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BACK UP AS BACKUP : Laufenberg Makes Career Out of Waiting for NFL Quarterbacks to Get Hurt

October 09, 1985|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Jeff Laufenberg, who doubles as Babe Laufenberg's agent and oldest brother, was sitting at home two Sundays ago, icing the little finger on his right hand.

The pinky was dislocated during a game of catch earlier in the day, having been struck by a football thrown by Babe during a workout at Westchester High.

As Babe and his younger brother, John, continued to work out, Jeff was at home nursing the injury when the phone rang.

It was the San Diego Chargers.

Dan Fouts had torn a ligament in his right knee, and the Chargers were down to one healthy quarterback. Their first call was to Babe, a 25-year-old former Crespi High star who was cut last month by the Washington Redskins.

And just like that, Babe was back in the National Football League.

"I guess it was a good thing he hurt me so I could be there to take the call," Jeff said.

He was laughing, but it seemed somehow appropriate that Jeff's injury coincided with Babe's return to the NFL. The very existence of third-string quarterbacks in the league this season has depended in many cases on somebody getting hurt.

Since the league's owners voted last winter to lower the roster limit this season from 49 to 45 players, third-string quarterbacks have become an endangered species.

Last season, each of the league's 28 teams carried three quarterbacks. But when the 1985 season opened last month, 13 teams were carrying only two.

One of those 13 was the Redskins, who chose Jay Schroeder over Laufenberg as Joe Theismann's backup. Laufenberg had a big second half in a 37-36 exhibition victory over New England (12 of 21 passing for 200 yards), but the next week, in the Redskins' final preseason game against Tampa Bay, he never left the bench.

Two days later, he was cut.

And Laufenberg, who spent two seasons in Washington without getting into a regular-season game, went back to leading the vagabond lifestyle he led in college, when his career took him to four schools, including Pierce.

The Chargers were the first to offer what Jeff calls an "injury-protection" workout, in which potential signees are given a physical exam, looked over by the coaches and told, basically, "Don't call us, we'll call you."

He had similar tryouts with the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers. On Sept. 30, the day he signed with the Chargers, the Raiders called. And he had to cancel a tryout with the Buffalo Bills.

"Vagabond has a negative connotation," Laufenberg said last week while poring over the Chargers' playbook during a lunch break at Jack Murphy Stadium. "I've moved around, but I'm an opportunist. I go where opportunity knocks."

The loudest knock was made by the Chargers, who were the first to offer a contract.

Laufenberg came highly recommended by Washington Coach Joe Gibbs, a former Charger assistant. And he had another advantage: Washington's offense is similar to San Diego's.

"He was the first guy we got ahold of," said Ernie Zampase, Charger assistant in charge of the passing game. "We just thought he could make that conversion (to a new offense) more quickly than anyone else. Plus, we liked what we saw in the workout. . . .

"He's a very intelligent guy. He has throwing ability. He seems like a real tough guy, with a lot of moxie. He's sort of a take-charge guy."

But he won't be given much of a chance to take charge in San Diego--at least for a while. He's here to back up starter Mark Herrmann and to emulate the opposition's quarterback in practice.

By the time he's comfortable running the offense, Fouts may have recovered from the injury that is expected to sideline him for three to six weeks.

And Laufenberg may be back in the unemployment line.

"We'll have to make a decision at that time depending on what happens with the rest of the ballclub," Zampase said.

Said Laufenberg, laughing: "Anything can happen. I certainly realize that."

And how.

Laufenberg, heavily recruited out of Crespi after passing for 1,793 yards as a senior in 1977, turned down offers from USC, Washington and Notre Dame, among others, to sign with Stanford, where he was redshirted as a freshman. Before his second season on the Farm, however, the Cardinal brought in John Elway. Exit Laufenberg, who headed for Missouri.

But Missouri, with Phil Bradley at quarterback, was running a veer offense. And Laufenberg, who didn't like the school anyway, wasn't about to adjust to the running game.

He left after one semester, returning to his parents' home in Canoga Park and planning to start all over again at Pierce.

He threw for more than 1,600 yards at Pierce in 1980, signed with Indiana and finally settled in for two seasons in Bloomington. As a senior, he set a Hoosier record for passing yards (2,468).

The Redskins drafted him in the sixth round of the 1983 draft.

But he never played.

Theismann, he said, never wanted to come out of a game.

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