In August, 1960, I was 14. That summer I’d been attending a boy’s camp in Susanville, California. Two professional football players, Jack Ellena and Duane Putnam ran the camp. Jack and Duane had been teammates on the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. Both were offensive linemen. Jack had been a starter on UCLA’s undefeated team in 1954. Duane played at Pacific and had become one of the Ram's captains and an all-pro guard while protecting Norm Van Brocklin, the Ram’s star quarterback. In 1960 Jack was retired from football but Duane had another couple of years left in him. Both of these men were fierce on the gridiron but kind, generous and playful with those of us who were campers.
The Dallas Cowboys were a new entry into the NFL in 1960. They stocked their team through the draft and by selecting players that were made available to them by the other teams in the league (the expansion draft). As an aging (over 30) player, the Rams did not protect Duane and Dallas selected him. I remember Duane leaving Susanville in July to attend Dallas’ first training camp that was held in Forest Grove, Oregon. Before departing, he arranged for me to not only attend the very first Dallas preseason game (August 6, 1960 in Seattle against the San Francisco 49ers) but to be a waterboy for the Cowboys during the game too.
I was in awe that entire evening being down there on the field. There were 22,000 people in attendance but it seemed more like 100,000 to me. Duane took me under his wing and introduced me to Eddie LeBaron, Don Meredith, Don McIhenny, Don Perkins and of course, Tom Landry. I could hardly take it all in as I was so excited my brain was overwhelmed. Half the time (at least) I forgot to carry the water out to the players during the time-outs. I was shouted at and scorned for not doing my job, but I was in heaven that night so the words, while embarrassing, didn’t detract from the thrill. The 49ers won 16 to 10, but I was there to see Fred Cone kick a field goal that gave Dallas its first points as a team. The Cowboys finished that season winless, 0-11-1.
In spite of my incompetence as a waterboy, I recall some of the players in the locker room after the game showed interest in me. Others openly questioned why I was there. I left the game with a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, fond memories, and the feeling I’d failed badly in my assigned duties.
Duane retired two years later at age 34. After his one year as a left guard for Dallas, he moved on to Cleveland in 1961 where he blocked for Jim Brown. 1962 found him back in Los Angeles playing with Dick Bass, Red Phillips, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen. (I will write more about Merlin Olsen’s presence in my life in another blog.) After the game in Seattle I never got the chance to speak with Duane again. He made such a positive impression on me as an adolescent and for that I am truly grateful. I just hope someday this 5-time pro-bowler will be voted into the NFL Hall of Fame.