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Garrison Relied on Horse Sense in Football, Life

Times Staff Writer

Gary Garrison didn’t frequent defensive backfields so much as he haunted them. He had a special knack for finding the cracks in secondaries. He was even harder to capture after he caught the ball. Serious ectoplasm.

So the Chargers’ public relations department called him “The Ghost.”

For 11 years as a Charger, he didn’t execute pass patterns so much as he painted them with the balls of his feet. His ran his routes the way Olympic skaters carve out their compulsories. Precisely. Yet he sacrificed nothing to grace.

His coach, Sid Gillman, called him “The Young Artist.”

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Garrison is 45 now. It has been 12 years since he finished his career as a split end for the Chargers. Before that, he starred for Don Coryell at San Diego State. Tuesday night, the portrait of the young artist as a grown man grew in definition when the San Diego Hall of Champions inducted him into the Breitbard Hall of Fame.

The timing was good. Last December, Garrison moved his wife and two young daughters to Hailey, Ida., near Sun Valley. For years he had made a handsome living breeding, raising, training and selling quarterhorses in the San Diego outback. He also owned a saddlery in Escondido that dovetailed nicely into the horse business.

By the time he returns to Idaho, he is hopeful the snows will have melted enough to allow him to find a piece of property to build a new house and a riding arena. Meanwhile, he will get the last of his horses and transport them to Hailey.

“I’m basically a guy who lived out his fantasies after college,” Garrison said.

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Garrison always knew how to mix business with pleasure. It was a pleasure to play football. It was somebody else’s business if they wanted to pay him for it. The money he saved later turned out to be the foundation of his thriving business. And the life style that business now provides his family is a pleasure.

“It’s nice to come across somebody who’s invested his money wisely,” Gillman said. “They say he’s very conservative--that every time he opens his wallet, moths fly out. Well I think that’s great.”

Garrison never used to horse around. Now, in quite another sense, he does it for a living.

“He was shy and he was humble,” Coryell said. “He took great pride in what he did. But in no way would he ever put himself above the team.”

If it hadn’t been for Coryell, Garrison might never have made it off the Proctor & Gamble loading dock in Long Beach. He might never have played in three Pro Bowls. He might never have caught 404 passes for 7,533 yards and 58 touchdowns as a Charger. He might never have caught passes totaling 100 yards or more in 23 different games.

If it hadn’t been for Coryell, Garrison would have been happy to catch his breath at the end of the day.

Garrison had distinguished himself at Long Beach City College, where he played offense and defense. When Phil Krueger, his receivers coach at Long Beach, left to take an assistant’s job at Utah State, Garrison followed.

The next thing he knew, he was playing in a Utah State alumni-varsity spring game in Logan on a snowy field against such luminaries as Merlin Olsen and Bill Munson. It was all heady stuff. Until he blew out his knee.

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The knee healed slowly, so he wanted to red shirt. Krueger, now an assistant to Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ owner Hugh Culverhouse, didn’t think that was necessary. Garrison left school and moved back in with his parents in Long Beach.

He had owned a horse growing up there. And he had gotten a job at a nearby stable mucking stalls in exchange for room and board for his horse. But now his life consisted of little more than loading and unloading raw materials from the railroad cars at the P&G; dock.

“I had no more ambition of pursuing college,” Garrison said. “And I thought I was doomed to work at Proctor & Gamble the rest of my life. Or at some kind of a job.

That all changed the day he came home from work and found his parents sipping iced tea on the back patio with Coryell, who had driven up from San Diego. Coryell’s assistants had begged him to contact Garrison.

“We had very little to offer in the way of scholarships at San Diego State back then,” Coryell said. “We had to beat around the edges to find people.”

By this time, Krueger was coaching at Fresno State and had even summoned the gall to ask Garrison if he wanted to play for him there. Krueger got the message when Garrison opted for the Aztecs and the resourceful Coryell. Garrison caught 11 passes for 289 yards and 4 touchdowns against Fresno State the next October. His quarterback that year was Rod Dowhower, a future NFL head coach.

By the time Garrison was a senior at San Diego State, he was a marked man. The Chargers had drafted him as an AFL “future.” The Philadelphia Eagles owned his NFL future rights. It was the time of the bidding war between leagues. And Garrison found out what that was all about when an Eagles official showed up in his hotel room in San Mateo before the San Jose State game, his last for the Aztecs.

The official opened a suitcase revealing $5,000 in bills. He told Garrison the money was his if he would sign on the dotted line.

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The Eagles never had a chance. Garrison already had worked Sundays in the Chargers press box passing out statistic sheets. And Coryell had assigned a young Aztec assistant named Joe Gibbs, also a future NFL head coach, to keep an eye on Garrison. All of which was fine with Gillman, then the Charger coach.

Garrison is still No. 2 on the Aztecs’ all-time career reception list with 148, even though he only played two seasons for them. No. 1 is Tim Delaney (1968-70).

It was all very football-incestuous, actually. When Gillman and his Charger assistants would gather at the old Lafayette Hotel to watch film and talk Xs and Os, Coryell would occasionally show up. Often he would bring along players. Garrison loved those sessions.

“Sid Gillman was ahead of his time,” Garrison said. “Coaches today are trying to do what he did 28 years ago.”

In 1970, Garrison caught 44 passes for 1,006 yards and 12 touchdowns and was the Chargers’ most valuable player. The year before, he caught 10 passes for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns against Joe Namath and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Jets. The Chargers upset the Jets, 34-27, that day.

Lance Alworth was the Charger receiver who excited the fans during that period. Garrison was the one who caused coaches to sit bolt upright in that dark, smoky film room at the Lafayette. “He ran every route almost to perfection,” Gillman said. “It was just beautiful. He was about as quick as anybody you’d ever see. And he had this ability to change direction that really set him apart. He had great practice habits, and he was always moving faster than you thought he was. I loved him.”

“And,” Coryell said, “he never blew his own horn.”

Garrison once said of his horse business, “We’re small-time, not very big. We try to keep the quantity down and the quality up.” It was the same with his personal life.

Many people outside of San Diego confused him with Dallas running back Walt Garrison, who was also a Cowboy at Oklahoma State and in real life. The Garrisons are not related, although they met and became friends at the now-defunct College All-Star game in Chicago during the summer of 1966.

A shoulder injury sustained in 1976 eventually ended Gary Garrison’s career quietly a year later in Houston, where he had gone to play for ex-Charger assistant Bum Phillips.

Wisely, Garrison took time off after football to decompress. “I didn’t do too much,” he said.

Soon, his love of horses pulled him in that direction.

As far back as high school, he had had trouble deciding between football and horses. “I had to decide if I was gonna be a guy who was gonna work in a stall or get an education,” he said.

Now he proudly talks about the environment in which he is rearing his daughters--Amy (8) and Lindsey (5). He boasts about the restaurants, the theater and the opera in nearby Sun Valley.

But he also talks about all the teammates he had in college who never got a whiff of professional football.

“Everything was basically catered in the pros,” he said. “You flew to the games, got to eat on the plane and stayed at the best hotels.

“You didn’t have to worry about grades and all the other stuff. It’s really sad that most of the kids who worked so hard in college didn’t get a chance to see what it was like in the pros.”

Gary Garrison did and made the most of it. At a time in life when many men his age are riding buses, trains or car pools, Garrison is still riding off into the sunset.


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