His Spirit, Passes Soar Equally High : Laufenberg Showed Long Ago He's No Babe in the Woods

Times Staff Writer

To appreciate Babe Laufenberg's spirit, you will want to understand about the time he told his high school football coach to stick his playbook where the moon don't shine.

Laufenberg is the much-traveled, multi-chronicled, mettlesome quarterback of the Chargers who makes no excuses for the fact that he has the lowest quarterback rating among NFL starters right now. He could whine about an inexperienced offensive line. He could whisper "off the record" remarks and hope they found their way into print about how his young receivers haven't learned to discipline their pass routes yet.

But he won't.

Anyway, to appreciate this story about Laufenberg and his high school coach you must understand the absolute power high school football coaches wield over the futures of athletes hoping to reach college. This was a case where absolute power corrupted. Absolutely.

It was the late '70s, and the good fathers of the Carmelite Order at Encino's Crespi High School had hired the Marinovich brothers--Gary and Marv--to take over the football program. Gary would be the head coach. Marv, a former USC guard and assistant for the Oakland Raiders, would be his aide de camp. To say the Marinoviches were driven is to say Patton and Montgomery were soldiers.

Crespi was 2-0 when it showed up on a Thursday night for a grudge match at Bishop Amat. Gary Marinovich had been coach when that school's high-powered passing attack featured future Ram Pat Haden and J.K. McKay, the son of former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach John McKay.

This would be the game in which the Marinoviches showed the west San Fernando Valley what high school football was all about. Laufenberg was a senior and the Crespi quarterback.

"I think they wanted us to go 11-0 and the whole nine yards," Laufenberg says. "And there was nothing wrong with that. Except we weren't that good."

Crespi had Laufenberg and Willie Curran and Tom Sullivan. Curran was later good enough as a UCLA running back to get a look from the Atlanta Falcons, and he caught on as a wide receiver. Sullivan played wide receiver for the Denver Gold of the USFL. But Crespi had little else.

Near the end of the game, they trailed by eight points. And the Marinoviches were disgusted. So they stopped sending in plays. Instead they sent in a substitute who delivered this message to Laufenberg: "Call 'em yourself."

Laufenberg did, and Crespi didn't make a first down. Moments later, time expired. Crespi had lost.

Things went from bad to worse. According to Laufenberg, the Marinoviches stood at the front of the team bus and unloaded on the players.

"We were being called everything," Laufenberg said. "They called us things you couldn't print in the newspaper."

Laufenberg, the team leader, decided he had heard enough. "I felt like they had deserted us ," he said. "So I stood up and had a few choice words. I said, 'You guys were the ones that gave up, not us. We didn't give up. We were out there.' "

The Marinoviches got off the bus. The next day, they gathered the team for its normal post-game, informal, walk-through practice. Many of the players were wearing street shoes. It was September in the Valley. It was hot and smoggy. The Marinoviches ordered the team to run up the hill behind the school to a water tower. At the base of the tower, they began conducting 100-yard sprints.

"I remember this vividly," Laufenberg says. "Some guys were in bare feet. We must have run 6 miles. It was the most ridiculous thing I've ever come across in my whole life."

Laufenberg was outraged. He ran like a maniac--"about 4 million miles an hour. I just killed my body." The Marinoviches promised bad things would happen to anybody who stopped.

"So like an idiot, I just kept running harder and harder," Laufenberg says now. "It was like, 'You're not gonna bring me down.' "

And Laufenberg was one of the players the Marinoviches liked . "Babe was a very gifted athlete," Marv Marinovich said recently. "We didn't have a problem with Babe. But that team lacked discipline and hard work and effort."

By the time Laufenberg got home that night he was, in his words, "strung out."

"My parents looked at me and it was like, 'Oooohh, our kid's on drugs.' "

Laufenberg went to bed at 8 p.m. mostly because he was exhausted and partly because he had to take the SAT test the following morning. He did not do well and eventually had to take them again before gaining admission to Stanford.

By the time Monday rolled around, the Crespi powers-that-be had decided the Marinoviches would no longer coach their football team.

"It was one of those resignation things," Laufenberg said.

Actually it was more than that. "We have a rule here at Crespi that you don't punish kids if you're going to run a good program," says Paul Muff, the school's varsity basketball coach. "We don't go for any type of punishment that's outside your normal preparation

for a game."

Crespi replaced the Marinoviches with freshman coach Charlie Schuhman and even made the playoffs that year. The athletic program survived. Its 1988 football team, led by running back Russell White, nephew of Ram back Charles White, is among the best in the state.

And Laufenberg enrolled at Stanford, then transferred to Missouri. Missouri had just shifted to the veer offense. So Laufenberg spent a year at Pierce College in Woodland Hills before settling on Indiana University. There, he broke several of that school's passing records.

The incident at the water tower is distant history now. Marv Marinovich, whose heralded freshman son Todd is one of quarterback Rodney Peete's backups at USC, insists he doesn't even remember leaving Crespi before the season ended. But he does remember Laufenberg's arm strength.

"He knocked a couple of kids out," Marinovich says. "One was on a curl pattern. The ball hit the kid in the head and knocked him right out. That wasn't uncommon."

Marv Marinovich is out of coaching now. He runs a sports training facility in Anaheim for top high school athletes. He declined to discuss the before-and-after details of the Bishop Amat loss. "We were attempting to tighten the screws," is all he will say. "It wasn't unheard of."

But when the coaches tried to walk over Laufenberg's teammates, they found they had to walk over Laufenberg first. They might intimidate and make threats about lost starting jobs. But they found they could not intimidate a boy who instinctively knew where the line was drawn between discipline and humiliation. Laufenberg's respect for authority was in proper proportion to his spirit. And anyone who knows him will tell you he has his family to thank for that.

"We were all real tight," says John Laufenberg, 23, the youngest of the four Laufenberg brothers. "He was just another guy in the family. But he has always been level-headed."

"Babe doesn't do anything halfway," says Jeff Laufenberg, 33. "It's something that probably our parents instilled in us. My dad basically said if you go out and give it everything, then it doesn't really matter what happens. Or at least you're never going to regret what happens if you've given it your best."

Jeff Laufenberg, the oldest brother, is a Los Angeles attorney and Babe's agent. He played junior varsity quarterback at Crespi. Dan Laufenberg, 30, also played quarterback at Crespi, two years ahead of Babe who played quarterback at Crespi five years ahead of John. Bill Laufenberg, the boys' father, still shows up for games at Crespi despite the fact that his sons have all graduated and despite the fact that a bad back prevents him from sitting down for a full four quarters.

Babe was the Laufenberg football pick of the litter, but he never rubbed it in. Nor did any of the other brothers have any trouble accepting his superiority. They had some hellacious touch football games in the street in front of their home in Canoga Park.

There were trees and fire hydrants out there and the kind of vehicular traffic that made the Raider secondary look tame by comparison. "If you had Babe playing quarterback for you, you'd be seeing the ball come down after it had gone over the trees," John says. "Hopefully you hadn't run into any cars while you were looking for the ball. Hopefully you hadn't run into a '72 Buick."

Babe Laufenberg wasn't perfect in those days. And he still has a long way to go as an NFL quarterback. But people have always liked him more because he is himself. His idol wasn't Roger Staubach. It was rock star Bruce Springsteen. His favorite actor wasn't Robert Redford. It was comic Bill Murray.

His favorite movie wasn't "All The Right Moves," a drama about a high school football star in conflict with his coach. It was "Caddyshack," a send-up on country club golf in which the bumbling Murray calmly chews the scenery while chasing gophers, girls and an assortment of greenside grins.

Laufenberg still loves to play golf. And the bumper sticker on the back of his car proclaims: "And On The Eighth Day God Created Springsteen."

One of Laufenberg's closest friends is former Crespi basketball teammate Ed Marek, a commercial real estate salesman in Encino. Marek says it's impossible to play golf with Laufenberg without having to endure entire Murray monologues straight out of the "Caddyshack" script.

Marek's favorite Laufenberg story, however, has to do with towels. Seems Laufenberg had been snapping rolled up, wet towels in the locker room after practice one day when two of his victims confronted him.

Laufenberg's only choice was to run. And the only place available was the nearest door. Thankfully the door was open. It led out to the track that ran around the football field. Trouble was, Laufenberg was naked as a jaybird.

It was late afternoon, and parents were picking up their sons from school. Laufenberg did not go unnoticed. Lord knows he tried. He sidled up to a solitary jogger and took a lap with him. The teammates that had chased him from the building were so amused they let him back in.

Quarterback that he is, Laufenberg had managed to make something out of nothing.

"Babe is wild, but in a quiet kind of way," Marek says. "He does crazy things. But in a quiet kind of way."

A perfect day for Laufenberg, according to Marek: A round of golf in the afternoon followed by a couple of drinks, appetizers, dinner and maybe a couple of more drinks. Not the singles scene. Just places where people gather.

"Babe's a real character," says Paul Muff.

Of course, the world is full of characters. Characters with principle are rare.

Rarer still are the ones who can complete passes over the tops of trees.

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