"The Dallas Texan trainer was massaging Quarterback Len Dawson's arm just before a recent game. Dawson, stripped to the waist, sat silently on the training table. When a visitor came in to congratulate him on a fine season, Dawson regarded him coldly and did not answer. He retrieved his arm from the trainer briefly in order to shake hands, then retired again into the brooding silence that is the salient part of his personality. It is Dawson, more than any other person, who has led the Texans to their first AFL division championship, but you would never suspect his importance to the team looking at him.
The arm the trainer was working on is thin and white and unimpressive. Dawson has the torso of a captain of the chess team and he is as sparkling as a piece of wet liver. But he leads the AFL in passing and his leadership has given the Texans the confidence they lacked in previous seasons. He has, too, the courage to accept adversity. He does not throw the ball under pressure if he has no chance to complete the pass. He takes the tackle.
Dawson was the first draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957, after setting Big Ten passing records at Purdue. He stayed with the Steelers for three years, sitting silently on the bench watching Bobby Layne play, then went to the Cleveland Browns, where he sat quietly and contemplated the heroics of Milt Plum.
Taken by a sudden fit of conversation recently, he explained, with characteristic honesty, why he never played in the NFL.
"It has to be one of two reasons," he said. "First, because they didn't have confidence in me. That's hard to believe. Why would I have been there? Second, because Buddy Parker and Paul Brown believe in finding one quarterback and sticking with him through thick and thin."
Hank Strain, who coaches the Texans and who was assistant coach at Purdue when Dawson played there, is a one-quarterback man, too, but now the quarterback is Dawson. Stram has complete confidence in Dawson and allows him to call his own plays. Once in a while Stram will send in a call, but Dawson does not always use it.
"He's independent," Stram says. "He always has been. I remember the first time I met him. We were trying to get him to come to Purdue and we were in the gym. Len was passing. He was a great passer even then. He was a fine basketball player, too, and the basketball coach came over to meet him. 'I hope you come to Purdue, ' he said to Len. 'I know you will be a big help to us in basketball.' Dawson gave him that look and said, 'You don't know that. You've never seen me play.' "
"That look" is what Dawson uses most of the time in place of conversation. "He looks at you as if he is thinking, 'Does this guy know what he is talking about?' " says Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Texans. "I can't figure him out. I know he is the most completely matter-of-fact human being I have ever met. And I know, too, that he has the complete confidence of the team. They are afraid of him, I think. He can scare a 270-pound tackle with that look."
When Dawson takes the field, however, his personality undergoes a radical change. He does not depend upon the chilling stare to reprimand players for missed assignments. He is almost as vocal as Bobby Layne, who was his close friend on the Steelers. Layne helped Dawson learn the intricacies of playing pro quarterback.
Explaining his loquaciousness on the field, Dawson says, "I like to win. I like to eliminate mistakes. During the week, the coaches are the leaders. When the game starts, it's my job. I don't want the players to have mental lapses. The worst thing in football is to give up the ball because of a mental lapse."