Remembering Jesse Freitas

Jesse Freitas might have been the perfect source for research material on my football novel, A COACH AT HEART. A quarterback with loads of talent, he blazed the real-world trail from Stanford to San Diego State later followed by fictional main character George Steele. Freitas, who was found dead in his car Sunday, bridged two different college football worlds.

When I started preparing to write the story several years ago, Freitas was one of the first people I identified as someone I wanted to interview because of the insight he had on the two programs and the differences that someone would pick up.

One thing readers love about novels is the small detail that can make a place come alive. Freitas gave me one that was wonderful. Stanford has been described as a massive athletic complex that just happened to have an institution of higher learning attached. SDSU was a public commuter school, and A COACH AT HEART is set long before the day we decided that government facilities should resemble palaces.

So Freitas transfers from Stanford, arrives at State and one of the first things he notices is the practice field is tilted from side to side. Guys made do, and clearly it didn’t bother the Aztecs aerial game too much since he led the nation in passing his senior year, but it was weird.

Other differences were far more pleasant. Read: beaches, girls.

I had a devil of a time reaching Freitas. Might have taken several months of phone calls and emails, but we hooked up one night and must have chatted for an hour, maybe more. I think I caught him at a good point in what turned out to be a sometimes troubled adult life, and I’m sorry that he didn’t get to stay with us longer to enjoy more good times.

One of the things I did when I interviewed the real-life participants in the events depicted in A COACH AT HEART was ask about some of the other guys. Stanford players raved about Freitas’ talent, especially his arm. There was no surprise among them about his SDSU success or his reaching the NFL for a couple of years with the Chargers.

His biggest chance to show off that arm for Stanford came in 1969, when the then-Indians routed Washington State 63-16 on the way to the first of two Rose Bowl appearances. With the game in hand, head coach John Ralston pulled starter Jim Plunkett and inserted Freitas, who had won the backup job over another future NFL player, Mike Boryla. One of his throws was a 70-yarder that went to the Cougars one-yard line, and the Indians scored on the next play. That was a game in which WR Eric Cross scampered for a long run on a reverse and was tackled by a drunken fan. The referees awarded Cross a touchdown!

According to the website totalfootballstats.com, Freitas finished the season 14-for-29 passing for 215 yards. After transferring to SDSU, he split time in 1972 and was the full-time starter the following season, completing a nearly unheard-of-for-the-day 65 percent of his passes for 2,993 yards and 21 scores. His team went 9-1-1 and finished with a 41-28 victory over Iowa State.

He played in 13 games over two seasons for the Chargers, and won twice over seven starts for a team that wasn’t particularly good in its pre-Don Coryell days. He was let go after Bill Walsh, who came in as the offensive coordinator for one year, opted to go with Dan Fouts at quarterback.

Freitas was one talented football player, though, no matter the various starts and stops in his career. I appreciate his help with my novel, and hope he’s at peace. Prayers go out to his family.

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