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Just Call Him ... GRAND POOH--BAH OF LAZINESS : Ed White, Charger Residence Artist, Enjoys His Retreat

Times Staff Writer

A mountain lion recently raided the chicken coop, creating a little stir at Oak Lake Ranch, a five-acre empire loosely ruled by the Grand Pooh-bah of Laziness.

The ranch, which is several winding miles down Highway 79 from the center of the Julian megalopolis, boasts as its primary structure a 30-year-old converted farmhouse, headquarters of the Pooh-bah himself.

For company there is a weathered deck, trimmed with a rusting apple press and a wooden wheel barrow, plus a noisy kennel and an eclectic art studio hung with Pro Bowl helmets, posters depicting the human skeletal system and a curling photograph with Ronald Reagan at its center.

With a breeze rippling through the tops of the pines, Oak Lake Ranch is the centerpiece of a setting with instant appeal.

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After a couple of years here, no one would want to leave. Ever. Ed White may yet have to, if art can’t sustain him when he has thrown his last block, but such dark thoughts don’t linger in his mind.

Living at an altitude of more than 5,000 feet, White has mostly lofty thoughts. The sculptors Henry Moore and Rodin come to mind. So do the names of adversaries such as Howie Long, Richard Dent and Randy White. And a surgeon, Gary Losse, who last winter carved out the interior of White’s arthritic right knee, creating hope for an 18th season in the National Football League.

After the operation, White spent a month on crutches, waiting for cushioning tissue to be regenerated inside the knee. The solitude of Oak Lake Ranch was more inviting than ever as White wondered if his career might be over.

“This place up here has always been special to me,” White said. “I need a place I can drive to after work. I lived in an apartment across Friars Road from the stadium one year, and it nearly drove me crazy. I looked out the window and there was the stadium.”

White grew up in a semirural place, Lemon Grove. He got his first glimpse of himself as a person with some worth and a football player with a future on a lawn fronting Lemon Grove Junior High, where he played tackle football with a group of friends on weekends.

He has been coming up to Julian for sustenance since boyhood. It was a favorite escape of the family from the late 1940s through the early 1960s.

Even after he moved away, to attend college at Berkeley, and later to begin his NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings, some of the essence of the Laguna Mountains went with him. With the Vikings, he lived in a rural spot, Rosemont, Minn., a mile down a dirt road. He could walk out the back door and hunt pheasant.

When a trade brought him back to San Diego in 1978, White and his wife bought property in Julian and began planning a new home.

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Years passed, and they couldn’t agree on just what they wanted in their dream home. Finally, they agreed to look around for something already built. When they happened upon Oak Lake Ranch, they swapped their land for it and moved in.

This is just the spot for teaching three children how to be each other’s best friend. Or composing the story of Harvey the Hippo. Or just falling on an overstuffed sofa and not moving.

“Let’s be honest,” said a friend, Dan Fouts, who has a slightly more urbanized retreat at Rancho Santa Fe. “Ed White has moments of tremendous laziness. He calls himself the ‘couch potato,’ and I think that’s fitting.”

Fouts makes it an annual project to get White to come down the hill and get in shape for training camp. For this alone, Fouts is valuable to the Chargers.

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White’s precise weight, like the worth of the wealthiest men, has a shifting value. It is never less than considerable, and if one must hazard an estimate, 300 pounds is reasonable.

To help sculpt this mass into something recognizable as an offensive guard, Fouts sometimes accompanies his friend to the Pacific shore, where the men ride boogie boards or body surf.

“One day, on the way to the beach, we drove past the Self Realization Center,” Fouts said. “I think it was Big Ed who came up with the idea for our own Self Relaxation Fellowship. Big Ed is the Grand Pooh-bah of Laziness, and I’m his devout disciple. Our altar is a couch.”

Fouts can talk about White in a semi-disparaging manner because of a special bond between them.

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“Ed reminds me of friends I had growing up, and I mean my earliest friends,” Fouts said. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously. In fact, I’m not sure what he does take seriously.

“Ed is a very refreshing guy. He makes me happy. I can call him up anytime, and five minutes later, we’ll both be laughing our behinds off about life in general. He’s my director of entertainment.”

White, who once ran onto the field with his jersey on backward, is a bit more serious about football than Fouts’ remarks might suggest.

“Oh, I’ll give him credit, Ed has maintained a great zest for the game,” Fouts said. “He was always the biggest kid on the block, and he always liked pushing little kids around. He’s still doing it. Even at his age, he’s a little quicker and stronger, and a whole lot smarter, than most players.”

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Age has sort of sneaked up on White, who will be 39 on June 4. He never expected to be an old football player. All those years with the Vikings, he was a young buck surrounded by graybeards such as Alan Page and Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and Roy Winston. How did it come to this, Ed White, the Chargers’ elder statesman?

In one of the most isolated spots in one of the most densely populated regions of the country, a chubby middle-aged man draws pictures of life down the hill.

Every picture tells a story.

In White’s case, you have to decide which picture best tells the story.

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It could be the one of the happy hippopotamus who has persevered through all the jokes about being too fat and found his niche in life, along with some jeans that fit. Sounds like kids’ stuff, which it is, the stuff of a planned children’s book.

Or it could be the more impressionistic picture of flying body parts, dripping vital juices, a darker view not sanctioned by the league office.

White has put something of himself in each of these felt tip pen-and-ink renderings. Jolly, but not too. Bloodied, but not misshapen.

Of course, there’s a lot more depicted in the sketchbook carried in the leather attache embossed with the initials, E.A.W. And a lot more to the man whose creative acts extend to sculpture and landscape architecture.

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Whether he’s hunting coyotes, teaching 16-year-olds at Julian High how to block, or strolling off an airplane without his carry-on luggage, White defies a pithy synopsis. Great bulk, carried well, so that you almost don’t notice. Almost.

What he lacks in ego, he makes up in mass--and staying power. He’s as tough as a Minnesota winter, as he proved in surviving nine of them, pre-Metrodome.

He has been playing pro football since the early years of the Nixon administration. White is football’s answer to Willie Shoemaker, Pete Rose, Jack Nicklaus and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He may have absorbed more punishment than any three of them combined.

At an age when he ought to know better, White draws a paycheck by attempting to drive his helmet through his rival’s jawbone. Ten years is a long time to do this. Eighteen years is, well, forever.

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Some of White’s art, depicting the reality of pro football, is unsettling to people who prefer their game sanitized by a TV screen.

He has done a bronze statuette, the Hit Man, which will fit in the palm of your hand. But it contains a lot of detail, depicting a tackler overtaking a ballcarrier from behind. The tackler’s head is embedded in the spine of the runner. One of the tackler’s feet is missing, along with the opposite lower leg. There’s a pool of blood at the base of the piece.

“Tom Bass (the ex-defensive coordinator) loved it,” White said. “Most people don’t like it. I was just trying to express a feeling about this game. I have sometimes felt like my ribs were going to come through my body. So, in my mind, this piece is successful in expressing a feeling.”

White has come a long way in football by never moving very far. He has played more games, 241, than any blocker ever. Basically, he is a containment vessel. It can get messy if he gives way. Three or four times a year, it happens.

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His tactics are those of an aggressive infantryman.

“I try to take on a guy at the line of scrimmage and defeat him right there,” White said. “I want to deflate his animalism and killer instinct on the first play of a game if I can.”

Like a good referee, you don’t normally pay attention when he’s having a good day.

The most entertaining thing he does comes at the start of the game. Upon being introduced, he sprints onto the field with the top-heavy uncertainty of a B-52 taking off. You get the feeling a sudden wind gust would be a calamity.

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Those short strides--baby steps, really--have helped prolong his career. Taking small steps, he’s never planted in the ground to absorb the full shock of a blind hit.

Well, almost never.

Last fall, while trying to make a cut, he came down straight-legged and chipped the inside of his right knee. The bone had to be surgically scraped and ground. The doctor put a hole in the bone to make it bleed, so worn-out cartilage would grow back.

“For a long time, I feared the worst,” White said. “But the passage of time has helped, and in the last month, it’s gotten a lot better. I’m still gimpy, but I’ve been told by Dr. Losse I should be able to play 16 games this year.”

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He plans to report to training camp at about 285 pounds. He won’t participate in every practice, but it isn’t as if he needs the work to learn the offense.

White isn’t pumped-up via pharmaceuticals and bench presses. He’s genuine, corn-fed beef. Aged beef.

“I’ll be in the best shape in years,” he said. “At Minnesota I weighed in the 60s (that’s 260s), but I like to be heavier. There are not many linebackers who can stand in all day against a 285-pound guard. Weight doesn’t affect my quickness over 10 yards, where most of my work is done.”

White doesn’t like to call attention to himself. He picked the right position. An offensive lineman is lucky if his mom knows his number.

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Problem is, people still managed to notice White, and always have. He used to be the strongest player in the game, having won an arm-wrestling competition. He graduated to being one of the most capable. Now, he’s the oldest.

The oldest, and one of the sharpest.

Some guys make a big deal of getting behind a projector and analyzing film for hours. You would think they were studying to be producers or directors. Not White. A few minutes watching his Sunday antagonist and he knows exactly what he will have to do.

He runs through a mental checklist before every play. He envisions what his shoulders, his hands and his feet need to do. He choreographs every down in advance. Figure that’s 60 plays a game, 16 games a year, 17 years. That’s a lot of choreography.

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White is well-paid, $350,000 a year, but look how long it took him to reach that level. Players today come out of school, get a salary like his and a signing bonus big enough to buy a starter estate and an exotic automobile. White’s bonus was $15,000, enough for one bad investment, which he quickly made.

He knows how real people live. His dad started a construction business, which never rivaled A.G. Spanos Construction Inc. His wife is a school teacher. Her career earnings may not approach the middle six figures.

White’s circumstances are not so elevated that he can avoid loading all the family’s weekly refuse in the back of his battered yellow Ford pickup and hauling it off to the dump. Beats paying someone $15 a week to do it, he said.

The major unresolved question in Ed White’s life is this: What’s he going to do when he can’t knock people on their butts anymore?

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Draw pictures? Do yards?

The Chargers have entertained making a coach of him. They have a few reservations, such as how he would take to a $300,000 cut in pay. Or how he would adapt to a coach’s hours, which are on the order of 90 a week for more than half the year.

White is getting a small taste of coaching this month as he serves as a volunteer aide during Julian High School’s spring practice.

One day recently, he showed up a half hour before practice and carried worn-out tires onto the field. They would be used in an exercise to help players improve their knee action. Not just any old immortal would stoop to dragging dirty tires onto a dusty field in a tiny mountain town.

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White sat with the team’s regular coaches, imparting ideas about organizing practice, utilizing personnel and designing a passing attack. He used a phrase, “pattern tree,” that could only have come from Don Coryell . . . and he spoke knowingly about it.

Once the players arrived--all 20 of them--White opened practice with a period of stretching exercises.

“Concentrate on your muscles,” he said. “Feel what’s happening in your muscles.”

A few minutes later, he was showing the players how to assume a proper hitting position.

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“This is where your power comes from,” he said, squatting and looking quite threatening.

Then the players were directed to chop their feet and rotate one direction, then another, like a turret. They were supposed to yell “eagle!” each time they pivoted.

“Aw,” White said, “we could get the girls out here and they would make more noise.”

His folksy but still serious manner held the players’ attention as practice moved on.

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The kids were attired in all manner of shorts, jeans and T-shirts. Nothing like a uniform with Julian insignia could be seen. White, who had just returned from a cruise to Acapulco, was doing something he wanted to do, and never mind that NFL Films wasn’t there to record it.

When it was suggested to him that he could become the first player to carve his own bust for the Hall of Fame, he laughed. Big deal.

“The Hall of Fame would be an honor, but it’s not something I think about,” he said. “Individually, I’ve accomplished about all I could in this game, with the exception of being on a Super Bowl champion. I enjoy the line of work I’m in, and the people I do it with.”

He enjoys the people in the game--but he has to get away from them six months of the year. When he comes down off the hill every July, it’s like a reunion when he checks in at training camp.

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Fouts said he fell in love with White in their first training camp, which was 1978.

One evening after practice, they retired to the quietude of the poolside lounge at Torrey Pines golf course. Fouts and White were accompanied by tight end Pat Curran, now the Chargers’ business manager.

“It was a warm night, and we were having a few beers,” Fouts said. “Pat bet $20 that Big Ed wouldn’t dive in the pool. Ed, of course, didn’t have a bathing suit with him.

“I looked at Ed and he looked back, and then Pat pulled the 20 out of his wallet. Big Ed stood up and stripped down and jumped in. I didn’t know if he was going to make it, because he was so tired, but he managed to swim the length of the pool. It was one of the funniest things I ever saw.”

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Such moments fit into what White describes as the need for “levity” to balance the serious side of football.

Contrary to what Fouts may imply, football is serious stuff to White. His forthcoming children’s book on the life of Harvey the Hippo serves as a parallel to White’s life, and the place of football in it.

“Whether it’s sports or not, we all have to be able to identify something we’re really good at,” White said. “All kids have the frustration of wondering, ‘What am I good at? Where am I going?’

“I was lucky. I always knew. Under my picture in my high school yearbook, it lists my ambition: to be a pro football player. But until I got into football, I felt handicapped. I was the fat kid who didn’t belong to any group. In football, it was easy to see I was better than most of the other kids.”

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Harvey the Hippo is looking for himself right now up at Oak Lake Ranch. He’s going to fit in one of these days.


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