Former USC Trojans and LA Rams Football Player Bob Klein Is Still Going Strong
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 on a podcast interview for “Sports Stories with Denny Lennon” and discussed his career, his family and life in the Palisades. The link is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1SEqQ0O8j4 or visit the website: SportsStoriesDL.com.
DL: So when was actually the last time you were here at Casablanca Restaurant?
BK: It’s been a long time. For a few years I came down in a school bus and turned left at this corner on Lincoln and down to Penmar because that’s when I was at St. Monica and that’s where we actually practiced. We didn’t have our own field, in fact they still don’t. So we came down there and got it done and we did win some football games so that didn’t go too bad at all. And of course I’ve been here a number of times through the years. It’s a great restaurant.
DL: I read on Wikipedia that you were born in South Gate? Is that correct?
BK: Yes, in a clinic—no hospital. My mom was a native born Angelino and she met my dad during the second World War at Douglas Aircraft. My dad flunked out of flight school but he wanted to be associated with planes so he started building planes and met my mom and that’s how it all started. In our family we’ve got a big tradition of volleyball, we love volleyball, and that’s where my mom and dad met. They met down at Sorrento on the beach in Santa Monica. They both lived in apartments up on the Palisades and you go down the incline and that’s where you ended up. My whole childhood was spent on the beach, that’s what we did. And that’s why I have skin damage all over, from the sun.
DL: How long was it before you moved into the Palisades?
BK: Well, fortunately enough I had a contract with the Rams right when I got out of college. JoAnn, my wife, and I started first grade together at Corpus Christi in the Palisades. I got that professional contract, so we got married right after graduation and started a family. She got pregnant on the honeymoon and we had our first (and only) daughter nine months and six days after our wedding day.
DL: I understand Corpus Christi has always been at the same location in the Palisades. Were your parents one of the original families there?
BK: Yes, they were part of the founding group of parents and parishioners that started that church. At the time there were evidently a couple pieces of property that were available from the archdiocese. One was that site where they’re on and the other one was where St. Matthew’s is, up Bienveneda, which is a beautiful piece of property with big grounds, but at the time that was kind of outside the Palisades because things didn’t rreally go too much further than Bienveneda or Las Casas and some of those streets, so they wanted to be in the center of town. I grew up on Lower Bienveneda and spent my whole life in the Palisades. I’ve never left—it’s the only place I’ve ever lived. We got married, I signed a contract, bought my house and we’ve stayed there ever since.
DL: I know the YMCA played a big part in a lot of young people’s lives. Was it built yet?
BK: No, it hadn’t started yet. The only thing we did have is we had the new Palisades park (now called the Palisades Recreation Center) and it had a gymnasium, the same old gymnasium that’s there now, so the thing we had that kind of kept us busy was little league baseball, we had that, and there was a basketball league there. No high school yet, so that was pretty much what kids did, besides the beach. The beach was a big part of our lives.
DL: Is that how you got to know a lot of your friends, playing and recreating at the beach?
BK: The way I met a lot of kids I ended up going to high school with and stuff was at Nini’s at the Beach, where I worked and we served Nini’s famous weenies. Austin Nienhauser was a guy who my sister, who is two years older than me, worked for along with a bunch of kids from St. Monica’s and so she asked me ‘Do you want to go to work?’ You get paid $1.50 an hour (which was a lot then) and so I learned to be a sort order cook. To this day, I can still cook. It was better for me to be behind the grill because when I first started there I was at the window and as soon as your friends find out you’re at the window, they want everything!
DL: Was there anyone who took an interest in you who coached your youth teams and said ‘Hey, you’re kind of good at this?’
BK: Well, on the street I grew up on, Lower Bienveneda, every single house was full of kids. All young families. So it just so happens that on either side of our house are two guys, Dick Hay and Woody Bray and these guys played at Santa Monica College out of Samohi. I was a big gangly kid and I would babysit for them and when they found out that I was a freshman and starting to play football, I’d go over to babysit and I’d get 15 minutes of what an arm shiver was or how to get a guy off of you, so I had that kind of upbringing. Also, I was biog, so naturally they were going to turn me into a football player. Of course, football has been fantastic, but I’ve loved every sport that I’ve been involved with. I played a lot of basketball and baseball, I couldn’t hit a curve so I knew baseball was not going to be a long career for me. It was a neighborhood and a community where there were tons of kids, families had one car, they didn’t have two cars, we did a lot of things at the beach, we did a lot of things in the community and it was a great place to grow up.
DL: What was it that made you choose St. Monica? Were you considering Loyola?
BK: Loyola was in my consideration, yes. There were 65 kids in our graduating class—that’s who many there were in a first grade. There were no split classes. Can you imagine being a teacher trying to handle 65 kids? One class, 65 kids, and that’s why it was okay for teachers to put their hands on you, pull your ears, slap your hand or do whatever it might take. Of course, by the time we got to junior high school we were much better behaved. Anyway, back then there was no Santa Monica Freeway, so how do you get to Loyola on Venice way downtown. Out of our class there were about 35 guys and only three went to Loyola because their dads worked in downtown L.A. and the way you got there was Venice or Olympic—one of those. So for me, going to St. Monica was convenient, the No. 9 Blue Bus ran back and forth and also, frankly, the way I got home back and forth was hitchiking, which wouldn’t be heard of now. I could stand right down there on the corner of Chautauqua and PCH and everybody knew me. I stood there for
two minutes before I got picked up and dropped off. So the bus and no cars made St. Monica the right fit and it was great.
DL: At that time there were catholic school rivalries. Was St. Bernard just starting?
BK: They had and they were our big rival. The teams that were really competitive were Bishop Montgomery, which was also just starting—we played them in basketball quite a bit—and Alemany had some good athletes, but St. Bernard was really the big one in the Angelus League. We played teams every once in awhile like Mater Dei when they were I think the only catholic high school in Orange County. We played them in the Santa Ana Bowl down there. Woody Bray was my coach—he was a Samohi guy.
DL: You were a four-sport athlete at St. Monica, right? You played football, basketball, baseball and ran track?
BK: Yes, I ran a leg on the relay team. So before I started having serious orthopedic issues from football I could really move quite well. I’ve had six knee operations so before that, before my first knee operation I was pretty quick, I ran on the relay team and I ran the 440-yard dash, which is a death march, and I threw the shot. As a matter of fact I ended up doing really well in CIF my senior year throwing the shot put and the reason was that Woody Bray (my coach) went to Samohi and had a guy in his class named Parry O’Brien, who had happened to throw the shot in four Olympics. So one day they talked him into coming over and helping me out and it’s my senior year. So I’m going to USC on a football scholarship, I didn’t play football my senior year because I was badly injured the last game of my junior year, so I was not allowed to play. I played basketball and I ran track, but I started working out. I started lifting weights when no one was doing that stuff. The only guys who were doing it were at Muscle Beach and other places. So the combination of lifting weights and Parry’s coaching is what did it. We had finished league and were going into CIF playoffs and the first thing he does is tell me to stop lifting weights. We went to league finals (I stopped lifting weights the week before) and I threw like five or six feet further. My body was just better rested and I didn’t need that other stuff. So I ended up running track and I had a great time doing that. Again, we didn’t have a track so you know where we practiced? Remember Memorial on Olympic? We ran around the infield, we ran around the baseball diamond, he had a clock on us and that’s how we did it. So I guess you could say we made due.
DL: In your junior and sophomore years how did you balance four sports or was that just always a part of your life?
BK: It wasn’t hard juggling sports and academics. Most of us figured out that the more free time you have the more trouble you get in. So you can fit it all in. I really learned a lesson because the schools that I kind of aspired to go to—UCLA, USC and Notre Dame—and then I had an inkling to go to the Ivys because my dad’s brother was a well known football player at Dartmouth. They grew up in Chicago and as a matter of fact they hired his high school coach in Evanston, Illinois to become the head coach at Dartmouth and 14 guys went to Dartmouth all in the same year. There were different standards in those days. The coach’s name was Bob Blackman when I was coming out of high school and when I was a sophomore he started recruiting around the United States. So I had an uncle who played, I had this guy who was talking to me, so I started looking at that. The standards for the Ivy League schools were a little bit higher than the West Coast out here so I knew I had to be serious if I really wanted to consider that. It was always on my mind, but when push came to shove and I really needed to select the people who were advising me were saying if you can go to Notre Dame and USC and UCLA, you oughta be thinking about staying out here. The University of Washington also recruited me. Of course now, my grandkids get recruited and they go on trips and I don’t understand the rules frankly, but in my day you couldn’t go on a trip until you were a senior. You got to go on three recruiting trips, so I went to Washington, USC and Notre Dame. When I went to Washington it was the first time I’d ever flown on an airplane. That’s kind of how simple things were in those days. When I went to Notre Dame I flew into O’Hare and got on a little DC-3 and flew into South Bend. Tommy Prothro was the coach at UCLA and one of the things they did there that intrigued me was that they had John Wooden call me a couple times and let me know that I would be very welcome to play basketball. So if you think about that team—and I ended up going to USC, which I’ll never regret—but that Bruins team had Lew Alcindor, Lucius Allen and Lynn Shackelford, so there would’ve been some place for me. So I ended up going to USC and playing on a national championship football team and I could’ve gone the other way and maybe hung around and hey, who knows?
DL: Was Notre Dame strong in football at that time?
BK: With Jack Snow, John Huarte and that whole group with Ara Parseghian so yes, they were starting an era where they’d be dominant for many, many years to come.
DL: Who was most helpful in deciding where to go?
BK: The person that was the most influential about helping me decide where I was going to end up going was the Principal at St. Monica. He called me in, closed the door, and said ‘for me as a priest it’s kind of sacrilegious for me to be doing this, but what do you want to do when you get out of school? I said I wanted to be a business man and he said ‘Well, where do you want to live?’ and I said Southern California. So he said ‘Go to SC!’ The other reason is that my wife JoAnn, we grew up together, went to school at Dominican College in San Rafael and I’m down here and so we were together a lot more than we were apart.
DL: You ended up at USC, but besides John McKay recruiting you did anyone else come to the house?
BK: The guy who was really great with my parents was Tommy Prothro. Very cordial, slow talking and just loved to sit and chew the fat with my parents. I had a couple meals with Coach at the restaurant where he did all his recruiting and I turned him down, then I get drafted by the Rams and guess who ends up being my coach? Tommy Prothro. He was great for me, he was a character of a guy. Always carrying a briefcase and a Coke in the other hand.
DL: I have a picture of you diving for the ball in basketball against Lew Alcindor of UCLA. Do you remember that?
BK: I got that ball! He wouldn’t go down on the ground to get the ball. I got down on the ground to get it. I’ll tell you another story. Remember Roy Firestone? This is about six or seven years ago and my son-in-law is Adam Keefe, who played professional basketball. So he’s watching the Roy Firestone Show and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) is on and Roy asks him who was the dirtiest player he ever played against. Kareem said ‘A guy from SC, Bob Klein.’ Can you imagine that? All those years later I made that impression on that guy. I was not dirty—I don’t have that in me, but the ball’s down on the ground and it’s my ball just as much as it is your ball. I was maybe 240 pounds. Coach Mulligan who was the freshman coach at the time said you gotta get a different game for this guy. That shot you just tried to take is going to come back down to your knee, your gonna eat the ball, so we played a little differently. That was the year the UCLA freshmen beat the varsity in the intrasquad game and it was the year Pauley Pavilion had just opened.
DL: I know on offense you guys stalled to work the clock a little bit, but how did you defend the greatest scorer in the history of basketball?
BK: I just leaned into him a little. What can you do? He was holding the ball higher than I could jump. It was fantastic and I have great memories of that part of it, because he remembers me.
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