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An Aging Grace : He Never Made Pros, but at 41, Quarterback's Sandlot Play Is Poetry

August 21, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

"Life is to be a participant, not a spectator."

--Tom Nordee

The king of sandlot football is 41 now and still rules all those games of touch on the bluff that overlooks the ocean in Long Beach. His hair--and dreams of making the pros--are on the way out, but there is no need to say farewell to his right arm, which is as golden as ever.

Tom Nordee, wearing a cap to cover the bald spot, used that arm last weekend in San Diego to throw enough touchdown passes to make looking for even a hint of tarnish unnecessary.

Nordee led his Belmont Station team to five straight victories in the Southern California Flag Football Championships, which for him was nothing new. He's always had that arm, a creative brain to direct it and a desire to lead others to victory.

"We want Nordee" was the chant on a fall Saturday in 1965. Nordee was sent in at quarterback for Long Beach City College near the end of the season's final game. Hand the ball off, the coach said. Nordee did. Same thing, the coach said. I want to score, I'm a passer, thought Nordee, and he threw a touchdown pass. As his friends carried him off the field, he knew he was in heaven.

Until that day, Nordee had never played in a high school or college game. At 128 pounds, he had been too skinny to make the Poly High team. He swam and played water polo but what he loved was throwing a football. So he played in the parks of Long Beach and began to build a career as a masterful amateur quarterback.

Last weekend, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Nordee, still in heaven, threw a touchdown pass almost the length of the field to Michael Willis, who had to run like the wind to catch it. Nordee, with the self-assured grin that is often perceived as arrogance, came to the sidelines and said, "The old man can still throw 80 yards."

That arm, it seems, has forever been throwing "bombs."

On an afternoon of war in 1967, Nordee, a medic, was full of rage near Phan Rang, South Vietnam. He had just seen a close friend die in an ambush. Nordee pulled the pin on a grenade and faded back as if looking for a receiver in the rice paddy in front of him. A Viet Cong, about 80 yards away, was running what to Nordee resembled a post pattern (where a receiver runs toward the goal posts), so Nordee let go with a "pass" and, as always, was on target.

Players on the Belmont Station team, practicing recently on the grass bluff, said it was sad that Nordee never made it to the National Football League.

" This is his NFL," said Dennis Byrd, a former Cal State Long Beach player.

If not that, the bluff--which draws former professional and college players--certainly is his kingdom, and Nordee can look down on it from his 17th-floor apartment on Ocean Boulevard at Cherry Avenue.

On his balcony, Nordee, who is also a competitive body surfer, said, "A beach and a football field--what more can you want?"

Inside the apartment are 16 years' worth of trophies which Nordee won for leading semipro, touch and flag teams to championships, and for being the most valuable player of several leagues.

'I Like to Win'

"I like to win," said Nordee, who once shattered a trophy against a tree because it was for second place. "If I'm jogging on the beach and someone passes me, I'll drive myself to sprint."

Nordee's brother, David, 38, who has caught a lot of his passes, said: "He's a legend in his own time. He's probably the best sandlot player in the world. He's a born leader. Give him an offensive line and I know he'd riddle any team. He always comes out on top."

Young players try to beat Nordee in pickup games on the bluff but rarely do. Sparkling like the ocean behind him, he riddles them, then laughs good-naturedly at them.

"When I first came out here, I said, 'Who is this old quarterback?' " said Kevin Stinson, 27. "But the first time I saw him throw, he had my respect. He's shown us all something."

Often, if there is no one else to play with, Nordee, a kid at heart, is on the bluff with children, showing them how to catch passes.

Several Pro Tryouts

Nordee has tried out with several pro teams but never had much of a chance. In 1974, when he was 29, the Rams told him he was too old. This summer, at 41, the Birmingham Stallions of the United States Football League told him he was too old, although he really didn't believe it. Only last season, playing for the Bellflower Bears, he was named the most valuable player of the High Desert semipro league.

"I've tried," said Nordee, a counselor at Cypress College, "but I don't think I'll do it again, I don't think anything will materialize. I might do it for fun, though. It's ego-gratifying to do better than some hotshot rookie."

Tom Fears, a member of the National Professional Football Hall of Fame who once watched Nordee have a bad day while trying out for the L.A. Express, said, "He has the ability but he's way over age. Nobody will touch him."

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