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Dan Fouts' football career would seem to lend itself to tidy, instructive little anecdotes. Indeed, the ingredients are there for a veritable anthology, were it not for the black-bearded protagonist's penchant for stepping on all the punch lines. Fouts, at 28, is currently the hottest quarterback in the NFL after some unseasonably cool years in San Diego. When he threw for 303 yards in the Chargers' stunning 45-22 loss to Oakland on Oct. 25, he became the first passer in NFL history to exceed 300 yards in four consecutive games, an accomplishment he predictably dismissed at the time with the gloomy observation, "It doesn't mean anything—we lost."
But with Fouts at the controls of the game's most diversified pass offense, the Chargers have not lost that often. After last Sunday's 20-14 win over Kansas City, they were 7-3 and shared the AFC West lead with Denver. Fouts leads the league in passing yardage and percentage of completions and, according to the NFL's Einsteinian formula for computing passing excellence, is No. 3 overall.
These are irrefutable facts. Consider now the Boys' Life story. Fouts, a native San Franciscan, is the son of Bob Fouts, who was the play-by-play broadcaster for the 49ers in the 1950s and '60s, when Dan was growing up. The youngster was a ball boy for the team, mingling on the sidelines at old Kezar Stadium with the likes of John Brodie and Billy Kilmer. It was there, amid the down markers and the extra chin straps, that he first came under the scrutiny of his future high school coach, Vince Tringali, an old-school disciplinarian who would exert a profound influence in developing Fouts' singularly tough-minded approach to the game.
"A coach just naturally looks all over the field," says Tringali, "and so I noticed this kid on the sidelines throwing the ball back to the referee. I didn't know who he was, but I could see he had a heck of an arm."
A pretty fair story: ball boy vows to become professional football star himself after taking inspiration from his idols, is discovered by the coach, who takes him up the first step on his quest. And it is a true story—except for the inferences.
Fouts was a self-assured and comparatively sophisticated youngster, not one to stand in awe of even the most celebrated of professional athletes. After all, Brodie and former 49er great Y. A. Tittle could be seen most any evening in his living room, so close was his father's association with the team. On those Kezar sidelines, young Fouts simply went about the business of retrieving and returning footballs.
Did he dream then of someday playing on an NFL gridiron himself? "I don't know of any kid who can think that far ahead," he says. "Standing on the sidelines at Kezar, I never really thought much about being on the field. I didn't have any sense of great drama. I was just having a good time watching the game."
And Tringali as Svengali? "Did Vince say he could see back then that I was a great passer? Why, the referee wouldn't even let us throw overhand." Oh well.
Fouts likes a good story as well as the next man, but he prefers that it be precise in every detail. His own dedication to veracity has occasionally caused him embarrassment, such as when he virtually testified against his teammates in a court hearing by saying he would rather play with a contender than with them.
Fouts is considered to be among the most courageous of men in a business where courage is a prerequisite and he is one of his game's fiercest competitors, but he subscribes to the philosophy that all things should be held in perspective. "I try to keep an even keel," he will say, looking, with his beard and sober mien, somewhat like Henry James' brother, William. "Your successes are so fleeting in this business, you can't get too excited about them. But it's a good life, probably because it's so short."