This Sunday won't be the first time the Chargers and the Patriots have met with a potential championship on the line - they played for the 1963 AFL Championship. If you're a Pats fan, you better hope that this time the Chargers aren't on PEDs, there's no spying and a reporter and a coach don't spill the beans ahead of time... because in 1963, the Pats didn't have a chance.
Excerpted from THE PATS: An Illustrated History of the New England Patriots. Copyright © 2018 by Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
South Boston native and Boston Globe football writer Will McDonough, a graduate of Northeastern University, covered prep sports for the Globe before moving to the Patriots beat in the summer of 1962 as backup to John Ahern. Like Patriots owner Billy Sullivan, McDonough made a career aligning with those in power. His reporting, both with the Globe and later as a television analyst for CBS and NBC, focused less on the players and what took place on the field than on what went on behind the scenes, in the locker room and front office, covering the inside power struggles among the men who owned and coached the Patriots and those who ran professional football.
In quintessential McDonough fashion, he later liked to tell a story — which he never wrote — about the 1963 AFL championship game in San Diego, the kind of story that enhanced his reputation as someone who knew what was really happening. After the Pats beat Buffalo in a playoff to take the AFL's Eastern Division and earn the right to the Chargers in San Diego for the championship, the Chargers arranged for Boston to practice at a nearby Navy base, a presumably secure facility that would allow them to work out in private. Yet, according to McDonough, “the Chargers had several people dressed as Navy guys watching practice all week long,” although, as a reporter who bragged he never took notes, he never provided a source for that information. According to McDonough, the Chargers thereby learned exactly what the Patriots planned to do during the game and adjusted accordingly. The Patriots were beaten before they ever took the field. Receiver and kicker Gino Cappelletti later remarked, “You know, the way the Chargers played, especially on offense, it was as if they knew just what we wanted to do.”
In two earlier meetings that season, the Chargers and Patriots had played to a virtual standoff, the Chargers narrowly winning both, 17–13 and 7–6, even as the Patriots shut down the potent San Diego offense, particularly the running game led by backs Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln. In fact, the Patriots had angered the Chargers before the game at Fenway Park when the home team “accidentally” forgot to cover the outfield during a rainstorm. The resulting quagmire left Lincoln and Lowe running in place. Fortunately for the Chargers, flanker Lance Alworth caught 13 passes, including the winning score. But San Diego coach Sid Gillman did not forget.
He did not just want to beat the Patriots—he wanted revenge, a victory so complete and thorough that the NFL would agree to an interleague championship game. With two weeks to prepare for Boston, Gillman, considered one of the most creative offensive coaches in the history of professional football, installed what he referred to as a “Feast or Famine” game plan, a scheme he felt would either work to perfection or fail miserably. If it failed, well, there was also the “East Formation,” which put both Alworth and split end Don Norton on the strong side of the field, another wrinkle the Pats hadn’t encountered. Today the schemes seem simple. In 1963 championship, they were a revelation.Over the course of the season, the Patriots’ defense earned a reputation for what Boston defensive end Larry Eisenhauer called their “Ban the Bomb” defense — a gambling, near-all-out blitzing attack keyed by linebacker Nick Buoniconti and safety Ron Hall. It worked because their linemen, Bob Dee, Jim Lee Hunt, and Houston Antwine, were quick in pursuit, able to tie up runners at the line or in the backfield before they could reach the secondary and exploit any gaps abandoned by the blitzing defenders or in between the Pats’ slow-footed defensive backs, whom Gillman derisively referred to as “old ladies.”
The new scheme was designed to exploit the Patriots’ defensive strengths. Based on men in motion, traps, misdirection, and surprise, the new plays, some of which weren’t put in place until a day or two before the game, were calculated to thwart what the Patriots planned to do and free up Lincoln and Lowe.It wasn’t the first time the surprise use of the “man-in-motion” had been used effectively in a championship game. In 1940, Chicago and Washington met for the NFL championship. Three weeks before, Washington had defeated the Bears 7–3. But in the championship game, the Bears surprised Washington by unveiling the T-formation — something that hadn’t been used in decades — and putting backs in motion. Chicago rolled to a record 73–0 victory as the Washington defense spent the whole game reversing field.
As game time approached, if Gillman was wondering whether the Chargers would enjoy a scoring feast or famine, or if the Patriots would plan some changes of their own, his questions may well have been answered. A few days before the game, McDonough had interviewed Holovak about Boston’s game strategy and presented it in a story with a subhead “What to Look for on TV.”
But on defense Holovak really gave away the store. He revealed that he planned to use the Patriots’ blitzing reputation as a ruse, faking safety blitzes with Hall, then having him drop back to double-cover Alworth. He said that the Patriots had drilled the defensive front to focus on pursuit and follow the flow of the play, using their speed to contain Lowe and Lincoln and then shut down Alworth deep. A confident Holovak was almost giddy with excitement.
It was as if Muhammad Ali had told Howard Cosell before “the Rumble in the Jungle” that he planned to lie against the ropes until George Foreman punched himself out. Although the Globe wasn’t widely available in San Diego, it’s hard to believe that Gillman didn’t learn about the story — there were telephones, after all, and Gillman was well connected in the football world. Whether Holovak knew McDonough was planning to run with the story or whether the information was given on background is uncertain, but at that point any trepidation Gillman had over his feast-or-famine approach would have evaporated.Yet perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. As ESPN’s T. J. Quinn reported in 2009, the 1963 Chargers were the first pro football team known to supply players with steroids. After the Chargers’ 4-10 finish in 1962, Gillman hired pro football’s first strength coach, Alvin Roy, a man the New York Times later called “the guru and godfather of the weight-training field.” Roy had trained US Olympians and learned about anabolic steroids from his Russian counterparts. During camp before the 1963 season, players were ordered to lift weights and, for at least five weeks, provided with Dianabol, the first steroid developed solely to impact athletic performance, and still one of the most effective. They were given 5 milligrams of the drug three times a day, a dosage that experts agree is more than enough to impact performance. It remains the standard starting dose to this day.
The players did as they were told, and didn’t know any better anyway. Neither did Gillman or Roy. No one really knew about the long-term effects of the drugs, nor did they worry much about their health impact or even whether their use was fair — US Olympians were using it too. One Charger estimated that all but 5 percent of the Chargers took the drug. As lineman Walt Sweeney told Quinn, “It was like the wild, wild West. Everything went. There was speed, painkillers, steroids.” Half the league was jacked up on something, but only the Chargers had the magic steroid pills. Ron Mix recalled that “they showed up on our training table in cereal bowls.” They worked too. Quarterback John Hadl said the Chargers linemen “started looking like Popeye.”Mix and a few other players eventually complained, but even though the “mandatory” program was discontinued in 1964, the drug remained available to any player who wanted it throughout the 1963 season. One thing is certain: the 4-10 Chargers of 1962 went 11-3 in 1963. And as the season went on, as other teams seemed to lag, the Chargers seemed to get stronger. Including the championship contest, they’d score a total of more than 100 points in their final two games. And let’s not forget that because of the Eastern Division playoff between the Patriots and Buffalo Bills, the Chargers had an extra week before the championship to heal and “prepare.”
Or maybe the Patriots had just simply left it all on the field in the playoff versus Buffalo the week before. . . and then left a little more behind during a week of partying. After all, they hadn’t really expected to reach the championship game, and when fans had greeted them on their return to Boston, they had suddenly found themselves popular overnight in a city that had been searching for a champion.They continued the celebration under the warm California sun in San Diego, where the players stayed at the Stardust Inn, a “Mad Men”–era hotel that allowed patrons of the Mermaid Bar to gaze through an enormous window at bathing beauties cavorting underwater. In one famous incident, several Patriots—among them Larry Eisenhauer and Ron Hall — entered the pool themselves. Eisenhauer mooned his teammates. . . and everyone else in the bar. Suffice to say that the team’s focus entering the game was not particularly sharp. Most observers installed the Chargers as narrow favorites.
Even before kickoff, the game was already something of a letdown. Despite the 71-degree temperature, Balboa Stadium, with a capacity of 34,000, looked barely half full. Though official attendance was announced to be 30,127, thousands of empty seats said otherwise. That was understandable. The uncomfortable stands featured concrete bleacher step seats and half of San Diego could pull in the TV feed from Los Angeles. It was easier to watch from the couch. Since the players’ bonuses were based on attendance, by the start the Patriots knew that, win or lose, their bonus would be far less than they expected. A lot of mink coats turned to chinchilla.
The Chargers received the opening kickoff and got right to work. On the first play, San Diego quarterback Tobin Rote read an attempted blitz, then faked a toss to Lincoln and a handoff to halfback Paul Lowe. The Pats bit on both, and Rote tossed a short pass to a wide-open Lincoln for a 12-yard gain. The Patriots were playing just as expected.
The next play set the game in stone. Ron Hall faked a blitz, but Lowe went in motion. Bob Dee jumped offside, and then jumped back. As Gillman later noted, that one small change caused every Patriot player to “reset.” Suddenly caught leaning, the Patriots backfield had to scramble, overloading one side of the field. Rote took the snap, the blockers went one way, the Patriots overpursued, and then Rote handed the ball off to Lincoln on an inside trap. The running back burst through the line. . . and there was no one. Fifty-six yards later, the Chargers had the ball at the 2-yard line. Rote snuck in for a touchdown.The game was effectively over; as the Boston Herald’s Joe Looney later noted, the Chargers “simply out everything-ed” Boston and the Patriots couldn’t adjust. Time after time Lowe went into motion, Buoniconti shifted, Hall either backed off to double-team Alworth or burst through a hole into the backfield and tackled a phantom, while Rote either pitched to Lincoln, sent him inside in the opposite direction, or found him on a swing pass. Every so often, as if bored, Rote got the ball to Lowe, who was just as effective. The Chargers quickly scored a second touchdown on a 67-yard pitch to Lincoln, and after the Patriots came back to score on a seven-yard run by Garron after a long pass to Cappelletti, Lowe scored again on a 56-yard run.
Fullback Garron then went out with a concussion, star halfback Ron Burton was hobbled, and that was the ball game. Five minutes after kickoff, the Patriots were as ineffective as a punched-out George Foreman. Forced to throw, Parilli spent most of the game retreating from the San Diego defense. By the end of the first quarter, the Chargers led 21–7 and Lincoln already had more than 200 yards rushing and receiving. As the Globe’s Bud Collins later wrote, “Every time San Diego scored, a platoon of young things in barebacked costumes threw them around in a triumphant dance. . . this kept the touchdowns from getting tedious.” With a 31–10 halftime lead, Gillman was so confident that he left the locker room early to catch the end of the Grambling College band’s halftime show.
The Chargers never let up in the second half, even trying a couple of onside kicks in the eventual 51–10 rout. Eisenhauer noted that “from the very first play, they were in high speed and we were in slow motion.” The Globe’s Harold Kaese wrote that “it was the sorriest breaching of a vaunted defense since the Maginot line.” Parilli said it was like “they wanted to kill us.”
Gillman and the Chargers gloated after the game, and with 610 yards of offense, they deserved to. On the way back to Boston, some Pats joked about wishing their plane would be shot down, a better fate than facing Patriots fans after the loss. But when asked if the defeat—which had dropped Boston’s record to 8-7-1 for the season—would inspire wholesale changes on the team, Holovak indicated otherwise.
“We need a touch here and a touch there,” he said. “Nothing major.”