Rams' Pat Haden; The thinking man's quarterback

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When quarterback Pat Haden threw his first long pass at the Los Angeles-Anaheim Rams practice session this summer -- after two years of riding the bench behind Vince Ferragamo -- the ball fluttered like a wounded duck, dropping finally in the arms of a defender. The wobbly throw was aided considerably by a wad of wet chewing tobacco that center Rich Saul had attached to the ball as a kind of "welcome back" present.

As the ball drifted down far short of target, Ram lineman Dennis Harrah threw up his arms and shouted, "Get on the horn. Call Ferragamo. Get him back. Offer him more money, whatever it takes."

And Pat Haden loved it. He was in charge again, and the responsibility is just fine with him. He's been there before. Haden is a lifetime winner who had to spend two years learning how to be a loser. Now he has his job back by default, because Vince Ferragamo defected to Canadian football when he was offered a lot more money than the Rams were willing to pay him.

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But second choice doesn't spook Pat Haden -- the only Rhodes scholar now active in professional sports. Haden thinks very clearly, and seldom trips over his own ego. "Sure I was getting jerked around while Vince was doing his dance this summer," Haden said in an interview at an after-practice lunch for the players. "It was one thing one day and something entirely different the next. Fortunately I was busy at home with my children and also at law school, so it wasn't as if I was sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. . . .

"The most frustrating thing to me through all this was that I wasn't really in the driver's seat for the first time in my life. I guess I was pleased with the way I dealt with it. There are positive things to be learned from every experience. I wouldn't want to go through it again. But I still had to wait for Vince to make up his mind. I couldn't control what was going to happen to me, and that's never been true before.

Haden is a rarity in professional sports. He was a superlative student at the University of Southern California (graduating in 1975 with a 3.8 grade point average), then received a classical education from Oxford University ("I enjoyed every minute at Oxford; when again in life will I have the opportunity to sit down and read Shelley and Byron and Shakespeare without pressure?"). And he has a talent for throwing a football with such consummate artistry that he has become wealthy in a business that pays a great deal more homage to brawn than brains. Haden is bemused by this, as he is by most of the anomalies of his work.

"I likem to play football," he says."There are some very pure moments about the sport I don't think you get in any other occupation -- an exhilaration, a feeling of purity that comes out of executing something very, very well. And, I suppose, realizing that you do it better than most people in the world. It's a kind of ego trip, I guess, but it also supports my family quite comfortably; I haven't lost sight of that."

Is his kind of intelligence an asset -- or possibly a liability -- in a violent game like football?

Haden pauses before saying: "Intelligence is an asset in anythingm , but in playing football, instinctive intelligence is more important than a high IQ. Athletic intelligence is a feelm for the game, an innate sense of timing. That's what people who knocked [Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback] Terry Bradshaw didn't understand. Guys with high athletic intelligence don't have to be able to discourse on 'Richard III' if their bodies and heads can tell them what to do in certain situations on the field.

"I guess the best way to apply the other kind of intelligence -- the IQ kind -- to football is through the politics involved. I deal with 44 very different kinds of guys. They see me sitting here being interviewed" -- every player passing by wasm taking it in -- "and a lot of them wish it was them instead of me. It takes some intelligence to recognize that and deal with it diplomatically. There are lots of egos here -- some big ones -- and one of the most interesting things in sports is watching them somehow work together to a common end. Players generally recognize their roles, tough as they are to swallow sometimes. Egos have to be sacrificed. Even quarterbacks'. Mine certainly had to be sacrificed last year."

In the middle of his rookie year, when Haden was studying in England during the off-season, a veteran Ram lineman began calling him "Oxford," and the name stuck. It also provided an irreverent sort of bridge across which Haden could deal with the unusual circumstances of his two lives. "Now if I pull a bonehead , somebody is sure to say in the huddle, 'Nice play, Oxford.' It 's funny the direction this takes. People are always deferring to me on how to spell, and I'm the world's worst speller."

It's clear after watching Haden with his teammates that the camaraderie is real and not forced. There is no sense of envy or hostility on the one hand or intellectual superiority on the other. The byplay in a Haden huddle is constant and real.

Says tackle Doug France: "Pat has always been one of the guys. And I mean always,m even when he was down. Pat's a survivor. We like him a lot.Always have." And Haden's roommate, safety Nolan Cromwell, adds: "Everybody likes Pat, because he's a genuine person who makes it clear that getting along with the guys is important to him. He'll be all right. he's going to do just great this year."

Neither his intelligence nor all this good feelings helped Haden much last season when Ferragamo was setting passing records (a lot of Ram fans forgot they were Haden'sm records Ferragamo was breaking) and Haden was strictly a spectator from the bench. The lowest point in his life came late in the season when Ferragamo was bumped, taken out to clear his head, and Haden went in for one sequence. On his first play in weeks, Haden was creamed when a Ram lineman missed his assignment. The ball popped from Haden's hands, was picked off by an opponent, and run for a touchdown. The stadium resounded with boos as Haden slumped off the field.

Months later, he could say: "Booing is an occupational hazard. If you're human, it's going to bother you. I happen to feel that no one with empathy or compassion for another human being would do it, but it's going to happen. and it's going to be as bad this year as it's ever been, and I have to realize that going in. It can affect you to the point where it hurts your performance if you become too conscious of it, worry about it. To block it out, you almost have to play as if you were alone in the stadium. I'm going to be as mentally tough as I can, and I'm going to overcome it."

But he is also pumping the leavening effects of humor into the situation. The day before the Rams' first exhibition game this summer, an open letter from Haden to the Rams fans appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It said in part:

"I'll be the first to admit our relationship hasn't been the best the past two years. I know. I'm short, I know I can't throw deep, and I know I'm not Italian. But please bear with me.

"I've already taken steps in an attempt to improve my image. I'm taking Italian lessons, eating more spaghetti and trying to talk my wife into changing our name to Hadenlione.

"Incidentally, those of you want to boo, that's fine with me. Of course, if you'd rather cheer, that would be more appreciated. And, if you just don't like the way I play at all, there's always a morning flight you can catch to Montreal.

"In conclusion, I'd just like to say if the Rams reach the Super Bowl, and I happen to be the quarterback at the time, I will harbor no grudges against those of you who have booed me in the past.

"I have found peace and comfort these days in my wife and children. As a matter of fact, Ryan, my youngest (12 weeks old), whispered his first words to me the other day. He said, 'Daddy, throw long on first down.'"

That's vintage Haden, and it illustrates the resources he has to draw on that set him apart from most professional athletes. The environment in which he grew up played a very large part in providing him those resources. He knows that, accepts it, and allows himself a small bit of wonder about it. "If I happened to come out better than most," he says, "it's because of my environment. I'm from a middle-class background and the seventh kid in a large, close family. I was never any more important than my brothers and sisters, and we were all kept in line. I was fortunate, and I know it."

Athletics were very much a part of his upbringing. his older brothers were into football and baseball, and Pat assimilated sports as naturally as he did literature. "I just fell into [football] as a kid. I didn't know when I went to high school that I was any good, and I turned out to be very good. Same thing at college. I work very hard at whatever I choose to do, but I'm not that much better than a lot of guys walking the street right now. They just weren't in the right place at the right time. Sure I've seized the opportunities I've had. I'm not down-playing myself. I was good. But there are a lot of other good ones out there."

He met his wife, Cindy, at USC and dated her for two years before he graduated with a Rhodes Scholarship and a fat offer from the Rams. They were married after his first year at Oxford, and Cindy spent the next two years in England with Pat. The Hadens now have three children: Natalie, 2 1/2, Kelley, 1 1/2, and four-month-old Ryan.

Although Pat majored in English literature at USC and concentrated in that area at Oxford, he has been attending law school at Loyola University in Los Angeles in the off-season and will have his law degree next year. "I'm not sure I want to practice law, but I'll have the degree for a couple of years while I'm still playing football, which should give me time to find out. What I want is to make a smooth transition from football to whatever career I select, probably in law or business."

Meanwhile, Haden seems to find the time to add a whole range of public-service activities to a life already crowded with family, football, and law school. He is simply incapable of taking on anything superficially. He's been on the board of the Crippled Children Society of Los Angeles for the past three years and he has contributed a good deal of time and effort to the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, the John Tracy Clinic, and a wide range of youth groups.

This spring he was invited to testify before a United States Senate subcommittee on violence in professional sports. Although the hearing was scratched at the last moment, Haden says: "I would have loved to speak federal laws regulating professional sports and fixing punishments for what someone assumed to be deliberate violence. I've never seen a deliberate effort to hurt a professional football player, although I understand there are a couple of people like that. I suppose that any man who can write a book titled 'They Call Me Assassin' must have a pretty perverted view. But for the few who might do it , there is some pretty effective self-policing going on. We have ways of letting them know we disapprove of it. I don't think that kind of violence is criminal, and I don't think we need federal regulations for sports."

Haden is also an accomplished -- and frequent -- public speaker, and although he has several themes he stresses, the most important to him at this moment is the direction of American athletics. "Don't get me wrong," he says earnestly. "I like to win. But it's a matter of degree and perspective. . . . I don't need anybody cracking me across the helmet to shape my character. Different personalities need different things. I don't want that. Young athletes get a very distorted view, and that's why so many of them have trouble. They're treated differently, told constantly how special they are, provided free trips, slipped money under the table, live in a world where somebody else is always picking up the tab. I could deal with that kind of attention better than ghetto kids because of my background. But none of us who got that sort of treatment had any idea what the real world was really like."

Last year, Haden's brother was a Little League coach. Pat went to one of his games and was appalled to hear the spectators shouting angrily at the coach and kids and umpires. "It was terrible, and I'm afraid it reflects the environment we live in today. There is incredible pressure on teenage kids to win. Well, it's not going to happen around my house. Those pressures aren't going to be put on my children. If they go into programs where they play competitively, I'm going to sit down with the coach and find out what kind of guy he is -- and if he's into the winning-at-any-cost syndrome, there's no way I'll let my child play for him. I'll coach a team myself, first. As soon as my kids are old enough, I'm going to take them out to learn golf and tennis. I hope we can do that the rest of our lives together, but we're not going to be breaking golf clubs if we flub a shot. We're going to enjoy it, whatever we shoot. Home is the most important part of the indoctrination of children. . . ."

Haden is an elfin man with flaxen hair, mischievous eyes and a modest stature -- for a football player -- of 5 ft. 11 in. and 185 pounds (as listed on the Rams' roster, although one suspects that must have been soaking wet). The only time he bristled was when the subject of his size came up. "That's a non-issue, " he said acerbically. "I don't know how many games I have to play before people say I'm tall enough. Or strong enough. This is my seventh year coming up; I've almost doubled the average career in professional football already. Lots of tall quarterbacks never won a Super Bowl, either, but until I do, I guess people will say I'm too small."

He also challenged reports that the Rams will have to reconstruct their offense in a less exciting way in 1981 because Ferragamo is gone. "Sure Vince was an exceptional long-ball thrower, but I can throw it a long ways, too. We will not change the offense. We'll still throw the ball deep with great regularity. I've never really played on this team, you know, never had Wendell Tyler in my backfield or this offensive line or this kind of time to throw the ball. That isn't meant to disparage Vince's year.He was spectacular, but he also had a lot of very good people around him, and now I'll have them, too."

Five months ago, Pat Haden was weighing options -- none of them being the starting quarterback of the Rams. "One option," he muses, "was to stay here and back up Vince, which wasn't particularly attractive, although it was convenient because of law school and my family being here. I knew as long as we were winning and Vince was going well, I probably wouldn't play. That's the nature of this game. But I was also beginning to discuss the possibility of a trade . . . before Vince started negotiating with Canada."

The Rams' failure to draft a quarterback this year puts the leadership mantle directly on Pat Haden's shoulders. "Sure it's gonna be tough," he says, "but I'd rather have the pressure and be playing. I'm interested in seeing how I do. I'll be watching myself as closely as anybody else. I can't complain about much. There are a whole lot of coal miners in West Virginia and steelworkers in Pennsylvania who would be happy to trade places with me."

So far -- unhappily -- he hasn't done very well. The exhibition games were a mixed bag for Haden, a good performance followed by a poor one. When he was throwing short, he moved the Rams. When he tried to throw long, he was intercepted. Then his best weapon was turned against him in the Rams' season-opening loss to the Houston Oilers. After Haden hit the Oilers with a 67 -yard touchdown pass play in the opening minute of the game, he was intercepted three times -- two of them on shortm passes picked off by an alert secondary -- and in the fourth quarter, with the Rams trailing by only three points, Haden was replaced by Jeff Rutledge, who almost salvaged the game. It was a disappointing and disheartening start for Haden, but as this is written, Coach Ray Malavasi is saying that Haden is still his quarterback, and Haden isn't arguing with that.

But he isn't hiding his disappointment, either. After the Oiler game, he said he respected Malavasi's action -- "He has difficult decisions to make, too" -- but he doesn't think he can operate permanently while looking over his shoulder toward the bench. "I don't want to throw an interception and then say, 'Oh, man, I'd better run the ball every down.' That's no way to play."

So the next few weeks will be crucial to Pat Haden's football career. But he doesm have other options. After all, the last two professional athletes who were also Rhodes scholars turned into a Supreme Court Justice (former football star Byron White) and a US senator (former basketball player Bill Bradley).

"That," Pat Haden says with a lopsided grin, "has got to put on a little pressure."

He can handle it.

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