THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Trading places

Even the greatest had a tough time moving on

By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / September 12, 2008
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It was the worst of times, it was the best of situations. Thirty-five years later, Dan Fouts knows of no other way to put into words that NFL season of 1973 in San Diego.

"It was as bad as it could get in the NFL," said the Hall of Fame quarterback of a Chargers team that went 2-11-1. "Our head coach [Harland Svare] quit, our offensive coordinator quit, everyone quit. It was just a bad, bad team."

So why can he smile at such a memory? Because as a rookie out of the University of Oregon, Fouts was afforded the chance to stand in line behind Johnny Unitas.

"He was the greatest of all time," said Fouts.

Even in that 1973 season of disarray, when Unitas was a Charger?

There's not a hint of hesitation with Fouts, his reaction as quick as his famed release with the pigskin.

"Unitas was a Baltimore Colt," said Fouts. "Always."

Nowhere could Fouts's viewpoint be met with a dissenting opinion, because Johnny U was as much Baltimore as the Chesapeake Bay or Fort McHenry, and it remains unfathomable to think of him in a San Diego uniform.

But he was, just as Joe Namath departed Broadway for Hollywood, and Joe Montana bid farewell to cable cars and said hello to stockyards. Icons in motion. It's been a part of the NFL culture since leather helmets, so if you're thinking it will be strange Sunday to turn on the Patriots game and see Brett Favre in anything but a Green Bay Packers uniform, well, imagine how Pat Haden felt that spring day in 1977 when he took a break from his postgraduate studies at Oxford University and read the International Herald Tribune.

"I saw a story that said Joe Namath was going to the Los Angeles Rams," said Haden, then enrolled in the Rhodes Scholar program.

What's a guy to do when it jumps out at him in black and white that he's now got a seat on the bench behind a legend? Haden laughs at the memory more than 31 years later. He had finished his rookie season, 1976, as the Rams' starting quarterback, but over an English breakfast he discovered that that had changed, thanks to the acquisition of the great Joe Namath.

So . . .

"I wrote him a letter from Oxford," said Haden. "I wanted to welcome him to the Rams."

Unthinkable as it may have sounded, Namath for that 1977 season was indeed "Hollywood Joe."

Distorted image

With his 39th birthday less than a month away, Favre Sunday will pull on a No. 4 jersey with a touch of green - only it will be New York Jets green and the venue will be Giants Stadium in the New Jersey swampland, not Lambeau Field in Wisconsin cheeseland. That is a concept some pro football fans struggle with, particularly those who wrap their emotions around the Green Bay Packers, but if Jack Clary can say he saw this coming, it is because he's seen it before.

From Green Bay's Jim Taylor closing out his Hall of Fame career with one forgettable season in New Orleans, to Buffalo legend O.J. Simpson playing out the string in San Francisco, to Unitas in San Diego, Namath in Los Angeles, and Montana in Kansas City, Clary considers it very much a part of this gladiator sport.

"Different players, but package them all together and they look the same," said the Stow resident, who is president of the Football Researchers Association of America and author of dozens of books on football. "They're hard-nosed competitors who love the good fight and they don't want to leave while they think there's still a good fight to be had."

Favre, of course, fits the description. For the last few of his 16 seasons in Green Bay, he would talk of walking away from the game and with every offseason the words were taken more seriously until finally, in February, Favre said he was done, officially. When within a few months he seemed to be having second thoughts, Favre opened the door to a return, but this time the Packers didn't seem willing to answer.

It became a soap opera between an NFL team and its once-prized legend of a quarterback, and if that sounded familiar, then you remember how things unfolded in 1973, when Unitas was shipped to San Diego, and four years later when Namath headed to Los Angeles. While today's media is larger and more diversified than in the 1970s, the departures of Unitas and Namath were extended great coverage.

"In 1972, Joe Thomas came in [as Colts general manager] with [owner] Bob Irsay and raped the town and team," Unitas told a reporter in 1989. "After that season, I met Irsay at the Super Bowl and he said, 'We'd better trade you.' I said, 'OK, but just let me have a say where I go.' Well, it didn't work out that way."

Instead, it was a bitter divorce, pitting a stubborn GM who wanted to rebuild the team around Bert Jones, taken second in the draft, and a proud and stubborn hero who not only had arguably the greatest résumé ever assembled, but the unyielding love of a blue-collar citizenry.

"Like Favre [in Green Bay], Unitas could do no wrong with the Baltimore fans, even though his skills weren't there. But in a sense, the fans could forgive him for that. If he was there [with the team], everything was OK," said Clary.

It matters very little that history proves that Thomas was correct to judge Unitas as being done; Colts fans were outraged when Unitas's contract was sold to Chargers owner Gene Klein for $150,000, which was $25,000 more than what Unitas had been paid in 1972. Unitas was offended at the coldheartedness of it all, because he said years later he learned of the deal through a newspaper reporter, which preceded a call he got from Ernie Accorsi, then the Colts' PR man.

"[Accorsi] said Joe Thomas wanted to talk to me," Unitas recalled. "Thomas said, 'You've just been traded to San Diego,' and, bang, he hung up. That was it, after 17 years with the ball club."

The years had included three MVPs and three NFL championships, a parade of division titles, and a seemingly endless list of records, but none of that helped Unitas in San Diego. At the age of 40, he was well past his prime, but in a time well before million-dollar pacts, the reward was handsome - $250,000 for each of two years.

"My lawyer," Klein told Unitas, "told me it was a rotten deal for me and I shouldn't give it to you."

"I agree," Unitas said, "but if you're crazy enough to offer it to me, I'm crazy enough to sign it."

For that huge money, Klein got just four starts out of Unitas, during which time the man affectionately known as "Golden Arm" completed 34 of 76 passes for 471 yards. Three of his passes went for touchdowns, but seven were intercepted, and he fumbled three times.

"[Svare] was trying to copy the over-the-hill style of George Allen," said Fouts. "But it obviously didn't work out."

Unitas's skills had unquestionably succumbed to that unbeatable foe, age, but still, "it was awesome to have him there - no, it was even better than that," said Fouts, who is part of the CBS team of NFL announcers. "He was everyone's friend and he treated us as equals. He went out of his way to be nice to me and to help me."

Hollywood calling

Whereas Unitas was more or less shoved out of the town where he had iconic stature, Namath forced his team's move when that soap opera percolated in the early months of 1977. Not quite 34, Namath was true to his flashy style when he announced to Johnny Carson's audience on "The Tonight Show" that he knew the Jets wanted to go with a young quarterback, so unless they traded him to the Los Angeles Rams, he was going to retire.

"This is all a surprise to us," said Al Ward, then the Jets' general manager, and out in LA, the Rams' GM, Don Klosterman, declared, "I can't say that Namath fits any way into our plans."

Fast-forward 31 years and it sounds like the Packers-Favre rhetoric. The team acts stunned by the quarterback's actions, other teams feign interest. But just as Green Bay finally relinquished Favre and traded him to the Jets, so, too, did the Jets work out a waiver deal with the Rams after a Namath trade fell though. True, "Broadway Joe" was a shell of the man who years earlier shocked the world by predicting - then orchestrating - a Jets win over the Colts in Super Bowl III, but when he completed three of four passes in an August preseason game, the opposing quarterback, Fran Tarkenton of the Vikings, said to reporters, "He looked good, didn't he?"

Apparently, the Rams thought so.

"If we don't get to the Super Bowl this year, we really have bad knees," said Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom, whose team lost in the NFC Championship the previous three years.

Though he had practically invented the road to the promised land eight years earlier, Namath in 1977 was unable to deliver. Named the starter over Haden by coach Chuck Knox, Namath had the Rams at 2-1 before a Week 4 debacle at Chicago, a 24-23 loss in which he completed just 16 of 40 passes with four interceptions.

It would be the last game he played.

"He just was not mobile. He could not move," said Haden, who is an NBC analyst for Notre Dame football games. "It was really tough on him."

But the thing Haden will always remember is how easy Namath, despite the knees, made it for the second-year quarterback from Southern Cal.

"He worked as hard as everyone else. He was a terrific guy, a great team guy," said Haden. "The quarterback position was more cerebral back then, because guys would call most of their own plays. People forget, but Joe was a really good play-caller and he was great to me."

Brought in with the hopes of having at least a little something left, only to show they had none, Unitas and Namath were different than Montana, who in 1993 was 37, though he hardly felt it. That's because he sat out all of 1991 and played just one game in '92, a long layoff necessitated by an elbow injury, but made easier to live with as far as the 49ers were concerned by the emergence of Steve Young.

Montana felt he had football left in him, and unlike the Jets (with Namath) and Colts (with Unitas), the 49ers agreed. The only thing was, it created a sticky situation. The dynamic team owner knew the fans loved Montana, but the football brain trust wanted Young, so for weeks the back-and-forth was front-page news - Montana would be traded, Young would be traded - and it was difficult to keep up with.

"At this point," Young told reporters in April of that year, "nothing is surprising in this circus."

Finally, the 49ers announced that Montana had been dealt to Kansas City, but there were no shockwaves.

"The trade was difficult, but necessary. As Neil Sedaka sang, 'Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,' " said Art Spander, a longtime sports columnist in San Francisco and Oakland. "But there was no ill will. Eddie [DeBartolo, the owner] and the Niners understood Joe had to move on, that they had become Young's team. Some fans were irate, but most understood."

In this instance, an icon's move worked both ways. Young led the 49ers to another Super Bowl (1994), and Montana provided the veteran leadership that gave the Chiefs hope. Though older and less mobile, Montana had enough to get the Chiefs to an 11-5 record and into the AFC Championship game, where they lost to Buffalo. The next year, the Chiefs slumped to 9-7 and lost in the wild-card game at Miami.

Final act

Montana's exit from San Francisco and his final NFL game stand in stark contrast to those involving Unitas and Namath. On the field to the very end, Montana went 26 for 37 with two touchdowns in a 27-17 playoff loss to the Dolphins. Unitas and Namath never had such an opportunity.

Replaced in Week 4 with the Chargers trailing, 38-0, at Pittsburgh, Unitas, who was 2 for 9 and stumbled coming out of center and fell down, never got another start. Though he was owed money for the 1974 season, he knew new coach Tommy Prothro didn't want him back. So with very little fanfare, Unitas walked away. "Prothro said, 'If you want to see a game, you can see it from the stands.' That was the end of my career," said Unitas.

Namath's finale was the antithesis of the hard and fast, glamorous lifestyle that defined him. Standing in mud along the sideline on a Southern California night, said Haden, "that seemed like the 40-year flood," Namath watched helplessly as the Rams slipped all over the field and fell to the Vikings, 14-7, another disappointing end to their season. At times it appeared Knox was ready to put Namath into the game, but he never did, and certainly the evening was not treated as a legend's goodbye.

"There was a sparse crowd, so there was no sense that it was a grand farewell [for Namath]," said Haden. "He had not announced his retirement, but he was not going to come back for another year to sit on the bench. Nor should he have."

He didn't, of course, because even while he rejected it for several years, Namath - like Unitas had four years earlier and Montana would 17 years later and Favre invariably will have to - owned up to the coldest of truths an athlete faces.

"The body doesn't lie," said Clary. "The mind lies."

That is why Montana called a press conference in April 1994. He invited DeBartolo, who came, and he asked former coach Bill Walsh to be emcee. With a hotel ballroom jam-packed with family, friends, and former teammates, Montana stood up and announced his retirement.

Fittingly, the gathering was held in San Francisco.

You can, it seems, go home again in the NFL.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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