Fred Cole – March 13, 2003
Los Angeles Chargers – 1960
TT – When you were in high school or college, did you have a favorite NFL player that you modeled yourself after?
FC – Not really. I did not.
TT – You were drafted by the Bears in 1959, but played in Canada instead. Why?
FC – Well, when I was a senior that year, Bud Grant, who was the coach of Winnipeg, came to the University. He came to my dorm room and offered me a signing bonus right on the spot. As far as George Halas, he had called me, and he was primarily concerned with how I stood in the draft. He said, “How do you stand in the draft?” I said,” Well, I’ve got a college deferment.” But other than that, that was it. They never really talked seriously to me. The Chicago Bears didn’t. And at that time I had never made any money. My big signing bonus was $1,000. So I signed and went to Winnipeg. I went to Winnipeg that Fall.
TT – What were your reasons for leaving Winnipeg?
FC – Their season is more advanced than they are in the states. I had really racked my knee pretty good. And I was doing nothing and it was doubtful that I’d be back before the end of the season. It was like late September and their season is almost wrapped up by October. Then they have the Grey Cup. So I asked for a release so I could go back to school. I hadn’t graduated yet. I still needed some more credits. So I asked for a release so I could go back to school. I registered late and then I finished my education in consecutive years. Otherwise it would have taken me two years because I would have had to go back in the Spring. Then I would have to go back the following Spring. So this way kind of worked out nice. At that time there was no AFL. That Winter is when I was contacted by… When I was in high school, Al Davis was coaching at the Citadel. And Al Davis came to my high school and wanted me to go to the Citadel. I was from Newark, New Jersey. And then subsequently I did not go. But he tracked me down. In fact, I was with my roommate in Pennsylvania and he tracked me down there. I met with him in Pittsburgh and he assured me that I would get a good shot with the Chargers, and I signed. I went out there.
TT – Tell me about how you came to the Chargers.
FC – Well, when the Chargers started out that year they had open tryouts starting in April of the year. They had signed me. Al Davis signed me in the Spring, I don’t remember the month. But I was scheduled to come in with the last wave at the end of June. I think it was the end of June when they brought in people who either had a little experience or maybe… I don’t know how they decided who came in when, but they had been running practices from April, May and in through June. Maybe it was as early as July, I forget. I remember when I first got there they had 32 guards that they were trying out. I would get at the end of the line and you’d wait in line. Then you would run one play and then go back to the end of the line again. So practices were really easy when you first got there. You hardly did anything. But then they would let people go, so the number got less and less and less. And then I think when the exhibition season started, in those days I think we played four exhibition games. And when we started there was maybe six or eight guards. And then every week they would eliminate one or two. Because they were only going to keep three. And then the fewer they had, the more playing time you got in the exhibition game. In the first game, maybe you played like a quarter, and that was it. They would play four guards on each side, so you got room for eight people to play. A quarter each.
TT – Were you concerned that the AFL might not succeed?
FC – No, I wasn’t concerned at all because in my way of thinking, I said, “Hey.” We had a few veterans on the team which were ex-NFL. And I said, “They have top-notch coaches, they have great facilities, and they are getting players from the same place that the NFL gets them.” As long as they could keep it financially going. In the beginning, I don’t know what the gates were, but they weren’t packing the house. But I think they had TV money. That’s when TV started to play a big part in pro sports. And I think, I guess they all kind of lost money that first year, maybe. But they went about it first class. All of those owners, they didn’t skimp. We had good facilities, we had good practice facilities, we traveled well. We used to stay at the Hilton Hotels because Barron owned the team. Every place we went, we stayed at a Hilton Hotel is there was one available. But we stayed at top-notch places. The equipment was good. I wasn’t concerned that they would fold.
TT – The Chargers coaching staff had three future Hall of Fame coaches in Sid Gillman, Al Davis and Chuck Noll. Did it appear to be a knowledgeable or overly impressive staff at the time?
FC – Well I knew Sid Gillman was very highly regarded in the field. And certainly Chuck Noll was a very capable guy. He had played for Washington and he was a good coach. And the same with Al Davis. Once Al Davis signed me, I was an offensive guard, so he didn’t bother with me very much. He was coaching the offensive ends and the wide receivers. They each had their specialty. I wouldn’t even think about a Hall of Fame in those days. They were the coaches, and it is only later on that I came to appreciate how good they were. Of all the coaches that were there, almost every one of them got to be a head coach somewhere. Faulkner got to be a head coach. Like I said, certainly Chuck Noll had a tremendous coaching career. And Sid Gillman was always highly regarded as a very progressive and innovative coach. He was very good. And the coaches they had were good. They were a little picky at times, but that’s what made the things click.
TT – I think the only one that didn’t go on to a head coaching position was probably your line coach, Joe Madro.
FC – Joe Madro. Yeah. I don’t know if he was really head coach material. He was with Gillman for years and years. He was always with Sid. That was like his boy, you know. And he was really the coach that would spend the most of the time with us. We would watch all the offensive plays, week after week. We would look at the defensive teams we were playing against, what they did the week before and the week before that. There was a lot of film-watching.
TT – That’s one of the things that Sid was really well-known for.
FC – But he ran good practices. They were not too long, they were quick. We ran everything full-speed. We didn’t have contact, but we ran everything full-speed, trying to get the timing down right.
TT – Tell me about Sid Gillman.
FC – Sid was excellent with the players. He would explain what he wanted and if he saw you made a mistake, he would put you to task or holler at you. We had a double reverse, I remember. The two guards were supposed to pull to the left and take two steps and then turn around and go to the right. Orlando (Ferrante), who was the other starting guard, on the left side, somehow we got confused and we both pulled at each other. We had a head-on collision. And Sid Gillman went nuts. He said, “My God, what’s the matter with you? You’re going to kill each other.” Because we went head-to-head. Bang! There was no place to avoid it. If you did your best and the other guy got the better of you, that was one thing. But if you made a mistake, and you blocked the wrong guy, he didn’t like that. He wanted everybody to mentally do the right thing. Or at least do the thing you were supposed to do.
TT – How did Bud Grant and Sid Gillman compare as head coaches?
FC – Bud Grant was a whole different style. Gillman would kid around a little bit. Bud Grant was so dead-serious. He hardly ever even cracked a smile. Very, very methodical and quiet. He was more distant from the players. I think Sid Gillman kabitzed around with some of the players a little more than Bud Grant ever did.
TT – Who were some of the guys that you hung out with on the team? Who were some of your good friends?
FC – Well, I hung around with a few of those guys, but I didn’t spend a lot of time with any one or two guys. I know I went to Ron’s (Mix) house one time. He invited me to his house. His house was in back of another house, it wasn’t even on the street where he grew up. He had grown up in the L.A. area. I guess him and Ernie Wright were adversaries. They played against one another. Well, they played against each other in a Bowl game. Maybe they played each other in the Rose Bowl. Everybody got along fine. The offensive line was a small, little group. There was only like seven of us. That was it. And then when we would go on a road trip, I think my roommate was Sam DeLuca. When we went on road trips I roomed with Sam DeLuca. So I’d spend some time with him. But when we got back to L.A., everybody had apartments. I had an apartment with a guy named Zeman, who was a defensive back. We shared an apartment and then I had some friends and then I met a couple other people. I had a relative out there that I would spend some time with. It was just like a job. You would go to work in the morning and come home at night. Except when you went on a road trip and then sometimes we would go for two or three weeks at a time.
TT – Who did you think were your most impressive teammates?
FC – Well Ron Mix and Ernie Wright. When we used to run wind sprints, those guys were as fast or faster than the guards were. And they were the tackles. So we had a lot of speed on that line. I think (Don) Rogers was the slowest of the group. And certainly Sam DeLuca brought up the rear. But Ron Mix and Ernie Wright were very, very quick for as big as those guys were. I forget how big they were, maybe 275 or something like that. But Ron Mix fired out, he had a spring-type stance that he was in. He would fire out of there and he was terrific. Very quick. As we got into the season we’d start calling the blocking and we worked together real well. It might be a pass play and I’d say, “You got this guy, I got that guy.” Nobody really knew what was going on. And we used to call our blocking. The system that Gillman had was that when you went up to the line of scrimmage, you called the blocking. It was like an A, B, C, or something like that. They had some code as to who was going to block who.
TT – Were you on the kick off return team where Paul Lowe ran back the opening kick off in the first exhibition game against the Titans?
FC – We played the Titans the first game and I was on the kick off receiving team when Paul Lowe ran the opening touchdown back.
TT – Yes, 105 yards.
FC – Yeah, I was on the kick off receiving team then. Somewhere during the season I guess they took me off some of the special teams, but in the beginning I think I was on the receiving team and even when we went down on the kick off. I might have been running down on the kick off. I forget.
TT – That must have been pretty exciting to have him run back that kick off on the opening play of the first game.
FC – Oh that was great. We started off the season great. We won our first game, and then we lost three games in a row and I guess our fifth game, which we were like 1-3. I think our fifth game was in Denver and Sid Gillman called the team together and before the game said, “You guys have been playing lousy. I don’t want you taking any more of these pep pills.” In those days some of the guys would take Benzedrine. They thought they would get a lift from it or whatever. He said, “I don’t want anybody taking anything and if you guys don’t go out there and play the way I know you can, you’re gonna think this place is Grand Central Station. I’m gonna bring in so many guys, your heads will be swimming.” And that was the game that we kind of jelled. I think we only lost one more game the whole season. I think we lost four games that whole season and we lost three right away. Near the end of the season we were rolling forty or fifty points a game. We had a real machine going there.
TT – Yeah, in the last four games you scored 52, 41, 41 and 50.
FC – Yeah, we were really rolling there. Somehow all the offense clicked. Everything just seemed to work right. We were a real machine there.
TT – What is your favorite road trip memory?
FC – I remember coming out back east and we stayed… We were going to play the Titans I guess, at the Polo Grounds. And we stayed at Bear Mountain. And when I went to the Polo Grounds I had a lot of friends in the area and they all came to the game. I remember after the game I went out just with a t-shirt and a pair of pants on. There was like a balcony of something and I was waving to them. I had a lot of people I went to high school with that came to the game. I remember that trip. I guess the other trip we went to was Texas one time. We stayed outside of Dallas, Ft. Worth, maybe. And we stayed there for like two or three weeks. When we went out we would go out for like two or three weeks at a time, so we wouldn’t be flying back and forth. When we came east I think we played Buffalo, Boston, New York. You would be there three or four weeks. And then you’d go back to L.A. That’s the way they scheduled them.
TT – Looking back now, what are your fondest memories of the Chargers?
FC – Well, it is exhilarating when you win the games. And they we were pretty excited when we went to the first championship. I think the whole thing has been a great memory. I didn’t appreciate it as much at the time, as much as I do now. And like I said, pro football was no really big deal then. It was just a natural step from the next level up. Certainly the salaries and the amount of money that was involved was nowhere near what it is today.
TT – You played all 14 games and then left the team after 1960. Why?
FC – I came back home after the season and I was trying to find a job. I had graduated as an engineer. And I was looking for an engineering job. And they were interviewing kids that were going to graduate I June. Every place I went to interview they said, “Well are you going to go back and play ball again? Because we’re looking for a full-time guy. We don’t want a guy that’s gonna work for three months and then leave again.” And I thought to myself, it had taken me five years to get my engineering degree, and in the meantime I had gotten married. My wife was from the east and she wasn’t to keen on going back to California. Because I would be gone for three or four weeks at a time when you go on those road trips. And I said, “I think football was real good to me. I was very, very fortunate. I’m gonna make a career change here.” During the season I had pinched the nerve in my left shoulder and near the end of the season that was bothering me. And I said I could have gone back and cracked a knee. Those things had happened. But in some ways I regret I didn’t go back, but that was a decision I made and that was the end of that. Two years later I had contacted the Titans and said, “How about I come out of retirement?” They contacted the Chargers and said, “No, no. You have got to back to the Chargers.” The contracts, the only way you could get out of your contract is that you had to play out your option at a 10% pay cut. Then you would be a free agent. But in those days, if anybody did became a free agent, a lot of the other owners wouldn’t touch you. I guess they weren’t gonna get into any salary bidding. You played for the team that drafted you or you didn’t play. It seemed that way, anyway. Some guys that were very, very good I guess or outstanding, they would give them… Well I heard rumors, but I never saw one. They said they had a no-cut contract. They said they had a no-cut contract and that they were on-board for the whole season. Everybody else could get cut any time they wanted. They could say, “We don’t need your services anymore.” And then they had a few guys on the taxi squad all the time.
TT – I spoke with a few players who said they had personal service contracts with Hilton Hotels.
FC – Oh really? I had an L.A. Chargers contract. I guess it was a standard contract in those days. It said that you’re playing at the whim of the management and if they felt your services weren’t needed, they could let you go. There was nothing in there about compensating you if they let you go. You just stopped getting paid. And then you didn’t get any paycheck until the season actually started. In those days the exhibition games were like $50. So you were out there three months or four months and you only got like $200 for four exhibition games. They gave you a place to live and they fed you and everything, but as soon as the season started then you were on your own. Then you had to go find your own place to live, you bought your own food and got your own transportation. But they did take your contract, in those days it was 14 games, and they took like 12 games and divided it by 14 and … or 80% of your salary and that’s what you got paid every week. They withheld certain amounts in case they fined you or something, they would have the money. If you were later for a meeting or something, sometimes they would throw you a little fine. That guy Harris was always late. He would come in a half hour after the meeting started. “That’ll cost you $50!” He was getting fined all the time.
TT – What did you dislike about being a professional football player?
FC – I can’t really think of anything that I disliked. I mean when you practice, when you do those two-a-days, you get sore and it would be hot. But they gave us some time off on the weekends and stuff. I can’t really say I disliked anything. There’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of butterflies, you get sick before every game. Later on you realize that’s true even of a guy that plays 10 years, he still gets butterflies. You’re just gonna go on stage and in your mind you think you know what you’re gonna do, but never know what the reality of the situation is gonna be. And then you go up against certain guys. Certain guys you play them twice, so you get to know them the first time. And then you play them the second time and you know a little better how capable he was. Some guys you had more respect for than other guys, because you thought this guy was good.