5. Tom Fears. This one is personal. In 1994, I interviewed Fears at his home in Palm Desert as he was entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a receiver so great that he didn’t need a nickname. Fears was mad that he was starting to forget a life that never should have been forgotten. “It’s embarrassing,” he told me of his memory lapses. Fears died in 2000. He would be happy to know his memory still lives. Fears once caught 18 passes in a game and was the receiver who, in 1951, caught the game-winning pass in the only NFL championship ever won by the Los Angeles Rams.
4. Dennis Harrah. Rule of thumb for NFL beat writers: if you want to know what’s going on under the hood of a team, talk to the offensive linemen. Harrah combined trench-warfare wisdom with a West Virginia sense of humor that kept everyone laughing even during the bitter 1987 players’ strike. Harrah played guard for 13 seasons and was the self-proclaimed leader of the “Pie Faces.” He once astutely and accurately declared after an ugly win: “We’re in first place and we stink.”
3. Jack Youngblood. Here’s a testament to his greatness, above and beyond playing in a Super Bowl with a broken leg. Youngblood replaced Deacon Jones at left defensive end and we hardly noticed any drop off. He was a man’s man and the hood ornament for the organization long past his playing days. Jack was a boyhood idol I actually got to cover at the end of his career. Lucky me. Shame on voters for making him wait so long to get in the Hall of Fame….
2. Roman Gabriel. I was 11 during his 1969 MVP season. Gabe was a god who represented all that I could never be–tall, tanned and talented. He was my first man-crush and for a period approaching puberty he made me temporarily question my sexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Gabriel was the perfect quarterback, for the perfect team, in the perfect uniform, at the perfect time.
1. David “Deacon” Jones. He is responsible for the head slap and the quarterback “sack” and thankfully only one of them has since been outlawed by the NFL. One of my five best days as a kid was getting randomly handed uniform No. 75 before the beginning of my Pop Warner season with the La Habra Rockets. Ha. I even earned “lineman of the year” and cherish what’s left of the hand-painted figurine, No. 75, I received at the team banquet.