Jul 05, 2024, 06:28AM

The Forgotten Arm

Canadian Football League legend Dieter Brock was the best 34-year-old rookie in NFL history. Then he was gone.

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While some serious fans can vaguely recall Warren Moon's successful transition from the Canadian Football League (CFL) to the National Football League (NFL), Dieter Brock's tale remains largely untold here in the United States. Yet, for a brief moment in the mid-1980s, it seemed Brock—the original “Red Rocket,” decades before Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton earned the title—might blaze a trail as remarkable as Moon's or future CFL emigrant Doug Flutie’s would be, if not more so. His one-and-done journey, terminated by the breaks of the game, offers a glimpse of what might have been.

Dieter Brock's story begins in the heartland of Alabama, where he honed his skills as a quarterback at Jacksonville State University. After a brief stint playing big-time college ball with Auburn, Brock transferred and found his footing at JSU, leading the team to impressive 7-3 and 7-2 seasons in 1972 and 1973, respectively. His arm strength and accuracy were evident even then, as he set several passing records for the school.

But it was in the CFL where Brock made his mark. Signing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1974, Brock embarked on a nine-and-a-half-year odyssey that would see him become one of the most prolific passers in CFL history. His numbers during this period were no joke: 34,830 passing yards, 2602 completions, and 210 touchdowns. These weren't just good stats; they were record-breaking, league-defining numbers at a time when the CFL was capable of attracting sellout crowds in third-rate cities like Regina, Edmonton, and Brock’s Winnipeg home base.

Brock's dominance in the CFL was recognized with two Most Outstanding Player awards, in 1980 and 1981. He was the league's passing leader in 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1984, showcasing a remarkable consistency at the highest level of Canadian football. One of Brock's most memorable performances came on October 3, 1981, when he completed an astounding 41 passes, including 16 consecutive completions. His completion percentage for that game was 87 percent. This wasn't just a good game; it was a demonstration of quarterbacking mastery that few players in any league have ever matched.

As impressive as these accomplishments were, they were achieved in a league that was often overlooked by NFL teams and fans. The CFL, despite its long history and what was then a passionate fan base, was often seen as a lesser competition compared to the NFL, a weird outlier that allowed pre-snap motion and 12 players to a side on its 110-yard fields (trust me: all other things being equal, the different rule set makes for a faster-paced, better game). However, this perception had begun to change somewhat, largely due to the high-profile failures of NFL stars like Vince Ferragamo in the CFL coupled with the success of CFL greats like Warren Moon in the NFL.

Moon had led the Edmonton Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup victories from 1978 to 1982, a dynasty that some compared favorably to NFL teams of the era. Moon's subsequent success in the NFL helped to legitimize the CFL in the eyes of many American football fans and executives. It was in this context that Dieter Brock, at 34, decided to make his move to the NFL.

In 1985, Brock signed with the Los Angeles Rams. The move raised eyebrows across the league. Here was a 34-year-old rookie, coming from a league that many still viewed with skepticism, expected to lead a loaded NFL team—they had single-season rushing record holder Eric Dickerson, after all—that could conceivably contend for a spot in the Super Bowl. The doubters, however, were quickly silenced.

Brock's rookie NFL season was remarkable. He led the Rams to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth, showcasing the same arm strength and accuracy that had made him a star in Canada. He set team rookie records for passing yards (2658), touchdown passes (16), and passer rating (81.8). The Red Rocket had successfully crossed the border, and at an age when many quarterbacks are considering retirement, he was just getting started in the world's most competitive football league.

The parallels with Warren Moon were hard to ignore. Moon had transitioned to the NFL in 1984 at 28, signing with the Houston Oilers. Both Moon and Brock were proving that CFL success could translate to the NFL and they were doing it at different stages of their careers. Moon was finally establishing himself as a premier NFL quarterback, while Brock was showing that even at 34, a great arm and football intelligence could overcome the challenges of adapting to a new league.

As the 1986 season approached, expectations for Brock and the Rams were high. There was talk of a potential Super Bowl run, with Brock's arm and Dickerson’s legs leading the way. However, fate had other plans. In the first preseason game of 1986, Brock suffered a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. It was a setback, but not necessarily a career-ending one. Many quarterbacks had come back from similar injuries. But as Brock worked to rehabilitate his knee, a more insidious problem emerged.

Brock had dealt with back issues since 1982, managing the pain throughout his final CFL seasons and his rookie year with the Rams. But the combination of the knee injury and the increased stress of rehab exacerbated his chronic back condition. Medical tests revealed a degenerative disk in his lower back, a condition that couldn't be corrected by surgery due to the specific demands of the quarterback position.

The news was devastating. Every time Brock threw a pass, he was essentially wrenching his back. The cortisone injections that had helped manage the pain in the past no longer did the trick. The Red Rocket, the long-bombing arm that had terrorized CFL defenses for a decade and had shown so much promise in Brock’s lone NFL season, was effectively grounded.

Brock was forced to retire after just one NFL season, his dreams of a long career in the league cruelly cut short. The contrast with Warren Moon's career trajectory couldn't have been starker. While Brock was hanging up his cleats, Moon was just hitting his stride in the NFL. He’d go on to play until 2000, retiring at 44 with nine Pro Bowl selections and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The "what if" questions are impossible to avoid when considering Brock's career. What if he’d made the jump to the NFL earlier, as Moon had done? What if his back issues had been manageable for a few more years? Could he have played into his early-40s, as Moon did?

These questions are particularly poignant when considering the era in which Brock played. The late-1970s and early-1980s represented a time when the CFL was arguably at its closest competitive level to the NFL. Moon's Edmonton Eskimos were a dynasty that could’ve held their own against many NFL teams, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Brock's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, while not as dominant, were still a formidable pass-first team in a highly competitive league.

The fact that Brock was able to step into the NFL at 34 and immediately lead a team to the playoffs speaks of his skill and the quality of competition he faced in the CFL. It's not a stretch to imagine that, had he made the transition earlier or stayed healthy longer, he could’ve had a Moon-like impact on the NFL. His story serves as a tantalizing "might-have-been" in football history, a reminder of the fine line between greatness and obscurity in professional sports.

Despite the brevity of his NFL career, Brock's legacy shouldn't be overlooked. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1995, a recognition of his achievements in the CFL. His single NFL season, while frustratingly short, demonstrated that he could compete at the highest level of the sport, even as he approached his mid-30s.

Brock's story also serves as a reminder of the quality of play in the CFL during his era. Nowadays, the Canadian league is rightly dismissed as far inferior to the NFL, but players like Brock and Moon proved that top CFL talent from the late-1970s could not only compete in the NFL but excel there.

Because of those aforementioned breaks of the game, Dieter Brock's career serves as a study in both triumph and tragedy. He dominated one professional league for a decade, then flashed immense promise in another, only to have it all cut short by injuries. His story is a reminder of the fragility of athletic careers and the twists of fate that can shape them. If a career can end, it can end right here and now. Until then, it’s up to the players to do the work, getting theirs until they get got. Brock, at least, turned up and showed out.


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