This confidential new edict from the commissioner's office that went out to all the clubs last week is a little like a recent message from Rome about The Pill. There is no way the commissioner can abolish exhibition games in the minds of the populace, but as far as the National Football League is concerned, they are preseason games. Everyone is supposed to pretend that victory is the sole objective. "It is extremely important," says the commissioner's pronunciamento, "that nothing be done or said that downgrades these games in the mind of the public."

As far as the Times charity classic is concerned, there was no need to worry. The buildup that preceded the Rams' second victory of the 1968 season—a last-minute 23-21 squeaker over the Browns—almost drove the Republican convention back among the want ads. Most of the headlines involved a couple of Ram holdouts who threatened to spend the coming season in their living rooms watching the action on the tube unless they got a raise. One of these was David (Deacon) Jones, a fully ordained All-Pro defensive end without whom the Rams' celebrated Fearsome Foursome would be little more than a large threesome. The other was Jack Snow, a skinny split end who looks as if he could use the money for groceries but who catches a great many useful passes for the Rams when he is working. In time's nick, as they sometimes say, the two chaps capitulated—at about the same time as Nelson Rockefeller's delegates did, and with equally flamboyant headlines in the Times.

And so, with Friday evening finally at hand, the Times, which is in charge of Southern California in all matters of consequence, ordered the smog to disappear. It did, and for the first time this summer the Visine eyedrops stayed in the medicine chest as something called fresh air blew in off the Pacific. The natives draped their love beads over their Nehru jackets, and altogether 64,020 people, seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, careened over the freeways and into the Coliseum. Across town a dispirited trickle of 15,000 glumly watched the Dodgers, whose season it was supposed to be, lose another game to the Phillies in their mad dash toward 10th place.

At a major event like this, the Coliseum press box is a place where reporters try to squeeze in among the celebrities. Bob Hope was there making a pitch for the USO and wondering why he ever sold his piece of the Rams. Billy Wilder, the director, showed up with his writers. Walter Matthau was so spotlessly turned out you might have thought he was Jack Lemmon. Horace McMahon represented the New York police department. With the blessings of showbiz, the preseason football season was underway right on the heels of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It was quickly apparent during the warmup that the crew-cut athlete of yesteryear is as extinct as plus fours. Roman Gabriel, the Ram quarterback, could join the Beatles' act and not look out of place. Dr. Frank Ryan, his counterpart on the Browns, wears a distinguished crop of gray hair as befits the mathematician he is. Tommy Mason, the running back, and Roger Brown, the dainty 300-pound tackle, have grown the outstanding sets of sideburns although the competition was strong. Ernie Green and Leroy Kelly, the running backs who have almost made the Browns forget Jimmy Brown, and Bernie Casey, the Rams' flanker, wore particularly effective models of the new Afro hairstyle. Only the old bald guys like Maxie Baughan, the linebacker, are left out of the hair act, more's the pity.

The game started 15 minutes late, because Times officials took pity on all those folks who were caught in the great freeway off-ramp squeeze. In due course the first-string players were given their customary introductions, but not without causing the Rams their first injury of the game. Fullback Les Josephson put so much zest into his dash onto the greensward that he tore a muscle in his calf and was out for the evening.

For the first 30 minutes of the contest you might have thought the Browns were scrimmaging against a pickup team from Cucamonga. With Kelly and Green carrying, they ran their pitchout sweeps to the right with ridiculous ease, knowing that Deacon Jones, who normally would have been in the way, was kneeling on the sidelines watching the action. When this got tiresome Ryan varied the attack with short passes to the left, in the zone that would have been occupied by Baughan had he, too, not been out with a mending knee.

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