He does not have the strongest arm in football, but he has one of the finest touches, the ability to put just the right speed and loft on the ball. In the Oakland game he demonstrated this time and again in the face of a heavy rush, in the first quarter rainbowing one pass over groping linebackers to John Jefferson in the middle, then beating the blitz with a line drive to Jefferson for a 57-yard touchdown.
Fouts did, in fact, start his career with his good friend Tringali, leading the St. Ignatius High School Wildcats to the West Catholic Athletic League championship in 1967, his junior year. As a senior, he did not pass that often, and he was overshadowed by Jesse Freitas (later a Charger teammate) of Serra High of San Mateo, who had a receiver named Lynn Swann on his team. Fouts enrolled at the University of Oregon, the only Pacific Eight (now Pacific Ten) school to recruit him, and he quickly established a reputation for dramatic entrances when, in his first game, he filled in for the injured Tom Blanchard in the second half against California and pitched the Ducks to a 31-24 win. In three seasons he broke 19 school records while passing for 5,995 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Drafted in the third round by San Diego, he broke a collarbone in an all-star game and was unable to play again until the fourth game of the regular NFL season, against Pittsburgh. Once more he proved he knew how to make an entrance. Johnny Unitas was playing out the string for San Diego in 1973, and on this particular day he was all but unraveled by the Steelers, completing only two of nine passes in a first half that ended with Pittsburgh leading 38-0. Enter Fouts. He completed 11 of 21 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown and led the Chargers to two more TDs—one concluding a 90-yard drive—to bring the final score to 38-21. Unitas' career was over; Fouts' was beginning.
Unfortunately, inheriting the Chargers' quarterback job in those days was a little like inheriting Chrysler stock today. The team was 2-11-1 in his rookie year and 5-9 in 1974, mere preliminaries to what is now known in San Diego as the "Bataan Death March" of 1975, during which the team lost its first 11 games, three of them shutouts. "It was a terrible team," says current 49er Coach Bill Walsh. Quarterbacking the Chargers was, if nothing else, educational. Painfully so. Still feeling his way in the professional game, Fouts became an instant object of fan derision. In contending with this unpleasant development, he drew on his experiences as a ball boy, recalling with what grace Brodie had tolerated the abuse heaped on him by Kezar's bibulous boo-birds. Things ultimately got so bad for Brodie that a special screen had to be erected over the tunnel leading to the 49er locker room to protect him from a skulling by beer-can marksmen in the stands. Fouts was at least spared this humiliation.
Walsh took over as offensive coordinator in 1976 for the head coach at the time, Tommy Prothro, and a stereotyped offense was transformed into a pass-oriented attack that exploited all of Fouts' burgeoning talents. Walsh tarried only a year with the Chargers before moving on to head coaching jobs at Stanford and with the 49ers, but he retains Fouts' enduring respect. "He's such a great teacher." says Fouts. "He worked with me on my fundamentals. You have to have good fundamentals as your base. Once you do, you can concentrate on other aspects of the game, like reading defenses."
Walsh is no less effusive in praise of Fouts. "It took his technical development for people to realize his other qualities—his assertiveness, his leadership, his intelligence. And I'm not sure there is anyone as tough as he is in standing up to the rush. He is naturally courageous. If somebody asked me who the best clutch players were, I'd put Fouts in a category with Bradshaw and Staubach."
Fouts completed 57.9% of his 359 passes for 2,535 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1976, and the Chargers' record improved from 2-12 to 6-8. For the first time since he turned pro, there seemed to be a future out there somewhere. Then Walsh departed, and James Harris, a more experienced and better-paid quarterback, arrived by trade from the Rams. Unhappy with his own contract, Fouts demanded to be traded. When he was not obliged, he announced his retirement. He was 26. Eventually he challenged the basic pro football labor agreement in court, hoping to win his freedom.
In court he testified that the Chargers were not of championship caliber, and the wrath of fans and press, withheld during his fine '76 season, descended upon him again. Fouts lost his case, and he rejoined his somewhat offended teammates in time for the 11th game of the 1977 season, which he started in place of the injured Harris. He still knew how to make an entrance, or, in this instance, a re-entrance, completing 19 of 26 passes for 199 yards in a 30-28 win over Seattle. Bygones were almost bygones.
"There was no outward reaction from the team," Fouts recalls.
"There are no bitter feelings on our part," says Charger owner Gene Klein, who subsequently signed Fouts to a long-term contract. "Whatever his reasons were for sitting out, I'm sure they were good and proper reasons for him. He is a very purposeful young man." For his part, Fouts simply refuses to "open that can of worms again."