My journey: the bulldog years (Fresno State 1964 to 1968)

This is a story of my college education, a great majority of which occurred outside the classroom on the football field and working in the ag unit doing manual labor. Let’s start with where it all began.

The prequel

I had this goal, starting as a five-foot tall, 105-pound ninth grader, that I wanted to play college football. My brother had been a very gifted athlete, played junior college football, and walked away from a full scholarship at Cal Poly. He was a great athlete and great football player but didn’t have the drive and determination. Things came easy for him. There’s a lot of things at age 76 I can look back on now and try to analyze. Maybe I did it to get my brother’s attention who was my hero. But it was clear to me that is what I wanted to do, and I would do everything in my power to make it happen.

I was 13 years old as a ninth grader. When I started ninth grade, I was 5’2” tall and 105 pounds. I had my appendix out on Halloween in my freshman year and I started growing. I grew that year to five feet nine inches tall and 145 pounds. Sophomore year I went out for J.V. football. I was an offensive center, nothing spectacular. Nobody would say that guy’s going to be a college football player. I spent all my free time athletically playing basketball. I’d go home from school and play basketball until it was dark. And sometimes there was a streetlight behind the basket and played in the dark imitating Jerry West’s jump shot.

Now junior year comes. I made varsity as a second-string center. I 165 now. But I just wasn’t very good. We had one coach for the whole team. He was laconic, certainly not much of a teacher or a motivator. I guess he did the best he could do coaching all positions by himself. The week before the last game, the starting center and the starting tackle decided to go off to find some adventure in the flesh plots of Las Vegas. That gave me the opportunity to start, and I had an outstanding game, against Santa Ynez high school. We won, which was rare for my high school team. There was a glimmer of hope, I showed I could rise to the occasion and be a contributing player. Then I went right out for basketball. I made the varsity. Through January I played minimal minutes. I struggled with the discipline necessary to play a team game after playing rough house basketball on the playground. We had a six-foot five center that I played behind. I was now up to about 5’10”. I loved basketball, but I was undisciplined.

Well, anyway, there was a party at Christmas break where there was drinking, and the starting center and two other players were kicked off the team. So, I got to start in January. I started every game the rest of the year. I did okay, except that I fouled out of every game I played in. I did well enough to be named Most Improved Player. My goal now more than ever was to play college football. The turning point came that spring when a player from the Dallas Cowboys came and talked to us about weight training. He gave us some basics and one of my teammates and I started lifting weights in my garage. We got a York weight set. My brother built a leg press for us. I tried to organize the other players in workouts because I felt if the team got better, I would get better. I wanted to be good. I wanted the team to be good. I got up to 175 pounds. I played OK, certainly nothing that would put on anyone’s radar as a college player. I played both ways as an offensive center and middle linebacker. Nobody would have given me a snowball’s chance in hell to play college football. But I was driven in pursuit of my goal. I was going to find a way.

I had a good senior basketball season. I hurt my ankle with four games to go, and could not play, which was disappointing because we had a good, fun team and it hurt the team. So, move on, fast forward track season starts. I knew I had to get faster and more explosive, so I sprinted and put the shot. I started applying for schools. My brother went to Coalinga Junior College, and he said, Fresno State has a really good program. In 1962, they played in the Mercy Bowl in the LA Coliseum, a fundraiser for the victims of the Cal Poly crash that John Madden always talked about. They had 60,000 people in the Coliseum. I watched some of that game. It was cool. So, I applied there. I worked my butt off and got up to 196 pounds. I got in contact with the football coaches at Fresno State, and they said, yeah, you can come out for freshman football. I didn’t know this, but freshman football there was an afterthought. They got all their players from junior colleges, virtually no one from the freshmen team advanced to varsity, in fact they did not recruit freshmen.

Arriving on campus

We didn’t start even practicing until the week when school started, which was mid-September. I improved as a player. I certainly benefited from the fact there were only 25 players. Ken Gleason was the freshman head coach, a very nice positive man who encouraged me. Our line coach was named John Zentner, who was ineligible on the varsity. He was made line coach so they could continue to give him his scholarship. He was the first actual line coach that I ever had. He helped me. He gave me some attention, taught me blocking techniques I had no clue about. I was captain of the team, played center and defensive tackle. I played every play, 60 minutes a game. We were beyond awful as a team. We scored one touchdown in four games. It was an experience that I took advantage of though. There was now light at the end of the tunnel.

I really made my mark on Mondays or Tuesdays when we’d scrimmage the varsity. During one of these scrimmages the starting middle linebacker Ed Kaiser, who was all conference the previous year was playing over me and taunting me. He goes, come on, rookie, come on kid, you can’t touch me. It made me angry that he didn’t respect me, and I pancaked him. The place went nuts, varsity guys, everybody was clapping and slapping me on the back. It got the varsity coach’s attention. So that was kind of funny how you use something like that. You make your mark. I got invited to go to spring practice. In those days we practiced three nights a week with a scrimmage on Saturday morning for six weeks culminating in a spring Alumni game. No guarantees, nothing. The goal there was to make the varsity and hopefully get a little scholarship. 

I was overwhelmed, I wasn’t very good. There were all these 24 to 26-year-old JC transfers who had been in the military and here I was an 18 year who hardly shaved. I was out of my league at linebacker, so ended up just playing center. I made the team. I got $50 a semester scholarship and so I was happy. The coach wanted us all to gain weight. When I went home during the summer and worked fanatically. I would eat enormous quantities of food. I would have a hamburger steak and four eggs for breakfast, a giant lunch of four sandwiches and a quart of milk, mid-afternoon snack of two hot dogs and a milkshake, go lift weights or workout and then and then eat dinner & giant snack before bed. I got up to 220. The problem was I lost speed and quickness and I couldn’t hold the weight with my frame. I started out the season as a third string center, and I ended up a second-string center. As a second-string center, you got to work against the first team defense. A lot of times I just got the crap kicked out of me, but I improved. The goal that year, believe it or not, was to make the traveling squad for the final game at Thanksgiving against University of Hawaii in Honolulu. I made it to Hawaii. I had gotten to play in one game against Washburn University, Ichabod’s from Topeka, Kansas. We beat him 56 to nothing, so I got to play a little bit in the second half.

Spring practice of my sophomore year comes. Phil Krueger, who was our head coach, left to go to USC to be John McKay‘s assistant. I was disappointed, I liked him, he liked me, it was obvious he knew the game. He’d get in arguments with the line coach who was an institution out on the field. In those days, you couldn’t bring your own coaches in, so you inherited coaches. I found out later that coach Krueger was one of the so-called greatest generation, that he had landed at Normandy on D Day. He was a tough guy. What I liked about him is when he said something to you, he followed up on what he said. Unlike the alcoholic, redneck line coach. To replace coach Krueger, they brought in an alumnus of Fresno State, Darryl Rogers. He was tight with the line coach who hated me and whom I intensely disliked. He had coached at Fresno City College when we were freshmen and we used to scrimmage them. His image of me was the player that he saw then. My first spring training, he guested as our linebacker coach and basically told me that I was wasting my time and that I couldn’t play. Part of my motivation was to prove him wrong. So now he’s the head coach and there in spring practice of my sophomore year. I stayed at the second string center. It was not a pleasant experience. He was the opposite of coach Krueger. He wanted to be like Alabama was at the time and he thought he was Bear Bryant. He wanted everybody quick and fast. That was better for me physically. Now I could stay around 205. That fall I got to play one game that year against Montana State. We lost 56 to nothing. Their quarterback was Dennis Erickson who went onto fame as the coach at University of Miami, the kicker was Jan Stenerud who is in NFL hall of fame. I got to play in the second half on a kickoff receiving team and a little bit on offense. It was a disappointing year. I went to work and did everything I could to get faster and stronger and learn the nuances of the game and my position. I read a Run to Daylight by Vince Lombardi. I practically memorized it. The book gave the insights I needed into the game, especially offensive line play. One of the things he said is players, need to know everybody else’s assignment. So, I did that. We ran an unbalanced line, and I figured out right away that at my size, with my quickness and speed that was pretty good and getting better because I was training with the track guys. The training with the high jumpers got me more explosive so I figured I would be better off playing guard than center.

The beginning of the end

I went into talk to Rogers, and he goes, what do you want? I said, coach, I want to change positions. I gave him my reasoning. Not that he really cared. I said, I think if I play five man or seven-man, six man as a center I will be more effective. His answer was, yes, okay, you do whatever you want. It really doesn’t matter. Well, it did matter. I took that personally, he still did not think I could play. I went into spring practice on a mission to prove him wrong. We had a new line coach, coach Murray, who called me by my name. He didn’t call me you pussy or something like that. He made me better, he coached me. He taught me techniques that made me a better player. I would run a play and then the next guard would come in and he would tell me what to correct. I ended up winning a starting position of alternating between both guard positions and graded out as the top offensive lineman on the team, which really pissed off Rogers and the redneck line coach who was basically the assistant head coach. I got a scholarship for $350 a semester.

In the spring game, on the last play I went down field to throw a block on a defensive back and hit the side of my head on his leg. It was a block that I had executed hundreds of times. This time I got a stinger to beat all stingers. My arm went dead, and I could not feel my hand. Fortunately, they took me out of the game. I didn’t say anything to anybody. Feeling did not come back to my hand for about three days, and I had bad headaches, which probably was also a concussion. Subsequently I had atrophy in that arm. I worked my butt off in the off season to get it right. I was scared shitless that this would show up and compromise my starting position and my scholarship. Midway through April, we were just doing some wrestling and I got thrown down on my head again and the stinger got worse. Again, I didn’t say anything. I went home, worked diligently, now I was 195 instead of 205. When we started fall practice the first week in September it was quickly obvious that they didn’t want me to start. They shifted all the other linemen into my position, but they couldn’t beat me out. All the while I was trying to protect my neck. Anyway, the night before the first game, when we’re going to play Santa Clara, which is a big game for me because a couple of kids from Santa Barbara that I played elementary school with were on that team and they’d gone to Santa Barbara High, and I wanted to show them that I was a good player.

We were doing this drill where we would get off against bags with the defensive tackles holding the bag. The defensive tackle swung the bag and hit me on the side of my head and my arm went dead. I thought to myself, oh shit. I didn’t say anything to the trainer or the line coach, I wanted to start the game. I was terrible. The defensive tackle from Santa Clara just barely tapped my head and my arm went dead again, and they took me out before the end of the first half and that was it. I was awful. Monday, we went in for film session and practice. The head coach who never wanted me to start and redneck assistant coach, just reveled in the fact I played terrible. They ran film of the plays where I screwed up over and over. What would you expect from them? I remember the coach Murray coming up to me afterwards and offering words of encouragement. I went through practice, and it was tough. Mentally I was whipped and physically I was hurting. I went home that night, didn’t sleep. I just said, I’m done. I can’t do this. It’s not fun. The pain was just excruciating. I walked into the coach’s office the next day at 2:00. All the coaches were there, including a reporter for the Fresno Bee. I said, I wanted to let you know that I’m turning in my uniform, I’m quitting. I didn’t say why. And the last word I heard from the redneck line coach was, you’re just a pussy. Well, whatever. So anyway, that was my football career.

Moving beyond football to track

As time went on, the longer I played college football, I began to hate it. It’s a brutal sport. Except for coach Murray who treated me like a human being, that wasn’t a consideration. I took two weeks go through a bit of depression and feel sorry for myself and figure out what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to graduate that spring. In those days you had the draft facing if you lost your student deferment. I knew I wanted to teach and coach. I doubled down on academics, went to my advisor, and added a class. I had the afternoons off, a friend of mine, Bob Washburn, was working in the ag unit and he said there was a job available for twenty hours a week at $1.50 an hour. I still got my football scholarship that fall, so with that and the money I made working in the Ag unit I was in the chips. Every month when I walked down the sidewalk to the Bulldog Foundation to get my scholarship check I always had a big smile because I’ve got the last word here. I’m still picking up my check. Anyway, by the way, the guy who took my place ended up on the All-Coast team. After that my friends used to call me all coast almost.

I got a job in the Ag unit. I had worked on my uncle’s ranch during the summer, but it wasn’t 103 degrees like it was in Fresno in September. The first day I get there and it’s Bob, a guy from Iraq and a Trinidadian guy, all students. There was Mexican guy Raul, who was the foreman. He was great although he tested me the first day on the job. He goes, you get up on the top. They put me at the top of the barn, and those three guys were feeding me hay bales. They were trying to break me. I wasn’t ready. I had on a short sleeve shirt, and you wear leather chaps to protect your legs, which makes you even hotter. I refused to let them break me. After work that first day I fell asleep on the living room floor at out apartment and did not wake up until the next morning. I passed the test! I worked there all fall semester. Got to know Raul well. He was illegal. We just had a lot of great talks with my pidgin Spanish learned in the neighborhood I grew up in. I got to do a lot of different stuff. I got $350 that semester divided into X number of checks at a $1.50 an hour. I had a car that I got for $90 in an auction.

I knew I was graduating but I kept training with the track guys. I loved the track guys. I loved the individual nature attack. I couldn’t go out for track. I just I was too far behind. I decided I wanted to be a track coach. I got accepted to go to a fifth-year postgraduate year at UCSB to get my teaching credential. I was excited about that. I could go back to Santa Barbara. My father was the head groundskeeper at Santa Barbara High. He was really well-respected, and the former principal from Santa Barbara High, Doug White was the school district personnel director, I had an interview with him and he says, you know, if you student teach here, we’ll do everything we can to find a job for you. I can’t promise anything. That was cool.

Lessons from the Bulldog years

The last part of the Bulldog story occurred during spring break my senior year which was last week of March. My brother, who was a department head for Santa Barbara County got me a job with the county parks department. The first Monday of break I reported at 7:00am to Goleta Beach. I shake the guy’s hands and introduce myself. They know my brother got me the job, so they were going to test me. The first thing we do is go have coffee and I go, oh, this is easy. Then we get done with coffee and they give me a little hand clipper and they say, see that fence line there? It’s about a quarter mile long. Okay. We want you to clip all the grass on that. Make sure you get it done before noon. No gloves. This is another test like Raul putting me at the top of the barn. I had giant blisters on both hands, and I refused to let them beat me and I did it. So, I passed the test. My nickname for that that summer and the following summer was Ph.D. because I’d gone to college.

So those were the bulldog years. It was a time of hard lessons. It was a time of learning. A certain amount of bitterness. I let that bitterness color a lot of what I did after that for too many years. Now I can look back through the prism of time. Coach Murray was the line coach. I wish I could thank him. The lesson that I learned from that whole football experience was that coaching makes a difference. He helped me to become a better player by teaching me, the intricacies of my position and the relationship to what happened in the offense. Fresno 1964 to 68 was an interesting time. Times were changing. 1968, there was a time of ferment even in conservative Fresno. There was a lot of racial bias in the valley against blacks and Mexicans. Cesar Chavez, United Farm Worker movement brought it all out in the open.

My senior year I got to hear Bobby Kennedy talk on campus. I went to the talk with the feeling that he’s riding his brother’s coattails. It was amazing. He was inspiring. Over 16,000 people were there in the outdoor amphitheater that holds 8000 people. Same thing happened not too much later that spring with Cesar Chavez. It awakened my awareness. 

I’m forever thankful for that. And I got a good education and life goes on. Those were the Bulldog years.