A common practice among today's high school athletes is to transfer from school to school, looking for the best coach, system or "deal." That syndrome was begun in the early 1950s by a haberdasher named Harvey Knox, who shopped his stepson, Ronnie Knox, from Beverly Hills to Inglewood to Santa Monica. He did not stop there. After following SaMoHi coach Jim Sutherland to the University of California and determining that the Bears'offensive scheme did not fit the kids' talents, it was off to Westwood. Knox starred--for one season--but chafed under tempestuous U.C.L.A. coach Red Sanders, so he went to Canada, M.G.M. Studios, Warner Brothers, the Chicago Bears, Canada again--and after football came stops in McKinleyville, San Francisco, Malibu, Mexico, Texas, Maine, Europe, Canoga Park and Venice Beach. That is where long-time L.A. sportswriter Bob Belyeu found Ronnie.
"I was down at Venice Beach when this far-out old man casually came up to me and said, `How ya doin', Bob?'" Belyeu told StreetZebra. "I looked at him, then realized it was Ronnie Knox."
I did my best imitation of "Fletch", heading over to Venice for some investigative reporting. Ronnie is quite well known among the homeless denizens, street vendors, and fast-food operators at the beach. The guy at the hot dog stand knew all about him.
"Oh yeah, I know this guy," he said when shown a 10-year old photo of him. "I saw him not two weeks ago over on Abbott Kinney. Played at U.C.L.A., writes poetry. He's got long, grey hair now."
"Like James Fenimore Cooper's noble savage, I've been away," says Ronnie Knox. "Stay free, that's my philosophy. The trick is to stay fluid without turning into H2O." Knox has a mystical quality, and being a native Californian, Knox helped contribute to the perception that the Golden State produces great athletes who are softened by the sun, the sand and the girls.
While Ronnie stills plays the clown, he is quite serious about one subject: Poetry. That is how he is known at Venice Beach. Not for his football accomplishments in the 1950s, but rather as a wandering bard. He does not make money writing, but that does not mean he lacks talent.
"I was deep into literature," Ronnie says of the years when he was growing tired of playing football. "And I finally made a decision on what to do with the rest of my life. I decided to write."
"Be not deceived," became the warning,
"by the phantom's lively dance;
"Earthly doubts are cunning--
"Reflections not of chance."
--from "The Pigeon on the Steeple", by Ronnie Knox
The Way He Was
You know how yearbook photos from the '50s make guys look like dorks? Not so Ronnie. He had matinee idol good looks, a cross between a young Troy Donahue and a young Ronald Reagan. His natural father was Dr. Raoul Landry, one of the physicist's who helped split the atom. Ronnie inherited his father's intellectual capacity, but Dad left Ronnie's Mom to fend for herself and his sister, Patricia. Marjorie Landry married Harvey Knox, a Beverly Hills haberdasher, and he adopted the kids. Not just in name, but in every way. He came to live his life vicariously through the children, and in Ronnie's case that meant throwing footballs to him.
"He was a natural," Harvey said of his stepson.
Patricia was a teenage beauty who attracted no attention at her first stage performance at Beverly Hills High. Harvey hired a guard to stand at the door of the second performance with a big sign reading, "No talent scouts admitted." At the third performance, "Three of the bums <talent scouts> were camping on the front row." Harvey negotiated her first movie deal. She never became a star despite (or because of) Harvey's aggressive lobbying on her behalf, but she did become a tennis-playing Florida millionaire.
Harvey's stepson, however, was all the rage. As a sophomore in 1950, he emerged as the best player on a bad Beverly Hills team. Harvey recommended that he transfer to Santa Monica, but Ronnie thought the challenge of leading Inglewood to victory over the Vikings was a better idea. Harvey was unimpressed with Inglewood's offensive system, so in
'52 it was off to Santa Monica, where he was the C.I.F.-Southern Section Player of the Year.
Cal's legendary head coach, Pappy Waldorf, basically told Harvey to take a hike when the old man tried to tell the architect of three straight Rose Bowl appearances what kind of offense to run. Back to L.A. and equally legendary Red Sanders, who was at the height of his fame leading the undefeated Bruins to the 1954 National Championship. The 6-1, 195-pound Ronnie was spectacular running and passing U.C.L.A. to a night-game Coliseum win over Bear Bryant and Texas A&M, 21-0. Playing quarterback in the T-formation and halfback in the single wing, Knox was on his way to an All-American 1955 season until injuring himself against Washington. Sanders held him out of the Rose Bowl until it was too late, but still Knox made a spectacular fourth quarter appearance and drove the Bruins to within a few yards of victory before running out of time vs. Michigan State.
"Ronnie Knox was an unbelievable talent," said Hall of Fame coach Sid Gilman. "The way he could run and throw the ball, he was the John Elway of his time."
The now notoriously famous Harvey, writing a first-person account for the old <ital>L.A. Examiner<end ital>, angered Sanders with the headline, "SANDERS BLEW IT--Harvey." Knox then dropped out of school. The father said he hated football, and was grooming him for a career as an actor/writer in Hollywood. Ronnie disputed that he hated the game, but he did sign a contract with M.G.M.'s legendary Dore Schary, and later was in Warner Brothers' stable at a time when the studio system was still in place.
"The klieg lights don't keep jumping at you," was how Ronnie explained his preference for making passes at Dorothy Lamour instead of Ronnie Lamm. As Brian Bozworth discovered 35 years later, Hollywood is no easier to make it in than the N.F.L.
Acting did not pan out, but the N.F.L.was not next on the agenda. The Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger Cats were. Harvey negotiated a $14,000 contract, big money at the time. Knox left U.C.L.A. to sort out an eligibility scandal that rocked the Pacific Coast Conference. Harvey and Ronnie were not happy with the Tiger Cats play-calling, so it was off to the Chicago Bears. Harvey decided George Halas was not worthy of Ronnie's talents. Ronnie did not get along with Jim Trimble in Canada or Paddy Driscoll in Chicago. In 1959 he walked out of a Toronto Argonauts practice, $1,250 a week and $12,000 a year.
"I just had enough," Ronnie said. "Money isn't everything, and I'm sick to the teeth of <football>. It's a game for animals and I like to think I'm above that."
Still in his prime, Ronnie attracted the attention of the Los Angeles Chargers of the fledgling American Football League. General manager Frank Leahy and coach Sid Gilman wanted the 25-year old <ital>wunderkind<end ital> to run Gilman's wide-open offensive system.
"We couldn't even find him at first," said Gilman. "It took us six weeks to track him down. He was living in a dump at the beach."
After stifling under ground-oriented offensive schemes for years, he could have run the table in the AFL, throwing to the great Lance Alworth. Instead, he turned down a "blank check" from Chargers owner Barron Hilton. The 25-year old Renaissance man gave up football for an enlightened life with his new love, Viennese artist Renate Drucks. The Chargers had to settle on Fairfax High's Jack Kemp.
A road less traveled
Harvey had arranged for Ronnie to play for 10 teams in 10 years, four in Canada. After football, he wandered the Earth like Young Cain. Many of his poems (including his best work, "Masquerade") and the only 400-page manuscript of his novel were lost when his luggage was stolen in Galveston, Texas. His marriage to his Viennese muse ended after 24 years. Ronnie quotes Aristotle.
"How come the moon doesn't fall on us?"
He answers his own question. "It is."
Twice a week the winter through
Here stood I to keep the goal.
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man's soul.
-"To an Athlete Dying Young", by English poet A.E. Housman
Ronnie continued to follow football, and believes Bill Walsh to be the best mind in the modern pro game. He even volunteer coached eight-man football at Canoga's Faith Baptist Church and Schools. Harvey ended up in McKinleyville. He claims to have made, lost, made and lost fortunes in different endeavors throughout his stormy life. The last word on him was that he had just paid his debts off after a big real estate deal in Northern California.
Ronnie's life never seemed to settle on reality or dreams.
"Art can be controlled," he says, concluding with Aristotle that "reality is arbitrary and uncontrollable."
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism