Walt Sweeney, the Chargers perennial all-star guard, passed away this weekend after a short, but intense battle with pancreatic cancer. I was fortunate to have known Walt over the last 15 years, and while he had his demons in drugs and alcohol, I know that Walt Sweeney was a good and caring person. I did the following interview with Walt in December of 1998, at his home at Lake Tahoe.
WS – As far as strategy and passing stuff goes, I really can’t help you too much there. I knew if there was a guy on me, I had to block him. That’s pretty much it. That’s why I’m not coaching.
AFL - That’s what Ron Mix told me. That the offensive linemen didn’t learn a whole lot about the offense. Did you see any changes in the offense as you went on with the Chargers? Things that Gillman introduced later in your career that wasn’t around in the beginning?
WS – I can’t think of anything, no.
AFL - How do you think your job as an offensive lineman may have been different in Gillman’s offense than it would have been in the team you played for in college or other teams around the AFL or NFL?
WS – Well, we had to pass block a lot more. That’s for sure. Sid was big on sweeps. I wasn’t an offensive lineman in college, I was a tight end and defensive end. My blocking skills left a lot to be desired when I got here. It was really a whole different ball game for me. But I was fast and Mix was fast and he put both of us on the right hand side so he could run a lot of quick tosses and a lot of sweeps. I think we probably ran more sweeps than anyone else in those days, and we were pretty successful at it with Paul Lowe and Lincoln.
AFL - I’d heard that Gillman was one of the first coaches to bring in really large linemen as opposed to some of the smaller guys. He actively recruited larger people. Is that something that you recall?
WS – Well we had Ernie Ladd. They’re all like Ernie Ladd these days. Yeah, we did have a big defensive line. We had Gross who was about 280 and Earl was way up there and Ernie was 320. Was Sid with the Rams when they had the Fearsome Foursome?
AFL - No, that came along later.
WS – They recruited me to be a middle linebacker, but Chuck Noll was the coordinator and didn’t really want me on defense. I came in with kind of a bad reputation. I wasn’t that big, When I left Syracuse I was 235 and I remember when Sid drafted me he told me to tell the press I was 250. I don’t know if that helps you there, but we did have a big defensive line. Probably bigger than most of the teams back in those days.
AFL – Can you draw any comparisons from Gillman to today’s West Coast Offense?
WS – No. I really am not a student of the game. I don’t even know what the West Coast Offense is. I know that guys like Bill Walsh got a lot of stuff from Sid. And Al Davis still picks his brain. The guy still studies film. I love Sid and he loved me too. If you played for him, he took care of you. He was real hard on guys that didn’t go all out.
AFL - Gillman was the first coach to use film and Polaroid film as a coaching tool. How did that help the team? Did you get a lot of film in college at that point, or was this something new?
WS – No. I think maybe we watched the game film in college a couple of days after the game. That was it. But spent as much time looking at film with the early Chargers as we did on the practice field.
AFL - As well, Gillman introduced weight training to football. He was the first one to bring in a full time strength coach, Alvin Roy in ‘63. How did that help the team?
WS – I know it was a tremendous help to me. I never lifted weights in school and I don’t think I could have played as long as I did if it hadn’t been for weights. But I remember those first days in Rough Acres when they introduced me to weights and Alvin told Sid that he thought he made a mistake making me a number one draft choice because I wasn’t very strong, couldn’t block and just hated the whole goddam thing. But we had one of the strongest teams and like I said, Sid was the first guy to have a full time strength coach. Plus we took dianabol, but don’t put that in there.
AFL - Well, that was another one of my questions. Many people have told that Alvin Roy introduced uppers and steroids to the team.
WS – I don’t think he introduced uppers. Uppers had been around football since the beginning of time. They are still around football. But he saw the Russians were taking dianabol and he thought it would be a good idea if we took it. Everyday he came around with two little pink pills and if we didn’t take them we were fined. We were only fined $50.00, but that was what we were making for an exhibition game and that was what guys were feeding their families on back then.
AFL - So that kind of thing was pushed pretty strongly?
WS – Oh absolutely.
AFL - Now do you think that was something that was all Alvin Roy’s thoughts or ideas, or was that something that Gillman did?
WS – I think it was Alvin. Like I said, Alvin was an Olympic strength coach and he saw how big and strong these Russians were and he talked Sid into it. That’s what I think, anyway. I only took them for three weeks my rookie year. But Mix told me they were around for years there were guys taking them. I was too involved with other mind-altering chemicals.
AFL - Was other stuff like that pushed on by the team, other than just the steroids, like the uppers?
WS – They weren’t really pushed. They were available. When I was at the college all-star game a guy told me who used to play for Clemson, he’d been taking them since high school. He was in charge of them at Clemson. Like I said, they’d been around for ever. And guys took them before, when they wanted them, they were available.
AFL - Gillman is also credited by some as opening the game to the black athlete by having so many blacks on his team at a time when most teams had two, four black athletes. As well, having black and white athletes room together on the road. He was the first to do that. Can you comment on that at all?
WS – I know that he integrated his training camp and like you said, on the road I used to room with Larry Little. Remember Larry Little? He went on to be all-pro for the Miami Dolphins. He was a guard. I didn’t know that he was the first.
AFL - Of all this, what do you think Gillman did to most change the game? What do you think was his greatest contribution?
WS – Well probably his strategy for the passing game. Everyone gives Air Coryell all kinds of credit. Don Coryell’s a hell of a coach, but he picked up all that passing strategy from Sid when he was at San Diego State. He was an innovator with the passing game and I think people are still using his theories.
AFL - How was Gillman as a coach? How did he make you a better player?
WS – He was a guy… My dad got killed when I was two, and I looked at Sid as sort of a father figure and I wanted him to like me and I wanted to do well for him. And I liked him a lot. I just think I went out and tried my best for him. More so than I would probably for other coaches. He motivated me that way.
AFL - Can you tell me about the Rough Acres Ranch training camp?
WS – Yeah. I had just come from the college all-star game where we beat the Packers. Sid sent me a bunch of brochures about what our training camp was going to be like. It was supposed to be a million dollar dude ranch. This beautiful place. And I was just shocked when I saw this fucking place. It was like a bunch of shacks on an old sand hill. There was sand on the field there was spiders and snakes all over the place. The showers were outdoors, which was all right. But it was very Spartan. I think that was one of the reasons why we won that year, because of that training camp. Even though I wasn’t there, I missed three weeks with the all-star game. But it was a very Spartan existence and it was good for us.
AFL - How do you think it helped you win that year?
WS – It just gave us a certain amount of discipline, I think. There was no frills, we went out and worked hard on this lousy field, the hot weather. Then we had to lift all this iron afterwards and there was only two bars in town so I think it helped the camaraderie of the team. Because all the guys ended up going down to these two places, where as now they are all over the joint. I think that had a big effect on the team, brought us closer together.
AFL - The ‘63 Chargers were probably the best Chargers team ever. What made that team better than some of the others that went to the divisional championship, but didn’t end up winning it all?
WS – I just think it had more talent. A lot of talent. Real good defense. And probably one of the last Charger teams that had that good of defense. The Chargers could always score points, but couldn’t stop anybody. Basically I think the defense was better than the teams that came after that.
AFL - Discuss the feelings of the team going into the AFL championship game with Boston in ‘63. You guys had barely beaten them twice during the year. What were the feelings going into the game?
WS – My feelings were just like going into any other game. I thought we were going to win. I was surprised that we won by as much as we did. I was real excited, my rookie year, we were in the championship game. I thought we were going to win a lot of championships after that. Gillman had championship rings made and I had the top of mine cut out for my ex-wife’s charm bracelet because I thought, “Shit, we’re gonna win all kinds of rings.” But we never saw another one. It was real exciting for me. First year, championship, winning the championship. My first year at Syracuse we won a national championship. My first year in high school we won the championship. It was just and exciting time and I thought there was going to be a lot more to come. But I never saw another one when I was there.
AFL - Do you remember some of the specific points of Boston’s defense that you guys were gearing towards for that game?
WS – I really can’t. I wasn’t even playing guard in that game. I played offensive tackle the last eight minutes, but I was on all special teams that game. We scored so many points that special teams was kept pretty busy. But I can’t really help you there.
AFL - Going into some of the racial situation. Your team ran into a racial conflict in the South, particularly in New Orleans. Can you comment on that?
WS – I was out with Ladd and Faison and there might have been another guy there, I can’t remember. But we were trying to catch a cab either back to the hotel or down to another joint. And the cab driver wouldn’t take us. I just couldn’t believe it because I had never been confronted by anything like that before. Although Boston is probably one of the most bigoted towns around, because the Irish were down for so long. I never saw it. At Syracuse we had a lot of black players and everyone seemed to be treated fine, so it was a real shock to me. The thing that pissed me off the most about it was that we moved the game from New Orleans down to Houston. I was looking for a week of partying in New Orleans and all of a sudden Houston was dry at the time. It was just a real shock for me. I wrote about that in my book.
AFL - What do you think some things are that are overlooked when people discuss Gillman? Everybody makes mention of the passing game and his time with the Chargers and Rams, but do you think there’s any specific points that are not really addressed that were important points about Gillman?
WS – He was real tough general manager as far as negotiating with. I can remember first year, in ‘64 I went to the all-star game and I was up to negotiate a contract with him and I went into his office and said, “Sid look, I went to the all-star game this last year.” He said, “I’ve seen more bums come through the all-star game.” Or if you didn’t make the all-star game he’d say, “Well, you didn’t go to the all-star game.” He was a real tough negotiator. I remember when I signed with him, I was like the second guy to go in the league, Buck Buchanon went first. Al Davis and Sid signed me the night before my last college game up in UCLA. I came out and… I usually didn’t drink before the game, but I’d had about six or seven beers with some of my teammates. First time in California and all that shit. But I came back to my hotel and Gillman and Davis were there and shit, I panicked. I was debating, “Hey, these guys aren’t going to want me, they know I’ve been drinking.” I went up to my room and cologne and gum, I must have smelled like a French hooker by the time I got down to talk to these guys. And I was so relieved to find out that they didn’t say anything about alcohol and in fact asked me if I wanted a drink. But I signed for a $5,000 bonus and a two-year, $15,000/year contract. They made me feel like I was stealing. What chance did I have between Al Davis and Sid Gillman. But he was a real good negotiator and as far as general manager, he paid attention to every detail from the team picture right on up to negotiating contracts. He was a real good detail man and very organized. He ran the whole operation by himsel
AFL - How much was he involved with the offensive line? I know you had Joe Madro as your coach at that time.
WS – Yeah. He left pretty much the offensive line up to Joe. He and Joe had been together for years and Joe was a great coach. What success I had as a guard, I owe to Joe because he taught me everything. Like I said, I didn’t know anything when I got here. But I guess on some of the sweeps and stuff that he designed and put in he paid a little bit more attention to. But for the most part, Joe Madro handled it all.
AFL - One final question, and it’s not really a question. Lance Alworth told me to ask you about a situation at a golf tournament with Dick Butkus. He told me to have you tell me the story.
WS – If he was talking about this golf tournament I’m thinking of, and he probably is, it’s not that big. I saw Butkus over in Phoenix two years ago. A doctor in Arizona who puts in artificial knees and hips and shoulders and stuff for former NFL guys who don’t have insurance and he did one for me. And Phoenix General Hospital was putting on this tournament to raise money for this program. I saw Butkus there and I’ve known Butkus for years. Every time someone sees me, they’re surprised that it’s me, I think. They haven’t seen me in a while, I look different, my weight was down. And he just started laughing when I introduced myself to him. And I couldn’t figure out what it was. That’s just the story. My lawsuit was going at the time and was getting a lot of publicity.
AFL - He told me a story about you got into a confrontation with Butkus, this was back when you were playing. A confrontation with Butkus at a golf tournament and you said something to the effect of you were going to hunt him up and down the next time the Chargers played the Bears. Then you went out and in the game the next time the Chargers played the Bears and you kicked his ass up and down the field.