GOING FOR BROCK : The Newest-and Oldest-of the Rams’ Quarterbacks Is Almont Unknown outside Canada, but When It Comes to an Arms Race, Dieter’s Proven He Has the Weapons.
So the Rams have a new quarterback. As a news bulletin, that ranks with “Liz Taylor Weds.”
Wake us when the honeymoon is over.
Is Ralph Dieter Brock any different from the dozen others who have paused at this way station on the road to oblivion in the last 13 years?
How many quarterbacks win arm-wrestling championships?
How many quarterbacks make their National Football League debuts at 34?
How many quarterbacks have never had knee surgery?
How many quarterbacks change their names in mid-career?
All of which brings us to Dieter Brock.
There are reports that he throws a football so hard that his receivers need hands of stone, and that he throws it so far they have to carry cab fare to get back to the huddle.
One story is that he has spent the last 11 years perfecting his delivery not in a Tibetan monastery but in the Canadian Football League, which in his line of work is almost the same. He spent 9 1/2 seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and 1 1/2 with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, and in the last five seasons he passed for more yards, 20,441, than anybody else in any league anywhere.
Check the calendar. Is it April 1? Did the Rams’ publicists create Dieter Brock over a three-martini lunch? Is this their answer to George Plimpton’s Sidd Finch hoax?
No, Brock doesn’t play the French horn. But he is learning to play the piano. John Robinson, the Rams’ coach, hopes Brock can play quarterback in the NFL. Both of their jobs may depend on it.
He’s gotta be the best thrower I’ve ever seen.
--Ray Jauch, Brock’s coach at Winnipeg
Robinson says: “He’s got a very strong arm.”
That’s the first thing almost everybody says about Brock.
“A very competitive arm,” Robinson says.
Robinson means that Brock will do anything possible to complete every pass, standing patiently unperturbed by pressure until a receiver gets open.
“Oh, will he ever,” said Ray Jauch, who coached Brock at Winnipeg. “I used to get on him for holding the ball too long. He’d wait and take a full blow right in the face, then complete the pass.”
Even if Brock tried to run, he wouldn’t remind anyone of the Galloping Ghost, but that’s OK. Brock and Eric Dickerson will have an agreement. Brock won’t run and Dickerson won’t throw passes.
For the record, Robinson hasn’t even said that Brock will be his starting quarterback.
“You’re making a mistake if you think it isn’t competitive,” Robinson said. “If Brock doesn’t play well, we’ll have (Jeff) Kemp or Steve (Dils) in there.”
Brock, playing along, said: “Nobody’s told me I’m gonna be the starter. I guess it’s gonna be the guy who does the best in preseason. I would say Jeff Kemp probably has the inside track. He’s been there.”
But last season, when Kemp took over after Vince Ferragamo broke his hand, Dickerson set a National Football League rushing record of 2,105 yards and the Rams ran fewer plays than anyone in the league. Their two-minute offense was non-existent, so Robinson committed himself to creating a high-powered passing attack with Brock in control.
The day Brock was signed, it became clear that somewhere along the way, Robinson had become disenchanted with Ferragamo. He announced that the Rams would try to trade Ferragamo, a move they are still attempting to make.
The Rams started to focus on Brock a year ago this month when Robinson sent Vic Rapp, an assistant coach who since has moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to scout Brock in a CFL exhibition game between Hamilton and the Argonauts in Toronto. Brock had won the CFL’s Schenley Award as the league’s top player in 1980 and ’81, and had said he wanted to switch to the NFL when he became a free agent after the ’84 season.
Rapp brought back a positive report. Brock, who until recently one of the best-kept secrets in football, was ready to give the NFL a try. His name was unique but unfamiliar to American fans. Only a few football scouts even realized he was an American.
Few would guess he’s from Birmingham and once dreamed of playing for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. But instead of heading west to Tuscaloosa, he went south to Auburn, where he disappeared behind Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan, then east to Jacksonville State of Alabama.
Brock’s best buddy is Larry Lancaster, a mail carrier who is six years older and grew up down the street. They play golf and work out together in the off-season.
“Alabama was hot and heavy for recruiting him, up until the spring (high school)game when he hurt his knee,” Lancaster said.
Brock stretched a ligament and never heard from the Crimson Tide again, which nearly broke his heart.
There was an announcement, headlined in local papers, that he would be going to Georgia Tech. Lancaster needled his pal, “That was before they gave the entrance exam.”
Auburn wasn’t the answer, either. Although Brock had two years left when Sullivan graduated, he said: “I just never got adjusted to life at Auburn. They were good to me, but for some reason I felt I had to move on.”
He went home to Birmingham but found little sympathy.
“I had a lot of pressure, not only from coaches but players there and my folks. They wanted me to stay at Auburn. My dad really did. He said, ‘If you don’t go back, you might as well go in the Army.’ ”
Brock already had used a redshirt year at Auburn, so unless he wanted to forfeit a season of eligibility he had to move to an NAIA school not subject to NCAA transfer rules. At Jacksonville State, he met his future wife, Kathy, passed for 27 touchdowns in two years, then waited for the offers to roll in.
Waited . . . and waited.
“I was just getting married, and the World Football League had drafted 10 or 12 quarterbacks in the first six rounds of its draft, and I wasn’t one of them,” Brock said.
But Hayden Riley, the basketball coach at Alabama, had followed Brock’s career and passed the word to his brother, Bud, the head coach at Winnipeg.
“Bud came by and offered me a contract,” Brock said. “I told him I was gonna wait for the NFL draft. Then he came back a week later and upped the offer. So I said, ‘I’ll give this a shot.’ ”
He didn’t intend to stay 11 years.
“I really didn’t. I signed a one-year deal . . . figured some day I’d get a shot down here.”
He’s got a rifle. He’s very, very accurate. Long accurate. On-the-money long. Everything the Rams are looking for in a quarterback.
--Tom Cousineau, Cleveland Brown linebacker who formerly played against Brock in Canada
Brock’s parents, Billy William (B.W. to friends) and Maria, greet two visitors across the yard of the house on Court M, where they have lived for 27 years. It is late on an Alabama afternoon, when the humidity surrenders to a cool evening breeze.
B.W., 56 and a welder by trade, is relaxing after his shift, 5:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., for the Southern Tempering Co., a job he’s had since 1983 when he officially retired from U.S. Steel. He was laid off two years earlier.
A fresh-baked chocolate cake is on the kitchen counter. Maria grew up in Germany and speaks with an accent. B.W. speaks Good Ol’ Boy. They met near Stuttgart when Billy was stationed in Germany after World War II.
Dieter is the middle of three sons, followed by a daughter, Susan, 25, who manages a real estate office. The oldest is Billy Joe, a bakery salesman better known as Wild Bill. The youngest son is Glenn, 30, a paramedic.
“I told Maria, ‘You go ahead and name this one,’ ” the elder Brock said. “She said, ‘Well, I’ll give him his middle name.’ ”
Maria gave him Dieter; B.W. gave him Ralph.
Brock was known as Ralph through high school and college, although he preferred his middle name Dieter, or Diete, as his friends and most of his family knew him.
“I’d introduce myself as Diete or Dieter and the players knew me as Diete,” he said. “After I’d been a starter in Canada a couple of years and Ray Jauch came in he just said, ‘We’ll put it in the press book and get the press to start with the Dieter.’ Some of ‘em were saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ But that’s what I prefer to be called.”
Bill Lumpkin, long-time columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald, said: “I always called him Ralph.
I have to think to call him Dieter. People in his home town didn’t even know what happened to him. He just disappeared off the face of the earth.
“Then when ESPN started telecasting the Canadian games, they heard about Dieter Brock and wondered, ‘Hmm, is he any relation to Ralph Brock?’ ”
Dieter’s father may be the only person who still calls him Ralph.
Brock was not a completely natural athlete.
Bill, his older brother by 1 1/2 years, said: “When he first started playing Little League I was catching and they hit a fly ball to him and he missed it. The umpire said, ‘Who’s that boy in right field? He oughta had that ball.’ I told him, ‘I don’t know, some new guy we picked up.’
“But the next year he was as good as anybody. He just worked at it. He’s always been dedicated. I used to throw a ball a lot farther than him. Now, hey, if I can get within 25 yards of him I’m doin’ good.”
Brock and Lancaster played a lot of basketball in the backyard.
“I have been known to beat him and he’d kick the ball over the house,” Lancaster said. “But he can still shoot the eyes out of it.”
As a high school junior, Brock led the Jones Valley Brownies to their only state playoff appearance ever. They qualified with a 7-6 win over crosstown rival Banks High School, whose quarterback was Johnny Musso, later an All-American running back at Alabama. The game was played in front of 40,000 in Legion Field, where Alabama plays some of its home games.
“It was on the radio and everything,” Bill said. “None of the pressure bothered him. It was about four minutes left in the ball game and fourth down and about five and Diete, just as cool as could be, threw the pass for the first down, and a couple plays later they ran the ball in for a touchdown and kicked the extra point.”
Dieter is eavesdropping as he wanders across the yard of his parents’ home.
“Did you tell him about you gettin’ up on the goalpost?” he asks his brother.
Bill: “I was as excited as I could be.”
Namath had a quick release. You should see Brock’s. He can throw a marshmallow through a tornado.
--Jack Gotta, veteran CFL coach
When Brock and his agent, Gil Scott, were traveling around the NFL this past winter and spring trying out with the Packers, Browns, Bills and Rams, he carried a 70-pound exercise machine in a suitcase.
“A couple of times we watched the baggage handlers try to pick it up,” Scott said. “They were surprised. Dieter would work with it at the hotel in the morning and then go out to the tryout. Finally, the suitcase broke.”
He has converted the garage of his suburban Birmingham home into a gymnasium. The van and Mercedes-Benz coupe sit outside. Brock has a wall-mounted device that he pulls overhand, under tension, in a throwing motion.
“My right arm is a lot bigger than my left,” he says.
Said Bill: “I’m not surprised. Anything he thought would help strengthen his arm, he’d do.”
Brock and Lancaster go to throw at a soccer field cut out of the forest on the grounds of the Shades Mountain Church. He warms up with a special, 1 1/2-pound weighted football, more than half a pound over regulation.
“He throws a weighted ball as far as some guys can throw the dang regular one, and it comes down like a brick,” Lancaster says. “There ain’t no tellin’ how many passes I’ve caught over the years. I’ve come back from workouts bruised all over from him throwin’ the ball so dang hard.”
Brock warms up with the weighted ball at 20, then 40 yards. Pretty soon, with a regulation ball, he has Lancaster almost backed up to the fence.
“Fifty or 60 is easy,” Brock says. “I can just flick it.”
He flicks one.
“That was about 60,” he says.
He coils his shoulders slightly and throws another high, tight spiral.
“That was about 70,” he says.
Brock is usually reserved. The best stories of his prowess come from others.
Jauch said: “I have seen him throw the ball 94 yards in the air, just goofing around the day before a game in Calgary. He used to get down on one knee at the 55-yard line--the field’s longer in Canada--and throw the ball through the goal posts.”
Jauch said Brock also won the CFL Western Conference arm-wrestling title one year against linebackers and linemen. He bowed out of further competition because he didn’t want to risk hurting his arm.
Brother Bill said: “When he was at Auburn, during a scrimmage one of his receivers ran a hook pattern and before he could get his hands up the ball hit him in the helmet and stuck between
his helmet and facemask. They had to pry it out.”
He’s got a strong arm. It’ll be hard to outrun him. Very accurate, throws the ball hard. Gotta be alert for it.
--Ron Brown, Rams’ receiver and Olympic sprinter
Brock does not appear to be another aging, broken-down quarterback, of which the Rams have had more than their share. At 6 feet, 1/2 inch and about 200 pounds, he is hard and trim. The Rams tested him at 4.5% body fat, among the very lowest on the club.
Trainer Garrett Giemont said: “For his age and his position, 10 or 12% would be good. Most quarterbacks his age would be about 20%. Jeff Kemp’s in the same category but, of course, he’s eight years younger.”
Brock prefers chicken and fish to red meat, doesn’t smoke and has never had surgery, although he missed a game once when he stretched a knee ligament. He wears a brace to protect it.
Lancaster said: “I’m a sports buff, and I don’t know of anyone who works out on his own in the off-season the way he does.”
Said Brock: “Sometimes I think I do too much.”
But it’s unlikely any NFL teams would have been interested in a quarterback who was 34 years old and looked it--especially not the Rams, the way they’ve been burned. Perhaps that’s what inspired Brock to stay fit when he started growing restless in a dead-end Canadian career.
He decided he wanted out in 1983, only two years after signing a $1.2-million, five-year agreement with Winnipeg. He missed training camp and walked out twice during the season before the Blue Bombers traded him to Hamilton.
“That was a tough year,” Brock said. “They told me some things they were gonna do that they backed out of. They said they were gonna shorten it (the contract).
“So I gave ‘em warning, (that) I had to know something in the next week or so or they could get somebody else ready to play. So I walked out and they suspended me for three games. I waited around two weeks, with the kids in school and everybody mad as hell at me, then said I might as well get the hell out of here and go back to some friendly people.”
But not as friendly as he expected. When he suddenly showed up in Birmingham, Lancaster said, “He shocked me. I said, ‘Diete, I thought you were gonna wait until the season’s over.’ ”
Lumpkin told him, “I didn’t think that was fair. They agreed to your terms, and now you want out.”
But when Brock flew South it forced Winnipeg to unload him to Hamilton, which signed him to a six-game contract for the rest of ’83 with ’84 as an option year with a 25% raise.
Lancaster said: “They played their cards right. They hoped to entice him to stay. They just didn’t realize how bad he wanted to come home.”
When Hamilton played Winnipeg in the Grey Cup game last season, Brock was roundly booed by the old Blue Bomber fans, who wore Brock-buster T-shirts, chanted traitor and posted a sign at the Winnipeg zoo: “Home of Dieter Brock.”
When Winnipeg won, 47-17, the Hamilton fans joined the public denunciation of the quarterback. The Canadians regarded Brock as an American opportunist who would sign for five years, then walk out.
He said: “I knew what most of the quarterbacks were making down here, and I was making as good as over half of them. I was satisfied with that. (And) I didn’t know if any (NFL) teams were interested in me.”
His dad said: “They were real nice. Gave us a free trip up there every year.”
Lancaster said: “Then, the United States Football League came along, and you saw the fantastic salaries they started offering some of these ballplayers--unproven. He had to wait until the time was right, but it never was right. When it came to the ethics of it, he just had to take the bull by the horns, right or wrong, and say this is the direction I want my life to go.”
Scott sent resumes and videotapes to several NFL teams, including the Rams. Robinson also collected considerable footage on Brock, and the more he saw the better he liked him.
Scott said: “He saw a film of what I thought was a terrible game when Hamilton got blown out by B.C. But Robinson was impressed by what Dieter could do under severe pressure with no help around him. Robinson and (Ram executive Jack) Faulkner said, ‘You should shoot your right tackle.’ ”
By the time Brock arrived for a tryout, Robinson was already convinced. He had him throw for only 15 minutes, and the Rams signed him the next day.
If there is a quarterback from the CFL who could play in the NFL, it’s Dieter Brock.
--Elijah Pitts, former CFL coach and Green Bay Packer running back
Brock set CFL records in 1981 by passing for 4,796 yards and 32 touchdowns in 16 games. In ’81 he helped receiver Eugene Goodlow set a CFL record with 100 receptions.
“Dieter not only has a very, very strong arm, but 90% of the time he’s very accurate,” said Goodlow, who now plays with the New Orleans Saints. “You don’t have to make a big adjustment for the ball, and he gets the ball to you when you want it. He doesn’t hang you out to dry, and he can give you that touch when he needs to.
“Dieter is not an outspoken type of leader. He shows it in his performance. Sometimes when he wants to be assertive, he will be, but for the most part he’s not real vocal.”
Robinson said: “The complete quarterback is the guy that does what he’s supposed to do (and has) some fire and enthusiasm that transmits itself to the team. It’s premature for me to say he has that.”
Generally, Brock makes life easier for those around him. That includes his wife, Kathy. They have bought a house in Villa Park, near Anaheim Stadium, and will be making their 23rd move in 12 years.
“When we moved before, we were always coming back, so we never took everything,” she said. “This is the first time we’re taking everything.”
That includes the new grand piano in the corner of the living room. Brock started to take lessons in March before his tryout tour interrupted them. A lesson book is titled: “For Beginners Who Want to Play Immediately.”
Across the street from their home in a semi-exclusive area of Birmingham, where rambling houses sit on half-acre lots amid stands of trees, a five-bedroom house with a pool just sold for $123,000. Orange County prices were something of a shock.
“But I’m looking forward to just staying in one place,” Kathy said.
Because they have three daughters--Melanie, 8 1/2; Melissa, 5 1/2, and Meredith, 2--it was important that Brock was in the enviable position of being able to determine where he would play.
Kathy said: “When it got down to the nitty gritty I got out a piece of paper, listed the teams that were interested and we wrote down the pros and cons for each one. That’s how we came to our decision.”
The Rams’ edge came with the territory.
“First of all, he’d be going to a good team, and it was a place we could stand to live year-round,” Kathy said. “There weren’t too many cons to it. Diete did know people in Buffalo. We put a check against L.A because he’d be going in not knowing anybody. But that was about it. We wouldn’t have lived in Buffalo. That’s just across the border from Hamilton where we were last year.”
And Brock likes his new situation, with exceptional receivers, a strong offen sive line and a coach who has thrown himself into developing a passing offense.
“I know he (Robinson) wants to open it up,” Brock said. “He really gets into your mind. When we have our meetings watching the practice of the day before, he’s always asking, ‘Why’d you do that? Why’d you throw the ball there? Do you think that was a good choice?’ He wants to do everything perfect, everything right.
“I feel the same way. I want everything to be perfect, too. With the guys they’ve got, I don’t think you could have a better situation as a quarterback.”
But while Brock’s body may still be sound, he knows the meter is running.,
“I feel like I’ve gotta produce right away,” he said. “I’m not like a rookie that’s got a little time and can be brought along slowly. These players don’t know what I can do, so I feel I’ve got to prove to them I can play.”
His buddy Lancaster said it’s already written.
“I saw where on the first day when he was supposed to work out with the team, it had been cloudy all day. Diete steps out there and the sun comes out. It was almost like Bear walkin’ on water.”