Part Three of Former USC and Rams Tight End Bob Klein’s Talk with Denny Lennon
A Palisadian through and through, Bob Klein went to Corpus Christi School, then went to St. Monica Catholic High School in Santa Monica before attending USC on a football scholarship. The three-year starting tight end was a key part of the Trojans’ 1967 national championship team under Coach John McKay and he played in three Rose Bowl games. The 21st pick in the 1969 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams, Klein enjoyed a stellar pro career with the Rams (1969-76) and San Diego Chargers (1977-79). Over that span he had 219 catches for 2,687 yards and 23 touchowns. After a post-NFL career in real estate, the 73-year-old Klein now serves as President and CEO of the St. John’s Health Center Foundation. He and his wife JoAnn met in first grade at Corpus Christi, married after Bob graduated from USC and are active members of the Palisades community. Their daughter Kristin was a four-time All-American volleyball player at Stanford, was the 1991 Women’s Volleyball National Player of the Year and played on the USA Olympic Team in 1996 in Atlanta. Their son Jimmy played football and volleyball at Stanford and their son Patrick also played volleyball at Stanford, leading the Cardinal to their first national title in 1997. Their twin granddaughters Michaela and Caitlin led Stanford to three NCAA women’s volleyball titles. Their grandson James is a sophomore on the Stanford men’s basketball team, their grandson Dillon is a volleyball star at Loyola High and their granddaughters Kerry and Keili play volleyball at Marymount High. Bob was recently at Casablanca Restaurant in Venice for a “Sports Stories with Denny Lennon” podcast about his life, his family and his career. Here is Part Three of that interview. The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqCNhbuSNHE or visit the website: SportsStoriesDL.com.
DL: What was the run up to the 1969 NFL Draft like? Did you go to workouts at USC?
BK: Yes, pro scouts would come to USC and work you out or they’d time you. The Dallas Cowboys were really interested in me and they came two or three different times. Half of the teams wanted me as an offensive tackle and I wasn’t buying into that too much. If you look at the guys who are tight ends now they’re all my size or bigger and were good basketball players who put weight on. Those offensive tackles were the same guys, they just added another 25-30 pounds. That’s not the best thing for you when you’re done playing. So I wasn’t crazy about being a lineman. Plus, defensive players are made a little different. They want to hurt you Before games I spent some time by myself, trying to get focused because it was going to be a battle. My son Jimmy played football and I told him it’s good we didn’t play together. We wouldn’t have gotten along at all.
DL: How did you find out you got drafted?
BK: Dr. Bob Woods, who was one of the team doctors for the LA Dodgers, was very good friends with [play-by-play announcer] Vin Scully, who lived in the Palisades and went to the same church and at some point in January leading up to the draft he said, through my parents or somebody, the Rams have been inquiring about you. Then there was an article in Sports Illustrated that did a little forecast about some of the guys who might get picked early. On draft day I was sitting in my apartment with my three roommates expecting a call. The phone rang and it was one of the guys in the neighborhood who’d once taught me how to play football and he was screaming and yelling. He was in the car and they’d announced who it was. So he’s the one who told me I was drafted by the Rams. I called my parents, then a couple of the coaches called me and I did what I’d been doing for four years. I got on a PSA flight from LA to San Francisco and took my wife to dinner in Sausalito.
DL: Did you know about the Rams’ fan base, which grew because of guys like Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin?
BK: The Rams were the first team to televise their games and I used to give a little talk about this when the franchise first came back here. They had a PR guy with a funny name, Pete Rozelle, who said ‘Here they come… the first team to come out west.’ He came up with the idea of broadcasting the games. All of a sudden they were selling out the Coliseum with 100,000 fans, they’re televising the games and then other teams started coming out here.
DL: Of course Pete Rozelle became the NFL Commissioner. Was he not the one who expanded the league through television?
BK: Yes, he was. The Rams are famous for one thing—they were the first team to move west of the Mississippi River. They were also the first team to move back across it to St. Louis.
DL: How cool was it to be drafted and get to stay on the same field you played on at USC?
BK: The Coliseum is my home. That place was great! Running down through that tunnel was a very special thing. It was the same tunnel we ran through in college. They probably still have the same crappy lockers. Then we had the 1984 Olympics and that whole thrill. Then every once in awhile they’d invite some old guys back to be in the tunnel with them.
DL: So the Rams make the playoffs your rookie season and go to the coldest place possible, Minnesota. Do you remember?
BK: I caught a rollout from Roman Gabriel for the game’s first touchdown and the end zone was frozen. What they did was they covered the entire field with a tarp and put blowers underneath there. It was all dirt, there was no grass on the field. So by about the second quarter what was all dirt and mud turns into crust and the end zones were as hard as rock. Of course the people from Minneapolis think it’s the greatest thing in the whole world because it’s what they’re used to. There were no dome stadiums at the time. The Houston Astrodome was the first multi-purpose stadium and even then they’d have a rodeo on Saturday, they’d bring in Astroturf and roll that stuff out and it was like playing on carpet but a hard, hard surface and of course in those early days when you slid on that stuff it would take your skin right off.
DL: Were you prepared for the pros having played at USC?
BK: We had a lot of first round draft picks at USC because we played at a very high level and the coaches were appreciated so we were playing a caliber of ball where the pro scouts could see we were going to be able to fit in.
DL: Did you play with the Fearsome Foursome?
BK: Yes, they were still there for a couple more years. The head coach was George Allen. He was a defensive coach and had no use for anyone on offense, which is why I couldn’t believe I got drafted as a tight end. All of those defensive guys would start chuckling and laughing because he was also the defensive coordinator. So we’d have this team meeting and then he’d go with the defense. So being drafted by him was great.
DL: Roman Gabriel was the first filipino-American quarterback then eventually you played with James Harris, who became the first black American to be a starting quarterback, right?
BK: Yes. James was from Grambling, he was the first black quarterback and a fantastic man. He’s still involved with the Rams. Someone called me about a month ago and asked if I’d talk about him because they’re doing a documentary on him because of what he achieved. A real quality guy. As for Roman, he had a good arm but wasn’t real mobile. He was a pocket passer, so we always had a problem with the Vikings and the Cowboys. We just couldn’t get past them. Of course, the Vikings had Fran Tarkenton, who gave the defense fits with his scrambling. The Fearsome Foursome when I got there were Rosie Grier, Roger Brown, Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones. The only guy who’s still with us is Rosie—we lost all the rest of them. Merlin Olsen was a very bright, accomplished man. It used to drive us crazy because when the coaches got done talking Merlin would give us a talk and we’d be like ‘Sit down Merlin!’ He was a great guy and five or six years ago we had a reunion and I’ve never seen a guy be able to orchestrate something to the benefit of all of us. He was a spokesman for more great companies. I went to his funeral service and the person I enjoyed seeing most was Deacon Jones. He was still married to the same gal, we were standing outside the church in Pasadena and I said ‘How are ya’ feeling Deke?’ And he said ‘You know Bob, you could even block me now.’
DL: You would end up playing for Coach Tommy Prothro. What was he like?
BK: I’d turned him down at UCLA but he didn’t hold a grudge against me. When he became the coach of the San Diego Chargers I had retired and was in Costa Rica with a couple of guys doing a segment for “American Sportsman” and we’re fishing for tarpin out in the jungle and one night one of them says there’s a call for you on the radio phone and it’s your agent and this guy tells me the Chargers don’t have a tight end and would like me to come out of retirement and will make it worth my while. So I negotiated a deal right there over the phone, got on a plane the next day and came back. Tommy was only my coach for one year, then Don Coryell came in and that’s how I got to be part of ‘Air Coryell’ and all that.
DL: Who are some other guys you liked playing with?
BK: Lawrence McCutcheon is one of my favorite guys ever and he still works with the Rams. I grew up here in Santa Monica and played at USC with black athletes and had a lot of buddies who were black, so this whole ‘Black Lives Matter’ thing befuddles me. I’m used to having them as teammates, brothers and best friends so I don’t get it because they feel exactly what you feel, they have all the same fears and all those things that go on in life. Also Fred Dryer was an unbelievable free spirit. He was a first round draft pick for the Giants and we ended up meeting each other at the College All-Star game in Chicago, so we spent three weeks together getting to know each other, then all of a sudden he ends up getting traded to the Rams and we played together. He had a Volkswagen van and all we knew about Freddy was that he probably had the same dollar he signed with to begin with, he lived in that van and he was a hysterical man. He’d mimic Tommy Prothro, which was easy to do and he was a defensive end so we’d bang heads and stuff and we respected each other. I’ll never forget a few years after we were done playing I’m getting off the freeway in Culver City at a light and I hear beep! beep! beep! and I look behind me and see it’s Fred Dryer. So we pull over to the side of the road by Landmark Studios and he said ‘I knew it was you. I just had to tell you I got married, I settled down.’ That’s what he wanted to tell me.
DL: Was it an advantage being in LA after retirement?
BK: There are a lot of opportunities here compared to some of the smaller markets, but now you don’t really have to do anything any longer if you get seven, eight, nine, 10 years in the league.When I was playing the first thing you’re thinking about is when is this going to end? When am I going to get hurt? What am I going to do the rest of my life? That’s why I got serious in college and went back and got a master’s degree in Business at SC. How much football can you practice? You showed up at 10 and were done by 2, then I went to school in the afternoon or at night. I was getting ready for life after football. What I’m most famous for is that I actually retired when I wanted to retire, whereas most people grinded to the end.
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