San Diego Union Beat Reporter Covering Chargers – 1961-1986
TT – If you could, please describe the state of San Diego sports when the Chargers came to town in 1961.
JM – You know, I think I’ve answered that question many times in what I’ve written. To me, the community was languishing in a sports sense, in the doldrums that had set in after World War II. It was just looking for a catalyst, something to lift up the people. Something the people could rally around, and the Chargers became the catalyst. I got here in 1956 and I think the big sports event in town was the Hoover-San Diego High football game. We had the Padres in the Coast League. We had some military sports that didn’t really amount to all that much. Marine Corps Recruit Depot had a good football team, but they were just playing the Orange County Rhinos and other semi-pro teams. They were not going to be all that palatable to the public. So really all we had was… Well, we had the Del Mar Racetrack, we had the Caliente Racetrack, we had a golf event. There was a golf event in Tijuana then, too, a PGA event. There was very little, certainly no major sports here then in 1956. It was just a sleep, little, old… It was viewed anyhow as kind of a sleepy old navy town. And I think the Chargers changed that. They gave the citizenry something to rally around.
TT – What was the feeling about the upstart AFL in San Diego sports circles at that time? San Diego has always played second hand to Los Angeles.
JM – Right.
TT – You could argue that the AFL was second hand to the NFL at the time and had already failed in Los Angeles.
TT – Yeah, but the AFL at least had the logo of being big league. At least it proclaimed itself to be big league. For San Diego that was a step up. We didn’t have anything big league. We didn’t have anything, period. I imagine the public acknowledged that the NFL at that time, in the early ‘60s, was a superior league, but I think there also was a feeling that the AFL, with the people behind it, could match it and achieve permanence. There was a helluva lot of money in the AFL. You had Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, Barron Hilton. Lots of money. It was a lot better than anything else we ever had in San Diego. Or anything we had at that point.
TT – How much of your job involved promoting the team rather than simply reporting?
JM – I tried to be objective. I don’t know that I ever tried, in effect, to promote the team. I’m sure though, that consciously or subconsciously I tried to promote the league. You know, when you’re around an event, even on the periphery as a newspaper guy… What the AFL was doing almost seemed like a crusade. They were tilting against the mighty giant that was the NFL. I guess that I have always been a guy that supported the underdog. But at least I hope I didn’t try to promote the team to fiercely. I’m sure there were some who felt I wasn’t promoting it at all. I remember in the early ‘60s if they didn’t play well, at least I tried to be critical. All these professionals in this day and era of television, I kind of think that what the newspaper should do is provide sort of a review of what has happened. Otherwise you can’t say whether they were good or bad. That was just my idea of journalism. It still is, as a matter of fact. I don’t remember, anyhow, trying to promote them. I wanted them to do well. I was very close to many of those people, to Sid and all those people. But I hope it didn’t show too much in my copy. Sid used to get really mad at me. Oh, Hell yeah. I had a very difficult association with him. Times we were up in training camp. I’d write something he didn’t like, he’d take all the newspapers and throw them away before the players could read them. We had kind of an antagonistic relationship many, many times. But when it was over, the good thing about it was that he realized what I was trying to do and I certainly realized what he was trying to do. We were probably closer after was through than we were when he was working. I appreciated how good he was at what he did, and the effort he put into it.
TT – A lot of the players have told me that same thing.
JM – What?
TT – That they got much closer to Sid after.
JM – Yeah, yeah. I can imagine that. Because Sid had that dual capacity of being general manager and coach, which kind of puts you at odds. At one point you’re trying to build up the guy as a player, and as a negotiator you’re trying to knock him down and limit how much he gets in his contract. That coach-general manager system is pretty much faded now. You just don’t find many of them. In those days there were lots of them, including Lombardi. But we had frequently a difficult association. The point you bring up is a good one. You can get really closed to a team that you’re covering. You see them every day. I used to tell my wife that I saw more of Sid than I did of her. Because I covered them every day. I didn’t take a day off during the season. I did it every day. Because I just had a very idealistic concerning journalism in those days, and I thought if you had a beat that you ought to do it every day.
TT – At what point to you think the talent level between the AFL and NFL equaled each other?
JM – I can’t help but think of that 1963 Chargers championship team and the team that won the NFL championship that year, the Bears. This was pre-Gale Sayers, remember. They didn’t have Gale Sayers. Theyhad Billy Wade as their quarterback. Their best running back was Ronnie Bull, who in my thinking in no way compared to either Keith Lincoln or Paul Lowe. They’d run rings around Ronnie Bull. He was a pretty average back. The Bears did have some good defensive players, some good defenses. But so did the Chargers. I think to this day that if the Chargers played them, that the Chargers’ would beat them. They didn’t have anybody like Lance Alworth. Who did? So I think that was one point that you might pick. I’m not saying that the AFL from top to bottom was equal to the NFL, but for one game between those two teams, I think the Chargers would have done real well. I think they would have beat them pretty easy. Maybe not easy, but they had good talent. The best teams in the AFL had damn good talent. The teams that do go out and fight for the players, the Chiefs, and the Houston Oilers and the Chargers and the Bills. There were teams in the early part of the AFL that didn’t have all that great of talent. The Raiders being the leading example. And the Patriots. Hell, the Patriots got along with a lot of guys from Bates. They were playing Maine and Boston College. They still did pretty well. Then the New York Titans were a joke until Sonny Werblin bought them and went out and signed Namath. That was a really big event in the history of the league. Namath signing with the Jets. Because it gave the league a greater core in New York, where every league has to have a strong center.
TT – So it was basically about New York. Because the AFL had beaten the NFL out in signing top draft choices as early as 1960 with Cannon and Flowers.
JM – Oh, they beat them out, but they didn’t beat them out all the time. They had that word they used, “Parity.” There were eight teams in the AFL. How many were there then in the NFL, 14? So the AFL figured it only had to get two out of every five to be equal. They used the word, “Parity.” They got a lot of them. Joe Foss, I think, had a lot to do with the AFL making it. He was a very sympathetic figure. He was a war hero and a really good guy. Much less polished than Rozelle. People liked him. It was less easy to like Rozelle. Rozelle was a great commissioner, but he wasn’t as warm and available to the people as Foss.
TT – What benefits do you think, not monetarily, players got playing with the Chargers that they may not have gotten from playing with any other team in the AFL?
JM – Well, they got to enjoy the San Diego weather, which is what we offer to everybody that comes here. They got to experience what playing pro football was really like because Sid was a consummate professional. He taught the other teams in the league I think, in a large degree, how to operate as professionals. And with Sid, if you didn’t compete with him, he would consume you. And he would. So I think the people here got a thorough grounding in what it means to play professional football. They got extremely good coaching. I mean look at the staff that Sid had with Al Davis, Chuck Noll. They had an excellent personnel staff with Don Klostermann and LoCasale. They got visibility on television because in the early ’60s the Chargers were one of the showplace teams of the league. And they got to wear those pretty uniforms. Those guys that came here in the early ‘60s, they delighted in playing here. Some of them would rent a house out in La Jolla. What better could life be? They had to play in Balboa Stadium, but that was only one day a week. They certainly didn’t have elegant training quarters. I remember when the Chargers worked out at military bases for years. Then they had a base over here in La Mesa at Sunset Park. Have you been over there?
TT – Yeah.
JM – That’s a long way from what NFL training camps are now. Teams have state-of-the-art bases, but the Chargers didn’t. I don’t think a whole lot of other teams in the AFL in those days did either. But that’s a good question.
TT – When the Chargers came here in 1961 they had three future Hall of Famers on their coaching staff in Sid Gillman, Al Davis and Chuck Noll. Did this appear to be an impressive staff at the time?
JM – It seemed impressive, but I don’t think you can judge a matter like that until there’s a passing of the years. Until these people have had time to establish what they could do. And look at what they could do. Noll won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s gotta be considered one of the leading NFL coaches of all time. He didn’t lose any. Davis has had a profound influence on pro football, as profound probably as any man you could name. He became commissioner of the league. He had a great bearing on the AFL-NFL merger. And Sid’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s one of the leading maestro’s of the passing game that football is now. But when they first came here, I don’t think we could have known that, that they were gonna be that good. A lot of people said that Noll had left football too early; that he could still be playing. And Al Davis was not a big figure then. He had been a coach at USC. He was still a very young guy. He didn’t have any great image then. Joe Madro was a good coach, the guy that followed Sid all through his life. Great little guy, he was. When he was up in Oakland in his declining years he used to come down and spend the day with me. I think he was just lonely. He was a real good coach. He and Sid got along together fine.
TT – I imagine they must have to stay together that long.
JM – You know we didn’t have the big coaching staffs then that they have now. And Jack Faulkner is a damn good coach. He later became the head coach of the Broncos. He’s still working for the Rams as a scout. He’s the only guy left in the Rams organization that still lives in Southern California. He is an extremely well known guy in the football community. That was their whole staff. Now they have12 or 15 guys on the staff. We had what, five? But they did have a strong staff. But there was no way to know then, I think, how good it really was.
TT – The Chargers were in 5 of the first 6 AFL Championship games. Why was the ’63 team the only one that won?
JM – Good question. It might have been that the ’63 team was the most fit of the bunch. That’s the team that had practiced at Rough Acres Ranch. I think Tobin Rote might have had something to do with it. He was a quarterback that had vast experience at pro football. In his knowledge and insights he was well ahead of most of the other quarterbacks in the league. They just had a good team. Why the others didn’t win? Well, I think the ’60 team that lost to the Oilers really wasn’t as good as the Oilers. I think you can probably say that about the ’61 team. That was a 10-3 game, right? In Balboa Stadium. Oilers had good players too. ’62, the Chargers weren’t in it in ’62. Kansas City and Houston were in it then, if I remember. Then the Chargers won in ’63 and in ’64 they went back to Buffalo and Lincoln got ripped off by that big tackle by Stratton. Buffalo just out-played them. It’s hard to say. That’s a really tough question to answer. The ’63 team just seemed to have it all together. Plus they profited from an extremely insightful game plan by Sid in that ’63 game. He did stuff… He used motion. He hadn’t used motion. He did a lot of things tactically. He probably had the Patriots out manned. The Patriots, the big thing they had was they had Mike Holovak, who was a damn good coach. But they didn’t have the players the Chargers did. They had some good defenders. Houston Antwine and others. And they had a good scheme too. They did a lot of blitzing before NFL teams did. But they didn’t have the talent the Chargers did. But that’s a good question. I’ll have to think about it.
TT – If the Rough Acres training camp was so beneficial, why did Gillman not try to replicate it there or elsewhere?
JM – I’m saying it’s beneficial. The players didn’t think it was beneficial.
TT – Well, if you ask them now, a lot of them will say it was.
JM – Well ask Mix. He’ll tell you that they won it despite that training camp. I’m sure it brought them together. When you’re out in a place like that, you tend to bond. Everybody hates everything. That’s another real good question. I don’t know. In those days training camps… Some of them were like a day at the beach. The Bears were training in Rensalier, Indiana, out among the cornfields. The Browns were in Hiram, Ohio. These are not Meccas, believe me. Football training camps were not conducted in pleasant places. We went from Rough Acres to Escondido, right? Well, Escondido was a lot more pleasant than Rough Acres, but it wasn’t all that comfortable. That’s a real good question. Bear Bryant did that with Texas A&M, right… That’s a real good question. I know why they did go there. I know why and you do too, why he chose to go there. Because he felt that their previous training camp had not been Spartan enough. They were at USD and he was gonna punish them. Although he never said that.
TT – The Chargers were arguably the AFL’s top team between 1960 and 1966, winning five divisional championships in that time. Why did things change after that? Was it all about Gene Klein?
JM – I think they had begun to change before 1965. If you’ll go back and look up some of those drafts they conducted when they were taking guys like Keith Kinderman and others who were not really established college players, they were doing it because Barron Hilton had cut back their budget, basically. They just got a hulluva head start in the AFL because they knew how to do things and at that point Hilton was more willing to spend. But after a while he didn’t. I think he sensed that he was going to sell the team. To make it more palatable to the buyers, he cut back on spending for personnel. They just didn’t have as good of personnel. I think you could make the argument that a couple of other teams in the AFL were just about equally as assertive as the Chargers. The Oilers and the Texans, later to be the Chiefs.
TT – You probably had a much better view on things than the players did. How much do you think things changed when Gene Klein came in?
JM – I think they changed for the better.
TT – Really?
JM – Not initially. Because initially he was an absentee owner. But later when he moved his home here and became more involved in the team, I think he was a damn good owner. He could make decisions. He always said, “I do not live in the temple of regret.” He was terrific. I remember the year he was able to work a deal and draft Kellen Winslow. They got the guy they thought was the best player in the draft. And he said, “It’s not often you get the best player in the draft without finishing last.” Gene, I thought he was a damn good owner, after he moved here. Absentee ownership seems to be difficult. It doesn’t seem to work so well. I think very kindly of him. Mainly because he was very accessible to the media. He was much more available than Barron Hilton had ever been. He was out there just about every day, walking around, after he came here, with the players. He had a good rapport with them. I’m sure he made some mistakes. He was not a guy that liked to get pushed around. I remember when John Jefferson was holding out. He didn’t take long to trade him to Green Bay. He thought that J.J.’s agent was trying to push him around. He couldn’t stand that. Yeah, I thought he was a very good owner. He did a lot for the league, too. For a long time he and Arthur Modell were the television committee. He did a lot for gaining new television contracts that the league gained. He did a great deal for San Diego. I’m sure he had a lot to do with getting the Super Bowl to come here. You’re sure of it too. You’ve heard all those stories. If the Chargers had any slump, I don’t think it could be attributed solely to Gene Klein.
TT – Sid Gillman was the first professional coach to room black and white players together on the road. Did you ever seen any forms of racial tension on the Chargers?
JM – Did I ever see any? You know, I really can’t think of any. I know that Sid tried to handle the team like a family. For instance his wife would always travel on the trips. In the early days of the league, of the AFL, there were only 33 guys on a team. So it’s a lot easier to become close to one another when there are 33 guys on a team than when there are 58. Everybody was pretty close. If there were any racial tensions, I just can’t recall them. I think there were rivalries. For instance, within the team Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln were great rivals, but I don’t know if there were any racial tensions. Going back a long time now, but I just can’t remember any racial incidents.
TT – Were there any players that you thought were sure to be stars that never really developed? Or likewise, anyone that you thought would not make it that became a star player?
JM – I know the one guy that Sid had great hopes for Leon Burns. You remember him? He was a running back from Long Beach State. The Chargers drafted him number one in the draft, a very high pick. He was a tremendously muscular guy. It turned out that he was older than most of the college players. I think he had been in jail and had probably been on that dianabol to build himself up. He was a great disappointment as a player. But just to look at him you would think that he was going to be a star, but he wasn’t. Good players… The minute you looked at Alworth you knew he was going to be great. You could just watch him run down the field once and you knew that he was just an exceptional athlete. There aren’t many guys walking around like that. Huge calves, he had the waist of a ballerina, very slim upper body, great speed, terrific hands. You knew that he would be a star right from the beginning. I’m sure there are many. The Chagers had a number of guys that didn’t look like they could play, but could. One of them was Dick Harris, their cornerback in the early ‘60s. He just looked like a “boy next door” kind of guy. Freckled guy. He was a good cornerback. He knew how to cover. You know it’s hard for me to just single them out, there’s so many. I’m sure there are some. You remember in the early ‘60s we had a guy named Hezekiah Ezekial Braxton III. That was before your time. He never did make much of himself, but he was physically an extremely gifted kind of a guy. Big muscles. You would think he would have done better than he did. No, I think mostly the guys that I thought would do well did well, and the guys that I didn’t think would do well didn’t do well. It doesn’t take any genius to pick them out. You could do it easy.
TT – Tell me about Emil Karas.
JM – Emil was a very nice guy. He had played in the NFL. I think he played with the Redskins. He was a nice guy. He was a good-looking guy. He was aware that he was good looking, which is nothing to slight him. The thing I remember about Emil is he would be doing arm curls to improve his biceps and things like that. Emil was a good player. He was not a great one, but as a person he was a fine fellow… Emil was a real nice guy and should have lived longer than he did. You know we had a lot of guy in the early years of the Chargers get killed. Bob Laraba got killed in an auto accident. Jacque MacKinnon. He got killed running from the police. He had been incarcerated for some previous incident and he was a free spirit and just couldn’t stand the thought of going back to jail. One night they stopped him and he was running to escape the police. There was a wall there. He leaped over the wall to get away from the cops and he wasn’t aware that there was quite a plunge on the other side. He suffered an injury that took his life.
TT – Just talk about Emil Karas.
JM – Oh yeah, everybody loved Emil. And he was a very nice guy. I’m sorry he died.
TT – Who did you think were some of the more interesting personalities associated with that team?
JM – With the Chargers team of the AFL years? Well I think Sid was a personality that interested me. And we know all about him. The guy that really attracted me a lot was Paul Lowe. I thought he had immense talent. A very rhythmic athlete. I used to got to the stadium early so I could watch him warm up. He had this thing that he would first walk 100 yards down the sidelines. Then he would stride 100 yards, then he would sprint 100 yards before a game. He had been a hurdler and he had just a beautiful gait. And he had an interesting too. I think he worked in the mailroom for Barron Hilton while they were stowing him away. I still think he was a great player. He’s a cook now out at the federal penitentiary. I talk to him once in a while. He weighs about 240. but I always thought he was an interesting guy, simply from the standpoint of the skills that he had. Kemp was an interesting guy. Amazing that being put on waivers put him in congress. They got him for $100 and Sid never would admit that he made a mistake in putting him on waivers when he did, but he did. I still see him once in a while. He’s doing something now for the league. He’s employed by the league. I think it’s in attracting more people to play football. Hell, he could have been president. He had a shot. He always did seem to have a political lean. Good-looking guy, real good-looking guy, when he was young. Ernie Ladd was a guy that I thought was immensely interesting. I knew Ernie pretty well. He loved to play games and he was good at them. He was a good pool player. He could play ping-pong pretty good. Not as good as he thought, maybe, but he could play. And he loved to play poker. He loved games. And he liked projecting this image of being this big, strong guy. A huge person. And he was a very good chess player. I have a twin brother who was a state chess champion in Nebraska for a number of years and played in the U.S. Open. So I was around chess quite a bit. I knew how to play, but Ernie always beat me. Years later when he would come back to town to wrestle, he would bring his chess board and sometimes he would call me up and invite me down to the Coliseum to play chess with him. He was an interesting guy. Just the size of him. He was a big son of a bitch. 6’9”. 325. And you remember he had that tether that he had on his arms. There aren’t too many defensive tackles that could just pick up a center and throw him into the fullback. He could play. He couldn’t run all that fast, but he was an interesting guy. There were a lot of interesting guys in those years. Mix is an interesting guy. He could write. He did some articles for Sports Illustrated and they were good. You wouldn’t think he would be a very good athlete. I don’t think he could hit a curveball in a week. But he could block and he could run. He could run. That’s what separated him from others. Plus he would apply himself. But I never thought he was a great athlete. A lot of those guys are interesting guys.
TT – tell me about Don Rogers.
JM – He’s my tax man. He has been my tax man for years. Now he owns a boat and his great joy is taking his yacht on these travels of his. He’ll go down into Mexico and all place. I think he’s done pretty well. He has a tax service, Don Rogers Tax Service. Operates down in Chula Vista. He’s been my income tax accountant for about 15 or 20 years. He once got me into some bad investments, but I’ve forgiven him. He has a very charming wife. He has now sold his tax service and his wife used to assist him in the office. Well the person that he sold the tax service to fired his wife. But Don Rogers is a very nice guy. South Carolina. He’s been an asset to the community. I’m sure he’s quite bright. I think he attends some of their alumni functions. For years the Chargers didn’t have very many centers. Remember they had Don and then they had Gruneisen. Then they had Macek. For years those three guys were the only centers they had. Centers last forever. Don Rogers is a good guy. Nice family. He has a real handsome wife. He knows a lot about finance. He isn’t making a fortune working on my taxes. He was part of that. Sweeney was a really interesting guy. He was a wild man. I can tell you great stories about him. Peeing out the window of buses after games. One year we were up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. This is back in the time when the Chargers would make that trip to the East where they would play the three games in the East. They would just stay in the East. He and Shea got a room somewhere and started drinking. They got into a fight. They were fighting because they were just about out of booze and they knew they were going to have to go out and get some more and the guy that was going to have to go out and get more booze was aware that while he was gone the other guy was going to drink what they had left. Sweeney did all kinds of crazy things. He was always a wild man. You saw him in the early ‘60s, playing special teams. There has never been a better special teams player. He was a damn good player. He’s a good guy too.
TT – Lance told me that he was put in the wrong position. That if Sweeney had been put at middle linebacker that he’d be in the Hall of Fame.
LA – You know, I think he was a defensive end at Syracuse. He’s famous for committing the roughing the passer penalty that cost Syracuse a game against Notre Dame. I think projecting him to guard was an insightful thing. He could run and he was a fighter. He could hardly play now. Guards are now 300, but he was a helluva player. Too bad he squandered so much of his ability as he did. I went out and visited him in a drug center not too many years ago. You know the Chargers, they did have an association with drugs.
TT – I’ve read some about Alvin Roy.
JM – Alvin Roy was a good guy. He’s from Louisiana. He used to say that Lance Alworth could out-jig a jig. Alvin was an older guy, but he liked the ladies. He was always nosing around the ladies. And he was a student of Russian weight lifting methods. I’m sure that he had a voice in the Chargers getting into the use of steroids. The Chargers I think were the first professional team to lift weights to any degree.