Ernie Park – January 25, 2004
San Diego Chargers – 1963-1965
Miami Dolphins – 1966
Denver Broncos – 1967
Cincinnati Bengals – 1969
TT – Tell me what you know about who scouted you and how you signed with the Chargers.
EP – Well, I think it was Al LoCasale that was doing the scouting then. They gave me a call. I was at McMurray College in Abilene, Texas. I thought I was going to get to play a fifth year. I though I’d had a successful redshirt year. Come to find out, some of us who had thought that we had redshirted, they suited us up for a homecoming game and we got in the game. I believe I might have got a little injury, turned an ankle or something. One guy made a tackle and three of us were ruled ineligible. Our names got in the paper. The guy covering the story was an ex from the cross-town rival and made sure our names got in the paper whenever they got a chance. It came up right before our fifth year. Our names came up and he said, “Well, these guys played that year that they were supposed to have laid out.” So I got a call in July from Sid Gillman. I had a call waiting from him. When I got home my mother said, “Sid Gillman called. From the Chargers.” Then a few minutes later I got a call from the Dallas Cowboys. I knew they had been looking at me as a future, but they thought I had another year of eligibility. But they called and Sid said, “Hey, we got you a plane ticket. Why don’t you come on out?” After I heard all of this, then my college coach, he had been trying to get a hold of me. He explained what had happened and that our school wasn’t going to contest this guy’s statement. Anyway, they were already in camp out in San Diego, and they had put me on a plane and flew me out there. I weighed about 220 pounds. My weight was down during the summer. When I had played college ball I played at about 225, somewhere like that. So they put me on a weight program and I stuck around for three years.
TT – You came in ’63 and that would have been Alvin Roy’s first year. Did you think Alvin was a help or a hindrance?
EP – I think he helped. I think he helped everybody. He had a real good weight program. For that day and time they had a real fine weight program. I had never lifted weights very much at all. I think it really helped everybody on the club. It helped us have a real successful year that year, and helped the Chargers for several years.
TT – What was your first impression of the Chargers? Rough Acres must have been an eye-opener.
EP – Yeah, it was. It was a different place. Of course I was used to desolate country, being from West Texas. But it was different. I knew they were serious about football because nobody comes to a place like that unless they really wanted to concentrate on football. But it was a good place if that’s what you were after. It was isolated and everything you needed was right there. You could go 24-hours football with nobody to interfere.
TT – Did you move up and down the offensive line?
EP – Well, they started me out with the offensive line and I was sort of a project. I suppose I’d had pretty good potential, but coming in a no less than 220 pounds, I certainly was a project. In fact, I think I weighed in at 215. I believe that’s what the scales out there said. I looked more like a receiver or something. Of course, your linemen, 250 or 260 was kind of average for an offensive lineman. I had the frame. I was almost 6’4” and had the framework to carry more weight and it didn’t take me too long before I got in the 240-range, which was very respectable. They fed me. We had everything you wanted to eat out there. But Sid told me, “I want you to stick around. We’re going to put you on a one-year contract, no cut. Then we’ll see what you can make of yourself.” So that’s what I signed, really. Then I was activated. It might have been October, September or October. Then they activated me.
TT – Must have been tough going against guys like Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison in practice at 225.
EP – Yeah, really. I still can’t believe how little I could lift, like on the bench press. I don’t know if I could do more than 120 or 130 pounds. It was just amazing. I look back at it now, because I just never had lifted. In a few weeks I was up at a halfway respectable weight category. But I just never had lifted. I guess a lot of lifting is coordination.
TT – Laying on your back and pushing off isn’t a regular motion for most folks.
EP – It really isn’t. I’ve heard a few old coaches say that they didn’t believe too much in weight lifting. They said if they ever put a bench press bench on the 20-yard line, I’ll get more excited about it. But I think there’s no question about it that weight training has a place in the game.
TT – Talk about Sid Gillman.
EP – Well, I thought he was extremely intense, no question about it. He knew football, no question about it. But one thing about him that almost shocked me was that there were no holds barred. He would chew anybody out. I don’t know what his dog thought. But Chuck Noll, it just didn’t matter. “Now Chuck, we have got to get this.” He didn’t spare anybody. But at the same time, he was very kind and gracious. It was all business to him. No question about it. He knew football. He ate and slept football. That was his life, I’ll tell you. No question about it. Of course I didn’t realize his genius being right there with him. I didn’t know how much to appreciate him until later while listening to other people and their respect for his innovations and whatnot. I think it kind of opened my eyes to what it was all about.
TT – What about Joe Madro?
EP – I thought he did fine. Maybe some of the guys thought that he was a little too picky or whatever and used to get on their nerves. I thought he did a good job. I liked Joe. Sure did. I have a lot of respect for him.
TT – The Chargers stopped going to the AFL Championship Game in 1966. What caused the decline in the team?
EP – I don’t know. I think they lost some depth with the expansion draft. Kocourek went and maybe Sid went with someone else and they weren’t quite ready. I know a guy that they counted on, Earl Faison, came up with a bunch of injuries, and Ernie Ladd was plagued by knee and back and other injuries. Several things happened, I know that year, that took place over there that affected their performance. There is no question it affected their performance. But not being over there, I think another thing that was coming around, and it is kind of a long story, there was some dissention I think. Sid Gillman ran everything from top to bottom. I mean he was the guy in charge of the club, and he was the guy that you sat down with and negotiated your contract. It was hard sometimes. Some of the guys, I think… It is hard to separate the two. Dealing for your salary and then playing for a guy. I think most teams got away from that way of doing things. Everything was run pretty simple. I don’t know how many people were in the front office, but nearly as many as today. They just don’t have the baggage, they didn’t have it that they have today. Sid was doing all of the contract negotiation and I think that hurt. No question about it, the contracts were getting larger and Sid was trying to save money and make things work and bargain for holding guys salaries down. I think that hurt. That was about the time that people began to divulge what they were making. I had no idea what the guys were making. A lot of the guy around the league, they were shocked when they found out what other people were making. Guys that had played and played well, I have heard of several stories that they had no idea that they were playing for half of what some other guy was playing for. I think some of that affected San Diego a lot.
TT – Tell me a favorite road trip memory.
EP – We went to Bear Mountain in upstate New York and spent two weeks. We left San Diego and we went up and played, and I don’t know what the order was, but we played the New York Jets, we played New England and we played Buffalo. We stayed at the Bear Mountain Resort and I just really enjoyed it. It was October, it was a beautiful time of year and I had never really seen that type of country. The Hudson River and the autumn leaves and everything. I just had a great time, I really did. And of course we trained right there and this Bear Mountain Resort had a large, it was probably a soccer field that we worked out on. It was a very old style building and it was quite an enjoyable trip. It was across the river from West Point. I’d like to go back. I’d like to go back and see it like it was. I think it was in ’63 or ’64 when we did that, and I really enjoyed it.
TT – What did you dislike about being a pro football player?
EP – Well, I think a lot of times the guys… You had to play hurt. I’ve seen guys play with broken ribs and things like that and they had to take a lot of Novocain. That’s just part of the game. Towards the later part of my career I noticed guys were beginning to take steroids. In fact, I think San Diego had some guys that were really bulked up on steroids.
TT – Alvin Roy brought that in in ’63.
EP – That’s what I understand that there was some. In fact, I’m not sure that I didn’t take some at some time. They called it some kind of stuff, and the next year we found out what it was and the guys I talked to quit. They didn’t want anything to do with it. I remember a guy named Houston Ridge. That was after I left San Diego. He came in after I did. But I understand he had some problems and he really bulked up. There was talk about that. There might have been others, I don’t know.
TT – Which of your teammates did you find to be most impressive?
EP – I was impressed by all of them, just being a large-eyed rookie. I was impressed by everything. That ability of some of those guys was amazing. Lance Alworth had the ability to catch the ball, and his speed and mobility. Some of them just had tremendous competitive spirits. You could break their leg and they would still be going. But the strong character and perseverance of different ones. Ron Mix I think was just a super levelheaded pro. I really enjoyed Tobin Rote. He was in the twilight part of his career and I just enjoyed him. He was quite a character and a lot of fun to be around.
TT – How did Gillman and the Chargers compare to some of the other teams you played with?
EP – I think it’s interesting to see the different styles of the coaches. I played for George Wilson down at Miami and he had a pretty loose operation. He left a lot of it up to his assistants. He wasn’t as intense as Sid Gillman. Paul Brown hired excellent assistants and just sat back and let them coach. He was more of the manager type. Of course he had his input in the coaches meetings every Monday. Sid ran everything. I kind of got the idea that he ran everything from the top down. If Chuck Noll wanted to put in a new defensive coverage, he sure had to clear it with Sid Gillman. I guess Sid essentially was the offensive coordinator. He ran it. There is nothing wrong with that. All the guys were successful. It was just amazing to see the different styles of coaching and the way they structured their staffs and workouts and everything.
TT – Anything that I missed?
EP – Oh, I don’t think so. It’s just that the game has changed quite a bit I think. I think we played with San Diego and were right on the edge of the change. Weight training equipment just seemed like it got better right during that period. This West Coast Offense had its beginnings in those times. The teams had 33 active players instead of all the players they have now. It’s just a different game and it is kind of exciting to be a part of the old school and yet to be on the edge of modern football. I thought it was kind of a unique period there where it began to change. Observing the two leagues battle and the American Football League battling for credibility I thought was an interesting thing to live through. And the salary escalation; When I went to Miami there were guys that had no chance of playing that got $30-$40,000 bonuses. Some of them got their bonus just because they were friends of another guy that they wanted. Here I was. In my biggest year I made $20,000. I was a starter and I made $20,000. And here were some guys that before the merger had made $25-$30,000 just as a signing bonus. To live through that time was kind of unique.