Before Dan Fouts helped put the San Diego Chargers on the map in the late 1970s and early 1980s, quarterback John Hadl helped the then-fledgling franchise get off the ground.
He gained a reputation as one of the better signal-callers in the old American Football League, and he continued to play well once the league folded and merged with the National Football League.
Many of today’s fans may not know his name, let alone much about him, but he was one of the more important pioneers of the sport when it was starting to gain a real foothold among the American public.
Growing Up In Kansas
John Willard Hadl was born on February 15, 1940 in Lawrence, Kansas, one of the largest cities in the state. After staring at Lawrence High School, he went on to play at the University of Kansas, allowing him to stay within his hometown of Lawrence.
The University of Oklahoma was also interested in him, but they stipulated that he would have to play defensive back there, so he opted to enroll at Kansas.
There, he became an absolute legend.
In those days, it was more common for football players to play multiple positions past the high school level. Hadl would do just that, and his stellar play in all capacities got him into the Jayhawks record books.
Back then, freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity sports, but once Hadl started his sophomore season in 1959, his legend began.
He started out playing halfback, but he also dabbled that year not just at QB, but also as a punter, punt returner and defensive back. Even Deion Sanders, who was seen as the most versatile football player of the 1990s, couldn’t match that type of versatility while he was at Florida State University.
What made John Hadl so iconic?
— Kansas Jayhawks (@KUAthletics) September 30, 2020
That year, Hadl had 348 yards on 68 carries out of the backfield, which was impressive enough, but it was just the beginning of his productivity.
In his very first college game on Sept. 19, which took place against TCU, he intercepted a pass on the Jayhawks’ own 2-yard line and took it back 98 yards for a touchdown. To this day, it still stands as the school’s record for longest pick-six.
That same season, while playing against Oklahoma, he set another Kansas record by sending a punt out 94 yards. His 45.6 yards per punt led the nation.
The next year, his junior season, he limited his focus to playing QB and running back. It worked out well, as he passed for 566 yards and three touchdowns while gaining 375 yards and scoring seven touchdowns on the ground, all in just 10 games.
He did even better in 1961 as a senior, with 318 yards and six touchdowns out of the backfield plus 729 yards and seven touchdowns while under center.
One may think those numbers are very pedestrian, especially by modern standards, but one must remember that the game was very different back then. Offenses were much more conservative, and quarterbacks simply didn’t have nearly as much freedom as they do today, or even a couple of decades later for that matter.
Under Hadl’s leadership, Kansas went 7-3-1 in ’61 and advanced to the Bluebonnet Bowl against Rice University. There, they dominated Rice, winning 33-7 despite being underdogs, as Hadl dictated the game throughout.
Right before the end of the first half, he faked a punt attempt, then ran 41 yards to Rice’s 19-yard line, setting up a touchdown by teammate Ken Coleman. Hadl said years later that it changed the momentum of the contest, as Rice had jumped out to a 7-0 lead earlier.
That same year, Hadl was named the MVP of the East–West Shrine Game and the College All-Star Game. He was selected as an All-American in 1960 as a halfback and in ’61 as a quarterback, which was quite a rare feat.
In each of his three years as a Jayhawk, he was also chosen to be on the All-Conference team.
Once his career ended, Kansas retired his No. 21 jersey. It is only one of three retired numbers in the program’s history.
Many years later, Hadl was elected the Kansas Player of the Century by the Topeka Capital-Journal, an honor he copped over Gale Sayers, one of the greatest running backs in football history.
California Here He Comes
As legend has it, a scout for the San Diego Chargers was at the Bluebonnet Bowl to watch Hadl, and right after the game concluded, he met the QB under the south goalpost and signed him to a contract for the 1962 season, even though Hadl would deny doing so shortly afterward.
But the deal stood. The Chargers had selected him with the 24th pick in the third round of the AFL draft, and he opted to play for them instead of the Detroit Lions, who took him with the 10th pick in the NFL draft.
The Chargers were going into just their third year of existence when they signed Hadl. They had spent their first season in Los Angeles, and they were coached by the legendary Sid Gillman, whose heavy use of downfield motion and passes would not only evolve the pro game but would help maximize Hadl.
Sid Gillman, Father of the Modern Pro Passing Game
His "mad scientist"-like approach, along with legends such as Al Davis, Len Dawson, John Hadl, Daryle Lamonica, and Joe Namath, propelled passing offense into a lethal weapon in the AFL during the 1960s. pic.twitter.com/JjYucDJtA1
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 16, 2022
At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he had good size as a quarterback, especially during that era, and his strong arm would establish the Chargers as a threat in the AFL.
At the time, a fierce rivalry was budding between the AFL and NFL. The AFL wasn’t as popular or respected, but it would engage in bidding wars for the rights to the game’s top stars, such as Hadl, and it did have one big advantage.
While the style of play in the older NFL was conservative and based on the running game, the AFL was more based upon a vertical passing game, the type that Gillman and Hadl favored.
In Hadl’s rookie season, he started 10 of his 14 games, as Gillman went with a unique arrangement. Although Hadl usually started, he would play more down the stretch of games, and he would share the QB spot with Dick Wood and Jack Kemp.
The Chargers’ defense, which had been stout the year before, was porous in ’62 due to injuries. But Hadl made them a decent offensive squad with 1,632 passing yards and 15 touchdowns.
He also threw 24 touchdowns, which, by today’s standards looks like a terrible ratio, but it was normal for QBs to throw plenty of interceptions back in those days. For example, Joe Namath, one of the premier signal-callers of the era, often threw at least as many picks as touchdowns.
San Diego had a poor record in ’62 at just 4-10, and Hadl was even worse at 1-9 as a starter.
In 1963, Tobin Rote, a 35-year-old veteran, became the team’s newest starting QB, relegating Hadl to spot duty. As a result, he had just 502 yards and six touchdowns while under center that season.
The Chargers were much improved though. Rote was a star, as were flanker Lance Alworth, fullback Keith Lincoln, halfback Paul Lowe and defensive end Earl Fiason.
Together, they led the Chargers, who led the AFL in points scored and allowed, to an 11-3 record and a first-place finish, which sent them to the league championship game against the Boston Patriots.
There, Hadl did get meaningful playing time, completing 7-of-11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown, and he even added an additional touchdown on the ground. He was a part of the Chargers’ 51-10 thrashing of Boston, which gave them the AFL championship.
The next season, Gillman rewarded Hadl by starting him in eight contests, and he responded by finishing the year with 2,157 yards and 18 touchdowns. Gillman also used him as a punter, and Hadl, as he did in college, did well in that department with 2,447 yards on 62 punts for an average of 39.5 yards per punt.
As a result, Hadl earned his first AFL All-Star honor, and the Chargers went to the AFL championship game again. Fans were starting to fill stadiums in San Diego and on the road to watch Hadl and his team, as evidenced by 50,222 who came to see them play the New York Jets at Shea Stadium in the borough of Queens.
However, in their second game of the season against New York in Week 13, Alworth got injured, and without him, the Chargers lost the AFC championship to the Buffalo Bills, 20-7, as Hadl went just 3-of-10 with one interception.
The Kansas product became a full-time starter for the 1965 season, and he collected a league-high 2,798 passing yards, to go along with 20 touchdowns while continuing his duty as a punter. It all earned Hadl another All-Star nod in ’65.
Hadl also led the AFL in yards per completion at 16.1. Even by today’s standards, it was an impressive stat, and it illustrates how much of a gunslinger Hadl was, as well as the innovative nature of coach Gillman’s offensive scheme.
With San Diego continuing to pile up points on a regular basis, it appeared yet again in the league championship game, but the Bills defeated it again, this time by the embarrassing score of 23-0.
Prior to the 1966 season, a merger between the AFL and NFL was announced. Both leagues would continue to be separate for the next four seasons, but the deal would lead to the creation of a new championship game, which was first known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, but would soon be renamed the Super Bowl.
That year, Hadl threw 23 touchdown passes and notched 2,846 yards, but did not make the All-Star team. The Chargers weren’t quite as strong as they were in past years, and they finished just third in the AFL West and missed the playoffs.
But Hadl did make his mark in another way. He started a streak that season of throwing for at least one touchdown each game that lasted 19 consecutive games, which forever stood as an AFL record.
As the streak stretched well into the 1967 campaign, it led to stellar numbers once again that year for Hadl: 3,365 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and a league-leading 15.5 yards per completion. He did even better in 1968 with 3,473 yards and 27 touchdowns, both of which led the AFL, sending him back to the All-Star game.
In 1969, Hadl started 10 of the Chargers’ 14 games, while Marty Domres started the other four. Hadl’s numbers dipped to 2,253 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he was still named to the All-Star game, where he was named the MVP of the contest.
Unfortunately, the Chargers were no longer a league power. After losing in the 1965 championship game, their high-water mark was a 9-5 finish in 1968, and they would not make the playoffs until after Hadl’s retirement.
But it was hardly his fault, as the departures of key players was the chief reason the team went from perennial contenders to mediocrity.
The Chargers entered the NFL for the 1970 season, but the increased competition didn’t hurt Hadl’s production. That year he had 2,388 yards and 22 touchdowns, and the following season he led the NFL with 3,075 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing a career-high 54.1 percent of his passes.
Although San Diego finished under .500 both seasons, Hadl was proving that he wasn’t merely a product of the high-octane AFL and its perceived weaker competition.
In 1972, he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time after finishing the campaign with 2,449 yards and 15 touchdowns, although he also threw an NFL-high 26 interceptions.
But the Chargers continued to get worse as a whole. They had recently traded the aging Alworth to the Dallas Cowboys, and as a result, they had finished 4-9 in ’72, which was their worst record ever.
Hadl was now in his early 30s, and Chargers management decided it was time to pull the plug, as they traded Hadl prior to the 1973 campaign to the Los Angeles Rams.
Up To The City Of Angels
When Hadl headed north to L.A. in ’73, the Rams were looking to get out of a prolonged dry spell. They had last won the league title in 1951 during the NFL’s embryonic years and were coming off finishing with a 6-7-1 record the year prior.
But Hadl would turn things around for them. His 2,008 yards and 22 touchdowns sent him to the Pro Bowl again while earning him All-Pro First team honors, while that production helped the Rams finish with a 12-2 record, their best record ever.
48 yrs ago (1973) john hadl + harold jackson teamed up for 13 pass tds, the most between a qb and wr in rams history.
this year stafford + kupp finally broke this long-held rams record, combining for 16 tds. pic.twitter.com/7aVFg0ZUkT
— roberto clemente (@rclemente2121) February 8, 2022
In the divisional round of the playoffs, L.A. traveled to Texas to take on the mighty Dallas Cowboys, who were coached by Tom Landry and led by legendary QB Roger Staubach. Hadl went just 7-of-23 and threw an interception, allowing the Cowboys to jump out to a 14-0 lead and send the Rams home for the winter with a 27-16 loss.
Although the Rams did well again in the 1974 season, Hadl was benched in Week 6 in favor of James Harris. Hadl’s play was declining, and the 34-year-old was soon traded to the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay Bound
The Packers gave up a hefty amount of capital to get Hadl, sending five draft picks to L.A. to get him. According to reports, Packers head coach and general manager Dan Devine thought that a capable veteran QB like Hadl would make the team a winner again.
The Packers had been struggling since the departure of Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr. They had won five championships in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls, but the ’70s hadn’t been kind to them.
The king’s ransom that Green Bay jettisoned put pressure on Hadl to justify such a price, but he simply couldn’t. he had just 1,072 yards and three touchdowns in seven games for the Packers, while throwing eight interceptions during that span.
The 1975 season would be worse. Hadl threw for 2,095 yards in 14 games, but he notched just six touchdowns while being picked off 21 times.
The Packers finished just 4-10 that year, and criticism started to cascade down on the team for giving up so much to acquire an aging and declining QB.
Not only was Hadl incapable of doing what he did years ago, but the Rams used the draft picks they acquired for him to establish the foundation of a squad that would reach the Super Bowl at the end of the decade and nearly defeat the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Hadl deal was quickly regarded as one of the worst trades in NFL history. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad as the Minnesota Vikings trading for Herschel Walker in the late 1980s, but the Packers’ lack of draft capital would be one reason why they wouldn’t return to prominence until the 1990s.
Hadl wrapped up his career the next two seasons with the Houston Oilers, starting just six games and posting pedestrian numbers. After the conclusion of the 1977 season, he retired from the NFL.
Hadl finished his career with 33,503 passing yards and 244 touchdowns. As of 2022, he still ranks among the top NFL players of all time in the latter category.
Although he hasn’t been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, some feel he should at least be seriously be considered. One who thinks highly of Hadl is his former teammate Alworth.
“Everywhere John went,” Alworth said, “he won … and he is probably in the top five or six, if you look at all the stats. He didn’t win a Super Bowl, but he won everything else. He was a tremendous football player and leader.”
After his playing career ended, Hadl decided to go back home, as he was hired to be a quarterback coach at the University of Kansas in 1978. He would be quickly promoted to offensive coordinator just a year later when Don Fambrough took over as head coach.
Things seemed to be going well until the school was embroiled in a recruiting scandal in the early 1980s. Kansas was found to have given out improper benefits to recruits, and the resulting investigation ruled that an assistant coach, who was identified as Hadl, would have to be separated “from any involvement in the university’s intercollegiate athletics program for a period of three years beginning Nov. 21, 1983.”
Hadl steadfastly denied any rules violations, and he left Kansas to become an assistant coach with the Rams in 1982.
A year later, he joined the Denver Broncos to become their quarterback coach. This new role allowed him to help a rookie QB named John Elway develop his skills.
Prior to the 1983 NFL Draft, when Hadl was watching film of college prospects with head coach Dan Reeves, he liked what he saw of Elway and convinced the coach that Elway had serious potential.
Ultimately, the Baltimore Colts drafted him, but when he refused to play for them, the Broncos were right there to acquire him via trade.
One day during practice, Reeves mentioned that Elway would not play in Denver’s next game because of multiple mistakes he had made – in front of the entire team. Elway left practice, but Hadl chased him into the parking lot and got him to return to the field.
The two remained friends decades later, and Hadl thinks very highly of the man who led the Broncos to five Super Bowls and back-to-back world titles.
“Elway’s a hell of a guy,” Hadl said in 2018. “He’s a great guy. He’s the best quarterback who ever played, as far as I’m concerned.”
In 1984, Hadl moved on to the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League (USFL), becoming their head coach. The USFL started out in ’82 as something of a companion league to the NFL, and it was starting to gain some attention and fans.
The Express went just 13-23 in 1984 and 1985, and Hadl left shortly afterward. He would later call his job there a “career blunder.”
The USFL would ultimately fold in 1986 after suffering serious financial problems.
For many years now, Hadl has been back in Lawrence at the University of Kansas’ associate athletic director. There has been no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part after the school’s recruiting scandal that forced him out.
He is married to his wife Diana, who is originally from Texas, and they have two children, John and Jackie.