Bob Reifsnyder was a highly-touted defensive lineman from the Naval Academy when he tore his Achilles tendon in his senior year. He played one season in the NFL, and then joined the Los Angeles Chargers of the American Football League in 1960. His time with the Chargers was short, and he was traded to the New York Titans in the preseason. I conducted this interview with Bob Reifnyder in 2002, while researching my book on the AFL Chargers.
TT – Tell me about the process in which you came to the Chargers.
BR – Well, basically I graduated from the Naval Academy. I had ripped my Achilles’ tendon in my senior year and as a result, got a medical discharge when I graduated. So instead of going into the service, I was drafted by the L.A. Rams. Also that year, 1959, I played in the Chicago All-Star Game, which was kind of a joke because in those days they didn’t really have any of the rehabilitation and therapy that they have now. So in February, of course they didn’t really know what was wrong with me. In February they cut my leg open and stitched me back up and all that stuff, and that was it. So I was drafted by the L.A. Rams, and at that time Sid Gillman was their coach. I played in the Chicago All-Star Game against the Baltimore Colts. I was being worked out as a defensive end out there, and then when I went to the Ram camp, they tried to make me a linebacker, which I had never really played before. But I just couldn’t run the way I used to. One of my attributes at Navy, I was an All-America in my junior year, won the Maxwell Trophy when I was a junior, and a couple of years ago was elected to the College Hall of Fame. So I did have a solid college career up until my senior year, which was a disaster. I just didn’t play. So anyway, what happened was that they were dissatisfied with my progress. I was going through camp out there and they put me on special teams. I had a real good game on special teams, on kick off and punt returns. I felt like I was coming back, but they decided they were not going to keep me. What they tried to do was send me, Sid Gillman and Pete Rozelle, who was the general manager, tried to talk me into going up to Canada and play. They had some kind of deal worked out with a Canadian team, which I forget which one it was. But I had just been married and said that I didn’t want any part of doing that. So the next thing I know, they wind up trading me to the Giants. So the Giants put me on injured reserve. I think they traded me for Ben Agajanian, the kicker. So anyway, I spent the whole year with the Giants and did not get activated. So by the end of the season, the contracts rules in effect in those days, since I technically had never been on an official contract, I was a free agent. So Frank Leahy, who became the general manager of the first Chargers team, and Sid Gillman, who got fired by the Rams, became head coach. So they contacted me and offered me a fairly decent bonus and a bigger contract than I had with the Giants, so I jumped. So anyway, I was out there and they were playing me at defensive end and I was a place kicker, and I was still having problems with my legs. I guess things just didn’t work out in their eyes. I started a couple of preseason games and the next thing I know I was traded to the Titans. I played that year with the Titans and half of a second year with the Titans. That was it. The second year I was with the Titans I broke my hand and they put me on injured reserve and then released me. I kind of think, in their case, it was a question of money. And again, in all honesty, I was not the ballplayer I was three years previously. I was kind of gimping around on a half a leg. That has always been kind of a black cloud in my life. I always wondered how successful I could have been in pro ball if I was 100%. But if I was 100%, I probably would have been in the Navy shooting guns instead of playing pro ball. So, you can’t have it both ways.
TT – When you signed with the Chargers and later with the Titans, were you concerned that the new league might not be successful?
BR – Yeah, I just looked at it as an opportunity, I guess. Because with the Giants, they had that real great defensive line with Robustelli, Katkavage, Kluskey and Greer. At the end of the season, the year I was with them, I think it was the next to last game, Greer got hurt and they signed a guy by the name of Art Hauser of the St. Louis Cardinals in those days. That kind of ticked me off a little bit because I was kind of like the fifth lineman, the fifth defensive lineman. In an emergency condition went down, they would have put one of the offensive guys in to finish the game, but I was under the impression that I was to become activated. But because those four guys were so good and so strong, they actually never had a backup. So I was their backup, even though I was not on the active roster. So anyway, when they did that it was kind of a jolt to my system. And then when the Chargers contacted me, there was just so much more money involved. I really never gave it much thought. After the way it turned out, I was kind of sorry I didn’t stick with the Giants. Wellington Mara was a great guy and I think a little upset that I didn’t come and talk to him before I did anything. But I was a young kid in those days, we didn’t have agents or anything like that. I always laugh because I signed originally with the Rams on the QT basis. They told me don’t let anyone else know that I was not going to get commissioned when I got out of the Naval Academy. So with an agent in your pocket today, you would be worth a lot more money. Of course in those days we weren’t making a whole lot more money. Nick Pietrosante, as I remember, was the number one draft choice that year and he got $15,000 and a $5,000 bonus, or something like that. So that was it. I think the money was the biggest thing in my mind. And they made it sound very appealing. As it turned out, the first couple of years were rough years though. It wasn’t the greatest place to play. The stadiums were horrible when you come right down to it.
TT – How did the Chargers training camp differ from others that you may have gone through?
BR – I was never really in the Giant training camp. I was in the Rams camp. Basically it was the same thing. Sid Gillman was the head coach in both so he basically ran it the same way.
TT – Tell me about Sid. What did you think of Sid as a coach?
BR – I’ll tell you, he was obviously a genius. I, for some reason, never got along with him. I think that was part of my problem. But he obviously, with his track record, is considered a genius. I hate to say, but I just don’t know if he had great rapport with some of his players, that’s all.
TT – Well, you’re not the first man to tell me that.
BR – That was my opinion. I had played for a guy, Eddie Erdelatz, at the Naval Academy, who was like a father. Going into this was totally different from the way things were in college. Totally different experience. Kind of tripped you up. And then the Giant experience was very good, but again the money thing and Frank Leahy, who was the old Notre Dame coach, a lot of that stuff got in your mind. And I was only 22 at the time. When I graduated I was 21 years old. Anyway, I went out there basically because of money and it was probably, in the long run, a mistake. But you don’t know.
TT – How did you feel the competition was between the AFL and NFL? Were the players pretty equal?
BR – No, not in the beginning. To be very honest with you. I think it took them 4 or 5 years, when was the first competitive?
TT – After the 66 season.
BR – That was what, 6 years almost? It was a big difference. We had guys, probably including myself, on the Titans, who couldn’t have made half the teams… You don’t really know, but it wasn’t the same. And the biggest thing I remember was some of the conditions that we played in, like the Titans were in the Polo Grounds, which were virtually falling down. Buffalo War Memorial Stadium up there, that was a horror show. Down in Houston we played in Jeppeson Stadium, which I think was a high school stadium. The medical things… We had a guy get injured down there and died right in the locker room. I forget his name, and we didn’t even have doctors there. It was kind of rag tag. I guess that I could tell war stories more about Harry Wismer and the New York Titans that I could about anything else.
TT – That was one of my next questions. What was Harry Wismer like from a player’s standpoint?
BR – Well, you never saw him. The only time you saw him was once in a while on the plane. He was kind of a self-centered individual as far as I am concerned. He ran the thing out of his hat. That’s for sure. I remember sometimes when payday would come, that would be the end of practice. Guys would scramble to get to the bank to see if the checks would clear. I told that story once at a banquet and some guy came up to me and chewed my butt out because he was a close friend of Harry Wismer. I said, “I wish I had some writing talents, I could really write a book about those days.” I guess with the Chargers, their owner was Barron Hilton. He would show up for practice flying in a helicopter once in a while. He would just drop in. There was definitely a world of difference.
TT – Who were some of the guys that that you keyed against when you played against the Chargers?
BR – They had the one running back that was pretty good, Paul Lowe, Jack Kemp. What about the end, Bambi?
TT – Alworth came in 62.
BR – I may have played in 62 against him. Ron Mix, he was a good player. He was an offensive tackle. I remember him.
TT – What about Sammy Baugh? How was he as a coach?
BR – He was a player’s coach. He was kind of a down to earth guy. Gillman worked at it 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year. I think Sam… We didn’t have a playbook with the Titans. He just coached us the way he coached his college team. But he was a real good guy. Everybody loved him. They were a fun group of guys to play for. I remember John Dell Isola, Bones Taylor, Sammy Baugh. I was a little upset when they called me and cut me my second year there. But again, that was as much to do with money as my playing ability. I don’t think I was half the player that I was in college, but I broke my hand and I was going to be out for a couple weeks. Next thing I know I’m in the office saying goodbye. They said that they would put me on the injured list, but that was without pay in those days. I said, “No, I’ll take my chances.” And nothing ever happened, so that was it.
TT – Who were some of your friends on the team?
BR – Al Dorow was the quarterback, Larry Grantham… I’m just trying to think of the guys that I remember. Bill Mathis, the fullback. Sid Youngelman was the tackle. Another guy from Michigan State. It has been out of my mind for so long, I would have to look at pictures to get the names back. But I lived out on the island. I was a Long Island guy, so I commuted in and out all the time. I wasn’t really tight with anyone, so to speak. I was married then and going home, it was just like having a job.
TT – How about a favorite road trip story.
BR – I don’t think there were any real favorite ones. I remember playing out in Denver in a snow storm. We got out there and practiced in shorts one day and the next day it snowed. We had to play in the snow. It was kind of a cut and dry thing. For some reason I have put a lot of it out of my mind. I got into high school coaching. I think a lot more of the Navy days than I do the pro days.
TT – What did you dislike about being a professional football player?
BR – Nothing. I thought it was a great life. I thought, and again I can’t really say how it was with the Chargers because I was only out there during the period of training camp, but with the Titans it was kind of a disorganized mess. You never knew from one day to the next what was happening. The year I was with the Giants was a great year. It was like being in a big family, the way that place was run. I can speak nothing but the best of Wellington Mara, just a super person. And Jim Lee Howell was the head coach. Tom Landry was the defensive coach.
TT – Was Lombardi still there?
BR – He had gone that first year. Ally Sherman was the offensive coach. But Tom Landry was the defensive coach. I learned a lot of football just sitting in meetings with Tom Landry. You talk about a guy who was brilliant. He and Sid Gillman had the same kind of approach on opposite sides of the ball. I remember the offensive team leaving and the defensive team still being in meetings. He was something else. He was like a human computer before computers were invented. He had every play drawn up, everything dissected. You would stand next to him on the sideline and hear him call the play. He was an amazing man.
TT – What are some of your fondest memories of the AFL?
BR – I really didn’t have many. As I said, in the beginning it was kind of a struggle. And I was having my own struggles with my physical being. I don’t have anything bad to say, it was great. But compared to the year I spent in the NFL it was almost minor league the first couple years there. And again, most of my experience was with the Titans and Harry Wismer kind of ran the thing out of his hat. The Titans didn’t really become something until the guy took it over and signed Namath. Then he put some money into it. I remember playing the Polo Grounds when they would announce crowds of 20,000 and if there were really 4,000 people in the stands, it would be a lot. We’d go up to Buffalo and he’d put us in some hotel, I can’t even remember the name of it. Then if you had to go see him about getting some tickets, he’s downtown in the main hotel. I can’t tell you much about the Chargers. I was only with them very briefly, and very bluntly, I don’t think Sid Gillman and I saw very much eye to eye. And again, I was still having trouble with my leg. I was supposedly kicking for them, and I had a bad game. I wanted to get a pair of kicking shoes and they didn’t come in. I just wasn’t overly happy out there. I would say they were a much better run organization than the Titans were when I was with them. Obviously they weren’t satisfied with me, so they traded me to the Titans.