COWBOY COMMISSIONER : In the High Desert Football League, Jim Lott Answers to No One

Times Staff Writer

Jim Lott muttered to himself. Another snafu, but not totally unexpected. Playing football in Mexico was never without its problems.

So, when Lott and his team of Los Angeles semi-pro football players arrived in Tijuana for a friendly game against the local muchachos , Lott was upset but not surprised that the high school field was being used for a soccer game.

Lott, commissioner of the High Desert Football League and football's roving ambassador of goodwill, left without creating an international incident and looked for another site. He remembered a river outside of town, the river bottom being both flat and wide enough to accommodate a football field.

The teams assembled there. With a stick, Lott etched a field into the loamy earth, but he needed something more visible, more durable, on the sidelines to indicate end zones and yard lines. Then he remembered the clothes.

Before he takes his teams to Mexico once or twice a year, Lott gathers discarded clothes from friends and neighbors to distribute to the poor. So he went into the team bus to forage through the clothes box.

Then he began marking the field. Jeans on the end line. A shirt at 10 yards. Underwear at 20. A sweater at 30. When he was through, little piles of clothes rimmed the field every 10 yards, and Lott, resourceful as ever, figured he had solved yet another minor problem in the long and beleaguered history of the HDFL.

Then the game began. Despite an unfamiliarity with football and their lack of coaching, the smaller Mexicans usually held their own against Lott's visiting teams from north of the border. But Lott never cared about scores, or winning and losing. This wasn't processed big-time football, no cheerleaders or card sections or network coverage. Still, it was football, a chance for guys to kick butt and take names, then party together afterward, forgetting all differences.

Before long, Lott noticed that his yard markers were getting farther apart. He also quickly realized that the end zone was practically gone. In fact, it was disappearing right before his eyes. Spectators were pilfering the clothes!

Lott shrugged and fished more clothes out of the box. "Hell, those clothes were for them anyway," he said.

The game went on. The game always went on.

High on a wind-swept hill in the picturesque Leona Valley, 16 miles northwest of Palmdale, the commissioner of the HDFL is whitewashing a goose coop.

Below him, repairmen work on his water pump, and 60 head of cattle graze peacefully on a thick carpet of grass.

Lott, 82, is tending to his 79-acre ranch, getting ready for the rigors of winter. "I don't even have my pipes wrapped yet," he snarls. "Don't have the time."

He looks at the darkening sky and feels the cool wind against his ruddy face. Soon, he senses, snow will fall.

Lott sweeps a meaty hand toward thousands of acres of rolling pastureland, broken only by an occasional snow fence. "This is what's left of the old West," he says, gesturing.

In the distance, gray clouds hang above the Sierra Pelona Mountains as Lott, wearing boots, blue jeans, a fur-lined jean jacket and denim cowboy hat, ambles toward his 100-year-old ranch house, passing cattle skulls nailed to fence posts and cracked-leather saddles slung over a hitching post.

Jim Lott, son of a pioneer who rode a covered wagon into Oklahoma in the 1870s, would somehow get the pipes wrapped and the cattle branded and make a decent home for the geese before freezing temperatures drove him indoors to the warmth of a pot-bellied stove.

Somehow, Lott would survive another winter. Hard work, sacrifice, loneliness, survival, a solitary figure meeting challenges head on. The way of the cowboy.

There's no doubt that Lott's cowboy qualities prepared him for the adventures he has faced in the last half century as the iron-fisted founder, owner, commissioner, coach, head groundskeeper, chief referee, equipment manager and director of laundry for the High Desert Football League.

Fronting his own cash for uniforms and travel, Lott has spent thousands of dollars to give marginal athletes chances to continue playing tackle football beyond high school. Like Wyatt Earp cleaning up Dodge City, Lott also took it upon himself to keep the peace in the rough-and-tumble league, often banning players and entire teams.

He had a simple philosophy that he hammered home to the players: "I don't take crap from anybody. You don't have time to argue with 200 people, let alone one. So you don't argue with anybody. I tell 'em how it is, and that's it. I'm the boss."

That hard-nosed attitude hasn't endeared him to some players.

"A lot of guys didn't like him because he says what he feels," said Lin Parker, football coach at Caltech in Pasadena and a former player with the HDFL's Antelope Valley Sidewinders. But Lott's dictatorial style, Parker acknowledged, "is probably what's kept the league going for so long."

The oldest semi-pro league in California, and probably the entire country, the HDFL came into the world in 1936. Its birth occurred in a Reseda pool hall by order of a judge whose name, unfortunately, is lost in the mists of time.

When the Dust Bowl and the Depression forced the Lotts to abandon Oklahoma in the early '30s, they continued the journey begun by their forefathers in England 200 years earlier. They ended it at this country's western boundary.

Lott, then in his late 20s, and his family settled in Three Points, cattle country 70 miles north of Los Angeles and only 20 miles down the road from his current address. The Lotts bought the land for nothing down, but still couldn't make it go.

"Everybody was broke back then," Lott said. He remembers spending "thousands of hours working 30 acres of almonds and chopping wood," contending with black widow spiders "as big as your hand" in the grape fields.

Eventually, he took a job operating a rip saw at a lumber yard in Hollywood. When he chanced to hear about six pool tables in a dairy barn across town, he bought them for $125 and opened a pool hall, leasing a store on Sherman Way, a block west of Reseda Boulevard.

At that time, he said: "There were eight businesses in all of Reseda and a lot of apricots between there and Hollywood."

There was also nothing much to do in the Valley after work, and hardly anybody in those days could afford transportation over the hill. The pool hall attracted mainly young Chicano farm workers who liked to play pool, get drunk and fight, not necessarily in that order, Lott said.

Some of his regulars were reputed to be petty thieves, and a local judge began viewing the pool hall as a threat to western civilization. After one particular theft, the judge ordered Lott to get the merchandise returned or else the pool hall would be closed.

Lott passed the word. The merchandise was returned. And overnight, Lott went from social outcast to civic leader in the eyes of the judge.

"The judge called me the law west of Balboa," Lott said.

"He said the jails are getting too crowded, and I should figure out something to keep these guys out of jail, something to blow off steam.

"The guys would go outside the pool hall, fight like hell, then come back in and be friends and play pool. They fought all the time. I never saw anybody fight so much."

In Oklahoma City, Lott had played halfback in high school and knew a thing or two about aggressive behavior. So he decided to form a football league.

"Football was the only thing I could think of that was rough enough to suit those guys," he said.

He called a meeting at his pool hall. More than 80 men showed up, mostly Mexicans but also some movie people from the studios. He told them he would supply uniforms free of charge, get the field, set up the schedules and referee the games.

A lot of the men were pool hall regulars, and they knew he wasn't kidding when he gave them his rules forbidding fighting. Then he told them to choose their team names.

"They all wanted to name their team the Toros," Lott said. "They wanted to fight. I told them to go outside if they wanted to settle it, but go a block away so nobody'd blame it on me. They got bloody and then came back with everything straightened out."

The players from San Fernando must have won the brawl because they got to be the Toros.

A team with a lot of movie extras, apparently optimistic about their cinematic future, called themselves the Van Nuys Stars.

Then there were the Sun Valley Lobos and another team whose Spanish name was too hard for Lott to pronounce. "You had to slide your Rs three times, so I wound up calling them the Haymakers," he said.

Lott began his now-routine practice of borrowing and begging for old equipment. In the '30s, donations came from Valley high schools. Now he also gets gear from local colleges and pro teams.

In the '50s, he traveled to the small town of Viente de Novembre outside Tijuana to have a harness maker fix broken equipment with a foot-driven rivet machine.

"I'd bring 30 pair of broken shoulder pads and go home with 20 good ones," Lott said, demonstrating the foot movement on the riveter.

That first Sunday of league games in '36 set the tone for the league. Plans to use the field at Canoga Park High fell through. Lott's contact never showed, and a watchman ran the players off.

But Lott found a park on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, not far from Reseda. He jumped the fence at a lumber yard to get a bag of hydrated lime to line the field. On the way out, the bag broke, coating him with the toxic substance. He refereed two games that day with burned skin on his face and arms.

For most of his Sundays in the fall over the last 51 years, "I ran the whole show," he said. That meant getting up at 6 a.m. with his two sons and daughter and lining "whatever field we could borrow."

Until the mid-'60s, when Lott was a mere lad of 65, he refereed two games every Sunday, one at 10 a.m. and another at 1. By himself.

He says he has never received a cent for his work. Neither have the players. Although the league is called semi-pro, the players don't get paid, contrary to what some of them say.

"It's good for their ego to tell someone in a bar they get $100 a game, but it's not true," Lott said.

Over the years, the league has grown and shrunk and grown again. Last fall, Lott fielded 10 teams in the HDFL and five more in the California League, an offshoot of the HDFL. Lott estimated that he has slapped recycled shoulder pads on more than 8,000 players, including 11 who became non-union players during last fall's National Football League strike.

Lott felt like quitting more than once, usually after he "got disgusted" when new semi-pro leagues would pop up, challenging him for bragging rights to the West and stealing his players, luring them with rumors of money.

Some players deserted Lott, coming back only to sit in the stands and watch their old teammates and mock the HDFL. "Guys I helped a hundred times would make fun of us," Lott said bitterly.

But inevitably, the new leagues--seven in all--failed. Lott regards them with contempt. The upstarts thought they could run him out of business, thought they knew more than the cantankerous cowboy. But he has outlasted, and outsmarted, all the pretenders, he said.

"They all said, 'We're gonna have the Rams behind us.' They didn't have nothing," Lott said. "Those guys were lucky to be able to feed their families, let alone pay their players. I knew how to keep a league going. They didn't. I knew what worked. Somebody has to be the boss."

Lott puts a smile back on his weather-beaten face when he's reminded of the players who did remain loyal, the average athletes who had heart and spunk and just loved to play.

He's also proud of the half-dozen alumni who have graduated to the pros. He said pro scouts call him to see if any of his players might be evolving into another Otis Sistrunk, the former Raider all-pro who once played in the HDFL.

Lott is especially fond of undersized high school players who come to him for seasoning, play a couple of years and a get recommendation from him for a college scholarship. Lott said he has been responsible for getting scholarships for dozens of his players.

Lin Parker credits him with being "partly instrumental in getting me my coaching job. He's like that. He helps out everybody."

Parker met Lott 20 years ago. He saw a small ad in a newspaper announcing that Lott was forming the Sidewinders.

"I went to a meeting and there was Jim, saying he was going to provide us with everything from cleats to the stripes on our helmets," Parker said.

Parker played nine years for the Sidewinders, who once set an HDFL record by winning 33 straight games. As a Sidewinder, Parker was able to make the annual trip to Mexico.

Lott had pioneered football in Mexico in the early 1950s. Calling it the International League, he started a dozen "semi-pro" teams in small cities and towns where nobody had ever played organized tackle football with uniforms. Lott said he supported such teams as the Mexicali Diablo Blancos, the Tijuana Potros and the Ensenada Bucaneros.

Because the Mexicans had trouble visiting the United States for games, Lott always took his teams to Mexico. They went on a bus borrowed from the Northridge Military Academy. Once, a photo in the Valley Green Sheet erroneously reported that a football team from the academy was playing international matches in Mexico.

Many of Lott's adventures occurred in Mexico. In San Luis, a small town in Sonora, 12 Mexicans showed up for the game, without uniforms. Not to worry.

"I always carry that many extra outfits," Lott said.

Despite their ragtag appearance--the ill-fitting uniforms, old magazines used as padding--the Mexicans were really scrappy, Lott said.

"They must have watched a lot of football on TV."

His team limped back onto the bus with a 7-6 win while the locals stood outside, trying to goad them into another game.

"They were calling us gallinas , which means chicken in Spanish," Lott said. "But our guys thought they were saying hyenas and didn't really know what was going on. So I got off the bus and said I'd pay for a party. And that's what we did. We went down to an irrigation ditch and everybody went swimming. Naked. Except me and this priest."

To keep the league alive, Lott always had to think fast to resolve whatever crisis there was at the moment.

Parker remembers when Lott took the Sidewinders to play back-to-back weekend games against Tijuana Tech High in the early '50s. The field was littered with rocks and beer bottles. But Lott had a brainstorm. He rounded up some local children and offered them a penny for every 10 objects they brought him. It cost him $10 to clear the field.

"But the next day, when we got there for the second game, the rocks were back on the field," Parker said. Lott had to pay again.

Lott remains vigorous and healthy. Although he found an assistant three years age to help him with schedules and rosters, he is as active as always, he alone breathing life into the league.

"We all fear we're going to lose him one of these days, and what happens then?" Parker wondered. "We hope his legacy will carry the league on."

Lott, of course, shows no signs of slowing down, nor would he hear of it. On the ranch, he still throws calves during branding time and does most of the chores himself.

Widowed for 17 years, he lives with his daughter Tinker, a former Amateur Athletic Union discus champion who likes to visit sick neighbors and run the local 4-H club.

And even though Lott works 40 hours a week as a construction estimator, he manages to spend a lot of time in the neighboring town of Green Valley, eating dinner at the house of his girlfriend Angie Chambers.

"I've been trying to marry her for 10 1/2 years, but she says she won't, even if I had a million dollars," Lott said. "I told her, 'What if I win $2 million in the lottery? Will you then?' "

Lott is in the back room at his Leona Valley ranch. A buffalo head hangs on a wall. An antique butter churn has been placed near a microwave oven.

Discussing his years as boss man of the HDFL, Lott dismisses any hint of sentimentality. "The teams belong to me, and the players call me the owner, but I never felt like I owned anything except a bunch of second-hand suits," he says. "That's all you own in semi-pro football."

Lott pulls up his collar and walks outside into the chilly twilight, passing under a gnarled oak where he occasionally tells Hopi Indian stories to his eight great-grandchildren.

In the pens down the hill, pigs are grunting. Lott counts the cats purring in the brush, wondering if their numbers will be thinned by the bobcats, who kill at night.

The repairmen have finished their work on the pump and now water gushes into the tank above the house. You'd expect the old cowboy to peel a few bills off a wad of cash, but Lott writes them a check instead.

"Don't worry about the check bouncing, boys," he says with a wink. "I've been here 50 years. You know where to come to arrest me."

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