Passing the Torch : Don Horn Answered the Call, Helped the San Diego State Football Program Take Flight
The trailblazer of San Diego State’s quarterback tradition almost followed a different path.
Don Horn wanted to go to USC. He was accepted at Stanford, briefly attended Washington State. He spent a season at Harbor Junior College, then committed to Florida State.
San Diego State?
All it took that day in 1965 for Horn to become one of the first of Coach Don Coryell’s prolific passers were John Madden, Chuck Noll, Rod Dowhower, Joe Gibbs and Sid Gillman.
“One day the Harbor JC coach called me into his office and said, ‘You’ve got a call from San Diego. Coach Coryell wants to talk to you,’ ” Horn remembered. "(Coryell) said, ‘You’ve got to come down here,’ so I drove to San Diego.
“When I walked into the office, a bunch of coaches were sitting around. One was a heavy coach, John Madden. Another was Chuck Noll. Rod Dowhower and Joe Gibbs were there, too. They were graduate assistants. The only man in the room I recognized was Sid Gillman (then coach of the Chargers).
“They said, ‘It’s all set up. You’ve got to play for Don Coryell.’ So I moved in with Gary Garrison (later a Charger star) and Gibbs and Jeff Staggs, and I never regretted my decision.”
So the tradition was begun.
Gone was the conservatism that limited the Aztecs to 72 pass attempts in 1961 and 62 in ’62. Born was the style of play only foreshadowed when Dowhower, Horn’s predecessor at SDSU and now passing coach of the Washington Redskins, threw 120 passes in 1963 and 193 in ’64.
But while Dowhower was reasonably successful, it wasn’t until Horn, a Los Angeles native, came down from Harbor JC that SDSU became a quarterback factory. Horn planted the seed that has sprouted into a tradition for Aztec quarterbacks to graduate to the National Football League.
After two spectacular seasons in which SDSU lost only two of 21 games and won the 1966 NCAA College Division championship--the Aztecs didn’t move up to Division I until 1969--Horn became the first Aztec to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft. He went to the Green Bay Packers and stayed in the league eight seasons.
After Horn came Dennis Shaw, Brian Sipe, Jesse Freitas, Craig Penrose, Matt Kofler and, in the first round this year, Dan McGwire. Todd Santos set an NCAA record for passing yardage, only to fall short in several NFL tryouts.
In 1965, Horn completed 123 of 206 passes for 1,688 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. He led SDSU to an 8-2 record. In 1966, he hit 134 of 253 for 2,234 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions. The Aztecs went 11-0 en route to the national title, and he was named the Little All-American quarterback.
From there, Horn became a part of Vince Lombardi’s dynasty in Green Bay. As a rookie, he was a member of the Packers’ winning team in Super Bowl II. Then he moved on to the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns before winding up his NFL career with the Chargers in 1974.
Now 46, Horn lives in the Vail Valley, one of Colorado’s ski havens, and is vice president of real estate sales for a land-development firm in nearby Edwards.
Looking back, Horn retraced the steps that led him to SDSU and a place in the school’s Hall of Fame. He originally enrolled at Washington State after starring in both football and baseball at Gardena High School.
“When I was in high school, Bobby Beathard (now Charger general manager), coached me a lot,” Horn said. “He was hanging out on the beach after finishing college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and he was a friend of our coach, Stan Smith. He told me I could throw the ball better than 90% of the college quarterbacks in the country.
“I was a big Trojan fan and I had my heart set on going to USC. But John McKay suggested I go to junior college for a couple years, and I was kind of heartbroken. My bubble had busted.
“I was accepted at Stanford, which had a passing coach in Cactus Jack Curtice, but he got the ax, so I went to Washington State. The coach there, Jim Sutherland, was a great quarterback tutor, but they fired him and brought in Bert Clark, a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust type.
“In spring ball that year, I would hand off to Clancy Williams, who later played for the Rams, three out of every four plays. Then I’d be the third pulling guard, which wasn’t really for me.
“Keith Lincoln (Charger running back from Washington State) was helping out as a coach between seasons, and he said to me, ‘You’ve got to get out of here if you want to play pro football. There’s a small school in San Diego that has the best coach in the country. His name is Don Coryell, and you ought to contact him.’ ”
Actually, Horn didn’t have to call Coryell. Coryell called him.
“I enrolled at Harbor Junior College for one semester and played that fall (1964),” Horn said. “I had heard from 37 schools and I was going to go to Florida State--I was kind of committed.”
Then came the visit to San Diego.
Said Horn: “They told me I couldn’t have picked a better place, that Coryell was pass-oriented and that no matter how small the school was, the pros would find me. They were right.”
Of course, having receivers like Garrison and Haven Moses didn’t hurt. Garrison was Horn’s prime target in 1965, Moses in 1966.
“One thing Gibbs told me really made an impression,” Horn said. “He said even if I got hurt, I was going to play. I liked that, because I had heard horror stories about borderline guys who would get hurt and end up playing sixth-string.”
Of Moses, who was to make it big in Buffalo and Denver, Horn said, “He was all set to go to USC. O.J. Simpson was there. I told him, ‘You’ve got to come down here. Coryell is a great coach, and you’ll get a chance to catch the ball.’ What a receiver he was.”
When the Packers made Horn a first-round draft choice in 1967, he joined a juggernaut that had won four NFL championships in the ‘60s, plus Super Bowl I. Bart Starr was the resident quarterback, a future Hall of Famer, and with Zeke Bratkowski also around, Horn seemed to be facing a long period on the sidelines.
Starr, however, was becoming injury-prone in his advancing years, so Horn broke into three games in 1967 and the finale in 1968. He spent most of the latter season in military service, but the one game he played was a gem.
“I got the notice to report after the first exhibition game,” he said. “That broke my heart. I didn’t get back until the last two games of the season. Starr was hurt, with bad ribs, and the last game was against the Bears in Chicago.
“They deactivated Starr and activated me. Zeke started the game, and they had Billy Stevens, too. Then Zeke got hurt, so Billy threw down his parka. But I heard somebody yell, ‘Horn, get in there,’ and I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘You don’t mean me. You mean Billy.’
“Well, they meant me, all right, and when Jerry Kramer (All-Pro guard) saw me in the huddle, he said, ‘What the hell are you doing in here?’ That was a great confidence builder.”
Horn lost little time in making Kramer a believer. He threw touchdown passes of 67 yards to Jim Grabowski and 25 yards to Boyd Dowler, and finished 10 for 16 for 187 yards as the Packers cost the Bears the Central Division title with a 28-27 victory.
“I called one play that Dowler said wouldn’t work, but it went for a touchdown,” Horn said. “Later I hit him five more times, and by the end of the game he said, ‘I’m not going to talk to you anymore.’ ”
With Starr still in and out of the lineup, Horn played in all 14 games in 1969 and led the league with an average of 8.96 yards per attempt. He completed 89 of 168 passes.
At that point, Horn seemed to be on his way. But he played little in 1970, then was traded to the Broncos on draft day in 1971. He threw 173 passes for the Broncos that year, but a total of only eight more in his last three seasons in the league.
Horn recalled that a tragic twist of fate played a part in pushing his career downhill.
“My Packer contract ran through ’69, and by that time Vince Lombardi was coaching the Redskins,” Horn said. “He made it known that if I’d play out my option in ’70, I could go to Washington and back up Sonny Jurgensen, then be the Redskins’ quarterback of the ‘70s.
“I really didn’t negotiate whole-heartedly with Green Bay, because I had that ace in the hole. Then, lo and behold, Vince goes in for a physical and he’s dead of cancer in September of ’70.
“I finally signed a new contract in Green Bay, and a lot of people thought I’d be getting more playing time. I went to Phil Bengtson, who had succeeded Lombardi as coach, and asked him what my chances were. He said, ‘As long as Bart Starr is here, he’ll be our quarterback. He’s a legend.’ I couldn’t argue with that.
“Then I went to Bart, and he told me he expected to play at least three more years, maybe five. I said to myself, ‘Holy smokes, I’m stuck up here. I’m not going to play.’
“Shortly after that, Bengtson got fired and Dan Devine came in. Devine called me up and said, ‘I’ll see you in two or three weeks,’ then traded me to Denver.
“The ironic thing about that was that Starr hurt his shoulder in training camp that summer and never played again. Scott Hunter, who had been a sixth-round draft choice, got the job by default. Talk about the fickle finger of fate.”
Horn had a knee operation after the 1969 season in Green Bay and another after he got to Denver in 1971.
“After that I was never more than a backup quarterback,” he said.
Horn’s stay in Denver was limited to one season, and a key reason was that he didn’t seeeye to eye with Coach John Ralston.
“He (Ralston) was my coach in the East-West Shrine Game, and I got only nine or 10 plays the whole game,” Horn said. “After the game, Kyle Rote interviewed me on NBC. I was hot under the collar and I cussed Ralston out. Kyle looked at me in amazement, but John and I never got along.
“The Broncos fired Lou Saban in ’71, and I found out later that Coryell had the job but Ralston connived his way in. I knew when he came in that my days in Denver were numbered. I got a note from him saying, ‘Looking forward to renewing old acquaintances.’ Soon after that, I was traded to Cleveland.”
Horn lost out in Cleveland to Sipe, a graduate of Grossmont High School and a resident of Encinitas, and he isn’t happy about the way his fellow ex-Aztec got the job.
“It was the year (1974) of the strike during training camp,” Horn said. “Sipe had been on the taxi squad for two years, and when the veterans went on strike, he crossed the picket line. He said, ‘I’ve never played, so I’m not a veteran and I’m crossing the line.’
“Brian went in and looked good, and owner Art Modell called me in. He said, ‘Brian is a company guy and you aren’t. He crossed the line and you didn’t. You have 48 hours to be in San Diego. We’ve sold you to the Chargers on waivers.’ ”
So Horn returned to the scene of his college triumphs, only this time he didn’t throw a pass. He backed up Dan Fouts and Freitas for one season, then jumped to the Portland Storm of the ill-fated World Football League.
“That was when I made a mistake in judgment,” Horn said. “Tommy Prothro was the Chargers’ coach, and he wanted me to be sort of a player-coach. He said, ‘Take Fouts and Freitas under your arm and impart the knowledge you gained from Lombardi and Starr. Baby-sit these guys.’
“I had a chance to do the same thing in ’75, but I was too bull-headed. I went to Portland, and at one point I was the starting quarterback, offensive coordinator and head coach. Greg Barton got fired as coach, and I took his place for two or three weeks.
“We didn’t last the year. One day, Bob Brodhead, the general manager, called us in to get our paychecks. He said, ‘If I were you, I’d get to the bank right away and cash these things. By the end of the day, the sheriff will be here.’
“When we left his office, it looked like the Indy time trials with the guys rushing down the street to the bank. Some of them were still in their uniforms.”
That was it for Horn’s football career.
“I talked to some teams, but nothing transpired,” he said. “Comes the time to get into something else.”
Horn dealt in marketing, advertising, mortgage banking and real estate before settling intohis current position. He and his wife, Barbara, whom he met in Milwaukee, have two daughters and one son.
“My career wasn’t long, and it could have been better, but I’m very happy,” Horn said. “I have a lot of wonderful memories.”