They called him a traitor. They harassed him with nasty phone calls, shot out his car windows with a BB gun and had him investigated. What did Tom Tunnicliffe do to deserve all this? He didn’t sell military secrets to the Soviets or perpetrate anything quite that trivial.
In 1979, Tunnicliffe was found guilty of changing high school football teams.
Because Tunnicliffe was a star quarterback, his switch from Burbank High to cross-town rival Burroughs High was big news, generating enough headlines to make him “the most highly publicized athlete in the area,” he said. Most of his old friends deserted him--"I found out who my true friends were . . . there weren’t that many"--and some of his new friends resented him.
“Not everybody at Burroughs greeted me with open arms,” he said. “There were some kids on that team who weren’t happy to see me show up, initially.”
All it took was an unbeaten regular season and league championship to make Tunnicliffe Mr. Popularity at Burroughs. He passed for 2,345 yards and 22 touchdowns in leading Burroughs to 11 straight wins before ending his high school career with a loss to Lompoc in the Southern Section 3-A Division quarterfinals.
Tunnicliffe also gained a measure of revenge on Burbank fans by throwing a couple of touchdown passes against his old team in Burroughs’ 33-7 win that season. Tunnicliffe went on to play in a lot of big games during his college career, but none meant more to him personally than the opportunity to beat Burbank. “It wasn’t even a game,” he said with a derisive laugh.
Sitting back in an armchair in his office recently, Tunnicliffe reminisced about football, the cheering still ringing in his ears. Now 28 and president of a Burbank development company owned by his father, he sees the irony in his job: Once he passed for large chunks of real estate, now he makes offers on large chunks of real estate.
“I miss the thrill of playing in front of large crowds,” said Tunnicliffe, a Burbank resident who was a four-year starter for the University of Arizona. “I also miss the competition. It’s been difficult for me to replace that level of competition in my life.”
Tunnicliffe became the starter at Arizona in the second half of the fifth game of his freshman year, which was Larry Smith’s first season as head coach of the Wildcats. Tunnicliffe became--and still is--Arizona’s career leader in pass completions (574) and passing yardage (7,618). He also led the Wildcats to major upsets.
“Tom was a great quarterback for us at Arizona,” said Smith, now USC’s coach. “He’s the type of guy who played his best games against the best teams.”
The Wildcats’ most significant win under Tunnicliffe came at the Coliseum in 1981. Facing a Marcus Allen-led USC team that was ranked No. 1 in the country, the Wildcats were 24-point underdogs but came away with a 13-10 victory. Tunnicliffe also engineered upset wins over UCLA and Notre Dame when both those teams were ranked in the top 10.
Tunnicliffe made the key play in the upset at South Bend in 1983. With Arizona down by two points in the closing seconds, he completed a third-and-eight pass for 22 yards to the Irish 30-yard line, setting up the winning field goal.
At Arizona, Tunnicliffe was an honorable mention All-American. Known for toughness, leadership, poise and quick feet, Tunnicliffe didn’t rate well with pro scouts, who thought he was too small (only 6-foot) and couldn’t throw the deep out.
Not drafted by a National Football League team in 1984, he was a territorial choice of the Arizona franchise in the U.S. Football League, but Tunnicliffe decided to try out as a free agent for the Seattle Seahawks. Third on the depth chart, he was cut late in training camp, the Seahawks keeping only Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg.
After vacationing in Europe with his parents, Tunnicliffe decided not to chase the dream of playing pro football. “I didn’t want to bounce around,” he said. “Football wasn’t my whole life. I’d been playing tackle football every year since I was 8--14 years straight--and I’d had enough.”
So Tunnicliffe returned to Arizona to finish his degree, graduating in 1985 with a bachelor of science in business administration. He went to work for his father, Tom Sr., who owns Thomas Realty, and applied the lessons of sports to the business world.
“The things I use the most are perseverance and optimism,” he said. “As bad as things get, they can be turned around. If you have the discipline to do the fundamentals and stay your course, good things will happen.”
In 1988, Tunnicliffe ballooned to 212 pounds right after marrying his wife Sherry, “a great cook,” but has since trimmed down to his playing weight of 193. To quench his thirst for competition, Tunnicliffe plays racquetball and runs in 10Ks, but he doesn’t play Sunday morning flag football.
About five years ago, he had a chance to play in a Burbank-Burroughs alumni football game, but declined, saying he “was an old man.” Or maybe he didn’t want to open old wounds.
Tunnicliffe’s decision to transfer to Burroughs had been a career move. “Burbank was very unstable in the administration and the coaching staff,” he said. “They’d had five head coaches in five years. Burroughs was a consistent winner.”
Tunnicliffe got his opportunity to transfer when his parents separated. His father moved into Burroughs territory and he moved with him.
“There were lots of investigations into whether I really lived in the school district or whether it was a big scam,” Tunnicliffe said. The transfer “was harder than anything I’ve gone through--Burroughs and Burbank were like USC-UCLA--but it ended up being the best thing I ever did. I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity for college if I’d have stayed at Burbank.”
Tunnicliffe’s name is still familiar in Burbank. “Surprisingly to me, I get recognized quite often,” he said. “My name often rings a bell with people, breaking the ice.”
Which is a lot better than having his car windows broken.