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The San Diego Chargers' revamped backfield brings to mind the old scriptwriter's clich�, the one that goes: Can't figure out how to end the scene? Run over everybody with a truck.
That's what happened last Saturday night in San Diego when the Chargers unveiled the tandem trucking combine of 6'3", 235-pound tailback Chuck Muncie and 6-foot, 275-pound fullback Pete Johnson and beat the Los Angeles Rams 17-10. Muncie has long been a force for the Chargers, but Johnson is a new and awesome vehicle in California. On second-and-one early in the Ram game, Johnson took the ball into the line and disappeared. Players from both teams stacked up around him. Slowly the entire scrum moved upfield, with Johnson inside like the motor in a tank. A gain of four yards. "I didn't tackle him one on one, but I did get in on some piles," said Ram strong safety Nolan Cromwell after the game. "With Pete you just put your arms out and hope for more people."
The Chargers traded 177-pound running back James Brooks to the Cincinnati Bengals for Johnson in May. Besides gaining a hundred pounds of flesh, San Diego (6-10 last season) also got a blocker for Muncie and the best third-and-inches man in the game. "One of our biggest problems last year was taking it in from short yardage," says coach Don Coryell. "As big as he is, Muncie is still a tailback. We needed an inside man, a power man."
Another reason Coryell brought Johnson to San Diego was to take advantage of the new NFL rule that allows blockers to extend their arms and push defenders out of the way on running as well as passing plays. "I think there's going to be more running in general this year and with bigger guys," says Charger assistant general manager Paul (Tank) Younger, who along with Dan Towler and Dick Hoerner formed the Rams' Bull Elephant backfield of the late '40s and early '50s. "And that's because the bigger guys can take more punishment, and dish it out."
Both Brooks and Johnson were happy to swap places. Brooks was tired of blocking middle linebackers for Muncie, and Johnson had wearied of haggling with the Bengals about money. Last season, his seventh in the NFL and seventh as the Bengals' leading rusher, Johnson made $125,000. Fifty-five NFL running backs got more. With the Chargers he makes more than $200,000.
Johnson felt nobody in the Bengal organization stood up for him last year when Pete Rozelle suspended him for four games after he admitted in court that he had purchased cocaine. Muncie also has been identified with drug usage in the past. He has checked into detoxification centers twice, but, like Johnson, he has never been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. "It's over with," says Muncie. "I've survived. People yelled at me from the stands before, and I'm sure they'll yell at both of us now. The way to shut people's mouths is just run over the other team."
Johnson, a happy-go-lucky man, says the sweetened contract and change of scenery have been the equivalent of a valve job for him. "There's no 'like' involved here," he says. "I love San Diego." As a reward to himself, Johnson recently traded in his old party van, "The Cisco Kid," with its TV, bar, refrigerator, etc. and bought a new van, which he has named "FM 101" because, he says with a sly grin, "I love music."
Lounging in a blue surgical suit one afternoon at the Chargers' La Jolla camp, Johnson looked like either an immense surgeon or an exceedingly healthy patient. The suit is left over from his visit to a Columbus, Ohio hospital for the birth of his son, he says. Other facts are less certain. Like his weight. Some say Johnson now weighs more than 280 and at times in his career has gone as high as 300. Lately he has been telling writers he weighs 450, "just for the hell of it."
O.K., a simple question. Are you married? "No, not really," he says. "Well, yeah, sort of. Say that I am." Even the big guy's name is shaky. Born Willie James Hammock, he changed to Pete Johnson as a teenager, for reasons he never bothers to make clear.
Ironically, Muncie's name, too, is a bit clouded. The last name of everyone else in his family is spelled Munsey, but somehow the name was misspelled on Chuck's birth certificate. Moreover, his given names are Harry Vance. Where did "Chuck" come from? "My brothers hated the name Harry," says Muncie.