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Fame : Jeff Severson Earned It as a 49er, Seeks It as an Actor

February 27, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Jeff Severson, the actor, can hardly comprehend that he once was a football player. Life, as he expected it would, has gone on beautifully since all the tackles and intercepted passes, and now at 36, still blond and blue-eyed, he cruises ahead like the sleek boats on the bay in back of his Naples home and searches for new challenges.

"It's like none of it ever happened," said Severson, lounging in white shorts and sipping a beer late Sunday afternoon. "It's almost like I never played."

Severson, who was inducted Tuesday night into the Cal State Long Beach Athletic Hall of Fame, played for the university in 1969 and 1970. The former 49er defensive back holds the single-season national collegiate record for interceptions with 15. He played for nine seasons in the National Football League with Washington, St. Louis, Houston and the Rams.

The past in pads is there if he wishes to call it up. Trophies and game balls. Team photos. A burgundy and gold "W" he earned at Wilson High School.

"I enjoyed every minute," Severson said of his days in stadiums.

But yesterday has no hold on him.

'I Had Other Goals'

"I was 30 when I retired," he said. "I hurt my knee and I said, 'OK, that's somebody telling me that's it.' I had other goals. A lot of players weigh that football career as everything. Really, it's just a tiny percentage of a person's life."

Severson still puts on a football uniform occasionally, as he did in the movie "The Best of Times," in which he plays Johnny O, a star running back from Bakersfield High.

Now if only he was the star of the movie .

He appears with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell. They're on the marquee and he's not, but Severson is still striving to get up there, which was one of the other goals.

As a pro football player, he never achieved top billing--he wasn't even a starter most of the time, but he was a defensive back to be reckoned with.

"Contrary to the image you'd expect of a guy making a life in Hollywood, he was an aggressive player who had a mean streak in him on the field," said Dan Dierdorf of St. Louis, who was a Cardinal teammate of Severson's in 1976 and 1977.

Off the field, the outgoing Severson was always conscious of the future.

Appeared in 'Semi-Tough'

When he was with St. Louis, he appeared in his first movie, "Semi-Tough," which starred Burt Reynolds. Severson, who said he never made much money in football, was impressed: "I said, 'Burt, do you get a million dollars for doing this movie?' He said, 'Yeah.' "

"Semi-Tough" and "North Dallas Forty," which Severson also had a part in, had good-ol'-boy appeal which Severson was comfortable with. Enamored by country-Western music, he called himself the "Singing Safety" when he was with the Cardinals.

"My folks gave me a guitar when I was a little kid," he said. Severson has rural roots. He was born in North Dakota and lived there until he was 7, when a tornado smashed the family home and the Seversons moved to Long Beach.

He wrote some songs, including "I Don't Hurt Anymore and You Don't Hurt Any Less," "No Tell Motel," and "How Long You Been Single, Sally?"

Although he lives by the water, Severson is more at home in boots than in deck shoes. Western hats hang by his front door. He has a horse named Pete and, he says, "I like Elvis."

He has set himself up comfortably through real estate--he owns several apartment buildings in Long Beach. "When I was 21 I had a couple bucks in my pocket from football and said, 'I'm not gonna blow this.' I got my real estate license and got in the business. I had an ability to kind of hustle and scrape, dig around and look for good deals. I'm still doing deals all the time. I've been lucky and I've worked hard at it, too."

'85th Guy' on the Team

Although he has displayed a variety of talents, Severson said nothing has come naturally.

He did not play linebacker well enough at Wilson to win a major scholarship, so he went to Long Beach City College.

"I was the 85th guy" on the team, Severson said. "They gave me the last uniform. I wasn't even in the team picture."

But he became a starting player and a captain.

"Whenever anyone tells me I can't do something, my human nature makes me try 10 times as hard," Severson said. "I guess I've always had a lot of pride."

That trait inspired one of his songs: "I'd Rather Swallow a Drink Than My Pride."

From city college he went to Cal State Long Beach, where he was called "The Peach" because of his short, fuzzy hair. He learned how to play defensive back and much more from Ernie Johnson, who was the 49er defensive coach.

"He taught me about the responsibility to be a gentleman, to work hard and have some standards," Severson said. "He taught humility. He was a tremendous inspiration to me."

Johnson, now 60 and a tennis teacher at Cerritos College, said of Severson: "He was an inspiration to me . He worked so hard and came so far. He believed in himself so much. And he always has time for friends, he always keeps in touch."

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