Don Rogers – January 5, 2000
Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers – 1960-1964
TT – Tell me about the process of you coming to the Chargers.
DR – Well my first year out of college I was drafted by San Francisco. I didn’t make it. Paul Lowe and I were, I think, the last two cuts. I think the irony was my biggest mistake there was that I probably got in too good of condition. I lost a lot of weight. I showed up at training camp at 235 and they wanted me up around 250. When I first started working out I was 265 and I just lost too much weight. That’s probably the biggest single reason why I didn’t make it. Anyway, when I got cut I didn’t know what to do, so I called South Carolina. I guess like everybody else, when you don’t know what to do, you go back to school. I called South Carolina and said I’d really like to get my fifth year. Because everybody that I’d started off with as a freshman, they red-shirted a year. So I said, “I think I’d like to get a fifth year.” And they said, “Fine, we’ll continue your scholarship.” So I used that fifth year to go to graduate school and I think it was spring break when I was home in New Jersey and I had absolutely no intentions of playing football and I got a call from Al Davis. He was at Newark Airport. I had never heard of the American Football League, I had never heard of Al Davis. He was on the road signing up everybody he could. He reached me at home and I said, “I’m really not interested. I gave it a shot and I have lost interest. Don’t want to play football.” So he hounded me and said, “At least come down to the airport.” So I went down and I talked to him and simply told him I didn’t want to play. He hung around and called me the next day and I said, “I haven’t changed my mind.” Somehow or other he got me to go down there again. I don’t know if I felt sorry for him or what. I left him with the same message, “I’m just not interested.” While he was there he had signed a couple of guys, one of them was from South Carolina, Sam DeLuca who was a couple years ahead of me. So finally he started pulling all kinds of crap. He’s always going to the phone booth and making calls and coming back saying, “We can do this, we can do that.” So he finally came back and said, “Look. I’ll give you $500 if you sign the damn contract.” I said, “Well, I’ll sign the contract, I’ll take the $500, but I’m not going to camp. This is the last you’re going to see of me and the last you’re going to see of the $500.” He said, “Here’s the $500, sign the contract.” So I did. I really had no intentions of playing football. I was in graduate school and I was studying and I was locking myself in the library everyday and I was enjoying it. By the end of the school year I was a little fed up with that and they a couple hundred bucks for an airline ticket. I thought maybe I’ll go out and see California anyway. I had interviewed with a couple of companies that were California-based and said, “maybe I’ll just use the money and go out there.” I never worked out a day. The training camp was in Orange County and I had this old junky car. I gave myself about three weeks to drive out because I really didn’t think the car would make it. I got in the car and I just couldn’t stop driving. I drove straight through. I got to training camp about two weeks before I was scheduled to be there. They really had it well organized. They just had busloads of guys coming in that first year. And I pulled into the parking lot of the training camp where the dormitories were and it must have been about six o’clock in the morning. I had been driving all night long. The first guy I ran into was Gillman. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me. I told him who I was and that I’d been driving all night and would really like to get some sleep. He said, “Sure, no problem. C’mon over and have breakfast first.” I get out of breakfast and the equipment manager comes over and says, “Mr. Gillman wants you on the field at 9 o’clock.” I must have weighed 265-270, hadn’t worked out a day, and I was on the field in uniform at 9 o’clock just like everybody else. All we did all morning was one-on-one drills and I was kicking ass. I was running over these guys. So basically I made the team that first morning. In the afternoon, the first thing out, he’s timing everybody. I was just as tight as could be. I ran 40 yards, got half way down there and pulled a hamstring and I was out for maybe a month. Just walking around the track, I had already made the team. I wasn’t in shape, didn’t give a shit. So I don’t know if that answered your question or not, but that’s how. I really had no intentions of playing any more football, didn’t care, and I just drove out to L.A. on a lark. And I figured I’d see what’s going on, spend some time, see what’s going on in California, maybe look for a job or something. I really didn’t expect to make it, didn’t particularly care, and I made it. So once I made it I got a little bit serious about it. Maybe by the end of the season I was in shape. It was an interesting first year. It was a great experience.
TT – How did you feel at the end of that first year when the Chargers decided to move to San Diego?
DR – It was pretty obvious that we weren’t making any headway in Los Angeles. Another guy on the team and I, Don Norton, I don’t know if you’ve been in the Coliseum, but to get from the dressing rooms to the field you go through these really long tunnels. Every time we’d come out on the field we’d always be next to each other and we’d say, “They’ve stayed away by the thousands.” No body was there. A couple thousand people in the stadium and then they’d start putting them all together. You’ve got this 100,000-seat stadium and you’ve got 2,000 people there. We never did draw very well. So it didn’t surprise me, but it was like, “What do I care?” San Diego is California just like L.A. is. I didn’t particularly like L.A. It was big, dirty, freeways, traffic, smog. The first time I came to San Diego I said, “Hey, this is a great little town.” Highway 8 down in Mission Valley was still a two-lane blacktop road. It looked like a farm community. I thought, “Shit, this is O.K.,” the weather was good, air was clean. Everything was a little more spread out. So once I saw San Diego I really liked it. With the beginning of training camp and all, San Diego was really behind the team. I think it was a really smart choice. But it really didn’t make any difference to me where we played. I was kind of like, “I’m not sure what I’m doing out here anyway, so what the Hell is the difference whether I play in San Diego or Los Angeles?” But I didn’t particularly like L.A. and we obviously weren’t getting the crowds we needed. And San Diego got behind the team 100% right away. It worked out well.
TT – Were you going back home in the off-season or staying out here?
DR – Well my first year, after the year in L.A. I had to go in the army and do my six-month training. Then after the first year in San Diego I went back and finished up graduate school. And then, I think the next year I got married. That would be ’61. The next year I got married and we came out here and I got a crummy job in the off season. I worked for a title insurance company. It was the only job I could get in San Diego. It paid $300 per month. I said, “Boy, this is what I went to graduate school for?” $300 per month and it was a menial, lousy job. The next year I got a real good job with the phone company and then the year after that I got a job in the off season with San Diego Gas and Electric. Those are two big companies and I had really interesting jobs. They still didn’t pay much. I think at both of those jobs I got $500 per month which was maybe entry-level equivalence at that time. They were good jobs and they were pretty good companies to work for.
TT – What benefits did you get playing for the Chargers that you might not have gotten with the other teams, and not necessarily monetary?
DR – The biggest benefit is the recognition. When I got out of football and finally got into the financial planning and the tax, there was still a lot of recognition and it helped build a clientele. I don’t know that it would have been any different in any other city. It might have been different in L.A. where it’s a huge metropolis, but in San Diego, a relatively small town, that was a very significant benefit. When I got out of football I had no intentions of moving out of the area. Dee (Mrs. Rogers) wanted to, she wanted to go back East. I had already given up thoughts of going back there to work. When I found out there was a place where it didn’t snow, I stopped looking.
TT – What was it like playing in Balboa Stadium?
DR – I think it was a real good stadium for viewing football because the fans were close. The game wasn’t as much of a theatrical production as it is today. So it was a real down-to-earth, basic stadium. It held 30-35,000. It was an existing facility so it kind of made sense. It was pretty much as big as any other stadium in the league, or even in the NFL. I think the best thing about it is the stands were full. Playing in the Coliseum in L.A. was absurd. You couldn’t even see the people in the stands. You couldn’t hear them. There was no interaction. There was no 12th Man effect at all, whereas in San Diego the fans were very much a part of the game. I think that’s an important aspect of winning and losing, getting the fans involved. And in San Diego they were definitely involved. So I think from that aspect it was a good stadium.
TT – Do you remember any interaction between the players and the fans during game time?
DR – No, there was a lot of coming on to the field out of the dressing room and going off the field. It was almost like you had to go through the fans. They were just hanging over, mostly kids. They were just crowding you all the time. I’m sure they still do it now, but every time we left on the airplane and every time we came back the airport was full of fans. There were a lot of fans that traveled with the team. But I think the fans in San Diego made a big difference. It may be similar in other towns, but I felt really good about it and I think everybody else did too.
TT – Who were some of the toughest guys you played against?
DR – I would say the two toughest guys I played against are probably guys that nobody else ever heard of. But the first couple of years Boston had a couple guys, defensive tackles. I think one of them was named Houston (Antwine?) and I forget the other one. But both of them were like fireplugs. You could hit them as hard as you wanted and all you would do is hurt yourself. Those two guys were the toughest two guys I ever played against. I mean they were just like solid steel. You couldn’t move them, couldn’t budge them, they were tough. We always beat them, but those guys were like running into the wall every time. Other than that I don’t know. There were a few dirty players, a few hustlers, but those are the toughest guys. There were always a lot of guys with big mouths.
TT – How did those two guys stack up against practicing against Earl Faison and Ernie Ladd every day?
DR – Well, practice was never as hard as the game. Earl Faison didn’t exert himself a whole lot in practice any more than he had to. I would say, clearly he was one of the toughest guys in the league, one of the biggest, fastest, strongest guys. Earl kind of paced himself. If he wanted to play hard, he’d kill you. But usually he just played as hard as he wanted to. I think that was maybe one of his downfalls. Ernie Ladd, the same thing. When he decided he was going to go 100%, he’d hurt you. But fortunately in practice he didn’t. I know some guys that played against him and they thought he was one of the toughest guys they’d ever played against. But again, only when he wanted to be. So it was good exercise practicing against them every day, but still in practice you don’t exert yourself and they don’t exert themselves. Probably not a real test.
TT – What was it like the first time you saw yourself on a football card?
DR – I don’t know that I was impressed one way or another. I never thought much about it. In San Diego we were on these Coke bottle things and the bread things and all that. I never thought much about it. I suppose I thought of it as a necessary evil. I didn’t get excited about it one way or another.
TT – When you were in high school or college did you play any other sports?
DR – A little bit of basketball, little bit of baseball, little bit of track, I never really had a real urge to play any of those games. In basketball season you play basketball, I was just one of the guys on the team. I didn’t really have a whole lot of interest in it, but it was something to do. I think I played baseball my freshman year in high school. I don’t think I played after that. In track I did shot put and discus and I was O.K. Again, I never really put major effort into it. Football was a game that I really enjoyed and I don’t know why. My father and my grandfather were great baseball players, but I never really had any great interest. I played because that was the thing to do that time of year. In the summertime if you want to do anything with any of the other guys you play baseball. Same thing with basketball, but football I really had an interest in. I really enjoyed it. I never had any great enthusiasm, for any of the other sports.
TT – Did you ever play any other position than on the line?
DR – No. In high school and in college we played both ways. I was always more comfortable as an offensive player than a defensive player. In college when I was in school they had some cockamamie rule about if you had a first and second team, the first team could start a quarter and then substitute back in. The second team could go for any individual that substituted, but if he went out in a quarter, he could not come back in. It was some screwy rule. Defense used to exhaust me, offense I could play all day long, for whatever reason. But I always felt more comfortable on offense.
TT – Who were some of the guys you hung out with on the team?
DR – When we came to San Diego, Jacque MacKinnon and Ron Mix. The three of us lived together here in town. Up in L.A. I had a roommate, a guy named John Kompara. He was also from South Carolina. Sam DeLuca and a guy named Ron Nery, we all lived in the same building complex. Our first year in L.A. everybody was so spread out, there really wasn’t a whole big social thing. There was always someplace to have a cocktail after the game or maybe a small party, but everything was really spread out. In San Diego, everything was physically a lot closer together. Some guys lived in La Jolla, beach area. We lived up on Adams Avenue, that area. But everything was still relatively close. There were a couple of places out in El Cajon. But the freeway wasn’t even completed. The Bronze Room was the place out in El Cajon. We used to go after the game. The Courthouse was the place in La Jolla. The bartender from the Courthouse was Bully. There were little groups of guys that kind of hung around together, but I would say as a team there wasn’t any real separation. Especially after the game there was always a party that everybody went to. But MacKinnon and I and Ron Mix were the Adams Avenue group. Paul Maguire and Bob Zeman were in la Jolla. They were raising Hell up there. Pat Shea. Pat didn’t come along until 1963. He was already married. I think ’63 in when Tobin was in town. He and MacKinnon and a couple of guys had places down at the Bahia. The Bahia rents these little apartments to the Canadians in the wintertime. They were renting hotel rooms with maid service. It wasn’t any more expensive than renting an apartment. But I would say everybody pretty much hung out together. That even includes blacks and whites. It was a real close group.
TT – Who were some of the guys that struck you as being the most impressive athletes?
DR – Keith Lincoln. He was probably the most natural athlete. I’m sure I’ve told you this before, but we’d come to camp and he hadn’t worked out a day and he’d be in better shape than anybody. His first year they didn’t know where they were going to play him. They had him as cornerback, linebacker, quarterback. They may even have played him at tight end at one time, trying to figure out where they were going to put him. They finally put him in the backfield with Paul Lowe. But he would have made any one of those positions.
Earl Faison was another great athlete. He’s big, strong, fast, maybe a little lazy at times. Ron Mix probably had more acceleration than anybody I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t a particularly big guy, but he could hurt people. Ernie Ladd when he wanted to.
I’ve never seen anyone run and jump like Lance. He would just jump up in the middle of a group of people and it was like “How the Hell did he do it?” Great eye-hand coordination, speed, he was kind of amazing. Sweeney probably is one of the best guards I’ve ever known.
Sweeney was a real competitor. That was probably one of his problems, too much of a competitor. You couldn’t challenge him to anything. He’d want to kill you.
Paul Lowe was good. Paul had a natural run to him like a deer. I think he still holds some records. He’s probably about 200 pounds heavier than he was then. We had some really good athletes. Charlie McNeil was a good athlete. Bud Whitehead was. Some of those defensive backs, they amazed me.
TT – Did anybody not get the recognition they deserve?
DR – Probably everybody to a certain extent. You take the ’63 team, I think there was as good a team as there was in football. There was a certain synergism where the sum total was greater than all the parts. But I would say in ’63, the real catalyst was Tobin Rote. I don’t know that as an individual ball player he was 10 years over the hill, but somehow everyone paid attention to him. He was a real team leader on the field. Off the field he wasn’t, unless you count beer cans. He couldn’t keep up with Sweeney, but I never saw the guy when he didn’t have a beer can in his hand.
TT – I heard some funny stories about Sweeney and Shea.
DR – I’ll tell you, you can believe every one of them. Dee was at this party after I was out of football. She and I went to a party at Shea’s house. At the party was Pat and his wife, Sweeney and his wife, Shea’s brother and there was one other Charger there. We were having an abalone feast. Shea’s brother was a lifeguard and did some commercial fishing. He lived in this house where there was a separated garage in the back and they had converted into a family room kind of thing. So the guys are back there in the garage and the girls are in the garage and these guys decide they are going to go drinking. I was going fishing the next morning, so while I’m at the house saying goodbye, they are pushing the car out the driveway. They pushed in halfway down the street and they go off drinking in some bar and they don’t come home for three days. Really, they just took off and didn’t come home for three days. I couldn’t wait to get out of there because I knew that the girls had been asking where the guys were and what they were doing. I just got the Hell out of there. They would do stuff like that all the time.
SHOWING THE ALBUM
DR – Strength program. Alvin Roy. Boy those full squats, they ruined more guys. Oh they didn’t have me do any of these things.
DDR (Don’s wife Diane) – I remember he came home one day and said, “Oh I’m tired. Gillman had us run a mile.” I thought that was long then.
DR – Look at George (Gross). George was strong. Ron Mix walked like a duck. That must be me lying down.
DDR – That’s you. Look at how thin you are.
DR – I think they would have had a lot better results if they would have gone about it the right way. That Alvin Roy, I think all he was trying to do, was promote himself. He didn’t give a shit if he hurt somebody. And I really think they made a mistake keeping him around. I think they could have done a much better job and I know a lot of the guys tried to avoid that weight lifting because they always tried to get you to do more than you could. There was no starting where you can handle it and build up. It was just load the guy up with everything you possibly can get and make him hurt himself. A lot of guys, myself included, just backed off on it. We did what we had to do and just got the Hell out of there.
That’s up at the Catholic School. That’s Wayne Frazier.
Have you talked to Hank Schmidt? I keep hearing that he’s moving to Canada because he doesn’t want to pay taxes around here. He liked that weight lifting stuff.
DDR – The Lafayette Hotel. I lived there for a while when I was eight months pregnant. We were living in Ron Nery’s house in El Cajon and Ron wanted to come back after Christmas and we had to get out. It was Novemeber 27th and my daughter was born on January 12th. And he (Don) went to New York to finish his two weeks.
DR – Oh, Chorovich. Sam DeLuca. I don’t recognize these three guys. This guy Reifsnyder, he was the guy from Navy, I think. He was nothing. Chorovich, what a jerk he was.
Sam DeLuca, he and I went to South Carolina together. I guess when he was playing with the Jets, Sonny Werblin helped him get a McDonalds franchise and he hasn’t had to work since.
That doesn’t even look like Paul Maguire. That must be a college picture.
Volney Peters, he played a bunch of years with the Washington Redskins.
TT – He was a San Diego native. Hoover High School.
DR – I always thought Ernie Wright was a better pass blocker than Ron Mix. Where did you get a hold of Dave Kocourek?
TT – He’s in Florida. He sells real estate in Florida.
DR – There’s Ron Nery. Where did Ron Nery go to college? Kansas State. Nobody knows where he is. Dick Harris, he’s the guy I was thinking of, Chucko.
DDR – Where’s Sam Gruneisen?
TT – I don’t know and nobody else seems to know.
DR – What are all these different series of cards? Are they from each year?
TT – Yes, each year.
DR – Somewhere I’ve got a ticket to the ’63 game. This guy was one of the smartest guys, Don Breaux. The last I heard he was with the Carolina Panthers. He and Henning were the two back up quarterbacks and the two of those guys were very sharp. But this guy Breaux.
This guy here, Kenny Graham, tough son of a bitch. Boy he was good. He was a good coach, Walt Hackett. He was a nice guy.
Here is a guy who never should have been a coach (Joe Madro).
DDR – Don’s favorite coach (laughingly).
DR – He is exactly the reason I never went into coaching. Fred Moore, did you ever hear any stories about him, Deputy Dawg?
TT – Just that he died a couple of months ago..
DR – Here’s more of this goddamn weight bullshit. They really went about it in the wrong way. And that goddamn Alvin Roy, all he wanted to do was get his name in the paper.
That’s after the ’63 championship. I had to hurry up and get dressed so I could get on a plane and go back to play Army.
DDR – I was at the party. My mother was at the party.
DR – No, I was on an airplane.
DDR – My mother was here playing Don.
TT – Why was he called Deputy Dawg?
DR – He was just kind of a back woods kind of guy.
DDR – You know, it’s kind of funny the different backgrounds they all had and they meshed.
TT – Earl is pleased to talk about how the team backed the black players in all the civil rights issues.
DR – You know that’s interesting because to me that was never even an issue. I never even thought of it as a problem or an issue, although I did experience going to school in the South. That was one of the few things I really didn’t like about South Carolina. I played in the game, which was actually the first mixed game in Atlanta. It might have been the Jets. It was one of the East Coast teams and we played in a high school stadium because they wouldn’t let the blacks play in the bigger stadium. It was a real rinky-dink facility, but it was the first game in Georgia where blacks and white were playing both on the same team and against each other. But I never even thought about that as being an issue.
TT – Earl said it was never an issue among the team. The team was always very supportive. But they ran into other issues like the situation in Atlanta. He mentioned going to movie houses, prior to the games, where they wouldn’t let the black players sit with the white players, so the whole team would get up and leave.
DR – I don’t even remember that. There was a place in Texas, but I don’t think he was even on the team then. And again, we couldn’t stay in Dallas. The only place we could find a hotel was out in horse country. But again, I never really thought of it. I didn’t really like it, but I didn’t ever think about it as an incident. But the team did what they had to do. You’re not a team if you’re not staying together. So basically what they did is they just kept going further and further away from town until they found a place that would take everybody. But in Atlanta we did stay in a pretty decent motel. Or maybe we just stayed in one of the Hiltons. I don’t remember. But I do remember that the stadium where we played was a pretty crummy facility. And apparently it was because of the mixing. That’s kind of interesting because I always got the impression that Earl and Sid Gillman were always conflicting over something. Maybe not, I don’t know.
TT – He said they did their share of butting heads. A lot of the people I have talked to have said that they didn’t always get along with Sid when they were playing, but their relationships have gotten much better since they stopped playing.
DR – Well, what the Hell are you going to do. You can’t hate a guy all your life. He crapped on me a few times, but it is mostly part of the game. I always was under the impression that he was taking advantage of the black guys, paying them less. I never knew for sure. But I’d always negotiate with Sid. I’d sit down and say, “O.K. Sid, this is what I want.” And he would puff on his pipe and finally I’d get it. He’d give me a bunch of shit, “You didn’t do this, you didn’t do that, you’re over weight, you’re too slow.” And I’d always pull the same thing on him. I’d say, “Sid, I know what everyone on this team gets paid. This is a fair amount. Let’s move on.” Then sooner or later I’d get it. Other guys would get in there and they’d take everything personal and then they’d get pissed off at him and end up spiting themselves. The when I did get cut, he tried to screw me over the knee. I got my own doctor and got an attorney and said, “You guys are going to pay me my contract.” I hurt my knee early in training camp. It was something like one day it would be good, the next day it would go out from under me. So finally when it got into the season, they said, “You can’t play. Gruneisen is going to be the center and we’re cutting you.” I said, “What about the knee.” “Oh, your knee is fine.” And I was down at the doctor’s office and I heard the doctor talking to Gillman on the phone. I could figure out what Gillman was telling him. “Get rid of this guy. We’re not doing anything and we’re not paying him.” I went out and got my own doctor. I told the team doctor that I wanted to have some tests done so we could determine exactly what it was. He said, “Oh we can’t do that.” It was like when you put the dye in. Well, they were doing it to everyone else that had a problem. But they said, “No we can’t do it because it is really not fool-proof and it’s dangerous.” They gave me all these cockamamie excuses. I said, “You guys are just trying to fuck me over.” I went to my own doctor and he basically said the same thing. “We really can’t prove it until you cut on in and then obviously you’re not going to cut on it until you know what it is.” So one day my knee went out from under me. I immediately went down to see the team physician. I told him exactly what happened and he said, “Oh, you’ve got a cartilage. It’s that cartilage you hurt when you were playing football.” Then it was a non-issue because it became an injury-related thing. But Gillman tried to fuck over me and I really didn’t appreciate the way he went about doing it. He tried to screw me out of my contract. I said, “No. Fuck you, I want my money.” But that’s the way he figured he had to do it. I don’t think that’s the way you do it. I don’t hate the guy, but as a result, I don’t know that I would go out of my way to be nice to him either. But it always seemed to me like some of the guys that were negotiating with him, and in particular the black guys, they would take it out on the field. They would be so pissed off at Gillman that it would effect their football playing. And I always thought Earl had that same kind of problem. But maybe he didn’t. I hadn’t heard about him being elected to go talk to Sid (about Charlie McNeil’s contract). But I had heard some of the black guys were really being under paid. Obviously being taken advantage of.
TT – They signed you to what, one-year contracts?
DR – Yeah. I can’t think of anyone that had a multi-year contract. Maybe Ron Mix had a two-year or something like that. But I never had anything more than a one-year. After the second and third year, when there was a little more competition with the NFL for draft choices, I think guys were getting good contracts. I think maybe the first year Charlie Flowers, he probably had a multi-year contract because he was a big name. He was kind of a prize in the competition with the NFL. I have no idea what Earl’s contract was initially, or Ernie Ladd’s. But I think Ernie Ladd was being paid a lot more than Earl was initially. Ernie was a pretty good negotiator. I think he probably had more options than most guys. I remember a couple of times when he was negotiating and he was pretty outspoken about it. I think he always got what he wanted. But Earl, I know one year he had a serious negotiating problem with Gillman and I think it just effected his football. I don’t know what he was asking for and I have no idea how reasonable it was. Based on today’s salaries it was obviously pretty reasonable. He was a Hell of a ball player. I know one year we had the tax office Sweeney was getting 35, so that’s probably around the same time Alworth was.
TT – Shea told me he signed a rookie contract for $8,000 a year.
DR – My first contract was $10,500 and Ron Mix’s was $12,00. But he had a pretty healthy bonus. With San Francisco I signed for $9,500 or $10,000. I can remember when the first lineman that I can recall hit $100,000. It was Larry Little. He was the first offensive lineman that I can remember hitting $100,000 and I said “Holy Shit.” If I was just a couple years younger. Although I am sure there is still a lot of guys playing for that minimum.