San Diego Chargers – 1961-1966
Miami Dolphins – 1966
TT – As a defensive player you saw a lot of different offenses, played against a lot of offenses, obviously. What were some of the things that Sid Gillman’s Charger offenses had that were different than some of the others you played against?
EF – During this particular time, Sid Gillman, in my estimation, was way ahead of the game in the passing scheme. He played the entire field area. His offense was set up so that and had the guys situated so that they put a lot of pressure on the defenses by spreading out over the field. Sid is one of the first guys to actually realize that they could put pressure on various defenses by doing this. I remember watching him practice and specifically detailing duties for the tight end, which many teams didn’t utilize at that time. The tight end was an integral part of the pass pattern for Sid Gillman, whereas in other offenses the tight end was noted simply for blocking. Sid utilized every back to his fullest advantage. The half backs with the flaring, the circles, the wide receivers with the long patterns and patterns underneath. He got the full advantage out of the passing offense, especially with the talent that he had.
TT – Well he had some great talent with those teams. How did his offense change through the years? Were there some of the things that he grasped after a couple of years with the Chargers that he didn’t start out with?
EF – Well, Sid was a, I like the way you put that, “how did it change.” He was a great innovator. He initiated change. I will never forget being at a practice one day when I heard him say something that I later found out was true of every other coach. He eluded to the fact that the team that we was practicing against and we were getting ready for was doing something that he particularly liked. And he said, “we got this from that team,” as we practiced this offensive scheme that he liked. And somebody raised the question, “Well, Coach, why are you doing that?” He said, “This is football. If it is good, I’ll use it. I’ll steal from anybody.” And I never forgot that. I can’t remember the exact detail of what it was, but it was a particular offensive scheme and he did not mind utilizing it and making the best out of that situation. As I said earlier, I appreciated the fact that he was a great innovator and that he believed in the complete pass pattern. Now he was different from the way the people are doing it nowadays. The quarterback is a high-risk item because they are leaving the poor man back there with no protection. Sid protected his quarterbacks, first of all, by having some backs in the backfield, doing some certain things with the tight end, moving the pocket, floating to the left, rolling to the right, even spread outs. He would do it if he felt it would help our offense achieve a certain thing against this other team’s defense. He would take advantage of a certain player. He would do it. I only wish the people of today would care a little more about the players than they do and try to give them a little more protection than they do. It’s terrible, it’s horrible. I guess somebody is going to have to get killed. Some poor quarterback will have to get killed before we go back to putting backs in the backfield to protect him. It’s unfortunate.
TT – It could happen real soon.
EF – Oh yeah, with the way they are going after them. I mean they can’t change enough rules to protect them. You have got bigger guys out there. You’ve got 300-pounders going after these guys at ninety miles-an-hour.
TT – What about some off the field type of innovations that Gillman brought about. I know he was one of the first to use game film as a teaching tool.
EF – I remember being in Oakland at one half time of one of our games at old Frank Youell Field back in 1964. Sid Gillman brought in some kind of a TV at the half time and we were looking at half-time snaps. A precursor to the video tape. He was doing that back then and trying to get a jump on somebody. Instant replay is what it was, the first usage of instant replay. Sid was testing it out at half time of a game we had in Oakland in black and white. Sid is one of the first coaches to hire a strength coach in Alvin Roy as a full-time strength coach. So he was quite innovative and quite creative. And he has been well acknowledged for that.
TT – As a defensive player, how did game strategies need to be altered when other teams played the Chargers. What types of things did other teams need to focus on with San Diego that they did not have to with other teams?
EF – Well, I would have gone crazy as a defensive person thinking about having to focus on people such as Lance Alworth, Paul Lowe in the backfield, Keith Lincoln. And then on the other side of the line from Lance Alworth, Don Norton, who was one of the best underneath route runners to ever play the ball. Everybody says that Charlie Joiner was good at that, but Don Norton was superb at it. Occasionally breaking away for a long pass. Just those four or five guys alone is enough to drive any defense crazy. In that spectacular year of 1963, it was difficult for any team to challenge us, really. Because we didn’t have the injuries we had in ‘62. We thought we could have been good in ‘62, but unfortunately we had too many injuries, including myself as one of them. In fact, we had almost the whole team change at one time or another and out of four or five games throughout the whole year.
TT – What was Sid Gillman like as a coach? Was he well respected as a coach? Did the players really understand that they were a part of something special at that time?
EF – No, we didn’t understand that we were something special. We were another team of football players challenging for your league championship. We did not appreciate the, at least I did not appreciate the specialness of the situation naturally, until I got a little older and more mature. And had gotten away from the game. And then it dawned on me that at that particular time we did make some kind of history. And I can better appreciate what we accomplished, as far as the championship went. During the time that we were competing for the championship, there was a special camaraderie between us as a team, and yes, we felt good about winning this game. But we were always looking forward to the next game, so it wasn’t a matter of appreciating at that time, the achievement. I think most of the guys really felt better about what they achieved after being away from the game for awhile. But when next year came up, OK, we want to repeat. But no, we didn’t think that year was anything special, we were the champs. We knew that. But to really appreciate it the year we did do it, I think about it now and I appreciate it even more, but I’m 30 years away from it now. And I even have a hard time visualizing myself as playing football. I look at it with my wife or some of my friends and I imagine to myself, “did I do that?” It’s difficult.
TT – What was the feeling like when Al Davis left? He was a big part of the team at that point.
EF – Al Davis was a great big part of the team at that time. He was loved and well-respected by many of our ball players. And in the same vain, he was hated and despised by the other half of the guys. Those who were recruited by Al Davis, they had a fondness for him. I was one of those who came under the spell of the velvet tongue, you know. I remember when I was recruited. They brought me in from Indiana University right after my last ball game. We were at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and all of these multi-millionaires were there, Barron Hilton and Conrad Hilton and all of these wealthy people. Here I am, a country boy, right out of college. Mrs. Gillman in wining me, influencing me, a lady I love tremendously, I’ve always loved her. She’s just been one of the greatest ladies in the world. She’s wining me and dining me and carried me out on the patio. We looked out into Beverly Hills and overlooked L.A. and she just spread her arms out and said, “Earl, all this could be yours.” And I went back into the hotel room there, and I guess Al Davis had spread about 15 or 16 hundred dollar bills out on the bed. And he said, “Earl, Earl. You sign with us tonight and all of this could be yours. Oh man, my eyes got big. I mean you’re telling a guy who had never seen a hundred dollar bill, or a fifty dollar bill, a few twenties. Telling me that I could have all that. I said, “Who, me?! I can have all that?” “Yes, you can have all that.” Well, I wallowed around in that bed, put the hundred dollars all over my body. Well you can just imagine Barron Hilton and all those guys just standing there and cracking up. But I did not care. I signed and got that money and they just put my ass right on out about twenty minutes later and called up Keith Lincoln. Keith Lincoln was next. That is when I got my first real lesson about, “It’s a business.”
TT – Tell me about training at the Rough Acres Ranch. Did that bring about a kind of team cohesiveness?
EF – A team cohesiveness. I think it brought about a special cohesiveness to the team. Unfortunately for me, I was in the middle of a hold out, trying to get more money and I didn’t go until about two weeks into training. The other guys had been there two weeks longer than I had. But when I got there I could not believe that we were practicing at this Hellhole. To begin with, the living facilities were little cabins. No water, no running water. Just a little sewage, a little stool, but no showers. Some of them didn’t have windows that opened or closed and some of them didn’t have windows, period. The shower room where we did shower and work out at, lifting weights, had four walls and was about twenty-five by thirty, no roof. Maybe about ten shower heads or something like that. It was spartan. It was spartan to say the least. One practice field cut out of the top of a mountain. Sid Gillman had sawdust brought in to cover the field because it didn’t have any grass. We were up high enough where it was always windy. Our first chef that we had was a convict and we couldn’t even get him to stay. He left. Then Sid made the announcement that he had brought in a French chef. He lasted about a week. The French chef left and then we got a guy who all he knew how to do was fry steaks. So we had fried steaks just about every day. There were cows on the field. Even one had his head in my dormitory room and woke me up mooing. There were rattlesnakes all over, all over the place. We had to dodge rattlesnakes. But all in all, through all of that adversity that we had up there, I think we had to learn to get along a lot better with each other. We were a bit unique and close ball club prior to that experience. But having gone through that brought us a little bit closer together I do think. Our purpose became a little bit better defined. Somehow winning became more important also. And I think some of that was attributed to the fact that we had a losing season prior to that and we wanted to do so much better too.
TT – That kind of brings me into my next question. What was it that made the 1963 team so great? That was probably, very arguably the best Charger team ever.
EF – I think I am glad that you notice that. You are a very discerning person. The thing that did make us unique was the fact that it was a special year. Injuries did not happen. One thing that happened prior, in 1962, kept a lot of ball players out of action. We just went through 1963 like we were invincible. There was the uniqueness of the chemistry of the team that really helped define us. It was just really unique in that there were a bunch of intangibles basically. You talk about those things such as chemistry and the spirit and the feeling for each other. It was all real, but not really something that you could put your finger on. I mean, even the coaches did not get in the way. Usually the coaches are good for about two or three losses a year with their goof ups and that didn’t happen that year. I mean, the coaches let us play.
TT – What was it like when Tobin Rote was signed that year. Was that a great thing?
EF – He ended up being a great asset for the team. Prior to that, most of who knew Tobin or knew of him knew of him from his demise from the Lions, being cut from the Detroit Lions, being let go and thinking he was washed up. He had been up to Canada and at that time we were thinking, “so he was in a second league. He was in an inferior league up in Canada. He couldn’t play.” And sure enough, come to find out, the guy couldn’t pass the ball twenty yards. His elbow was all banged up, but he was shrewd, he was shrewd. And the players began to respect him because of his ability to be a leader on the team. When he played in a game, he outwitted the teams. He didn’t make too many long throws down the field. He didn’t have too many in his arm, but they had to respect his head. He was sharp, he was sharp.
TT – So there wasn’t a…I’ve read that Gillman was ecstatic when they signed Tobin Rote, but the players…
EF – He was, but we weren’t. Not initially. But he had to sell the deal to us. He was very ecstatic. He had come here talking about, “we have the greatest quarterback going.” For us John Hadl was going to be the greatest. We had just lost Jack Kemp, who we all had a lot of respect for. So most of us said, “well, show us. We’ll wait and see.”
TT – We’ve talked about how there were so many great things that happened during ‘63. Were there any hardships? Any things that you guys really had to overcome? Or did everything go smoothly that year?
EF – Well, there were a lot of things… There were…We were still marching. There were civil rights protests etc., and we as a team, were participating in them, not the marching, but at Atlanta, Georgia, we refused to play a game because of discrimination in the city. In Houston we refused to play a game because of the seating. Blacks were seated in the end zone and whites were seated along the length of the field. But they changed that when we told them that we weren’t going out on the field. So there were those types of things. It was just a period of unrest in the country and those types of things were going on.
TT – What are some things that I should think about when researching Sid Gillman that most people overlook?
EF – I think most people give him lip service for being the “Father of the Modern Passing Game.” But they do not really give him the truth. They will say that he did do this, but if you delve into it and see how many facets of the game he affected other then just the passing game. Sid Gillman loved defense too. He used to come over there and check on us. He would come over and try to coach us. But we had Ernie Ladd and Ernie Ladd would tell him to get the hell away. Ernie Ladd is six-foot-nine and Sid really loved him, really loved Ernie Ladd. But yeah, I don’t think he gets full credit for his defensive football either, his defensive strategies that he would come up with with the other coaches.
TT – One last question. Any other comments?
EF – I’m very happy that you came out. I don’t get very many opportunities to talk about this type of thing in my life anymore. I’m just happy that you came out. I’m happy that I got the chance to talk with you.
TT – Thank you. I appreciate it.