Since it’s football season, wanted to tread back into memory lane as a writer — with a big assist from Sports Illustrated.
While flying from LA to Kahului, Maui, where I’m working with surf star Clay Marzo on his biography, “Just Add Water,” I read an article in Sports Illustrated that stopped me in my tracks. Well, two of them. The first was “Exit Sandman,” an incredible story of the greatness of Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera — with an ending that will take your breath away.
The second concerned an old friend and a very special time in my life, when footballs flew all over San Diego and many great careers germinated in the same tiny place. It happened within Tim Layden’s article, “You Spin Me Right Around, Baby”, concerning the back-shoulder pass that drives NFL defensive backs crazy — because they can’t defend it. This pass has become a part of several quarterbacks’ repertoires, most prominently Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. It’s been around in various forms, this Kryptonite play to all defenders, but who used it consistently first?
That’s where the article stopped me. Turns out it was Bob Gagliano, a journeyman USFL and NFL quarterback for 10 years in the 1980s and 1990s. Bob was the quarterback at U.S. International University in San Diego in 1979, when I was a student and assistant sports information director there. Bob and I formed a good friendship, and I always took him with me to community outreach events, such as meet-and-greets with junior high and high school students. He took what Division I schools considered average ability, used his incisive brain, and after leaving USIU, became a strong D1 quarterback and a spot starter for Kansas City, Detroit and San Diego.
I remember sitting with Bob in the Chiefs locker room in 1982, after he’d made the team as a rookie. He told me about this new pass he was trying out, which turned out to be the same pass I’d seen him throw a few times in USIU games: you hit the receiver on the trailing shoulder, he reaches back to get it, and the defender can do nothing about it.
A few years later, Bob did it on a regular basis for the USFL’s Denver Gold. That got him a second chance in the NFL.
Every so often, I think back to the USIU team that Bob quarterbacked. It was one of those freaks of fate, a ragtag group cobbled together when USIU made its short-lived jump into Division II football. I was publicizing the team, part of my trade-out for a free ride so I could get through school. THe group looked shaky at first, but finished the year 9-3 and beat a pair of Top 20 Division II schools along the way. No one wanted to get into a shootout with USIU, just like their neighbors eight miles down I-15, the San Diego Chargers.
Bob wasn’t the only one from this collection of young guns and Division I rejects to make a splash in the NFL. Not even close. The head coach, Tom Walsh, went on to become offensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. His offensive assistant, Mike Sheppard, did the same with the Cleveland Browns during their glory years in the late 1980s. As did Mike Solari with the Kansas City Chiefs. Defensive back Vernon Dean won two Super Bowl rings with the Washington Redskins. Three other players made NFL rosters, at least temporarily.
Then there was the young defensive backs coach, just out of San Diego State, a former safety who wasn’t fast enough for the NFL: John Fox. Then in his early 20s, Fox whipped his defensive backs into one of the top units in Division II. He was tough, he connected with his players, and he instilled in them his passion for the game, his passion for excellence.
Fast forward to 2013: Fox is commanding the greatest offensive ship in the NFL, the Denver Broncos. He’s been an NFL head coach for 11 seasons after a brilliant run as a defensive coordinator, during which he won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants. Now, he goes to work every day and sees Peyton Manning. How great is that?
I can only imagine what Fox was thinking when he opened his Sports Illustrated and saw the article on the back-shoulder pass — which he loathed while coaching the Giants and Carolina Panthers — and then seeing who first put it to use regularly in games. Fox always praised Gagliano in USIU practices, because of the way Gagliano’s accuracy made Fox’s defensive backs better.
Those were fun times — and a joy to relive 34 years later.