Tom Dahms Adjusts to Life in Slow Lane : Ex-Ram Player and Raider Assistant Is Now Coaching a Small High School

Times Staff Writer

Tom Dahms' friends remember his days as a lineman at San Diego High School and San Diego State. And they remember his days as a player with the National Football League champion Rams of 1951. And they remember his days as an assistant coach with the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders of 1977.

They don't remember much about Dahms since then, because Tom Dahms had seemingly disappeared from football.

He worked as a health studio instructor who taught adults how to lift weights, as a laborer who put chairs together for the San Diego city schools, and as an insurance salesman. Dahms was an assistant with the semipro Yuba City Cougars and with San Diego City College, but that was the extent of his involvement in football during the past eight years.

All the while, Dahms went from town to town and job to job looking for a team to coach.

Tom Dahms now has a team.

At 59, Dahms is head coach of the Mountain Empire Redskins.

Who? What? Where?

Mountain Empire High School is about 50 miles east of San Diego in Pine Valley and has an enrollment of 400. The Redskins play in the Mountain Desert 1A League.

They were 0-9 and were outscored, 228-59, this year.

"I would love to win every game," Dahms said. "I don't like to lose at anything."

But, after what he termed a "miserable" eight-year stretch--both professionally and personally--Dahms is trying to put life and football in perspective.

"I think I'm fortunate to still be alive," Dahms said. "I went to college and was in the service. I wanted to play pro football. I coached for 20 years. What else can you say? That's a pretty good career."

Dahms, 6-feet 5-inches and 215 pounds in college, was All-California Collegiate Athletic Assn. as a lineman in 1948 and 1949. Before that, he played both offense and defense for San Diego High during its glory years in 1944 and 1945.

Those were the good days for Dahms, who played with the Rams from 1951 to 1954, Green Bay in 1955, the Chicago Cardinals in 1956 and the San Francisco 49ers in 1957. He was an assistant coach at the University of Virginia, coached with Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to 1962 and with the Raiders from 1962 to 1978.

After the 1978 season, Dahms was released by the Raiders.

"John Madden retired and Al Davis was making moves to get rid of the old coaches," Dahms said. "I was the first to go. I don't think it's because I wasn't doing my job."

As if losing his job with the Raiders wasn't painful enough, a year after his release Dahms separated from his wife of 24 years.

Losing his job and his wife came on the heels of the death of Dahms' twin boys, Timothy and Jeffrey. They died of muscular dystrophy in 1972 when they were 12.

Dahms has four children who live in the Bay Area, but he said he has not seen them recently because he does not have enough money to visit them.

"I haven't made enough money to fly or travel," said Dahms, who lives in a modest apartment in Alpine. "My (former) wife doesn't like me to talk like that."

But that's reality, he says.

Sitting in his cramped office in the locker room at Mountain Empire, Dahms makes it clear that he does not want sympathy.

"I don't want it to sound like I'm down," he said. "I was down when I got this job."

How did a guy wearing a Super Bowl ring end up coaching a high school team that has ony 18 players?

After spending three weeks in the hospital for high blood pressure last summer, Dahms was released. The first thing he did was check the classified advertisements in the newspapers.

"I saw an advertisement for a football coach," Dahms said. "I applied. I got out of the hospital and they hired me."

It was almost as easy as Dahms made it sound.

"He basically told me, 'I'm in my twilight,' " Mountain Empire Principal Fred Kamper said. "He also told me, 'I'm to the age where I'm not going to get down in the stances and demonstrate things to the kids.' I asked him how much mileage could we expect to get out of him. He said five or six years."

As a full-time instructor who teaches math and history, Dahms finds his students quite different from the kids who he used to substitute teach during the off-seasons in the 1950s.

"The late '40s and '50s were fun days," Dahms said. "The war was over. Girls still wore dresses. Boys had short hair. You could tell the difference between boys and girls.

"Nowadays, they think they'll miss something if they don't do everything at once."

On the field, Dahms is facing both a generation and a talent gap. The more Dahms tries to teach, the more frustrated he and his players become.

"I try to keep the right perspective," Dahms said. "I realize I'm not the coolest or sharpest guy around. But I can teach them football. If they want me to, I can make them good football players.

"It's just that they are very touchy about being taught. I used to tell adult football players if you're out late, you'll be fined. What do I tell these kids?

"A lot of times you get tired of fighting an uphill battle. This year has been a learning situation for me."

How long does Dahams plan to stay at Mountain Empire?

"I want to stay a few more years," Dahms said. "I want to contribute more."

And besides, Dahms said, "this is an ideal climate for an old (guy) like me."

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