At Last, Reward : Dan Fouts Never Got What He Played for--the Super Bowl--but Today He Gets the Acclaim He Earned in the Quest: Induction Into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Dan Fouts was so close to leading the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl after the 1980 season, he tried to scream his way in.
Pacing the sideline during the final moments of a 34-27 conference championship defeat to the Oakland Raiders, he pleaded with his teammates.
“He was yelling at our defense, saying, ‘Get the ball back! Get the damn ball back! Give me one more chance!’ ” Chuck Muncie remembered. “But he never got that chance.”
He came so close to the Super Bowl the next year, he tried to drag his team there with bare hands in below-zero temperatures.
After the Chargers’ 27-7 defeat by the Cincinnati Bengals in the American Conference championship game there, Fouts could not straighten his fingers.
“My fingers and toes have been supersensitive to the cold ever since,” Fouts said. “I am constantly reminded of that day.”
For 15 years, playing with nearly everything broken or torn but his spirit, Fouts failed to reach football’s ultimate game.
And so he will make history today when he reaches football’s ultimate destination.
Fouts will become the first quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who did not play in a Super Bowl or league championship game.
“He did not get there because of a championship team, he is there because of him, all him . . . and that’s special,” said Don Coryell, former Charger coach who will introduce Fouts during induction ceremonies at Canton, Ohio.
Fouts, who was elected in his first
year of eligibility after five years of retirement, will stand out, even among the four other inductees.
Larry Little, Chuck Noll, Walter Payton and Bill Walsh have all been involved with Super Bowl championship teams.
And all of the 22 other enshrined quarterbacks, from Sammy Baugh to Bob Waterfield, played in at least one league championship game.
This list includes Clarence (Ace) Parker, a quarterback in the 1930s and ‘40s who played for the New York Yankees in the championship game of the short-lived All-America Football Conference in 1946.
“I just hope this helps other players coming behind me,” Fouts said from his Oregon home. “The Super Bowl is what you play for, but it is not your career, and it is not how you should be judged.”
After completing 3,297 passes for 43,040 yards and 254 touchdowns--he ranks second in the first two categories and fifth in the other--Fouts has earned his ring the hard way.
He still holds records for most consecutive seasons leading the league in passing, four, and most games of 300-plus yards, 51.
And only Dan Marino and Phil Simms have matched his record of two consecutive 400-plus yard games.
But perhaps a more important statistic is that he was cursed with one of the league’s worst defenses. The Chargers ranked in the bottom 25% during 10 of his 15 years.
“Because of the Super Bowl thing, Dan really didn’t think he had a chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame so fast,” said Ed White, former Charger linemen. “There are so many good players out (of the Hall of Fame) whose careers get overlooked because they don’t make it to a Super Bowl, it’s really sad.”
Fouts did not have the league’s best arm, speed or body, but he made certain he was never overlooked.
“Dan, basically, was a pain in the butt,” said Kellen Winslow, former Charger tight end.
“Might not have been the most well-liked guy in the locker room,” said Hank Bauer, former running back. “But nobody was more respected.”
He was disliked because he was not reluctant to snap at anyone who made a mental mistake or failed to give full effort, whether the culprit was a player, coach or reporter.
He was respected for the same reason.
“What was most impressive was his unwillingness to lose any battle at any time,” White said. “Even in his final years, when everyone was getting old, when we were all sort of a mess, he would stand out there and take the beating.”
Fouts’ teams went 105-121-1, including playoff games, with more last-place finishes than first, 5-3.
Even today, on old NFL films that appear on cable channels after midnight, Fouts’ desperation is evident.
He is most often shown wobbling back from the line of scrimmage, sweat dripping from his beard, defenders diving at his legs, throwing a pass before collapsing under a pile.
Teammates remember the game against the Raiders when he returned to the field moments after having left with a shattered nose.
“There was blood on his jersey, blood on his pants, blood spurting everywhere,” recalled Winslow. “He ran to the sidelines, our trainers plugged it up and put a piece of tape on it, then he ran back out. Like that piece of tape would help.”
Then there was the time he played with a groin pull that extended from his thighs to his stomach.
“We looked at him in front of his locker, and there was black and blue all over the lower half of his body,” Bauer said. “Nobody could imagine him going out there. But he put tape over it and went.”
After a few years, no matter what injury Fouts was struggling through, nobody would dare ask him if he was going to play on Sunday. Not even Coryell.
“He would be wrapped in ice all week, never practice, and even then I wouldn’t ask him,” Coryell said. “I would just wait until Sunday when he started warming up. If he got all angry and snotty, then I knew he would play.”
Not that Fouts would have answered Coryell anyway.
“No, he was so ill-tempered on game day, I didn’t want to go near him,” Coryell said.
If Fouts was that way to his coach, just imagine how he treated his teammates.
In Winslow’s first game as a rookie in 1979, he quickly learned about Fouts when the coaches mistakenly sent him into the game without giving him a play.
“Dan started yelling at me for not having a play, then I started yelling back,” Winslow said. “The rest of the team stood back and looked at me like I was crazy.”
But the incident didn’t end there.
“Dan left the huddle, came to the sidelines and started yelling at the coaches,” Winslow said.
Bauer remembers occasions when Fouts would get into standoffs with the coaching staff while still on the field, with the play clock running.
“He would be yelling at them from behind the huddle, they would be yelling back and the rest of the offense would be like, ‘C’mon guys, we don’t have much time here,’ ” Bauer said.
If a receiver ran a wrong route during practice, Fouts showed his anger with his throwing arm.
“I’ve seen him hit guys in the back of the head with the ball, on purpose, just to let them know they went the wrong way,” Winslow said.
To the above charges, Fouts readily pleads guilty.
“I just didn’t want to lose,” he said. “I felt responsible for how the offense played. I never wanted the offense to be responsible for us losing.”
Fouts said, though, that he never said anything about a physical mistake.
“The mental mistakes were the only things that bothered me,” he said. “Mental preparation in football is critical. And it’s easy. It’s not like lifting weights. You aren’t mentally prepared, that is a form of laziness.”
Fouts’ respect for the mental part of the game still makes him wonder how the Chargers could have fired Coryell in 1986 and replaced him with young Al Saunders. It was a move that directly led to Fouts’ retirement after the next season.
“Mentally and physically, I was just not up to playing for an incompetent head coach,” he said of Saunders. “The guy was just way out of his league, and I couldn’t deal with that.
“I could have played forever for Don. But when they got rid of him, it took it out of me.”
It is also Fouts’ emphasis on the mind game that has made him one of the rising stars at CBS, where he works as color analyst on NFL games. Not that Fouts was ever too chummy with the media.
Although he was always gracious away from the locker room, reporters still remember the time he snapped at a radio reporter who stuck a microphone under his chin after a difficult game.
“Get that microphone away from me, you . . . ,” Fouts said.
That reporter, as a horrified Fouts immediately realized, was his father, Bob, a veteran Bay Area radio announcer.
But Charger secretaries and offensive linemen remember another side of Fouts. He paid more attention to those often ignored groups than anybody else.
He would gather the secretaries together every Friday during the season for a meeting of “Club 14,” named after his number.
Fouts would spend nearly an hour sharing coffee and snacks and stories with the women, who would often offer suggestions for that week’s game plan.
Then on Saturday nights, Fouts took his offensive linemen to dinner. If he had not been sacked the previous week, he would buy for everybody. If he had been sacked, they would buy for him.
One season he was so impressed with his support, he commissioned White to fashion a bronze sculpture of the linemen.
“He was a real throwback,” White said. “He made us all feel like we were a part of his career.”
That career, Fouts figured, would reach its peak in 1981, after he had led the Chargers to a 41-38 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins in the conference semifinals.
Fouts passed for 433 yards in what is considered one of the greatest games ever, and only a victory over Cincinnati stood between San Diego and the Super Bowl.
“But then we had to play in a game that never should have been played,” White said. “It was so cold there, whatever was played that day, it wasn’t football.”
Unlike everyone else fighting the 11-below temperatures, Fouts could not wear gloves because he would not have been able to feel the ball. But it was so cold, he could barely feel it anyway.
His timing and precision, always the strongest parts of his game, were severely affected. He threw for only 185 yards and one touchdown, giving up two interceptions.
As the Chargers were leaving the field that day, they passed an ambulance in the runway. Inside was a teen-ager who had turned purple, nearly the color of Fouts’ fingers.
“That loss, it shattered Dan,” Muncie said. “In the locker room, he was acting like he was ready to quit football.”
Eight months later, Fouts was back in the huddle, as he was almost every autumn Sunday for 15 years, embracing a team that never won the big game, convincing the players they were not losers.
“I still remember. I think we all remember, the times Dan would get to the huddle, look at the clock and say, ‘OK, three minutes left? In six plays, we score,” Bauer recalled, pausing and shaking his head.
“Sure enough, three minutes and six plays later, we were there .”