For many years, Charlie Cowan was the Los Angeles Rams. Oh, you probably never heard about him much. He was part of the Foreign Legion of Football, the offensive line. The infantry. The foot soldiers, not the four horsemen. If he got his name in the paper, it was because he did something wrong. He got caught holding or he missed the block. So, Charlie didn't get in the papers much. He didn't miss many blocks.
He didn't get his hands on the football unless someone dropped it, but he took care of the guy who got it.
He wasn't in charge of the Rams entirely, but he was in charge of the quarterback. An offensive line is like the Secret Service. If anything happens to its president, i.e., the quarterback, heads roll. And not only the quarterback's.
The defensive line got gaudy nicknames like "the Fearsome Foursome," the "Purple People Eaters." Deacon Jones got to be "Secretary of Defense." An offensive lineman was "Hey, you!"
The Rams weren't going anywhere without Charlie Cowan. He went 6 feet 5, about 250 and he was as fast as bad news. He could sink a helmet into a hard belly with the best of them. He was part of the best front five in football--Cowan and Bob Brown at tackles, Tom Mack and Joe Scibelli at guards, Ken Iman at center.
He had some of the registered monsters of the NFL to stick that helmet in. You couldn't use your hands on the offensive line in those days. And the defense would come in, head-slapping you like Muhammad Ali at his best. It was no place to be with Willie Davis, Dick Butkus, Alex Karras or Bob Lilly coming at you with murder in their hearts and plaster on their arms. Ax murderers had nothing on them.
For 14 years, he shoved people around, making them bump into each other or fall over. He played under five Ram coaches, and none of them had to worry about right tackle so long as Charlie was healthy--which he always was.
He played in the Golden Age of Ram football. It was nothing for 100,000 fans to show up for the 49er game in those days. Nobody was moving the Rams to Anaheim or St. Louis or anywhere else when Charlie was clearing a path for them. He could lead a sweep or pass-block with the best of them.
But that was then--the middle '60s and early '70s. This is now.
There comes a time when the music stops and they take the balloons down and the cheering is for someone else.
Cowan needs someone to lay a block, to run interference for him now. He's in a goal-line stand of his own. His kidneys are shot, and the exchequer is low. They didn't pay those million-buck signing bonuses back in Charlie's day. He got all those concussions and contusions at day laborers' pay, relatively. What did we know then of multimillion-dollar contracts?
Cowan saw to it nobody pulled Roman Gabriel's helmet--or head--off. Now he needs somebody to block for him.
For a guy whose nickname is "the Galloping Ghost," the holes are as easy to find in society as in the other game. For a guy who really is a ghost, who has played in semi-anonymity all his career, the situation is often fourth and long.
That's where Cowan is today. The Ram days are yesterday's roses, as long gone as the Edsel. And Charlie's in the hospital, his daughter Nathalie tells us. Hyperglycemia is on the other side of the line of scrimmage this time and as hard to lay a block on as Butkus at his best.
Cowan is having trouble staying in the lineup these days. He goes to dialysis four times a week. His best friend is a machine.
The sad fact is, he's not alone. A list of players who have ended up behind the line of scrimmage, beset by illness and dire need, could read like a '60s Pro Bowl scorecard. George Strugar and Duane Allen are a couple of ye olde Rams who have fallen on desperate times, prey to catastrophic illnesses.
There is no way to measure how much of this is a legacy of a lifetime of collisions between 250-pounders running at full speed. But no one ever argued it was good for you.
Many games honor their pioneers. They name leagues after them, write poems about them, make movies about them. They put them in halls of fame, retire their uniforms, frame their autographs.
But sometimes, all they want is for their doctors' bills to be paid. Sometimes they just want to be around to enjoy the fruits of their retirement.
The NFL had always been a contributor to charity, United Way among others. But not till 1987 did it notice that some of the neediest cases included many of the thousand or so of its own alumni who played the game before 1959, when the Bert Bell Pension Plan was first implemented. Guys who built the pro game playing for $50 a game and a free lunch were finally being thanked.
So, it gives me great pleasure to announce that, next Wednesday, May 21, the Los Angeles Chapter of the NFL Alumni is staging a "Dire Need" banquet to raise money for the game's walking wounded, guys who laid blocks, spearheaded pile-ups, ate mud, chased ballcarriers in L.A. in the days before "Monday Night Football" upped the ante. And now they need someone to run interference for them.
The site will be the Westin Hotel at Los Angeles Airport. Tickets are available. Call (714) 558-3211.
Charlie Cowan needs a new kidney. Some of his contemporaries need heroic surgery. The Fearsome Foursome will be there. Jack Kemp, Les Richter, Ollie Matson, the coaches and players from the glory years will be there.