Bob Zeman – August 21, 2003

1961 Golden Tulip - Bob Zeman
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BOB ZEMAN

Defensive Back

Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers – 1960-1961, 1965-1966

Denver Broncos – 1962-1964

TT – Tell me about how you came to the Chargers.

BZ – That first year of the Chargers, that was one of the great years that I have ever spent in football.  I remember we were all playing in the Rose Bowl.  I was at Wisconsin.  After the Rose Bowl they took us to a party over at, I think it was Barron Hilton’s house.  Or somebody’s house.  Anyway, Barron Hilton and his wife, Marilyn, were there, and all the executives from the Chargers.  I was one of the first selection rounds.  So we went over there after the bowl game and they told me that I was one of their guys that were chosen.  Me and Ron Mix and I forget who else.  But that was my first visit with them and then I went back to school in Wisconsin. Then I got a call from Sid Gillman.  He was down in Chicago, so I went down there and talked to him, and I signed a contract with him.  I also was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, but I just felt like signing with the Chargers, so I did. 

TT – Were you concerned that the AFL might not succeed? 

BZ – No, I didn’t.  We all heard that these people had all this money and I think NBC had the TV rights and it was going to be on TV.  The networks were going to put a lot of money into it.  And the pay was a lot better than in the NFL at that time.  So no, I didn’t worry about it at all. 

TT – Tell me about the first training camp in 1960.

BZ – Well, it started at the end of June and I was still in the service.  I went in the service right after I graduated in January.  At officers’ school in Virginia, and then I asked for a transfer out to the West Coast.  They brought in a bunch of guys and a couple of hundred guys early in June. And then the drafted guys didn’t have to be down there until July.  My case commander let me go down there and sign out so I could go down there and practice and then I wouldn’t have to go back and sign off duty.  Anyhow, we went two-a-days for three or four weeks.  It was in Orange, California, at Chapman College.  I remember the little town there had a barbecue there for us on a Saturday afternoon.  We couldn’t wait for that barbecue because we knew we had a half a day off.  Then we had a scrimmage with the Orange County Rhinos, which was a semi-pro team.  They called it off in the third quarter because there were so many fights going on.  We had so many guys coming in and out of camp, but that was the longest camp I had ever been at.  Plus six preseason games.  It was rough, but we got a lot done and got a lot of camaraderie.  All the guys that made it through and stuck together, we’re still close to this day.

TT – The Chargers coaching staff had three future Hall of Fame coaches in Sid Gillman, Al Davis and Chuck Noll. 

BZ – Right.  And then one of the other great coaches that was there was Jack Faulkner, who still does work with the Rams.  And then Joe Madro was the offensive line coach.  He was an excellent offensive line coach.  But no, we had Al Davis, who was the wide receiver coach.  Chuck Noll was kind of the defensive coordinator.  He handled the defensive line and linebackers.  There were only five coaches.  And then Sid handled the offense.

TT – Did it appear to be a knowledgeable or overly impressive staff at the time?

BZ – Oh, we thought we had the best coaches in the league at that time.  We had all heard about Sid Gillman with the Rams.  And then Al, he seemed very knowledgeable at the time.  We knew Chuck Noll had played for the Cleveland Browns.  They were all young.  They were all in their 30s, except Sid.  They really taught football.  There are a lot of things that we all learned at that time that we kept to us and guys that have stayed in football still use today.  They were way ahead of their time.

TT – Tell me about Sid Gillman.

BZ – Well, he was real tough.  He didn’t tolerate mistakes.  He was always bringing in players.  If people would screw up, he’d bring in a guy and put the pressure on you.  It was a very pressure –filled situation to play in.  I know on defense we were all edgy.  But it made us work harder.  In ’61 we set the AFL record for most interceptions in a year with 49. 

TT –That was one of my next questions.  Talk about the first fearsome foursome and how they helped you guys set the 1961 record with 49 interceptions.

BZ – I’ll tell you what, Ernie was 6’9”.  Earl was 6’6”.  Bill Hudson was 6’4” or 6’5”.  We were big.  We would have been big at this time.  And then Ron Nery was our right defensive end.  He was our speed rusher, which everybody is using now.  Guys like Charles Haley and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila with the Packers.  They are speed rushers and that’s what Ron Nery was.  But everybody contributed intercepting passes.  Defensive linemen would knock them up in the air and catch them.  Linebackers, everybody was grabbing passes that year.  Of course we had the good pressure and good height up front.  But they got their share too.

TT – What benefits do you think, not monetarily, you got playing with the Chargers that you may not have gotten from playing with any other team in the AFL?

BZ – The Chargers, we went first class.  Sid had been around and we tried to do things first class.  I remember talking to Jerry Magee at that time or Jack Murphy, that we were the class of the league.  Everything was done on that basis and we felt that we were getting the best that we could at that time.  Some of the other clubs were having trouble meeting payroll, like the Titans.  Denver was struggling financially.  So we kind of thought that we were with the best franchise.

TT – Which of your two periods with the Chargers did you enjoy most?

BZ – The first two years.  We had such great camaraderie.  We had good teams and there was more of a togetherness.  Then when I came back the second time, there really wasn’t that close-knit, even though we had a lot of good times together, it just seemed like those first two years we were up in L.A. and then San Diego, we all battled through that stuff.  We played in the coliseum when it was about empty and then went down to Balboa and filled the thing.  It was kind of like that first two years, that group of guys started things going.  The first two years were really good.

TT – How did you feel when you first found out that the Chargers were going to move to San Diego?

BZ – I really didn’t know.  Most of us really didn’t know much about San Diego.  It was a little town down South.  I was home in the off-season, back in the Chicago-area, and heard that the team had moved.  I wasn’t really sure what San Diego was.  I had never been there.  But we heard a lot of good things and they were going to do a lot of things for the guys.  You know, get them all off-season jobs, which we all needed.  So it was kind of exciting.

TT – Who did you think were your most impressive teammates?

BZ – Keith Lincoln was one of the great athletes we had, and Lance Alworth.  Talk about two guys that could run and do everything.  Keith could kick, pass and run.  Lance was just so athletic.  He could jump a mile high and run and had great hands.  Just being around those guys; they were in a different category themselves.  Good guys, too.  So probably those two players stood out in my mind as being…  Well, Lance is in the Hall of Fame, so that speaks for itself.  But Ron Mix was another guy.  I don’t think he ever had a holding call on him in his career.  He was so consistent and dominated his position.  Those three guys were really impressive to me.

TT – What is your favorite road trip memory?

BZ – You know, Don Norton was a wide receiver at the time.  He was my roommate on the road. In fact, one of my sons is named after him.  He passed away a couple of years ago.  But we were on a road trip and we were staying in Boston and playing the Patriots.  We were allowed to come to our hotel rooms, but they told us not to use the beds because we were just going to come there and rest up for a while before we went to the game that night.  We had been staying up in New York the previous week.  Anyhow, Don and I and Dave (Kocourek) were in the room.  Don had the window open and he was looking out.  Dave and I were horsing around.  There was a ledge out the window.  Don was kind of being wise to us, so we pushed him out on the ledge.  He was hollering and screaming at us, and we pulled his pants down and shut the window.  Of course he was hollering and cussing and swearing at us, and it was raining outside.  We were always thinking of something like that to do.  That was one of the funniest things.  He dared us to do it and we did it.  He couldn’t believe it.  But he didn’t fall, so that was one good thing.

TT – You were telling me a story yesterday about Volney Peters and falling in the outhouse.

BZ – Yeah.  I’m trying to think if it was after a game or…  It was some night.  He was going home and he ran out of gas.  It was dark out, so he was cutting across this farmer’s field.  Anyhow, he fell into an old outhouse hole.  He had to dig little ledges in the side to get himself out.  Then he walked across the field and he found a gas station and called a cab.  Then he got some gas for his car and went home.  Of course when he knocked the door was locked.  His wife came to the door and there he was, standing there full from falling in the outhouse.  That was an awesome story.

TT – You went on that road trip to play in Hawaii, right?

BZ – Yeah, we did.  Well, that was quite a trip.  We were supposed to go there longer, but the plane broke down, so we got delayed a day or two.  But we went over there for about three days, I think.  We went surfing and stuff.  But on the way home we were in the plane and one of the players went in the back and found the champagne that they had on the plane.  Guys were drinking mai-tais and we stayed a day after the game.  But Don Norton got on the plane and he had a lei around his neck and shorts on.  In those days you dressed up when you flew.  Anyhow, the players and coaches sat together, so his seat was next to Chuck Noll.  Anyhow, Chuck Noll looked at him and just gave him a dirty look.  In those days, after practice we used to go watch the Three Stooges.  You know how they poked each other in the eye with the two fingers?  Well, Chuck had been looking at Norton, and finally Norton took his hand out and gave Chuck three jabs in the eyes with his two fingers.  Just like the Three Stooges would do.  We were all sitting around watching that.  Of course Chuck was pretty straight and he didn’t appreciate that.  But we went surfing over there.  It was the first time I had been surfing.  Jack Kemp, he was a West Coast guy and we went out on surfboards.  It was most of our first trip over to Hawaii.  I was over there and met this Hawaiian hula dancer.  She came back over.  I invited her over that year and we got engaged.  Barron Hilton really liked her and was going to buy the ring for us if we got married.  But it didn’t work out.  Good thing for her.  So that was that trip.

 

TT – Just after the 1961 AFL championship game ended, you plowed into official John Morrow because he was “roughing up Sid Gillman” after Gillman had complained about the officiating.  Can you discuss that situation?

BZ – Well, it was the Houston Oilers.  It was the championship game in Balboa Stadium.  We lost the game 10-3 and there were some controversial calls in that game.  So anyhow, after the game was over, Sid was out in the middle of the field.  He was arguing with the officials.  The official grabbed him by the lapel.  I happened to be there, but I just grabbed the official around the shoulders and turned him, pulled him away from Sid.  Yeah, he did fall down.  But I didn’t knock him down or anything.  But a couple years later, actually when I was with the Jets, one of the players asked Joe Foss when the commissioner came around to each of our camps.  He came to the Jets training camp and one of the players said, “Hey, what about Zeman knocking that guy down?”  And Joe said, “Well, I gave him one on the house that day.”  Now it’s a lot more strict, as you know.  I probably would have got suspended for good for that one.  But it wasn’t a vicious thing or anything.  I just grabbed him to pull him away and there was a lot of people there and he fell down.  But I never got fined or anything.  So I thank Joe Foss. 

TT – What did you dislike about being a professional football player?

BZ – Dislike? I didn’t dislike anything.  I loved it.  I loved practice.  I always liked going out to practice.  I’d get adrenaline going at practice.  Probably the thing that I didn’t like was that the season went too fast.  Before you know it, it was all over and you didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it.  Sometimes there was a little too much pressure.  I remember in ’61 we had one 11 games in a row and we could feel the pressure.  We were all saying, “Jeez, what would it be like if we were losing 11 in a row?  Then what would it be like?”  I really liked it.  So much so that I said that they were going to have to drag me out of there when they wanted to get rid of me.  But I can’t say that there was anything that I really didn’t like.

TT – Any other thoughts that strike you about the Chargers?  Things that you really remember but don’t often get to speak about?

BZ – I really can’t say.  I’d have to think.  I think probably there were some players that maybe weren’t playing the price or you didn’t think really should be playing, and they were playing.  That bothered a lot of guys.  They wondered why that was.  Whether a coach liked them or the head coach liked them or something.  But there’s some players that were on the roster and the rest of the guys really couldn’t understand why.  That probably bothered us more than anything.  You don’t see players talking about that much these days.  Once in a while.  But a lot of that stuff the guys keep to themselves.  And amongst themselves.  But I see that even today on NFL teams that with the 46-man active roster, there’s probably six or seven guys on each team that wouldn’t be on any other team in the NFL except the one their on.  Just because there’s a spot and the guy is there.  We saw that back then, even though the rosters were a lot smaller, 33 and 35 guys.

TT – Other comments?

BZ – No.

TT – How long were you in coaching?

BZ – 22 years.  I scouted a couple years and I went over to NFL Europe a couple years.  I came up here to Wisconsin and retired in ’94.  Then in ’99 Mike Holmgren took the Seattle job.  He and I coached together in San Francisco, so he asked if I would come up there with him to get it started.  So I said, “Yeah, I’ll come up there for the year, until the playoffs are over.”  So I did.  Then I came back here

 

Todd Tobias (762 Posts)

Todd Tobias's interest in the American Football League began in 1998, when he wrote my master's thesis about Sid Gillman. He created this site to educate and entertain football fans with the stories of the American Football League, 1960-1969. You can follow Todd and get more AFL history on Twitter @TalesfromtheAFL.


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