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Two Big Surprises: Longshot Makes It, a Sureshot Doesn't : TERRY BAKER : He Seemed to Have It All and the Rams Went for It

April 26, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

The Rams had the first choice in the 1963 National Football League draft, and it's good to remember that had they used it to select anyone but Terry Baker they would have been vilified as fools.

The Oregon State quarterback was at the top of everyone's draft list. It was the Rams' lot, thanks to their 1-12-1 record in '62, to be first in line to take him and, as a consequence, suffer the second-guessers forevermore.

No quarterback had ever come out of college with better credentials than Terry Wayne Baker. A rival coach said: "He is the greatest college quarterback I've ever seen play."

Baker swept the college football awards--Heisman, Maxwell and Pop Warner trophies--and was a unanimous All-American. In three seasons he passed and ran for 4,979 yards, at the time the second-highest total ever.

He led Oregon State to victory in the Liberty Bowl, scoring the game's only touchdown on a 99-yard run, then, as a point guard averaging 17 points, led the Beaver basketball team as far as the NCAA semifinals. He carried a B-plus average in engineering.

The Rams signed him to an annual salary of $25,000 and gave him a $15,000 bonus.

"I thought I was wealthy," Baker said.

Not only that, but before reporting to the Rams' training camp, he led the College All-Stars to a 20-17 upset of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers--the last time the collegians beat the defending NFL champions before the series ended 13 years later.

The man was a giant killer. Terry Baker had everything. Almost.

Harland Svare was the Rams' coach when Baker arrived, having succeeded the late Bob Waterfield in mid-season of '62. Svare, now successfully selling real estate at Rancho Santa Fe, recalled that summer over the phone.

"Don Heinrich was my backfield coach," Svare said. "When Terry came to camp two weeks late after the All-Star game, he was very impressive, barking out signals, whipping around and handing the ball off.

"Then we got (into) pass warm-ups, when most quarterbacks lob the ball. They don't throw hard until they get into skeleton or seven-on-seven (drills), so he hadn't thrown the ball hard.

"But after he'd been in camp a couple of weeks and the other guys had been throwing pretty hard, we started regular passing practice. He dropped back to throw and he's still lobbing the ball around.

"I called Heinrich over and said, 'Don, go tell Terry to put something on the ball.'

"He trots over and I see 'em whispering to each other, then he trots back to me and says, 'He is.' "

At that moment, Svare began to realize that Terry Baker had everything except an NFL arm. Somehow, that singular shortcoming had escaped everybody.

"Scouting in those days wasn't nearly as thorough as it is today," Svare said. "We had never seen him drop back and throw a straight pass from the pocket.

"He was playing for Tommy Prothro up at Oregon State. He threw rolling out all the time--to the left, which was very unusual, but he was left-handed. He was all right, as long as he was rolling out, and that's why it was never picked up.

"He was a great athlete and a tremendous person. He had great command out there. He was a tremendous field general and very intelligent. He did everything he was supposed to do, except he didn't have an arm."

It didn't matter much at Oregon State because Baker was seldom asked to throw deep.

"Prothro had him doing those little short rollouts, which were very big in those days," Svare said. "It was hard to find quarterbacks throwing from the pocket, so it wasn't a terrible thing to overlook."

Baker's long passes, lacking velocity, would die in the air and drift to earth like wounded sparrows--easy marks for interceptions. The critics were not kind. Even some Ram supporters had to laugh to keep from crying.

"I hate to laugh about it because he wasn't a laughable guy," Svare said. "He went on to be a very successful man. He was not a fool. Just the opposite. Had he been able to throw the ball, he would have been one of the great quarterbacks of all time."

Still, Svare hoped to disguise Baker's anemic arm and let his other abilities compensate. He tried to slip him past Detroit in the first league game, at home in the Coliseum.

In retrospect, Baker views the opponent and the site with irony.

"I got thrown--literally and figuratively--to the Lions," Baker said by phone from his law office in Portland.

At the time the Lions had the best defensive backfield in football. Dick (Night Train) Lane and Yale Lary were headed for the Hall of Fame. Dick LeBeau would be All-Pro. They ate Baker alive. He threw three interceptions in the first half and LeBeau returned one 70 yards for a touchdown.

Svare could have started either of two more experienced quarterbacks that day--Roman Gabriel, a first-round pick in '62, or the well worn Zeke Bratkowski.

"(Svare) never said who was starting until immediately before the game," Baker said. "We got murdered. I don't think I was anywhere near prepared for that, a guy that's been with the club three weeks."

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