It is Keith Lincoln’s lasting regret that, at the height of his career with the San Diego Chargers, no Super Bowl waited at the end of the rainbow.
He even regrets never being an 18-point underdog.
That may well have been the spread had there been a Super Sunday the last time the Chargers were the playoff champions of anything - 31 long years ago.
But there wasn’t. Today the Chargers must go hat-on-hat against the San Francisco 49ers in front of God and Dennis Hopper to prove America wrong. But in 1964, after the Chargers clobbered Boston 51-10 to win the American Football League title, coach Sid Gillman had the latitude to claim, “We’re champions of the world. If anyone wants to debate it, let them play us.”
No record of a response from Chicago, where the Bears - champions of the National Football League - looked down their face bars at their new-money cousins, though with considerably less disdain than the NFC now has for the AFC.
Keith Lincoln - the “Moose of the Palouse” and the original Swiss Army back - could have come down on either side of that argument, having been drafted out of Washington State University in 1961 by both the Chargers and the Bears.
He chose the Chargers - one, for the money, and two, for the sun.
Now the alumni director at WSU, he checks the rear-view mirror and sides with his old coach.
“I had a chance to play against a bunch of those guys,” Lincoln said of the Bears. “In 1961 with the College All-Star team, we were getting ready to play the Eagles in Chicago and we scrimmaged the Bears. We kicked the hell out of them. I looked at (Mike) Ditka and thought, ‘You guys aren’t all that tough.’
“Which isn’t worth a pinch now, of course.”
Speaking of a pinch, Lincoln always proved to be great in one - but never more so than on the first Sunday of 1964.
Lined up with Paul Lowe behind quarterback Tobin Rote in the Chargers’ backfield, Lincoln motored 56 yards on a sweep the first time he touched the ball. On his second carry, he took a pitchout and sprinted 67 yards for a touchdown. Minutes later, Lowe scooted 58 yards for another score.
All in San Diego’s first 10 snaps.
See, there were blowouts before there were Super Bowls.
Long before game’s end, Lincoln had amassed the most impressive statistical line in playoff history: 206 yards rushing on just 13 carries, seven receptions for 123 yards and a 20-yard completion on a halfback option pass.
“We were out of there really early,” he remembered. “I only played part of the third quarter and of those 13 carries, I promise you 10 of them were in the first half.”
The 206 yards rushing established a playoff record that lasted until 1985, when Eric Dickerson trampled Dallas for 248. The 339 all-purpose yards still rank second behind Ed Podolak’s 350 in a 1971 overtime game.
Lincoln deflects the credit to Gillman, who added some motion the Chargers hadn’t shown in two regular-season squeakers over the Pats.
“He had few peers if any as a coach,” Lincoln said, “and he had some great people working for him. Al Davis was on that staff for three years, and Chuck Noll. Bones Taylor and Jack Faulkner both went on to be head coaches.
“Sid just left a huge thumbprint on the game of football. The talk of ‘stretching the field’ that you hear today was exactly what he was saying back then.”
But, of course, there has to be personnel to go with the plan. Two of Lincoln’s teammates, tackle Ron Mix and receiver Lance Alworth, are in the Hall of Fame. John Hadl eventually took over for Rote, and the defense cast a pretty big shadow, too. Earl Faison was great. Ernie Ladd, who ‘rassled in the off-season, was great big.
And then there was Lincoln - not a moose by pro standards, but relentlessly useful as a runner, receiver, returner, kickoff man, even on defense. Sometimes he stretched the field by himself. In the Chargers record book, he owns many of the longest plays - an 86-yard run from scrimmage, a 91-yard pass reception and a 103-yard kickoff return.
Twice he was MVP of the AFL AllStar game.
“I always seemed to have my best games in the playoffs or all-star games,” he said. “There’s nothing more fun than playing in the big game.”
Well, sometimes. In the 1965 championship game, a crushing hit by Buffalo’s Mike Stratton broke Lincoln’s ribs and knocked him out of the game. The Chargers lost 20-7, and 23-0 the following year.
“Buffalo still loves that hit,” Lincoln laughed. “They say it’s one of the top plays in the history of the franchise.”
The course of football history changed when Lincoln and his like mustered up the courage to turn their backs on the NFL. They forced the merger and sired the Super Bowl - and cannot be held responsible for its deterioration into dreadful network filler.
“It allowed more people to play,” he said. “It opened up the game and brought salaries up to where they should be. It was horrible when I first came out. All-Pro guys were making $9-10,000. All-Pros! They were really getting stiffed.
“And while they used to criticize the AFL and the style of play, look what they’ve done the past few years. They’ve moved the hash marks in and changed the blocking rules. They’re doing eveything they can to let teams score more, make the field wider and let them play.”
In 1964, Keith Lincoln only wishes they’d let him play one more.
You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5576, extension 5509.