Bill Larson, tight end candidate with the Washington Redskins, missed a Super Bowl check by 24 hours last season. Instead he played for free with the Newton (Iowa) Nite Hawks, a team whose general manager doubles as wide receiver and retail advertising manager for a major appliance manufacturer.
Larson is a classic workaholic. Most coaches look for players who work hard. Larson, sifting free-agent offers, sought coaches willing to work as hard as he did. Larson met Pete McCulley and George Allen last spring.
Against the advice of friends and former coaches who cautioned against signing as a free agent on a club with two such established tight ends as Jean Fugett and Jerry Smith, Larson bucked the odds and signed with the Redskins.
He is currently engaged in competition with Reggie Haynes, the Redskins' second draft choice, as the No. 3 tight end. It may be a futile level, however, because the Redskins, depending on their needs at other positions, could carry only two tight ends on the 43-man regular-season roaster, as they did a year ago.
Although Smith has been used sparingly this preseason, his No. 2 status is not in jeopardy, a team source said. "We want to evaluate Larson and Haynes as much as we can," the source said. "We know what Jerry can do; he's a great veteran."
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Larson has been bucking the odds sicne his college days at Colorado State. He was caught up in a coaching change there and again at San Francisco. Had Ted Kwalick come down with appendicitis 24 hours earlier, Larson would have been an Oakland Raider with a Super Bowl ring and check last season.
Instead, he tended bar for $3 an hour at the Elk's Club in Newton, a Des Moines suburb that gained notoriety as the place near which Rocky Marciano's plane crashed, and worked on getting another shot with an NFL team. The Northern States Football League, of which Newton is a member, does not pay its players. Newton has a profit-sharing plan at season's end. The team did not make a profit.
Larson's story begins at Colorado State. In college, the coach holds recommendations to pro scouts as leverage over a player. Play it our way or we'll tell the pros you're a troublemaker. Larson was caught up in a coaching change at that school and fund himself as the No. 6 tight end in his junior year.
"I had a whole lot of trouble with the coaching staff at Colorado State," Larson recalled. "I just didn't take any guff off them at all, and they didn't like it."
After two weeks on the "meat squad," as Colorado State called the fodder for the varsity. Larson complained to the coaches. He was immediately elevated to second team and then was used a total of three plays all season. As a senior, a defensive player was moved ahead of him. They split time before Larson beat him out.
Nevertheless, when the 1975 NFL draft rolled around, the defensive player-turned-tight-end was chosen; Larson was not. He signed with San Francisco as a free agent, catching the eye of Lew Erber, tight end and kicking game coach with the 49ers. Larson played all 14 games and started the final three. When Dick Nolan and staff were fired, Larson wa released as part of a general house cleaning during the off season.
Erber found employment as offensive backfield coach of the Raiders. Larson figures some NFL team needed him. But none called. Finally he called Erber, who said he would get Larson invited to camp, but that there was no chance to make the team with the likes of Kwalick and Dave Casper around.
Erber suggested however, that Larson report and then somebody would probably pick him up when he got cut, as is the case with many players who do not make the Raiders.
Larson lasted a week, was placed on waivers but none of the other 27 NFL teams claimed him.
He went home to Fort Collins, Colo. There a friend told him he had a friend who had a friend who was general manager of the Newton Nite Hawks. A phone call and 800-mile drive later, Larson was a bartender by night and a Nite Hawk by day. He beat out the league's leading receiver to become the Newton starter.
On a Monday, he got a call from the Raiders. Kwalick had undergone emergency appendectomy. When could he report? Immediately, said Larson, and the Raiders told him they would call him back with the details when he got off work at 1 a.m. He waited up until 4 a.m. No one called. When the phone did not ring the next day, he called the Raiders.
Well, explained the Oakland man, there was this league rule: a team that cuts you cannot resign you after the sixth regular-season game. The sixth game had been played that Sunday. He was 24 hours too late. So instead of joining a Super Bowl team, Larson honed his skills at Newton. In six games, he finished seventh in the league in receiving and ninth in scoring. He was considered a stonewall as a blocker.
The Redskins signed four Newton players as free agents. Larson had weighed his possibilities and was going to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles. Then he visited Redskin Park and met McCulley, the Redskins' new receivers coach, and Jim Curzi, the conditioning coach. He was impressed, but his friends and his intuition told him to sign with the Eagles, who had mailed him a contract.
Shortly thereafter Allen telephoned Larson and invited him back to Redskin Park. This visit hooked Larson on Allen.
And, in McCulley, he found an assistant coach willing to spend hours with him, throwing 500 passes each day at Redskin Park and drawing this praise from Larson:
"I always had the desire to go out and work. But no other coach ever gave me the time of day."
Ironically, Larson drove all night to reach training camp last month. Upon arrival, he took an unanticipated nap and woke up 15 minutes late for his first meeting. It cost him a $100 fine.
"That's the last time that'll happen," he said. "I've worked too hard to get here."
Frank Grant's hamstring injury, suffered Monday, is minor. He dressed for today's 2 1/2-hour practice, but was held out of drills . . . Safety Jake Scott woke up this morning with a stiff neck, the result of a Monday tackling drill. He took part in some drills but said he doubted he would play in Thursday night's exhibition game against Kansas City at RFK Stadium . . . Running back Mike Thomas, in his second day back at full speed following a hamstring injury, said he felt good but both legs were a little sore from inactivity . . . Defensive tackle Bill Brundige, the only available reserve at his position, did not take part in drills again because of a groin injury and trainer Bubba Tyer said his status for the Chiefs game was questionable . . . Starting end Dennis Johnson again worked at tackle, a position he has not played since 1974 . . . The Chiefs game will not be shown on television in the Washington area until Saturday.