A Column In Two Parts

The May 4 issue of the Reader carried a reprint of a story, "How They Ended Up In Jacumba," that I wrote in 1990. Some readers thought the story was contemporaneous, written this year, describing 2006 Jacumba and its residents. A few took umbrage at the opening sentence, "Jacumba is the last shit-ass 1953 Oklahoma town left along the San Diego I-8 corridor." I don't know why.

That was the first story I wrote for the Reader. I arrived in Jacumba a few days before Christmas in 1989. Hung out for a month, wandered around town, strolled across the border (then an imaginary line drawn through a flood plain), and stayed with Richard Spencer and Kirk Gilliam in Jacumé, a Mexican village two miles south of the boundary. In those days locals walked back and forth between Jacumba and Jacumé on whim. I was just weeks out of Alaska and had no idea what I was doing. I knew I liked Jacumba. It was frontier. I didn't think that was possible in Southern California. There were mountain men, artists, dilapidated buildings, rusted pick-up trucks, and a feeling that anything could happen. There were no jobs, no cops, no rules, and no money. Reminded me of home.

But, that was 17 years ago, when you could buy a house in Jacumba for $40,000. There are houses selling for $400,000 now. In the story, I wrote about Robert Mitchell, who still appears in this column now and then. At the time I said that Bob had a "bit of the carny in him." I'd known Bob for two weeks when I wrote that. What I didn't know then, and have learned since, is the measure of his quirky generosity, hard rock honesty, courage, humor, and loyalty. I regard him as a close friend.

Seventeen years have passed, Jacumba is rising, reclaiming what it was in the 1920s when Clark Gable and his ilk swanked it up at Jacumba's Vaughn Hotel. They were there for good reasons: ideal year-round climate courtesy of 4,000 feet of mountain, mineral hot springs, and country enough to get lost in right out the front or back door. It's true, I liked the town better in 1989, but I'm a sucker for frontier, and, looking back, I was having a lot more fun in 1989 than I do nowadays, Jacumba or no.

* * *

I keep a list of athletes in my computer. I follow their lives, curious to see what they're up to; perhaps an "up to" will result in a column. It rarely does. Still, every three months or so I'll open my list, log on to Lexis-Nexis, and run newspaper searches, magazine searches, real property, bankruptcy, criminal, and divorce searches on my honorees.

Save for a very few, the names on my list turn over every two or three years. The listees are mostly world-class athletes (Tyson, Tonya, Rodman), who retired or were thrown out of their sport and went on to become freak-show personalities. Often, freak-show troopers lead interesting lives, in a car-wreck sort of way. One name has remained on the list since the moment it was first placed there in 1998. Ryan Leaf.

Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard drafted Ryan Leaf on April 18, 1998. The Chargers had the third pick in that draft. In order to move up one position, Beathard gave away everything in the Chargers vault. Leaf went 4-14 as a starter with a 48.8 quarterback rating while in San Diego. Set the franchise back years. He is universally acknowledged as the worst draft pick ever made.

Every three months I ran a Lexis search on Leaf, checked the Eastern Washington, Montana, and Idaho papers. And there was nothing. Always. I'm looking for a man who extracted an $11 million signing bonus from the Spanos mattress, then got run out of the game after four lazy, dismal, injury-plagued seasons. He left with millions of unearned dollars and the ill will of humankind. And nothing showed up in my research. Year after year. Nothing.

It got to be a thing with me. How could a guy like that, an arrogant loud mouth, a kid who'd been pampered all his life, keep his money, stay out of the newspapers, stay out of jail, and stay out of court?

Then, suddenly, a bonanza. Leaf surfaced in an April 28 Indianapolis Star article followed by a May 20 appearance on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. Turns out, the bastard is a first-year quarterback coach at West Texas A&M University, "The northernmost senior institution of higher learning in Texas," aka Division II football.

Here's the finish. Leaf told Real Sports interviewer, Bernard Goldberg, that the reason he didn't make it in the NFL was, get this, because he wasn't that good of a player.

The simplest and hardest thing to say.

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