Tom Ramsey has had the kind of football career that's usually good enough to get a quarterback a guest shot in one of those Lite beer commercials:
At Kennedy High in Granada Hills, he started for three years, completed 65% of his passes and made the All-City team as a senior.
At UCLA, he started as a freshman, led the nation in passing efficiency as a senior, broke the school total-offense record held by Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban, and was called the best quarterback in the country by then-USC Coach John Robinson.
In the United States Football League, he started as a rookie for the Los Angeles Express, completed more than 50% of his passes and was called the "future of the franchise" by his coach, Hugh Campbell. Unfortunately, the franchise had no future.
In the National Football League, he threw a touchdown pass in his first exhibition game for the New England Patriots and led them to a victory over the Washington Redskins.
In reality, Ramsey has had everything a quarterback would want in a career. And less.
Despite the impressive statistics and accolades, Ramsey somehow has never wowed the public or the press. It could be because he's a steady-but-unspectacular athlete who would never get nicknamed "Broadway Tom." Or maybe the reason Ramsey has managed to win football games and not hearts is bad timing--not in his passing, but in his life.
Consider high school. It was just his luck that his home town happened to have another outstanding quarterback at the same time Ramsey was at Kennedy. While Ramsey was steady at Kennedy, John Elway was flashy at Granada Hills High. While Ramsey threw efficient short passes, Elway unloaded crowd-pleasing bombs.
At UCLA, Ramsey led the Bruins to a victory in the 1983 Rose Bowl and wound up with school records for touchdowns and completions. Again, he didn't capture anyone's imagination the way Elway did at Stanford that season, or the way Dan Marino did at Pittsburgh, Tony Eason at Illinois and Todd Blackledge at Penn State.
The pros were not overly thrilled, either.
Ramsey expected to be a high draft choice, but the Express picked him in the fifth round, the Patriots in the 10th. In his second season with the Express, he was beaten out of the starting job by rookie Frank Suerer, but came off the bench to pull out a victory in the third game. The next day, the Express made quarterback Steve Young an instant millionaire, and Ramsey was quickly traded to the Oakland Invaders.
When the Invaders waived him in the summer of '84, he signed with the Patriots and had that good exhibition game against the Redskins. But four days later, he dislocated his thumb in practice and spent the rest of the season on injured reserve.
His luck hasn't changed this year.
Before the season, Patriots Coach Raymond Berry told him that the team would keep three quarterbacks: Tony Eason, Steve Grogan and Ramsey. A week into the season, the Patriots, with injuries on their offensive line, signed another lineman and cut Ramsey.
At 24, he was out of a job. Ramsey returned to L. A., had an unsuccessful tryout with the Raiders and waited by the phone. His confidence never wavered.
"I knew I'd be back," he said. "It was just matter of what team needed help first."
Five weeks after he was cut, the Patriots needed help. Eason had suffered a separated left shoulder and Ramsey had another chance.
"My pro career's been a roller-coaster ride," said Ramsey, in town with the Patriots for their playoff game today against the Raiders. "I've certainly done a lot of traveling back and forth from one coast to the other. But that's the game. That's what you accept when you're part of the business. If you can't handle it, you're not going to be around."
Ramsey's timing is still off-kilter. He has been practicing as the Patriots' backup quarterback ever since Grogan suffered what was initially thought to be a career-ending fractured leg six weeks ago. If Eason had been hurt during a game, Ramsey would have gone in. But Eason stayed healthy and Ramsey never got to play. And now, Grogan seems to have recovered ahead of schedule. He was activated Friday, and Berry said that Eason's emergency replacement probably would be Grogan, not Ramsey, although Grogan calls himself "a cripple."
"I'd be disappointed if I didn't play," Ramsey said. "I think it would be a lot of fun to get in there--even if it is against the Raiders. I'd be in the game. It'd be a great opportunity."
Even though he's in the NFL, Ramsey still has warm feelings toward what he says is an underrated USFL.
"The NFL is not a sacred cow," he said. "I hate to disappoint people, but the NFL is not the only form of football there is. Craig James also started out in the USFL, and we both agree--people don't recognize the talent there.
"The NFL is geared to size, speed and strength, but they don't measure a guy's heart. There were a lot of good players in the USFL."
Ramsey realizes that a professional football career for most players is over quickly, and he's preparing himself for that eventuality by "dabbling in real estate" and radio and television. Although he'd like to stay with the Patriots, he knows where he's going to be when his career ends. And it's not in New England.
"I prefer the West Coast much, much more," he said.