Every so often I will get a request from a reader to post a guest article to Tales. Some articles are stat-driven, others are simply fond remembrance pieces. This story by Jim Tal Evans is more of a football biography of his friend, and former AFL quarterback, Val Keckin. Like with many other journeyman players, Keckin’s story is fascinating in all of the areas of football history that he touched. Sit back with a cup of coffee, and have a look. It’s a long one, but well-worth the read!
Few people, not even those who consider themselves to be AFL aficionados, will probably recognize or remember his name. And that’s hardly surprising given the fact that he officially threw but nine passes (completing five) during his entire professional career. Stat lines are rarely more modest than that.
But the story of the man with the majestic name of Valdemar Christian Keckin can’t be defined by mere numbers or lack thereof. No, Val’s tale goes a lot deeper than that. His unique, coincidental and sometimes hard-to-fathom experiences in both the NFL and AFL make for one the most fascinating though rather fleeting journeys in the annals of pro football.
Granted, his brief resume seems rather unremarkable but when one delves further into his tenure as a pro, the near-misses and the what-ifs are riveting. Consider for a moment that had circumstances been slightly different or altered just a bit, anyone of the following scenarios could have played out.
As a rookie in September of 1961, Keckin came within a whisker of being the backup quarterback to starter Bart Starr for the soon-to-be World Champion Green Bay Packers. Two months later, the Dallas Texans and their innovative Head Coach Hank Stram, attempted to acquire the 6’3” plus, 215-pounder in what would have been an historic transaction (more about that later). The following year, he was well positioned to be Johnny Unitas’ understudy in Baltimore. And then, in both 1963 and ‘64, he was extended an invitation to be a signal caller in the Big Apple for the New York Jets. Ultimately, none of those possibilities took place but anyone of them could have easily become a reality.
Why they didn’t materialize can be chalked up to many factors such as bad timing, Keckin’s perceived inexperience and situations that were, frankly, beyond his control. Maybe stating that Keckin was star-crossed is somewhat of an exaggeration but a strong case can be made that he didn’t exactly catch his share of breaks. The trajectory of his career might have been dramatically changed by only the merest variation of events. Keckin wasn’t that far away from making a real name for himself.
A native of Los Angeles, Keckin had been a strong-armed prep star at Hamilton High. It was on record that he could throw a ball from one end zone to the opposing 19-yard line, which in 1956 amounted to a heave of Herculean proportions. His college experience was somewhat of a meandering odyssey that included stops at L.A. City College (All-Conference), UCLA (where storied Coach Red Sanders raved about him), Cal Berkeley, and Santa Monica City College before he finally landed at what is now Southern Mississippi. Though the then Southerners didn’t throw the ball all that much and Keckin alternated at QB during his two varsity years in Hattiesburg, his smarts, velocity and passing acumen garnered attention. The fact that Keckin took an occasional turn as a defensive back indicated he also had his share of toughness.
Keckin’s upside and potential was such that the Packers made him their 11th round pick and the 152nd overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft. It didn’t take long before Keckin was making a strong impression in camp and raising some eyebrows. He often stood out in scrimmages with his accuracy and zip. And in an exhibition game versus Dallas, Keckin looked solid. An intriguing fact about that game was that one of his pass completions was a 19-yard hookup with Herb Adderley, then a halfback but soon-to-be cornerback who would go on have a stellar career that culminated in his enshrinement at Canton.
Another interesting bit of trivia about that same exhibition season was Keckin’s interaction with another future Hall of Famer. On the team’s road trip to St. Louis, Keckin was assigned to room with none other than fierce linebacker Ray Nitschke. Not knowing what to expect given Nitschke’s intense and almost maniacal on-field persona, Keckin admits to being somewhat apprehensive about how things would go. But it turned out that Nitschke was a mild-mannered and fun-loving nice guy who Keckin thoroughly enjoyed. Completely belying his reputation as a player, Nitschke proved the adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
As the preseason rolled on, Val continued to shine to the point where the Packers’ up-and-coming Coach Vince Lombardi said Keckin could prove to be a real find. Assistant Norb Hecker was even more effusive, calling him one of the best young prospects he’d seen in a long while. Val seemed to be bucking the odds and was seriously hunting a roster spot as the backup to the budding Packer legend, Bart Starr.
But alas, though he came ever so close, Keckin got aced out at the eleventh hour. He was Green Bay’s final roster cut that pared the team down to the required number of 36. Though conflicted, the Packers eventually opted to keep veteran John Roach as their QB reserve. Roach had been the starter in St. Louis the year before. Though highly promising, the Pack was somewhat reticent about entrusting the relatively green Keckin with such heavy responsibility. Val’s inexperience, not his play, had undercut him more than anything else.
But Lombardi remained smitten enough with Keckin to keep him on the taxi squad which meant that he worked out with the team but didn’t dress. And that’s where things stood until early November when Val became a key figure in what essentially would have been the first ever trade between the rival leagues, the established NFL and the upstart AFL.
The Packers were in desperate need of a placekicker to replace the departing “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung, who would be off fulfilling a military obligation. When they canvassed the NFL and could find no help, the Packers were forced to look elsewhere and so they contacted the Dallas Texans, who owned the rights to the venerable 42-year-old Ben Agajanian. The Texans made it known that Agajanian was indeed available. Since Dallas was experiencing inconsistent play at quarterback and because Dallas Head Coach Hank Stram valued big, physical players at that position, the parties settled on Keckin as the corresponding piece to the negotiations. The deal basically boiled down to “Bootin” Ben in exchange for the 23-year-old passing prospect.
In those days, an overt trade between the leagues would have been considered taboo and greatly frowned upon. Thus, to execute such a transaction, games of semantics and some roundabout maneuvering had to be perpetrated. In the end, for the proposed arrangement to proceed, both Agajanian and Keckin needed to have the ties with their existing teams severed. Dallas accomplished this by waiving their veteran field-goal-specialist. Since Keckin was a member of the taxi squad and technically not on the roster, he could easily be released.
Keckin found out about the proposed swap in a most unusual manner. That particular morning, he went to a local YMCA to have breakfast with safety Emlen Tunnell, a friend and teammate. Tunnell was a decorated 14-year pro who would go on to be the first African-American to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After they ate, Val planned to drive Tunnell to practice.
Unbeknownst to Keckin, Tunnel wasn’t alone when he rendezvoused with Val. Accompanying the Green Bay defensive back was, of all people, the aforementioned Agajanian. But it really wasn’t unusual, strange or even coincidental that they would be together. You see, the two had once been teammates with the New York Giants. And it was obvious they had gotten in touch with one another once Agajanian hit town to finalize things with the Packers.
Keckin was a bit blown away to see Agajanian since the longtime pro had had been one of Keckin’s boyhood heroes while playing for the Los Angeles Dons of the old All-American Football Conference. To actually meet him face-to-face was something Keckin never expected.
The completely-in-the-dark Keckin finally found out from Agajanian why the kicker was in town. And that it was Val who was to be packaged to Dallas to complete the deal Keckin knew nothing about. The rookie was taken aback and stunned by the news. He was completely blindsided. Keckin later received confirmation of the pseudo trade during a face-to-face with Lombardi prior to practice.
Keckin’s shock notwithstanding, things seemed in place for the first de facto interleague swap to be consummated. But there was a complication and it wasn’t a minor one. Keckin was balking at the deal.
To begin with, the prospect of having to leave Green Bay upset Keckin. He desperately wanted to stay with the Packers because he admired the coaching staff, genuinely liked his teammates and believed he was well positioned to supplant Roach as Starr’s backup the following season. Now, his hopes of remaining a Packer were out the window.
While the Texans were maneuvering to quickly get him down to Dallas, Keckin, still trying to assess all the ramifications of this unexpected and dramatic turn of events, hit the pause button. He didn’t want to be rushed into anything. What’s more, Keckin had another option he could explore. Val was aware that another high-profile NFL team had serious interest in him. It must be stressed that it had been Keckin’s lifelong dream to make it in the NFL and he wasn’t all that anxious to give up on that quest.
Keckin did have a chance to talk to Stram but it soon became apparent that Val was reluctant about going to the Lone Star State. Once Green Bay released him, Keckin was completely unrestricted and had the liberty to go anywhere he wished. So he wasn’t obligated to join the Texans. And though it wasn’t a huge factor in Keckin’s thinking, the AFL’s still fledgling status also gave Val reason for hesitation. Stram later went on the record to say that though the Texans very much wanted Keckin, he felt the youngster was hesitant. It was Stram’s opinion that Val wouldn’t have been happy in Dallas given his then state of mind. And so the deal fell through as did Val’s chance to become the answer to a football trivia question. Eventually, the Pack got their man in Agajanian but Keckin wasn’t involved in that arrangement.
In hindsight, knowing what Stram was to achieve and the course that Val’s career eventually took, Keckin admits he might have erred in not heading to Dallas. Having the chance to evolve under Stram’s tutelage and operate in a cutting-edge offense might have provided Keckin with a great opportunity. Keckin readily acknowledges that if he had a do-over, he probably wouldn’t have resisted Stram’s overtures. But Keckin went with both his gut and heart and reached a decision he felt was in his best interests.
The truth be told, if Keckin didn’t believe he had a viable alternative open to him, he wouldn’t have been in any position to pass on the Texans. But Val felt relatively certain that the marquee Baltimore Colts might have use of his services. Keckin came to that conclusion because of a chance October encounter he had with Colt assistant Charlie Winner. Keckin was in downtown Green Bay picking up a pair of new suits when he inadvertently ran into Winner, who was in Wisconsin for an upcoming game against the Pack. During the course of their chat, Winner made it known to Keckin that if things didn’t pan out with the Packers, the Colts would have serious interest in acquiring him. What Winner said resonated with Keckin and stuck in his mind.
And so after the Packers released him, Keckin was quick to contact the Colts and sure enough, Winner’s words proved to be as good as gospel. Keckin shortly thereafter flew to Baltimore and joined the Colt taxi (Band) squad for the balance of the 1961 campaign. In January of ’62, he inked a contract with the Colts for the upcoming season.
Baltimore’s interest in Keckin went way back. He had been on their radar as early as December of 1956, when he had caught the attention of the Colt coaching staff. The Colts were conducting an audition at L.A.’s Brookside Park for a receiver named Walt Chapman, who asked if Val would throw to him since they’d been teammates at L.A. City College. Keckin was really on target that day, flinging the ball and making all the throws. He left an indelible impression on those who witnessed his performance. From that point on, the Colts monitored Keckin’s progress and kept tabs on him in college. In fact, it was reported that had not the Packers drafted Keckin when they did, the Colts were primed to select him shortly thereafter. Baltimore Head Coach Webb Ewbank was said to be quite disappointed that the Pack beat him to the punch in regards to Keckin.
As he had with the Packers, Keckin looked good in workouts with the Colts. He then upped the ante with strong efforts in a high profile intrasquad game and in an exhibition contest against Washington. The aforementioned intrasquad tilt was traditionally a major event in Baltimore and drew nearly 46,000 to historic Memorial Stadium. In helping to lead the Blues to a 27-12 victory over the Whites, Keckin shined while tossing for a pair of scores, including a 48-yard paydirt connection to running back/flanker Hezekiah Braxton. Less than two weeks later, Keckin sparkled again while escorting the Colts on two payoff drives during a 34-14 pasting of the Redskins.
Once again, his performance on the field seemed to merit earning a roster spot. But just as in Green Bay, the Colts ultimately put a higher value on experience as opposed to potential, and opted to keep the veteran Lamar McHan as their backup to the stellar Johnny Unitas. Keckin was keenly disappointed and in disbelief by the decision to cut him, feeling that he had more than proved himself. Another who strongly felt that Val should have been kept was the celebrated end Raymond Berry, who was a booster of Keckin’s and questioned the wisdom of letting him go.
Berry and Keckin had developed a rapport with one another on two levels. First, they had forged a bond through their shared Christianity. They also had established a football relationship. Whenever the meticulous Berry elected to stay after practice to further refine his consummate skills, it was Keckin who usually did the passing to him. There was even a memorable time prior to an exhibition game in Minnesota when Berry asked Keckin to throw to him in a somewhat off-beat spot; an alley located behind the hotel where the Colts were staying. Keckin recalls that Berry didn’t run any patterns during this impromptu session but rather, stood stationary and worked on grabbing balls that were tossed low, over each shoulder and finally, over-the-top. Keckin marveled at Berry’s unquenchable thirst to get even better.
Having to leave Baltimore set into motion a whirlwind of events for the still job-seeking QB. Immediately after his release from the Colts, Keckin headed to St. Louis where after two weeks of practice, he was offered a spot on the Cardinal taxi squad by Head Coach Wally Lemm. But Keckin wasn’t exactly thrilled by that prospect and declined.
But something that appeared to be more substantial was in the offing. After driving from St. Louis to Chicago, Keckin met with the iconic Bears’ Coach George Halas, one of the godfathers of the NFL. After speaking with Halas, he elected to sign with Chicago. But curiously, the contract was for the following season and not for ’62. The Bears’ quarterback situation was already squared away and so Keckin would have to wait until the next season to show his stuff.
But Val wasn’t destined to be idle. The Ft Lauderdale Tigers, a semipro team from the Florida Football League, reached out to him. The Tigers needed to juice up their offense and targeted Keckin as their man. Wanting to further polish his skills and gain more playing experience, Keckin was agreeable. He also knew that more than a few guys had increased their visibility by excelling at the semipro level. After clearing things with the Bears, Val headed south. Armed with just a couple of days practice before seeing action, Keckin torched Daytona Beach for 298 yards and two scoring strikes in a 35-27 loss. His stellar effort would have been even more noteworthy had not several of Keckin’s spot-on throws been dropped. Val had been dynamite but his stay in Florida was to be a brief one.
Almost immediately after that game, San Diego Charger Assistant Coach Al Davis, yes that Al Davis, contacted Keckin to see if he’d be interested in joining the Chargers for the balance of the 1962 season. Davis had received positive feedback on Keckin, including a strong endorsement from gifted Packer safety Willie Wood, who very much liked what he’d seen of Keckin in Green Bay. Davis and Wood had crossed paths at USC when the former was a coach there and the latter a star player.
Keckin was glad to accept Davis’ proposal, knowing that the money and the prestige of the AFL far outshone anything semipro ball could offer. Keckin’s arrival in San Diego was fraught with amazing coincidence and the sense of what a small and insular world the game of pro football can be.
The Chargers were anxious to have Keckin aboard because their current signal callers, John Hadl and Dick Wood, were both nursing injuries and were no sure bets to make it through the rest of the season. Because the Chargers didn’t want to be caught shorthanded in the event that either Wood or Hadl went down, they sought out Keckin to provide insurance against such a worst-case scenario.
And sure enough and almost as if it had been predestined, Wood suffered a cracked shoulder blade and was lost. Keckin, who had spent a month on the team’s reserve squad getting acclimated and up to speed on the playbook, was immediately activated. For the first time in the winding road of his career, Val would finally suit up for a regular season pro game. The fact that it took Wood’s absence to open up a spot for Keckin was the height of irony because there existed linkage between the two. Indeed, Wood and Keckin shared some history.
Not much more than two months before, Wood and Keckin had been waging a competition to see who could remain in the QB mix in Baltimore. The loser would be given a pink slip while the victor could hold out hope he might stick with the Colts. Revealingly, Keckin’s superior play in practice, scrimmages and exhibitions won the day. The Colts’ decision to cut ties with Wood and retain Keckin was a clear indication that Val had beaten out the strong-armed veteran. Subsequent to his departure from Baltimore, Wood was brought in by the Chargers. Now, in a head-shaking twist of fate, Keckin was picking up the slack and taking over for a man he had outplayed during the preseason.
But Wood was hardly the only player on the Charger roster with whom Keckin was familiar. There were other recognizable faces with whom he shared an intriguing connection. There was the aforementioned running back Hezekiah Braxton, who in addition to his previously noted touchdown catch from Keckin, also snared a 54-yard pass from Keckin in Val’s breakout preseason game versus Washington. Hardnosed fullback Fred Gillett was another ex-Colt, now-Charger who also had made a huge impact in that very same tilt against the ‘Skins by scoring on a couple of short plunges.
Because of key injuries, some inexperience and other factors that prevented the team from gelling, Keckin became part of a hamstrung Charger squad that labored through a difficult 4 and 10 campaign, which included losing all but one of its final nine games. Nonetheless, the Chargers were hardly a team devoid of talent and Keckin became an admirer of plenty of the Bolt players he got to observe up close and personal.
On the offensive side, Keckin liked a lot of what he saw. The young quarterback looked at Don Norton as a gifted receiver, who ran precise post and slant patterns. Dave Kocourek impressed Keckin because he was the prototypical tight end who could catch, run and block. Receiver/slotman Jerry Robinson caught Keckin’s eye with his sheer speed that made him a scary proposition to mismatched defensive backs. To Keckin, Keith Lincoln was a consummate all-around back, a tough and gutsy runner who also showed plenty of agility. Up front, Val viewed cerebral tackle Ron Mix as a real technician and the undisputed head honcho of what Keckin considered to be a very solid line.
The defense also had its share of worthy players. On the line, Keckin was in awe of the 315-pound, giant-of-a-man Ernie Ladd and the way the tackle could occupy space, bat down passes and plug a hole. Earl Faison was a good-sized end that Keckin knew could wreak havoc either on the rush or stopping the run. The linebacker corps was a solid one in Keckin’s estimation. Keckin remembers Chuck Allen for his dependability and presence on the field, the ripped Emil Karas as having the body of a Greek God that he used to full advantage and Frank Buncom for having a nose for the football. And for comic relief there was always the prankster/character Paul Maguire, whom Keckin is quick to mention was a very solid punter in addition to doubling up as a serviceable ‘backer.
By the time Keckin joined up with the Chargers, he was as well-known for his itinerant travels as he was for his talent. But there were more than a few insiders who believed he could be special. Keckin wore a crewcut, favored high-top shoes and with his All-American good looks, evoked the vibe of being a dark-haired Tab Hunter type. Because Val had great size for that era, he stood tall in the pocket. He was also extremely well-conditioned and solidly built. Back then, very few quarterbacks, if any, were able to bench press 300 pounds or squat an impressive 500 as could Keckin. There was a real physicality about him. He prided himself on his endurance and being able to take a hit.
Val’s motion featured a classic over-the-top delivery that could be picturesque. Keckin’s arm was robust and he could drill and gun the ball with plenty of gusto. But Val considered himself to be much more than a just a thrower. He was first and foremost a passer and there’s a huge distinction between the two. Keckin’s versatility was evident in the variety of throws he could execute. Keckin showed deft touch on flairs and screens, he uncorked bullets on the outs and slants and he could arch the ball beautifully on long bombs down the sideline.
Moreover, Keckin had a sense of poise about him. He could command a huddle. He also possessed an agile mind that complemented his physical gifts. He was quick to pick up systems and schemes as he had demonstrated during his stays with the Pack and Colts. He intently studied the nuances of his position and the game in general. He became adept at identifying where defenses were most vulnerable. To succeed at the pro level, Keckin was a strong believer that the mind and body had to mesh.
The attrition rate for the Charger quarterbacks in’62 was nothing short of alarming. The presumptive starter Jack Kemp was hurt early in the season and eliminated. Though he would never play for the Bolts again, Kemp would go on to have a stellar career with the Buffalo Bills. When Wood became sidelined, San Diego was forced to go to battle with a raw rookie out of Kansas, John Hadl. The Chargers were high on Hadl, having signed him to a guaranteed multi-year deal, but the former Jayhawk was far from being a finished product, and this was reflected by his inconsistent and erratic play.
At that stage, Hadl probably would have been better suited by observing, learning and absorbing. He was not yet equipped to handle the demands of being a starter. If the truth be told, despite his own somewhat limited background, Keckin was much more experienced, prepared and ready to test enemy defenses than was Hadl. But Keckin’s fundamental role was to serve as Hadl’s backup and provide a safety net. The Chargers didn’t import him to be a challenger to either Hadl or Wood (had he not gone down).
However, while participating in practice and watching games, it became apparent to Keckin that he had the edge on Hadl in some tangible areas. To begin with, Val was taller, stronger and much better suited to take a pounding in the pocket. And there was certainly no question about who had the better and more functional arm. Val also felt that he was more mentally advanced football-wise than was the rookie. But San Diego had a vested interest in Hadl and with Keckin being viewed as short-timer given his ’63 obligation to Chicago, Keckin’s chance to garner significant playing time was remote. The Chargers’ plan called for them to sink or swim with Hadl.
Once he became the undisputed starter, Hadl’s play fluctuated wildly and was unpredictable. Though he showed spurts and periods of productivity, Hadl could struggle. Frequently, the bad eclipsed the good. By season’s end, Hadl’s completion percentage was a pedestrian 41.2 and he had tossed a frightful 25 interceptions. Often, the rookie’s inexperience and lack of maturity manifested itself into making mistakes. It wouldn’t be until 1964 that Hadl began showing signs of transforming himself into the accomplished player he would eventually become. But even during his travails, Hadl impressed Keckin with his ability to scramble and run. Off the field, Keckin also took note that in the locker room, Hadl was quite popular and well-liked.
In the penultimate game of the ‘62 campaign against the visiting Boston Patriots, Hadl was scuffling, having completed a mere 7 of 18 passes. With the offense in a stupor, with the season going up in smoke and with really nothing left to lose, Charger Head Coach Sid Gillman sat Hadl down and finally called on Keckin in the fourth quarter. Despite all his varied stops, this was to be the first league game in which Keckin participated. What was left of a crowd of 19,887 woke from its slumber and got a bit energized when Keckin, after concluding his warmup tosses, promptly escorted the Chargers on a scoring sortie that featured three Keckin completions (good for 44 yards) and a fourth that was nullified by a penalty. The most telling Keckin pitch was an over-the-middle 25-yard strike to the dependable Norton. And just for good measure, the heretofore unsung Keckin converted a two-point conversion toss to Kocourek that drew the hosts to within 20-14. But time was short and soon ran out.
Nonetheless, Keckin had made a mark. His exploits were highlighted in a column the next day by fabled San Diego Union writer Jack Murphy. And Gillman was another who praised him, complimenting Val for the manner in which he moved the team. Gillman stated that Keckin could be expected to see more playing time the following week in the season’s final game in Dallas.
Val did indeed see action versus the Texans, although it was of a limited nature. He was on the field long enough to complete two of five passes which netted 20 yards. It must be noted that one of his tosses was intercepted. As an aside, Keckin recalls changing a play sent in from the sideline and that Gillman became miffed when he did so. Perhaps that might explain why Val didn’t log more minutes on a day when Hadl was absolutely dreadful, tossing five picks of his own.
In late January of 1963, Keckin drove from his home in L.A. to meet with Gillman, though Val was uncertain of the purpose of the sit-down since he was contracted to play for Chicago that upcoming season. Keckin speculated that perhaps it was simply a standard exit meeting that a coach would normally have with each of his players. After arriving at team headquarters, Keckin entered Gillman’s office. Shortly thereafter, Gillman’s secretary entered the room to inform Val that St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica was on the line and that his wife Mandy was in labor with their first child. Gillman immediately terminated the meeting and told Keckin to go attend to his wife and that they would talk later. Curiously, there was never a follow-up from either Gillman or the Chargers. Val was never contacted again. Keckin thought that a bit surprising given the manner in which his meeting with Gillman had ended and based on what Gillman had said. But if there was to be any further communication, Val felt the Chargers had to initiate it, not him. The Chargers remained silent.
Keckin looked at his two-month stint in San Diego as an interesting experience despite his brief time under center. In Keckin’s opinion, the Chargers had a well-thought-out offense and excellent blocking schemes. He felt that Gillman’s reputation as an innovator and a passing game guru was justified, although Keckin’s own personal interaction with Gillman was minimal. Gillman spent little time with the taxi squad/backup QB.
But despite liking San Diego’s aerial scheme, Keckin found it a little less sophisticated than the one Baltimore employed. The Chargers’ approach often called for matching patterns or routes to be run on both sides of the field. It was the quarterback’s job to read whether the defense was deployed in either a zone or man-to-man set-up and then deliver the ball to the most available target. In contrast, the Colts’ system featured going through a series of progressions to locate an open receiver. Keckin was comfortable with both systems but felt the Colt approach provided a better opportunity for a passer to exploit the defense.
Showing up for the Bears’ camp in ’63, Keckin soon realized it would be an uphill battle to secure a roster spot. Chicago had established and proven quarterbacks in vets Bill Wade and Rudy Bukich. But though the odds seemed long, Keckin wasn’t intimidated because he firmly believed he could compete and play. He did well in practice and was more than holding his own. Keckin’s strong arm was in full display and it matched up favorably when compared to Wade’s and that of Bukich. In a scrimmage versus the College All-Stars, Keckin looked sharp and had the offense humming. Interestingly, a short time later, those very same All-Stars sprung one of the greatest upsets in football history when they stunned the NFL Champion Green Bay Packers en route to a 20-17 exhibition victory.
But again, in what was becoming a frustrating case of déjà-vu, Keckin was a late cut. Though he had acquitted himself well, the Bears simply felt more secure going with the seasoned tandem of Wade and Bukich. But, as he had with the Packers and Colts, Keckin tantalized the Bears enough so that they wanted to keep him around. Though it wasn’t an optimum situation, Val agreed to sign on with Chicago’s taxi squad. Impending circumstances were about to make Keckin wish he hadn’t. Val was about to be victimized by the worst kind of bad timing.
Very soon after Keckin said yes to the Bears’ proposal, he received a phone call from none other Webb Ewbank, then the head coach of the New York Jets. Ewbank always had an interest in Keckin, going all the way back to that Brookside Park audition through the time they’d spent together in Baltimore. The esteemed Ewbank saw Keckin as a smart leader who could stretch the field and throw deep. Ewbank also recalled how often Keckin remained after Colt practices to hone his skills and throw to receivers and backs who were seeking to do the same. Keckin’s willingness to go the extra yard had struck a chord with the venerable coach.
Ewbank came right to the point. He wanted to offer Keckin a no-cut, one-year deal. To a player like Keckin, who had endured a vagabond existence up to that point, a guaranteed contract was akin to pure gold. It meant that he knew exactly where he would be for an entire season. He had yet to experience that kind of stability. What’s more, it implied that he’d be given a real shot to vie for a starting job which by then had become Keckin’s Holy Grail. Keckin was appreciative, grateful and moved by the confidence that Ewbank was showing in him. Keckin’s respect for the wizened Webb was immense. Val believed Ewbank’s passing offense to be the best in pro football.
That’s why it tormented him to have to say no to the Jets. Keckin couldn’t imagine a more ideal situation from which to try to jumpstart his career. This was as legit and viable a chance as Keckin could possibly expect. Having to turn it down was a real bummer.
But Keckin was from the old school where your word was your bond. Simply put, you were obligated to keep it. He had made a promise to the Bears and was loath to break it. He also worried about damaging his reputation if word got out that he had reneged on a commitment. Keckin never even thought about approaching Halas to see if he could somehow extricate himself from the Bears. As much as Val might have longed to join Ewbank, the honorable thing to do was to stick it out with Chicago. Keckin just couldn’t compromise on what he believed in. And so both he and the Jets moved on.
Despite being relegated to the taxi squad once more, Keckin’s stay in the Windy City wasn’t without some redeeming moments. One intriguing anecdote is that Keckin was asked by the crusty Halas to drive him and his Lincoln Continental to the Bears’ training camp being held at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana. Thus, Keckin had the unique experience/privilege of spending approximately 90 minutes alone with one of the pioneers and founding fathers of pro football.
Because the Bears proved to be quite formidable that season en route to becoming NFL Champions, Keckin also earned for himself a championship ring, one that he proudly wears to this day.
And then there was the mutual respect that developed between Keckin and Bear Defensive Coordinator George Allen, later to become a highly successful head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins. Because Keckin quarterbacked the scout team in practice and simulated what upcoming foes might likely do in certain down-and-distance situations, he was an important piece in helping to prepare Allen’s first-string defense. Through intense film study during evenings at home, Keckin was effective at replicating the on-field tendencies of opponents which made Allen’s charges better able to predict what they might see on the field. Allen greatly admired the way Keckin aided in fine-tuning his defenders.
In May of ’64, the Bears waived Keckin. But Ewbank’s fascination with Val endured. And so it came as no surprise when the Jets reached out to him for a second time. On this occasion, the unencumbered Keckin (or so he thought), was finally able to make it to New York. The prospect of joining forces with Ewbank, a coach that clearly believed in him, excited and energized Keckin. Finally, that long-sought-after chance seemed to be at hand.
Early on in camp, Val was making headway with his combination of football skills, brains and savvy. Moreover, Keckin was convinced he could seriously challenge for playing time knowing that his primary competition was someone he had gotten the best of in the past. Incredibly, it was the ubiquitous Dick Wood that Keckin was once again going up against. By this time, the paths of the two quarterbacks were crossing so often, it was bordering on the theatre of the absurd. First their careers had intersected in Baltimore, then in San Diego, and finally in the Big Apple. But despite the fact that Wood was the Jet incumbent from the previous season, Keckin sensed an opportunity. He felt he might be on the verge of a major breakthrough. But then, out of the blue, a thunderbolt! And a dream dashed.
One day after practice, Keckin was summoned by Ewbank and informed that there might be an issue with the contract he’d signed with the Jets. In what came as a shock to Keckin, the Chargers were claiming that he was still their property and as such, they continued to own his rights. The Chargers had never before bothered to mention this crucial fact to Keckin and to the best of his knowledge, the 26-year-old QB was unaware that San Diego could lay any sort of claim to him. Keckin was stunned by this unforeseen development.
Eventually, the office of AFL Commissioner Joe Foss sided with the Chargers and invalidated Keckin’s contract with the Jets. He was told by the Chargers to return to his home in Malibu and that the team would soon bring him down to San Diego. But Keckin was never summoned south. In all probability, the team never had any real intention of doing so. In what was becoming a repeating pattern, Keckin discovered the Chargers weren’t exactly sticklers for keeping their word.
Being compelled to leave New York without any recourse was a crushing blow to Keckin. Even more to the point, it left him boiling and angry. He was infuriated that the Chargers could abort his opportunity of a lifetime on what amounted to a technicality that Gillman conveniently kept quiet. It smacked of being a power play on Gillman’s part. It also carried with it an element of pettiness. Gillman couldn’t have cared less about sabotaging Keckin’s best-bet chance with the Jets. To the sometimes prickly coach, this was nothing more than a cold-blooded and arguably dubious business deal in which being cutthroat ruled the day. No matter that Keckin’s entire football future might have hung in the balance.
Keckin was troubled that the Chargers would take such a hardline and unsympathetic approach. Though he welcomed joining the Bolts in ’62, Keckin felt he did them a favor by, at a precarious time, helping to provide needed depth at a dangerously depleted position. Keckin hoped that might be enough to engender some goodwill from the Chargers where they could afford to be gracious and let him go his way with the Jets. But no such luck.
Further compounding Keckin’s frustration was the fact that the Chargers had no interest in using his services. Gillman never intended to have Keckin seriously figure in the Charger quarterback equation. The Chargers were already set at the position with the two holdovers from the previous year, Tobin Rote and Hadl. San Diego was totally committed to that pair and nothing was going to change that reality. Knowing that he was uprooted from New York by a team that really didn’t have a place for him truly rankled Val. Gillman’s actions had, in essence, provided the death knell to Keckin’s pro career.
With no need of him, the Chargers opted to trade Keckin to the woebegone Denver Broncos. Still hoping to catch on and play somewhere, Val agreed to join the Broncos. But unbeknownst to him, the end to his playing days was nearing. At a scrimmage during his first week of practice, Keckin dropped back to pass but with his primary and alternate receivers covered, he elected to run. When the pigskin was knocked loose from his grasp, he reached out to retrieve it, using his right arm to pull the ball into his body. Almost immediately he took two hard hits from pursuing defenders, the second of which jolted him as he lay on top of the ball. This forceful impact resulted in a cracked sternum that was so painful, Val almost passed out when attempting to rise. He could barely stand.
Keckin was immediately taken to the hospital where he was X-rayed and his injury diagnosed. He was to spend an uncomfortable and mostly sleepless night in a ward. Early the next morning, disregarding medical advice, Keckin checked himself out and returned to the training camp dormitory. Though his condition eventually improved, it still took almost a week before he was able to adequately loosen up and throw. But by then it was too late. Missing valuable practice and scrimmage time had put him significantly behind and at a great disadvantage. Just as he was preparing to return to the field, the Broncos informed Val that he was being cut. Keckin felt he was healthy enough to perform and wished the Broncos had let him stay around long enough to prove it. But they didn’t. This was to be the last of his pro football disappointments.
With a wife and two young sons to support, Keckin was forced to take a long, hard look at himself and his future. He soon realized that he couldn’t continue to be a prisoner of the uncertainties and vagaries that went along with chasing his dream of football glory. His family needed a stability that the game just couldn’t provide. Having to say goodbye to the goal and dream of becoming a successful player in the pros cut Keckin to the core. It truly hurt and dismayed him. After all, that quest had driven him since early in his college days, if not before. In so many ways, his very identity was wrapped up in that dogged pursuit. But Keckin knew his pigskin journey had run its course. For his family’s sake, it was time to leave football behind and head in a new direction.
Keckin would go on to sell life and health insurance in the 60’s before establishing two corporations the following decade, both of which were eventually sold in the 80’s. Val earned an MBA with honors from Pepperdine University after he, Mandy and their third son moved to Honolulu. It was there that he established The Keckin Group, Inc. to administer the Hawaii Carpenters Union Insurance Benefit Program. Val is currently a financial advisor for Laurel Wealth Advisors, a firm based in La Jolla, California.
And though his successful business career validates the decision Keckin made to give up football when he did, there’s still a small part of him that wistfully wonders how his life might have been changed if things had worked out differently during his stints in either the NFL or the up-and-coming AFL.
Keckin lives with the fact that he came very close to being the backup quarterback on a couple of iconic teams that featured historic field generals in Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. Had he elected to go to the Dallas Texans, it’s not farfetched to imagine that his career might have taken a much different path. And what if events had allowed him to join forces with the Jets in either ’63 or ’64? Knowing that Coach Webb Ewbank was high on his talents and potential, it’s quite likely that Keckin would have been given a legitimate and bona fide chance to show what he could do. When taken in their totality, that’s more than enough what-ifs to mull over. In many ways, near-misses and unfortunate timing came to define Keckin’s sojourn in the pros.
Despite Keckin’s pro career not turning out quite as he had envisioned, it was hardly boring or uneventful. Keckin lived some rather remarkable experiences and enjoyed some memorable moments. But Keckin is fully aware that given the skill set and intelligence that he brought to the table, much greater heights could have been reached had circumstances been more cooperative. Keckin was a burgeoning talent that wasn’t allowed to fully develop or take flight. Sometimes he was allowed to simmer but never was he permitted to percolate or heat up. Had he been, it’s a pretty good bet that Keckin could have made a genuine impact, just like coaches Lombardi and Ewbank projected he might.
When everything that happened to Keckin is factored in, one must come to the conclusion that he wasn’t all that far from making a mark. Had conditions been changed ever so slightly, Val Keckin could have become a real force. Wondering what might have been will always be at the heart of his football legacy.