Larry Eisenhauer had just spent a month in such winter wonderlands as Boston and Buffalo and now, as the warm night breezes swept over him in San Diego, he and a few beers got together and made a decision: He wanted to go for a swim.
The Stardust Hotel, where he and his Boston Patriot teammates were camped in preparation for the 1964 American Football League championship game against the San Diego Chargers, had a pool, Eisenhauer was told by teammates. The pool was on the roof. Within minutes, so was Eisenhauer.
He stripped off his clothes and sort of belly-flopped into the beckoning water. He cruised from end to end, letting the warm water wash away the Buffalo chill that still lingered. Everything was fine for Larry Eisenhauer.
Until, of course, the two topless mermaids crashed to the surface of the pool beside him, shrieking and swearing. Right away Eisenhauer knew something was wrong.
He got a further hint of that a moment later when he ducked under the surface and opened his eyes in the clear water.
What he saw was not the bottom of the pool but instead nearly a hundred men seated at tables. There were short men and tall men and thin men and fat men and old men and young men.
The young men, he quickly realized, were Boston Patriots. And all of the men had something in common. They all had their mouths open in silent screaming laughter. Some pounded tables with fists. Others held onto their stomachs so that the laughter would not damage vital organs.
And all of the men in the Stardust Hotel’s Mermaid Bar were pointing and staring at naked Larry Eisenhauer, the newest, strangest and certainly the largest member of the nightclub’s act.
“He looked like a whale. Like a big whale,” receiver and kicker Gino Cappelletti recalled, still laughing about it after all these years.
The 1963 Patriots, it seemed, didn’t need a trainer as much as they needed a marine biologist. Perhaps it was the only football team in history with not a head coach but a curator.
And 22 years later, a middle-aged Eisenhauer, owner and operator of a successful computer hardware business in Boston, summons up all the dignity he can when asked about the night long ago when he unknowingly spawned the idea for a killer whale exhibit down the road at Sea World.
“It wasn’t me, it was my father,” he says. “Old Dutch Eisenhauer. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wanted to go for a swim, and in he went.”
His former teammates laugh big once again.
“Oh, it was Larry all right. You can be sure of that. Believe me, it was him,” said quarterback Babe Parilli.
These were the Patriots, playing for the league championship in only their fourth season of existence--something they are doing again a scant 22 years later--and having world-class fun doing it.
It is important in recalling that team to always remember that its leader, a hulking defensive end named Eisenhauer, would one day, many years later, finger his father as the one who jumped naked into a hotel’s mermaid pool.
“I only played two seasons but what a time it was,” fullback Harry Crump said. “There sure were a lot of laughs and good memories packed into those two quick seasons. What a bunch we were. What a bunch.”
The bunch was the eighth and last of the eight original AFL franchises, put into business at the cost of $25,000 by Billy Sullivan--father of an 11-year-old son named Patrick who 22 years later would come to Los Angeles to insult Howie Long of the Raiders and then viciously attack Matt Millen’s helmet with his head.
For the first 20 games they were not a good team. Each Sunday--or Saturday or Friday night, depending on which college field was available that week--these guys in their silly red and white uniforms would be sent spinning so often that fans didn’t know whether they were watching a football game or barber shop poles.
But when Lou Saban was fired as head coach and replaced by Mike Holovak midway through the 1961 season, a change began. Under Holovak’s Here-is-the-football, go-play style, the Patriots won seven of their next nine games. They were 9-4-1 in 1962 and even though people in Boston still would rather have paid money to watch Bob Cousy and Bill Russell and the rest of the beloved Celtics get their ankles taped than to watch the Patriots play football, it was a team seemingly on the rise.
But along came the 1963 season, and it was not good.
They started off with a 38-14 victory over the New York Jets at Boston College. Doug Flutie, who would one day become a big guy on that field, was in diapers and unable to walk, and the Jets weren’t in much better condition.
The next week, in San Diego’s Balboa Stadium, the Chargers barely beat Boston, 17-13, in a game that gave absolutely no indication of what was to happen in a game four months later.
In Game 3, the Patriots played the Oakland Raiders, and the Boston Globe warned: “The Raiders used to be soft pickings, but now there’s a new coach, young Al Davis out of Syracuse, and a good team with two quarterbacks of ability, Cotton Davidson and Tom Flores.”
But the Patriots treated quarterback Flores with all the respect their predecessors had given the British, recording a remarkable 14 sacks and ending a final-minute Oakland drive when Nick Buoniconti intercepted a pass by Flores. Patriots 20, Raiders 14. Three weeks ago, with both teams having gone to court in the meantime to legally change their first names, the Patriots continued the tradition.
Boston fell to 2-2 the following week in Denver with a 14-10 loss to the Denver Broncos, and slipped to 2-3 Oct. 5, when the resurgent Jets built a 31-10 fourth-quarter lead in the Polo Grounds, then escaped the Patriots’ comeback, 31-24.
But luckily for the Patriots, those dog-eared Raiders came visiting the next week and Boston beat them again, by the same 20-14 score, scoring 17 points in 4 minutes 44 seconds. The game was important for another reason. It marked their first game in Boston’s hallowed Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.
The Patriots’ lease at Fenway--which ran through the 1970 season--stipulated, however, that the football team could play no games there until the World Series had ended each fall. That certainly made a lot of sense because the Red Sox used that field for the World Series, sometimes as often as two or three times a century.
In the seventh game, Parilli, who had been hobbled by injuries for the first six, returned to health and turned in his best performance since joining the team in 1961. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 358 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Cappelletti scored 22 points on a touchdown catch, four field goals and four extra points as the Patriots hammered the Broncos, 40-21.
Seven days later, though, the Patriots lost to the Bills in Buffalo and fell to 4-4 when Jack Kemp--he was known as Jackie Kemp before he left his cold seat on the Buffalo bench for a nice, warm Republican seat in Congress--connected on a 73-yard touchdown pass play with 30 seconds left that broke a 21-21 deadlock and gave the Bills a 28-21 victory.
The next day, the Globe reported that, “Kemp had announced to his teammates in the final huddle that there was nothing good about a tie.” Today, apparently much mellowed from those days, Kemp knots one every single morning.
The Patriots moved to 5-4 six days later with their biggest win of the season, a 45-3 beating of the powerful Houston Oilers, intercepting six passes and returning two of them 98 and 79 yards for touchdowns, then earned Kemp’s worst enemy--a tie--the next week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In game 11, the Western Division-leading Chargers again beat the Patriots, 7-6, and Boston newspaper headlines proclaimed, “Pats Title Hopes Fade.”
The next scheduled game, on Nov. 24, was rescheduled as the world and nation mourned the Nov. 22 assassination of President Kennedy. Owner Billy Sullivan attended the funeral in Washington as the AFL’s official representative.
When play was resumed Dec. 1, the Patriots forged a first-place tie with Houston by beating Buffalo, 17-7, on what one newspaper called, “a day Eskimos would have called too cold for fishing through the ice.”
On Dec. 8, Boston unloaded on the Oilers, 46-28, to move to 7-5-1. All the Patriots needed was a victory the next week over Kansas City to clinch the AFL Eastern Division title.
Instead, they began what Patriots’ fans insist is a tradition that ended only this season, getting squashed in the crucial game, 35-3, by the passing of young quarterback Len Dawson.
But Houston lost again the next week, forcing a playoff for the division title between the Patriots and Bills in Buffalo. The weather for that Dec. 28 game was, well, remember that Eskimo business? The field was frozen solid and the Patriots illegally sharpened their metal cleats into ice picks.
It worked, as the sure-footed Patriots romped to a 26-8 victory for the Eastern Division championship in a game highlighted by Eisenhauer’s decision to sink his teeth into the left ankle of Buffalo star Cookie Gilchrist underneath a pile of players.
“I wanted to see if he was frozen,” Eisenhauer explained. “He wasn’t, and he screamed and then he got real mad. He jumped up and tried to kick me in the face. But he missed, slipped on the ice and fell right on his head. It was a very memorable play in my career.”
The victory earned Boston a berth in the league title game in San Diego. That’s when Eisenhauer found the mermaid tank.
“People in Boston had waited for such a long time for anything good to come of the Patriots,” said defensive coordinator Fred Bruney, now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. “Going to the championship game was incredibly exciting.”
The celebration was long and hard. The players were finally jolted back to reality. The jolt occurred when their plane hit the runway in San Diego.
“We were so high from beating Buffalo that I think we forgot about going to San Diego,” said Cappelletti. “I don’t think we had even started to come down when we found ourselves on the plane heading for the Coast. And for more than a week, the Chargers had been preparing for the championship game.”
The game was played at Balboa Stadium, and 30,127 fans wandered in to watch--30,160 if you include the Patriots in that group, and you should, because all they did was watch.
First they watched Keith Lincoln take a handoff and sweep left. Then they watched Keith Lincoln take a handoff and sweep right.
That process was repeated over and over again. When Lincoln didn’t take a handoff and gallop 20 yards or more, it was because he was catching a pass and galloping 20 yards or more. He finished with 206 yards rushing in just 13 carries, and 123 yards receiving. He scored one touchdown on a 67-yard run and another on a 25-yard pass from John Hadl, who had come in to mop up for starting quarterback Tobin Rote. Lincoln also completed a 32-yard pass.
The Chargers piled up 610 total yards that day, setting a record that still stands for a pro football championship game. The final score was 51-10.
How bad was the day for the Patriots? Ask backup fullback Harry Crump, who twisted an ankle just before halftime.
“I thought it was broken, so they rushed me to a hospital about five miles away,” Crump recalled. “But the X-rays were negative and it started feeling much better, so I figured I’d get back and start the second half.
“Then I found out the ambulance driver had left me at the hospital. No one from the Patriots came with me, so there I was, alone, with my uniform and shoulder pads and helmet, trying to figure out how to get back.
“We called about four cabs, but no one showed up. Finally I got a cab and he rushed me back to the stadium. The game was over and they had turned out the lights in the stadium. I didn’t even know who had won.”
Said Garron, who was forced to stay and watch the whole game: “All in all, it was a nightmare, just a nightmare.”
Other Patriots recall the game with equal joy.
From receiver Jim Colclough: “Boy, did they blow us out. It was a horror show, a real horror show.”
Parilli said he had actually been afraid during the Chargers’ attack. “The Chargers just whipped us bad,” he said in the locker room after the game. “They played every moment of the game like they wanted to kill us.”
The Patriot franchise had a few more good seasons after that, but didn’t win another playoff game until this season. In the late ‘60s the team bottomed out, playing some of the saddest football in pro history. Some moments during those days stay etched in the memory of those who witnessed them.
One occurred in Fenway Park during the 1967 season in a game against the Jets.
On third down, Parilli drilled a pass over the middle. It never reached the receiver, because it traveled only a foot or two before slamming into the back of the helmet of the Patriot center.
Then on fourth down, there was a thud as the ball made contact with the punter’s foot. A split second later, there was another thud, this one created by the ball slamming into the rear end of the same Patriot center whose skull had deflected the previous pass.
They were all gone a few years later--Parilli and Cappelletti, Eisenhauer and Garron, Crump, Colclough and Holovak. In their place now heading into the Super Bowl are Tony Eason, Irving Fryar, Stanley Morgan, Craig James and Raymond Berry, by anyone’s standards a much better football team.
But there aren’t nearly as many laughs.
“We had our problems in those early days of the AFL and then a bit later on,” Holovak said. “It was fun, though. More than anything else, it was fun.”
Today, when the 1963 Patriots settle into their seats at the New Orleans Superdome, or into their living room chairs, to watch Super Bowl XX, they’ll all remember.
“I think we’re all left with nothing but great memories,” said Colclough. “Those days are gone forever, but those of us who went through them will always, always remember them.”