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Late at night Daryle Lamonica sometimes lies in bed with his eyes open and sees himself throwing a little pass to Charlie Smith, who then runs through the snow along the sideline in Shea Stadium for about 25 yards and scores a touchdown against the New York Jets. The next scene that appears in Lamonica's mind is a celebration. The Oakland Raiders have climbed atop benches and steamer trunks in their locker room and are cheering each other and toasting their second straight AFL championship. It is Dec. 29, 1968. In Manhattan a dozen authors are putting away their Joe Namath manuscripts and calling the Raiders' publicity director for background stuff on Lamonica.
The following events in Lamonica's fantasy take place in the Super Bowl, where a tall, confident quarterback is calmly outwitting the Baltimore defenses, planning his moves like a chess master and throwing one touchdown pass after another. Now he is known as Super Daryle. It has taken a long time, but clean living has paid off, the best man has won, and Daryle Lamonica has taken a place in the Golden Dome pantheon—reserved for Notre Dame heroes—as champion quarterback of the world.
These visions recur with such clarity because Lamonica believes they so easily could be true, should have been already and soon will be in some form or other, perhaps beginning this Sunday afternoon when the Raiders meet the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFL championship.
There was slightly more than two minutes to play in that 1968 AFL title game, and Oakland was losing 23-27 but had driven to the New York 24. Lamonica lobbed a pass behind the line of scrimmage to Charlie Smith, who not only did not catch the ball but did not pick it up when it fell to the ground. Jet Linebacker Ralph Baker had the foresight to do so, the pass was correctly ruled a lateral rather than an incompletion and the Jets got the ball and eventually the Super Bowl victory that made Namath an international celebrity.
"I have no doubt we would have beaten Baltimore, too," said Lamonica recently. "If it just hadn't been for that one pass to Charlie Smith. Well, I've had a lot of sleepless nights over that one, but I'm convinced it was a good call. With his speed Charlie could have ripped right on into the end zone. I wouldn't hesitate to call that play again, but this time I'd drop back a little deeper so it couldn't be a lateral."
Lamonica was sitting in a booth in a coffee shop in Alameda, Calif., next door to a building near the Oakland Coliseum where he has a four-room apartment. The day before, he had been duck hunting around Fresno. And the day before that he had thrown six touchdown passes in less than two quarters against Buffalo, the team that traded him to Oakland two years earlier. Now he was back in his neighborhood, and nothing was happening. Joe Namath couldn't have sat in that coffee shop for three minutes without being approached by fans wanting autographs and a look at his curly and abundant locks. But all that happened to Daryle Lamonica was that the boy with the coffee pot kept coming back before he was needed, and a couple of old men in another booth glanced over now and then.
This anonymity is odd. In 1967 Lamonica was the AFL's leading passer. In 1968 he was second to Len Dawson, and this year he was third behind Greg Cook of Cincinnati and Namath. But Lamonica threw for 34 touchdown passes in 1969, or exactly as many as Cook and Namath put together. In regular-season games over the past three years Lamonica leads Namath in touchdown passes (89 to 60), has fewer interceptions (60 to 62), is close in yardage (9,775 to 9,888) and has completed an almost identical percentage (about 51%). Lamonica's Raiders had a better regular-season record in those three years than Namath's Jets (37-4-1 to 29-12-1). In addition Lamonica threw two touchdown passes against Houston in the 1967 championship game, two more against Green Bay in the Super Bowl, passed for five touchdowns against Kansas City in last year's Western Division playoff, passed for 401 yards and one touchdown in the championship game against the Jets and was named the league's Most Valuable Player in 1967 and again this year. Moreover, in Oakland's 56-7 playoff win over Houston a fortnight ago, Lamonica completed 13 of 17 for 276 yards and six touchdowns. In the Jets' 13-6 loss to Kansas City in the other playoff game, Namath completed only 14 of 40 for 164 yards and no touchdowns. Faced with all this evidence, how come most people think Namath is the better quarterback and how come Namath has more notoriety?
"I'm just not very colorful," Lamonica said that day in the coffee shop. "I don't pop off and I don't go for the mod clothes. Joe and I don't have much in common. I'm no candidate for a Bachelors III franchise. I'm not saying I don't love to have a good time. I like a drink and a girl. But I'm discreet. I stay out of the public eye. What Joe does is his business. I don't put him down for it. I respect him. He works hard at being a good quarterback. If he didn't he couldn't be a winner. But we've got different ideas about how to relax. Joe does what he pleases, and so do I. My idea of the way to relax is to take off into the woods on Monday after a game, go hunting or fishing, break a sweat, let the old tissues unwind out in the open air. Joe relaxes with a different set of people than I do."
Why is Namath acclaimed as the best quarterback in the AFL? "Well, playing in New York doesn't hurt his chances for getting publicity," Lamonica said with a broad smile. "I feel I'm a better quarterback than Joe Namath is, and I can beat him anytime we play, both in statistics and on the scoreboard. Of course, I don't always do it, but that's how I feel. I want to be known as the No. 1 quarterback, and you do that by winning. Joe didn't have a great year last year, but his team got to the Super Bowl and won. That's what counts. The Jet coaches did a great job beating the Baltimore linebackers. Joe didn't rip them up like he said. Several times he threw passes into the Baltimore zone that he shouldn't have thrown, but he has a great arm and he zipped the ball in there anyhow. He called a good game, but he had a great game plan. And the Jets had a great defense. If the other team scores only seven points, you ought to win."
The Raiders and Jets have played each other five times, including last year's championship, since Lamonica became a regular. The Jets won two out of the three games at Shea Stadium, the Raiders won two of two in Oakland, one of which was the famed "Heidi game," when the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final nine seconds. In the five games Lamonica has more yards (1,557 to 1,352), more touchdowns (12 to 8), more completions (92 to 84), but also more interceptions (9 to 7), and Oakland has scored more points (145 to 129). All these figures are interesting, though they are hardly proof of superiority for either man or team.