TOM FLORES’ TIES TO THE OLD AFL DAYS

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: Tom Flores.

I still remember the day when the onetime Oakland Raiders’ legend showed up at the University of Redlands.

Before Tom Flores’ speaking appearance that day, I’d been given an hour to sit with him in an adjoining room inside the school’s chapel. I grew up in Raider Territory, a town called Hayward, some 20 minutes south of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It allowed me a little background for this little chat.

“I’ll bet you,” he said, “that you can’t name the original eight AFL teams.”

“You guys started in Minnesota,” I told him.

Tom FLores (Silver & Black Pride)
Tom Flores, standing in front of his team in preparation for a game, led the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders to Super Bowl victories. In between those triumphs, Flores spoke at the University of Redlands (photo by Black & White pride).

Flores, who’d played collegiately at the College of Pacific in Stockton, smiled. I thought I had him.

Name the other ones, he challenged me.

I almost got them all. Buffalo Bills, Boston Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs. Oh, and the New York Jets.

“Not perfect,” he said.

The Kansas City Chiefs were the Dallas Texans. The Jets were originally the New York Titans.

One of Flores’ memories: “I remember we were being paged over the intercom at the airport. They said, ‘Oklahoma Raiders.’

“They didn’t know if we were truck drivers or pro football players.”

The AFL weren’t exactly household names in those early 1960s. It was, he recalled, all-out war between the AFL and NFL.

After several minutes of taking on Flores’ trivia questions, he was introduced to a couple hundred audience members.

“There’s something about those stained-glass windows,” said Flores, noting the inner décor of the University of Redlands’ ancient chapel. “I had a few off-colored stories I was going to share with you, but I don’t think I’d better do that.”

He was part of pro football history. The part of the old American Football League that merged with the National Football League in 1970.

Flores had played QB for the Raiders. He wound up as an assistant coach to the legendary John Madden.

When Madden stepped aside as Raiders’ coach after the 1978 season, Managing General Partner Al Davis tabbed Flores as his head coach. What lied ahead were two Super Bowl championships, one in Oakland, the other in Los Angeles.

Flores’ visit to Redlands came in between those two titles.

“I don’t mingle in any of that,” Flores told me, referring to the conflict his boss, Davis, was having with the NFL and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle. “It’s hard enough to get a team ready to play.

“Teams don’t need all those other distractions.”

He was totally in Davis’ corner.

“I think he’s right. Six years ago, we had one of the best stadiums in football. Now, we’re one of the worst. Everybody has passed us by.”

That 27-10 Super Bowl win in New Orleans over Philadelphia in 1980 had some errant media coverage, he told that Redlands audience.

“We’re publicized as a team that has no discipline,” he said. “When we went to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, they publicized the fact that everyone on the team was out on Bourbon Street every night. Well, that wasn’t true at all.

“Only half the team was out.”

Audience members had questions.

On football’s best player:

“There are several and I should go position by position. But I think Walter Payton is one of the most complete backs in the NFL. He’d sure fit in with the Raiders.”

On the upcoming NFL draft:

“We’re not limited to a position in the draft. But I think we’ll look for an offensive back or receivers. If there’s one out there we like, we’ll take a dominating defensive player.”

On Davis:

“As long as I win, we get along great.”

 

PART 2 – IN ONE DAY, REDLANDS HAD TWO TAKEN INTO NFL

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

A telephone call? From the NFL? To a University of Redlands player?

Can’t be. It never happened before. It never happened again.

The deliverer of that message, University of Redlands’ John Rebenstorf, said Brian De Roo, was among those “most unlikely to be believed” by team members.

De Roo eventually returned the phone call to Giants’ head coach John McVey.

MCVAY_3
John McVay, who called Redlands’ Brian De Roo to tell him that he’d been drafted by the New York Giants in 1978, left after that season. So did De Roo (Photo courtesy of San Francisco 49ers.)

The exciting news: Fifth round selection. Mini-camp information. Dates. Flight arrangements. De Roo was a pro.

Bruce Gibson, for his part, was taken by the Detroit Lions two rounds later.

Axelrod, meanwhile, was De Roo’s agent throughout his four-year stint in the NFL.

“Needless to say,” said De Roo, “(my family) needed to move the party up.”

Draft day had conflicted with the school’s academic finals. De Roo left his party early to sleep and prepare for a final one day later.

“I was surprised to a certain extent,” said De Roo, “but with the information given to me by Mr. Axelrod, not totally. (I was) just excited that it was on the first day of the draft.”

Redlands, never having had a drafted football player, didn’t quite know how to handle it, said De Roo. “In the end, they didn’t do anything (to celebrate).”

There was a Bulldog inner circle, however. De Roo said being drafted was a “team victory as all of them were.”

Serrao had returned telephone calls from NFL personnel people, providing film, guiding scouts and general managers throughout the process. Noting that UC Riverside receiver Butch Johnson, selected by Dallas, along with Butch Edge, a Bulldog linebacker, had probably brought additional spotlight to De Roo.

De Roo, out of Redlands, was off anyone’s draft charts. Surrounded in the draft by players from USC, Texas, Alabama, Kentucky, Syracuse, the Bulldogs couldn’t have been on anyone’s map.

Pacific had to be. The Tigers had been the ticket for Tom Flores, Eddie Le Baron, All-Pro linebacker Mike Merriweather, plus Dick Bass, among dozens of others, who had been plucked by the NFL.

Even Hall of Fame coach Amos Alonzo Stagg had coached at UOP. Future coaches like Jon Gruden, Bob Toledo, Mike Martz, Hue Jackson and Pete Carroll were connected to the Stockton-based campus.

Redlands was full of wonderful players – too small, too slow, too inexperienced – that didn’t play tough enough opponents to make a pro scout even take notice. De Roo, who snagged 156 passes as a Bulldog, might have been the exception.

Gibson, meanwhile, was playing for a Tigers’ team that numbered 13 total wins during his 1975-77 stint. Playing the likes of Fresno State, Hawaii, Air Force, San Diego State, plus 17th-ranked Arizona in Gibson’s sophomore season, Pacific was certainly on NFL scouts’ radar.

Arizona stopped Pacific, 16-0.

Pacific was miles ahead of Redlands.

But Gibson, for whom Redlands High was built around a few years earlier, was cut by the Lions in training camp, never to play in an NFL game.

Other Redlands-based draftees:

1974 – Greg Horton was selected by George “Papa Bear” Halas, the longtime owner and coach of the Chicago Bears. Third round, out of Colorado.

1999 – Patrick Johnson, a world class sprinter who chose football over track & field, was taken by the old Cleveland Browns, now known as the Baltimore Ravens. Second round, out of Oregon.

That’s the entire list from Redlands. Kylie Fitts, a defensive end from Redlands East Valley, was expected to be taken in 2018.

As for the NFL draft, consider that eventual Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon, from Washington, wasn’t even selected. Moon, like De Roo eventually, wound up playing in Canada.

As for any University of Redlands celebration: Consider that De Roo’s jersey No. 2 is the only football one ever to be retired.

Footnote: De Roo points out that McVey is the grandfather of current Rams’ coach Sean McVey.