San Diego Chargers – 1967-1971, 1974
St. Louis Cardinals – 1972-1973
TT – How did your career with the Chargers begin?
JS – Well, to tell you the truth, it simply began because they drafted me. I had no aspirations of being a professional football player. As a matter of fact, when I was a senior at San Diego State, I remember going to an AFL All-Star practice being held here in San Diego. Standing between Earl Faison and Ernie Ladd, looking up and saying, “Oh, there’s no way I could play on the same field as these guys.” But the Chargers drafted me as a third round, future draft choice, my junior year, and said they thought I could play in the AFL. I said, “Well, if you think I can, I’ll certainly try.” And then of course I got to spring training and decided that I was just as good, if not better than most. That’s basically it began.
TT – What did you know about the AFL at that time?
JS – Just that they were the step-child and that there had been a price war going on between the AFL and the NFL for the super stars, the Grabowski’s, the Donnie Anderson’s, the Joe Namath’s, that type of thing. But I wasn’t real concerned because my rookie year was the year the two leagues merged. In those days the AFL used to take a future draft choice for every regular draft choice. In other words, they’d take a number one and they’d take a number one future, they’d take a number two, then a number two future, number three, number three future. Whereas the NFL, if you took a future draft choice, that counted as a draft choice. So whereas the AFL had 300 future draft choices, the NFL had 50. So when the two leagues merged, they threw all these future draft choices back into a pool and redrafted them. In that case I got drafted number one by the New York Giants. I went back to New York for a week, and having been a San Diego boy all my life, New York was fun to visit, but there was no way I wanted to play there. So I came home. My attorney in those days, that helped me sign my professional contract, was a man named Don Augustine. Don Augustine had been the attorney for the AFL. When the two leagues merged, they kept the NFL attorney and fired Don Augustine. So I had kind of an inside track. So we went to Sid Gillman’s office and… First of all, let me tell you that the Giants were more than cordial. I came back there, they showed me a good time, they showed me around, they kept me in a beautiful hotel, but they didn’t talk turkey. They said, “You let us know what you want, and we’ll let you know.” So we went to Sid Gillman’s office, my attorney and I, and we told Sid Gillman that we wanted $20,000 a year, three-year, no-cut contract, and a $40,000 signing bonus. And he laughed at us. He said, “Kid, if you can get that kind of money from the Giants, then you go to New York.” So I said, “Well, gosh. O.K.” So we went back to my attorney’s office and he called New York and New York said, “fine. Sounds good to us. We’ll put the contract in the mail. You sign it and send it back.” O.K. So I’m kind of sitting there all dejected and my attorney says, “Hey, you’re supposed to be a happy man. What’s the problem?” And I said, “Well, I’m happy, but I wanted to play in my hometown.” There are very few ballplayers that get to play high school, college and professionally in their own hometown. I went to Point Loma High School, played at San Diego State, and for the Chargers. So he said, “Well, let’s try one more time.” So he called Sid back on the phone. “Sid, do you want this kid or not?” “Well, I’d sure like to have him. We think he’s a talent, but you know I can’t pay that kind of money.” So he said, “Well, he’s willing to play here in San Diego for exactly what New York offered him.” “Well, O.K., bring him down.” So we went back down to Sid’s office, I signed a contract. He called New York back and said that we’d had a change of heart and that’s how it began.
TT – So did they sign you back at what Sid had previously offered?
JS – No, they signed me at exactly what we had asked New York for. The $20,000 a year, three year, no-cut contract and a $40,000 signing bonus.
TT – So just what Sid had refused previously?
JS – Right. What he said was unconscionable.
TT – So how did he feel about that? Did he feel like he was suckered a bit because you did not lead in with that?
JS – Well he never said, although in years past… Sid and I have always remained friends and he laughs and says to this day that I got one of the best contracts he ever signed. But all he said was, “Now will you give me a ride to the airport?” And we did. Sid was a patriarch. He had to be in control of everything. And was in control of everything. As a player and a young man, you’re kind of in awe of him. He sat back in that big chair behind his desk and you kind of felt that whatever he said was gospel. And if it wasn’t, he’d have the rules changed so that it was.
TT – Basically we’ve covered the first part of question three, but how did the AFL teams compare to the NFL at that time?
JS – I felt that they were comparable. I felt that the AFL at that time was ahead of the NFL as far as offense was concerned, the passing game. Sid Gillman had a lot to do with that. Now, I don’t think the AFL was as strong overall, as the NFL. But Namath proved just a few years later, that the best teams were as good as the NFL’s best teams.
TT – What were some of your greatest moments with the Chargers?
JS – I don’t have a real good recollection of my days with the Chargers. Game days are like days out of my life. You get up in the morning, you start concentrating, you start building yourself up, you start that adrenaline pumping. You are so focused on what’s going on, on the field, and then afterwards you go out and have a few cocktails to try and come back down again. When you wake up the next morning, it’s like a blur. Like it was a dream that you had the day before. If you weren’t so sore, you wouldn’t know. I’ll tell you what, my biggest remembrance was that I was drafted as a linebacker. In junior college I had been a Junior College All-American as a tight end, but I had always played linebacker also. As a linebacker at San Diego State, I also played tight end in short yardage and goal line situations. When I got to the Chargers, I was a linebacker through most of training camp. About two-thirds of the way through training camp, Sid came to me and told me that he was unhappy with either Jacque MacKinnon or Willie Frazier who were the tight ends at the time. And he wanted to get rid of one and wanted me to make the transition to tight end. So I was kind of frustrated. Here I thought I am going to be destined to be the third or fourth string tight end, and I really wanted to play linebacker. So we were going into our last exhibition game of the season and we’d had about five linebackers go down within about a five-minute period through freak injuries. So they came running over to me and said, “Staggs, do you remember the defensive signals?” I said, “Well I remember the defensive signals O.K., but I won’t know who to cover if they go in motion or if the pass coverage changes.” So they said, “Don’t worry about that. Kenny Graham will stand behind you and he’ll tell you exactly where to go or who to cover.” So I said O.K., so they threw me in there. I started for them for five years after that game. So a lot of young players come and go without ever getting a chance, depending upon a ball club’s needs. You know, I remember things like we went to Palm Springs because it was raining real heavily here and we were going to play the Oakland Raiders. So we could get some good weather over in Palm Springs, so they loaded us all on a bus and took us over to Palm Springs for a week. Well on the way over, I got into playing gin rummy with Lance Alworth. When we started we were playing for 50 cents if you knocked, a dollar if you ginned. I wasn’t really experienced at cards, but I thought how much money could I lose on the way over there. By the time we got there we were playing for 50 dollars in you knocked, 100 dollars if you ginned, and I owed Lance something like $1,200. He came to me and said, “Rookie, take this as a lesson. You give me $600 today and we’re even.” I couldn’t hardly get in my pocket fast enough. Then I remember playing card games with some of the veterans. I didn’t realize until later, but they were passing cards to each other under the table. I’d have what I thought was a great hand and it always turned out to be second best. I just couldn’t understand it. Shortly thereafter they laughed at me and told me, “Hey rookie, you have got to stay out of those card games with veterans.” Then I remember the veterans teasing me. They called me super-rook. They were always teasing me about one thing or another. I remember Sid Gillman had quite a temper when aroused. One time we were in a hotel somewhere in Washington or New York. My roommate was Joe Beauchamp. We had gotten on the elevator and we had gotten on the wrong elevator. It was on it’s way up and then we had to ride it back down. To make a long story short, we were three minutes late to the meeting. Well, if you were late to a meeting, it was supposed to be a $100 fine. But Sid was steaming and stewing because we were the only two guys that were not there on time. He said, “It’s going to be $100 a minute for every minute you were late.” We went, “Whoa.” Well as it turned out, we complained to the players association and they went to bat for us and they ended up with a $100 fine. But he had really worked himself up into a lather by the time we had gotten there. He didn’t mind chewing some ass when it needed to be chewed. And you didn’t say much and didn’t complain much. As far as Balboa Stadium is concerned, I didn’t play in Balboa Stadium, other than as an Aztec. Because I was drafted as a junior, my senior year the Chargers gave me a job working for the Chargers down at Balboa Stadium. In those days the owners box was nothing more than tiered chairs on top of the stadium with a vinyl overhang to protect them from the sun. My job was to go down to two flights and get hot dogs and sodas for anybody in the owners enterage. What a great job. I was making $50 a game, cash money, back in 1965, which was a lot of money to a kid in college. I actually was standing there in the middle of a three-way conversation between me and Gene Klein and Barron Hilton as the game went on. They’re talking to me as if, “What do you think here? And what happened there? What do you think about this?” I’m just carrying on a three-way conversation between these two gentlemen and it was a wonderful experience. And then after I signed with the Chargers, between the time I signed and my rookie year, I worked for them taking people down to the stadium. Our offices were at the old Lafayette Hotel on El Cajon Boulevard. We had a mini van and twice a day I would take a busload of season ticket holders down to the stadium and I’d spew out worthless information like “those are all pre-fabricated slabs weighing 35,223 pounds and those lights give off 423,000 candle light power. And your seats are going to be right over there.” That was a great gig, but that’s about all that I have in connection with the Chargers and Balboa Stadium. Except they filled it up, which was nice. Fans were always great. It seemed to me that the fans back in my era were a little bit more avid and vocal than the fans today. The fans today, especially in San Diego, are pretty sedate. You won’t find anybody running around and tearing down the goal post like they do in the Midwest or in the east. But that’s the nature of the game. When I played, football was a blue-collar worker’s game. The blue-collar worker made football and could afford to go to football. Now it’s a corporate thing. The wealthy get the best seats. That was one thing that always disturbed me as a player. As a player you’re entitled to buy two tickets to the Super Bowl. You pay the going rate, just like everybody else, but you’re allowed to buy two tickets before they go on public sale. Well, as a player, the best two tickets that you can buy are on the ten yard line out. And I always thought to myself, “You know, here we are. We’re paying full boat, we’re the ones responsible for this game. Why can’t we buy two tickets on the fifty yard line?” Well, those are all gone to corporate America. That always irritated the heck out of me.
JS – Describe your best game.
JS – Well, according to Al Davis, my best game that he ever saw, was against the Buffalo Bills and O.J. Simpson. I ran into Al Davis at a golf tournament in Palm Springs. He was sitting out by the pool, going through some paper work and [he said] ‘Hey Jeff, how are you doing?” “Oh, Mr. Davis. How are you?” “Sit down, let’s shoot the breeze.” And he asked me what I thought was my best game. I said, “they all run together for me.” He says, “I’ll tell you when I knew that you could play for me.” At the time that Buffalo came into San Diego, and I think this was 1969, 1968 maybe. O.J. Simpson was the leading receiver in the AFC, coming out of the backfield. And we played a lot of man coverage against him that day. I think he caught one pass and I ended up covering him man-to-man on at least 8-9 occasions.
JS – Who were some of the guys that you hung out with on the team?
JS – Jacque MacKinnon, Pete Barnes. You have to understand, it was different for me than it was for most players. Most players come from somewhere else. Their only friends upon arrival in San Diego are teammates. Some go back home as soon as the season is over, I mean their friends are centered on teammates. In my case, I was from San Diego. So I had a complete set of friends when I started playing with the Chargers. So although I was good friends with everybody on the team, I didn’t, other than on special occasions when we’d get together for something, I didn’t really run with my teammates. But I have fond memories of Walt Sweeney, Ron Mix, Dickie Post, Brad Hubbert, Pete Barnes, Rick Redman, Steve DeLong, Joe Beauchamp, Speedy Duncan and of course Gary Garrison and I were roommates in college and roommates for a couple years as Chargers. And then Bobby Howard and I were also teammates at San Diego State. So we were all very close.
TT – You already said what it was like to play for Sid, do you have any other thoughts on Sid Gillman?
JS – You know, one thing that always amazed me was his ability to take in the whole picture. I was up at La Costa. I had just gotten married and Sid and I ran into each other at a convenience store up at La Costa. And of course, Sid always has lived up there. So he asked me what I was doing for the Super Bowl, which was the next day. I said I didn’t have any plans, I was here with my new wife and we were just getting away for a couple of days and he says, “Would you like to come over to my house?” I said that would be great. So I get to Sid’s house and he’s got a huge coffee table, and on the table he had about eight of the legal pads and a good dozen pencils and a pencil sharpener. I’m watching the game on TV and I’m following the ball, just like you would and I look over at Sid and he’s diagramming the play that was just run with the pass patterns that the receivers ran, the blocking schemes that the blockers did and where everybody on the field went. And he’s taking down names of anybody that made a good play on special teams or any of that stuff. So his ability to look at football and take in the big picture just amazed me.
TT – What was your most memorable moment on the field?
JS – There were a couple, three plays that stand out in my mind. They stand out in my mind more because of the hit that was put upon me, rather than the hit that I put on somebody else. One was a blitz, up in Oakland. Daryl Lamonica had taken the ball, reverse-pivoted, was rolling to his left. I was the linebacker on the far side. I came in on a blitz with a clear shot at him, just thinking in my mind, “I’m gonna knock this guy out.” At the very last second, Jim Otto, the center, drop-steps, sees me coming and caught me right under the chin with the top of his helmet. Well it didn’t knock me unconscious, but it knocked me kookoo. I tried to go and line up in the Oakland Raider huddle after the play. And of course the Raiders are laughing at me and they take me and push me back in the direction of my own huddle. The next couple of plays I played on instinct alone, until the team realized what had happened, took me out and I took a breather for a few plays and went right back in. But that was probably the best hit that was ever put on me. The best hit I ever put on somebody else turned out to be about a 20-yard gain for them. Linebackers are always on special teams. So I’m flying down in the middle of the pack, going full speed and I run into this Kansas City return man, probably 5’11”, 180-pounds. And I hit him full speed. I go down in a heap and I jump back up and brush myself off and I’m looking down for this guy because I really believed in my hear that this kid was probably laying there unconscious because of the impact. Well, when you saw the films from the side on Monday, it literally knocked him back about 10 yards. I mean he left the ground, everything, and flew back about 10 yards, but he kept his feet. And when he gathered himself, he kept on going. Well I think not only myself, but all of my teammates thought he was done for too, because everybody kind of relaxed because he turned out to make another 15 or 20 yards after that. One of the other most memorable moments was…When I was a young player I was one of those guys that really threw my body around. I was one of these kind of guys that hated, literally hated to run across the field, chasing a play and get there too late to get a hit. So I used to hit offensive linemen who were standing around, just to be hitting somebody. Well, in those days it was $100 for the first time you got thrown out of a game. It was $300 the second time and $500 the third time. So I had already been thrown out of two games for fisticuffs. And we were playing the New York Jets and Joe Namath the last game of the season. There was about 30 seconds left on the clock and they were on about our four-yard line. Namath tried to go with a staggered count to draw us off sides. It worked, because Ron Billingsley was a great big country bumpkin. He jumps off sides, goes flying by the guard, their fullback steps up, takes him on to protect Namath. Then the guard who he flew by turns around and run up behind Billingsley and forearms him across the back of the head. I’m standing over here on the side of the line and I’m looking around and none of the referees saw it or didn’t say anything. So I thought, “Well shoot, I’m gonna protect my teammate.” So I go running over and I grab this guard and I throw an elbow that catches him right under the chin and he goes down in a heap. The referee comes running over to me and says, “What did you do that for?” And I said, “Well, you weren’t doing anything.” And he says “I am now.” Had I been smarter, I’d have save myself $500 with 30 seconds left to go in the season. So I always remember that. Then I remember a preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings where Carl Eller had hit John Hadl late on a pass play. Both benches had emptied and throughout the course of the game I think there were two or three bench-clearing things where tempers were always on edge because of this particular play. But the second time that we had gone into a bench-clearing brawl out in the middle of the field, my helmet got knocked off. There’s a big difference between throwing blows when you’ve got your helmet on and when you don’t. So I worked my way out to the edge of this crowd of guys and I grabbed this rookie. And I said, “Rookie. Did you see my helmet in there? Go get it.” So he goes in and grabs my helmet and I put it back on, snap it up and jump back in there.
Frank Buncom was a hell of a guy. Jim Tolbert and I were rookies together. You know he’s a hell of a seamstress. He used to make clothes. Those drawstring pants for the guys that were too big to buy them in the store. Dick Harris was a good football player. Hell of a nice guy here, Keith Lincoln. I mowed his lawn for him. My best buddy and I used to go over and mow his lawn, and I think Lance Alworth’s lawn when they came to town. And then I’m playing on the same field as them five years later. There’s myself and a wide receiver that played for the Chargers that are the only two guys, that I know of, that played high school, college and professionally in San Diego. There’s a lot of guys like Shea and Seau that went to high school here, but they went away to college and they came back tot he Chargers. But myself and this end.
TT – Kern Carson played one year with the Chargers after Lincoln High and SDSU
JS – That’s right. That’s right. He played at San Diego State. So I guess there’s three of us. This would have been in the early 1980s. One of the all-time great hitters, Kenny Graham. Tom Day, he used to have a great laugh. Just a great laugh. To look at this man, you’d have never thought he was a football player. Scott Appleton, Outland Trophy winner. He looked like anything but an athlete. He had short arms. Bob Petrich, funny man, great sense of humor. I never saw a football card of me from this era. I don’t know that they ever made one. There’s a football card of me for the…St. Louis Cardinals. There’s a linebacker who came to the Chargers from the Houston Oilers in about 1967. His name was John Baker. You know the Clint Eastwood type. Thin at the hips, broad in the shoulders. And he was studying in the seminary to become a minister. And he was one of these guys that was a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Just a Southern drawl and the nicest guy you’d want to meet off the football field, but when he got on the football field he just went crazy. He was the kind of guy that would leave the defensive scheme and go clear across the field to get revenge to hit some guy that had held him or had done something to him the play before. The hack with the play that was going right at him, he’d leave and go over and knock the snot out of somebody. Jacque MacKinnon. I remember being with him one day. We were at the Catamaran Hotel. They used to have great off-season monthly rates. We were together one day and the TV went on the fritz. He got mad and grabbed the TV and threw it off the balcony from about 10 stories high. Joe Madro and Walt Sweeney, they used to go round and round. Charlie Waller and Joe Madro, they were Sid’s “yes” men. Escondido. We stayed in the Travel Lodge and ate in the bowling alley. The bowling alley had a big meeting room. Several of the guys, including Jim Allison, who turned us onto this guy, were in the Army National Guard. So some of us were still afraid of being drafted in the service. We’d been kept out of the service because of our school status. So anyway, it was suggested that Sid and Jim and some of the powers that be got together with the guy that was the commanding officer, here, of the National Guard. It was decided that several of us would sign up for the Army National Guard and that the head guy would see to it that we didn’t get called up to do our active duty until after the season was over. We’d go do our six months active duty and be back in time for the next season. Well, we got called up. There must have been 8 or 9 of us that joined up. Right in the middle of the season they called us all up to do our active duty. Well Sid says, “You don’t need to take any tooth brushes or anything because you’re just going to go up to Fort Ord and we’re gonna talk to some people and you’ll be coming right back.” Well, it got to be a politically sensitive thing. Nobody in politics or with any authority at all wanted to touch this for fear that the press would get into it and blow it all out of proportion. So here I am. Myself and Dickie Post were the only starters. Lane Fenner. But anyway, we get up there and we’re telling these guys, “No, you don’t need to cut our hair off because we’re not staying.” “I don’t want this uniform, I’m not going to be needing it.” So after being up there for three or four days, it became evident that we weren’t getting out. Myself and Dickie Post and a couple other guys reported to sick call. We decided that the best thing we could do was complain and list all of our injuries and see if there isn’t something that will keep us out of the service. Well, Dickie Post had just had a major operation on his knee where they’d done a new and special thing where they took his hamstring and actually attached it to his ligament in his knee. So when his hamstring was tight, his knee was real solid. But when he laid on the table and relaxed the hamstring, the knee wobbled all around. So he went in first and he comes out and says “Hey, I’m outta here.” So I’m sitting there in sick call for about another hour. And the bad part about it is that you’re on a day-to-day system. So everybody that comes in one day, stays together and moves along in a progression. So if you take a day out to go to sick leave, then you’re in a group a day behind everyone else. So I thought “I’m gonna miss all my buddies going through training camp.” So I get in there and I’ve got this list of all of these operations that I have had and all these things that are causing me problems. “No, no, no, I don’t see anything wrong. But, the arthritis in your shoulder is a major concern to us and we don’t feel like you are fit for military service. So I felt like jumping up and down and doing back flips down the hall, but I said, “Oh really? That’s a bummer.” So anyway, they washed Dickie Post and I out. And I came back and people were calling me up in the middle of the night and cussing me out, telling me I was a draft-dodger. They’d hang at the stadium over the tunnel and throw things at me and Dickie Post. They didn’t realize that they were just protecting themselves. They didn’t want to have to pay a pension for the rest of your life if I had gotten hurt in basic training. As a linebacker for the Chargers I wore number 81, which is an unusual number for a linebacker, but I also played tight end in goal line and short yard situations for the Chargers too. Jeff Queen, he was a linebacker turned running back. This is the reason I left the Chargers, Phil Bengston. We got in an argument one day. He asked me why I play football. I said, “For the money, what do you think?” That just appalled him. He was from Green Bay days, the Lombardi era where he played football for love of the game and camaraderie and that kind of stuff. A year later they traded me to the Rams. I went in the trade that brought Deacon Jones and all those guys down here, the ones that got in trouble with Dr. Mandell. And then I had just started my first exhibition season for the rams when Roman Gabriel got a collapsed lung and they weren’t sure how long he was going to be out. So they needed a back up quarterback in a hurry and St. Louis had tried to trade for me with the Chargers, but they didn’t have anything the Chargers wanted. So the Chargers traded me to L.A. instead. So anyway, they traded me to the Cardinals for Bobby Beathard’s younger brother, Pete Beathard. And I went back to St. Louis and played a couple more years, played for Coryell his first year in the pros. That was interesting. We’d get together and go for a little walk. He’d ask me how he was doing, whether the guys liked him, whether the practices were being run right. I’d say, “Hey coach, you’re doing a great job.” He was a nice man.