Ron Mix is one of three Charger alumni in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the highlight of his career occurred in a game in which he never threw a block.
As dominating as Mix was as an eight-time all-star offensive tackle in the American Football League during the ‘60s, he was frustrated by the arrogant attitude of the National Football League. As far as most NFL people were concerned, anyone connected with the AFL was a second-class citizen.
That all changed on Jan. 12, 1969, when Broadway Joe Namath made good on a seemingly ridiculous boast and led the New York Jets to a 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami. All of a sudden, the football world was hit with the news that the AFL was for real.
Mix was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, following ex-Charger wide receiver Lance Alworth by a year. Sid Gillman, the Chargers’ first coach, joined the club in 1983.
However, considering the disdain with which the AFL was regarded for so long, who knows whether these three would have made it if the Jets hadn’t pulled off their monumental upset?
As it was, Alworth and Mix gave the Chargers the distinction of having the first two AFL products to be so honored.
“When the Jets won,” said Mix, a 52-year-old attorney who lives in Point Loma, “it validated the careers of all of us in the AFL. Everybody knew then that the AFL was a major league.
“All those years, being from the AFL, I didn’t know if any of us had a chance for the Hall of Fame. That one game put the two leagues on the same level.”
Actually, the NFL hadn’t been alone in scoffing at the AFL, which was founded in 1960 with the Chargers as charter members. The majority of fans tended to agree, and this opinion was reinforced when the Green Bay Packers of the NFL trampled the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in Super Bowls I and II.
“We heard an awful lot of taunts about NFL superiority,” Mix said. “Not from the NFL players, understand. They were thrilled because we created competition for their services and salaries went up. But NFL management was always rough on us, and we resented this because we knew how good we were. We knew eventually that we were just as good as they were.
“In the first four or five years of our existence, the NFL was in a frame of mind that we would die and go away. We couldn’t compete financially for the top players, so we had trouble establishing ourselves.
“But because we had only eight teams and they had 12 and then 14, we had a numerical advantage in strengthening our teams. Once we began signing our share of players, dividing talent among fewer teams gave us a better distribution of the best talent in football.
“Still, the public perception before Super Bowl III was that we were inferior.”
Even Mix himself has to admit that, all other things being equal, he would have preferred the NFL over the AFL after winning All-American honors at USC.
In the NFL draft of 1960, Mix was the first-round choice of the Colts. In the AFL, which did not list its draftees by rounds, he was picked by the Boston Patriots. Shortly after the draft, the Patriots traded his rights to the Chargers, who were then--for their inaugural season only--based in Los Angeles.
“A representative of the Chargers called and wanted to know if I was interested in playing in the AFL,” Mix said. “I told him, ‘No, if I have to go back East, I would rather play in the NFL.’
“The man asked if I might change my mind if the Chargers acquired my rights. In those days, AFL clubs would cooperate with each other to try to get guys to come into the league.
“Since I was born in East Los Angeles and went to Hawthorne High School and USC, this could be ideal. Nevertheless, I wanted to play in Baltimore if the terms were right.”
Despite Mix’s avowed preference, the Chargers made the deal for his rights. Then they beat the odds by outbidding the Colts for his services.
“The Colts offered me $8,000 a year and a $1,000 bonus,” Mix said. “The Chargers made an offer of $12,000 and a $5,000 bonus. I told the Colts that if they’d give me $10,000 and $2,000, I’d sign with them.
“They said no. The man I dealt with said, ‘That league (the AFL) will be lucky to last a year, and then you’ll be with us at a salary that won’t upset our salary schedule.
“I decided there was too big a spread between the two offers. I also figured that if the Colts were right and I was with the Chargers only one year, I’d be in the NFL and could negotiate again. So I signed with the Chargers.”
Having maneuvered his way home to start his pro career, Mix was not overjoyed when the Chargers relocated in San Diego after one season.
“That was a disappointment,” he said. “One reason I signed in the AFL was to remain in Los Angeles. I remember thinking I should have gone to Baltimore.”
As it turned out, Mix’s negative reaction to the move didn’t last long.
“I changed my mind in about three minutes,” he said. “San Diego is such a beautiful place to live. When I drove to town, somebody recognized me. In L.A., I was anonymous.
“I guess all you have to know about my feelings toward San Diego is that I still live here. The whole thing turned out perfectly for me.”
Mix noted that while some AFL clubs had to cut financial corners to survive, the Chargers had an affluent owner in Barron Hilton.
“There were a few ownership changes, but no clubs went bankrupt,” Mix said. “And with Barron, the Chargers always went first class. We stayed in quality hotels, we had great training-camp facilities, fine practice fields. He did everything right.”
Also, Mix found it convenient in San Diego to combine law school with football. He received his law degree from the University of San Diego in 1970, after playing with the Chargers from 1960 through 1969 and before “un-retiring” for the 1971 season with the Raiders.
“I went four years to night school at USD,” he said. “I didn’t intend to go into law at first. I just wanted to get the education. I remember reading Esquire, and it said the best education to give yourself was a legal education. That helped me decide on it.”
Between his careers as a football player and a lawyer, Mix took a job in 1974 as general manager of the Portland Storm of the short-lived World Football League.
“I decided to try it for one year,” he said. “I had a great salary. If I had gotten paid, it would have been even better.”
Mix’s impressive combination of mental and physical ability led Joe Madro, the Chargers’ first offensive line coach, to call him “the intellectual assassin.”
While the noun Madro used to label Mix was a bit heavy, Mix was truly a thinking man’s football player. At 6-4 and 250, he was both one of the strongest lineman in the game and one of the smartest. He was called for holding only twice in his 10 seasons as a Charger. If he had a rare tough day, the defensive end who outplayed him paid for it the next time around.
Mix’s favorite character among his old Charger teammates was Ernie Ladd, a 6-9 defensive tackle whose playing weight was around 350 pounds.
“Ernie’s appetite was legendary,” Mix said. “In training camp, he would eat 18 eggs over-easy, a pound of bacon, a pound a ham and a loaf of bread and drink a half-gallon of milk.
“He was in town about six months ago and I was so stupid that I invited him out to breakfast. He looks like he weighs 450 now, and I could see why. The tab for two was $36.”
Mix was not one of those athletes who aspired to a pro football career from childhood.
“I was a late developer,” he said. “In my senior year in high school, I was 6-2 and 168. I didn’t have a college scholarship, but I got elected for the High School All-Star Game, and I kind of blossomed. From just that one game, I got a scholarship to USC.
“At SC, though, they worked us so hard and the practices were so grueling that they took the fun out of it. Don Clark was the coach, and I wished I had the courage to quit. I hated football.
“Every day, we were driven to exhaustion. At the end of practice, we wondered if we were going to die. I couldn’t wait ‘til football was over.”
During the suffering process, Mix built himself up to 250 and became the best offensive tackle in the country.
“I wasn’t a natural athlete, but I worked twice as hard as anybody else,” he said. “I started lifting weights when nobody else did, when I was a sophomore.
“The prevailing thought at that time was that weight-lifting would tie up your muscles. The McKeever twins (Mike and Marlin) and I were the only ones on the squad lifting weights, and I guess we were the three best players. We were all All-Americans.”
As tough a taskmaster as Gillman was, Mix found life in the pros more tolerable.
“Sid worked us hard enough to get us ready, but never drove us to exhaustion,” Mix said. “He was called the father of offensive football, and rightly so. He was a brilliant coach, and we always felt that having him gave us an advantage.
“He ran such a tight ship that nobody wanted to get him angry. One night in training camp at USD, Jacque McKinnon and I stayed out after curfew. The only way we could reach our apartment was to go past his, and he was sitting there with his window open, studying film. We got down on our stomachs and did the Marine crawl.
“We managed to pull it off, but he’ll probably fine us when he reads this.”
Mix was equally adept at blocking for the run and the pass. In the 1963 championship game against the Patriots, in which the Chargers won the only title in their history, he threw three blocks on a 58-yard touchdown run by Paul Lowe.
Gillman, 78, who is retired and has a home on the grounds of the La Costa Hotel and Spa, puts Mix on a level all his own.
“He was the best offensive lineman I’ve ever seen,” Gillman said. “There was nothing he couldn’t do.
“When we picked a tackle, we hoped he could do three things: be our lead blocker on the toss to a running back; give pass protection and fire out and occupy the defensive man in his area.
“He did all these things so well that he dominated everybody. And he was a terrific guy along with it.”
Told of Gillman’s kind words, Mix grinned and said, “Who am I to argue with a Hall of Fame coach?”