Jim McMahon is still the spitting image of his playing days


It’s been 21 years since Jim McMahon tried playing quarterback for the Chargers, and in answer to a question about the team’s failing two-minute offense, put a finger alongside his nostril and blew his nose on me.

So here we were again Wednesday at the American Century Championship, punk QB and mild-mannered columnist reunited, McMahon asking a celebrity golf tournament official if he could get a waiver should he have to choke someone.

And some people think he just does crazy, wacky things spontaneously.

He always had a spooky and intimidating air about him as a player, other reporters declining to approach him unless joined by a group. His language is still too rough for newspapers, and if quoted word for word, he might really have an enemy’s list.

The snot-nose kid is 50 now, shaving his head, as he explained, because he has sore shoulders from playing football and had trouble combing what was still left up there.

He still plays golf in his bare feet with beer in hand, wild shorts, instead of hitting practice shots, he said, filling his cooler.

Those who remember him probably do so because of the chip on his shoulder, the headbands he wore, the Super Bowl shuffle and mooning a helicopter filled with media.

He was the punk QB, a name he did not like, preferring to be called “just crazy.” He now travels 200 days a year, he said, playing in charity golf tournaments, and drinking beer with his old buddies.

“I have fun every day,” he said.

I brought along a new hanky for McMahon, passing on the suggestion from so many that I arrive wearing a poncho, only to find McMahon immediately excusing himself so he might find a spit cup.

I found that encouraging.

I told him this would be a good time to apologize, and he disagreed.

“I just heard that voice and lost it,” said McMahon, and right now the wife is sitting at home and beginning to sympathize with McMahon.

“[ NFL Commissioner Paul] Tagliabue tried kicking me out of the league for that,” he said. “I told him it was either that or hitting you in the head, and I already had enough problems with cops so I didn’t want to do that. I had my problems with Tagliabue, too.

“I tell people I had just gotten out of the shower, and I always empty both barrels in the shower, so it wasn’t like a big glob stuck on your head. It was a fine mist.”

Who knew he could be so considerate.

Just imagine how the questioning might have gone had I known the police had pulled him from his first meeting as a member of the Chargers and charged him with assault.

At the time everyone was told he had overslept, missing a guest spot on the “ Today Show.”

“ Bryant Gumbel still gives me grief about that,” he said.

“Hey, I never touched the [woman],” McMahon said. “I was in this club, it’s three in the morning and I’m telling one of our guys we’ve got to get to camp and this [woman] he’s with burns me with a cigarette. I picked up a chair and almost hit her, but said I can’t do that and left.

“She tells people later I choked her and shows up wearing a neck brace. The next morning the cops dragged me out of our meeting. First day in San Diego. I paid her two grand to keep her mouth shut. It’s just not right; I get accused and I’m automatically guilty.”

I thought about bringing out the new handkerchief that I had brought for him and maybe using it to wipe away the tears, but he was beginning another story.

“I’m coming off the 10th green here a few years ago in this tournament, and this 10- or 11-year-old kid shoves something in my face to sign and says, ‘You know the drill.’ I tell him I’m not signing it ‘because, kid, you can’t read.’

“The kid tells me he can, so I point to the sign sitting right there that says no autographs allowed. I walk away and someone calls me a name, so I go to him and say, ‘Is that your son? You ought to beat his butt to teach him some manners.’ And I’m the [jerk]?”

I’ve always thought so, but as the conversation continued, and 21 years ago it never did, it was like talking to Jeff Kent, two so-called jerks cut from the same grumpy mold, a confounding combination of outright disregard for those who don’t get them and yet astounding compassion for those they might help.

“I’m going to live my life the way I live my life,” he said, or was it Kent who said that? “I’m not losing sleep over those who don’t like me.”

McMahon has gone to Iraq to visit the troops, and a few years ago took seven wounded veterans for a week to the Pro Bowl.

“I almost got in a fight at the airport,” he said, but then of course he did. “The security folks had them pull off their legs and their arms. I was telling the TSAs they wouldn’t even have their jobs if it wasn’t for these kids. It was disgusting.”

It took four years of abuse, amusement and absurd chitchat in front of Kent’s Dodgers locker to get anywhere, in the end probably going nowhere, so who knows after 45 minutes with McMahon.

He left to play golf, one of his four kids caddying for him and holding his beer between shots, another following as a spectator, mom and dad on their way here for the weekend.

“I’m a good drunk driver,” he said after hitting the ball right down the middle.

Everywhere he went folks wanted his autograph, and while some things can’t be explained, he obliged each one of them. He could not have been more approachable.

I got to thinking we might even end the day sharing a beer together, but it appeared chances were better they would all be gone by the time he finished his round.