Mis-numbered, misspelled, and now just missed

By TEDDY ALLEN, Journal Sports

Father Time and The Grim Reaper, that old haunting shadow voted by his classmates as Least Likely To Bargain in that inaugural old-school Class of 0001, is slowly and sickeningly chipping away at the idols of my boyhood.

Former All-Pro quarterback John Hadl, 82 at his passing Wednesday but 32-ish in my 11-year-old boy brain, is the most recent to disappear.

Who is John Hadl? Guys and girls of a certain age and athletic persuasion will raise a hand and testify that he had a special place in our hearts as we came of football-loving age in the late 1960s. We loved him not because we knew how good he was — we sort of didn’t understand that part, not yet — but we loved him because of how bad a couple of things seemed, how wrong.

For one thing, Hadl was missing a vowel. Who took the man’s vowel? How do you say a two-syllable name that has only one vowel? The nameplate on the back of his jersey looked like a misprint.

And then there was that jersey, and that was the main thing. He wore jersey No. 21. But he played quarterback. And quarterbacks wear anything from 1 to 19. A 21 is a cornerback, a flanker, a kick returner.

Plus he was balding. Like, badly. Right there in the middle of his head. I mean, we as kid fans knew the man was old — 30 and not getting any younger — but Lance “Bambi” Alworth, who with Hadl in San Diego in the old American Football League formed one of pro football’s best all-time pass-catch tandems, had hair for days, long, pretty hair, and he was the same age as Hadl, who, we figured, must have “had something wrong” with him.

But there he was, running around for the pass-happy Chargers, making All-Pro with not enough hair and not enough vowels and a number too big.

So you know what? We grew to love him. Even though we never met him. He was sub-standard to us, a semi-novelty, and that made us love him more. Good ol’ 21. The bald guy with the heavy number playing quarterback.

And that’s the thing. I became a writer and met some guys from the next generation of NFL quarterbacks, a Bert or a Bradshaw, an Archie or a Ferguson. But those guys 20 years older, the “old” guys when we were kids, maybe you bumped into a couple, a Namath or a Starr, along the way. But most of them have always been colors on the grainy Sylvania of memory, and sometimes not even colors.

Kilmer and Unitas, Tarkenton and Lamonica, Gabriel and Dawson and the captivating pot-bellied Sonny Jurgensen, who I never met outside of my parents’ TV and on a poster in my room.

And John Hadl.

These guys were, to us, to me, a time. A golden time.

Not 10 feet from where I write are two plastic goalposts and 13 plastic helmets I ordered from the back advertisements of The Sporting News, probably for less than $3, not including shipping. You got to put the decals onto the correct helmet then mount the helmets on the posts. Mine are only NFL helmets; most likely, it was not until I knew who John Hadl was that I knew there was an AFL, a San Diego, or even a West Coast.

Behind me are a stack of felt pennants, each representing a pro football team, this time AFL-inclusive, each not quite eight inches long, and each ordered most likely from the back of Frosted Flakes boxes. It must have been painstaking, waiting for the Boston Patriots and St. Louis Cardinals to come in the mail so they could be thumbtacked to my bedroom wall.

Hadl, we came to understand, was an All-American on offense and on defense at Kansas. He averaged better than 45 yards per punt, and he returned punts and kicks and interceptions twice that far. He must have been the best going-bald athlete in the Midwest. When he retired, only two pro QBs had thrown for more yardage. And by all accounts, he was a gentleman and a loyal Jayhawk, voted the Jayhawk of the 20th century. (I’ll remind you here that Kansas hoops won two national titles and went to 10 Final Fours last century. And that Gale Sayers went to Kansas. So … there.)

He was much, much more than “a time” to those who knew him. I wish I had — though like a lot of my friends, we felt we did.

As much as any other player of a game we were just beginning to understand and love, John Hadl represented, as we grew, a special time for us, a time born of imperfect men with faulty names and defective numbers and flawed hairlines. Guys like we grew up to be.  

Contact Teddy at teddy@latech.edu