The best word to describe Jim Steffen is tenacious. Steffen was a defensive back for the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins during an NFL career that lasted seven seasons.(I interviewed Jim Steffen March 12, 2004)
The best word to describe Jim Steffen is tenacious. Steffen was a defensive back for the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins during an NFL career that lasted seven seasons.
Born on May 1, 1936 and raised in Tustin, California, Steffen started playing football when he was 7 years old. He was an end and tailback at Tustin High School from 1951 through 54 and also played baseball and basketball. In fact, he was All-State in baseball, football and basketball as well as MVP in the league and all CIF in basketball.
He was recruited by several colleges for different sports. UCLA, Cal, and Southern California recruited him for baseball and Stanford and Idaho wanted him for football.
He ended up first going to Occidental College in Southern California where Jack Kemp and Jim Mora attended college. “I played freshman football,” said Steffen. “The coach at the time was Payton Jordan who was an Olympic sprinter and later became the athletic director at Stanford.”
He didn’t like Occidental so he returned to the Tustin area and played summer basketball for Santa Ana College and later played baseball for Orange Coast College and Santa Ana College. He attended UCLA for his junior and senior years. He played baseball at UCLA and was a walk on to the football team. “I had to sit out a year at UCLA going from a community college to a four year college,” explained Steffen. But in 1956 he joined the school’s football team as a walk on. “Red Sanders was the coach of UCLA football at the time. He had coached Paul Bear Bryant at Vanderbilt. At practice one day he said, `No one can block this guy, put him on the varsity.’ It was the biggest day of my life.” Steffen played offensive and defensive end as well as tailback and safety for a couple games. He was only 5 feet 10 inches tall and about 182 pounds his junior year and 195 pounds his senior year and he still played defensive end. He also continued to play baseball for UCLA. He would attend baseball practice from 3 p.m. until 4 p.m. and then go to football practice from 4 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. Playing both offense and defense, Steffen averaged more than 45 minutes of playing time per game. In fact, in the UCLA – Southern California game his senior year he actually played 59 minutes. “Don Buford who was later to play baseball for the Baltimore Orioles had a long run for USC. After the play I took a break to get some water and then I was back on the field. I missed only one play that entire game,” said Steffen.
At the end of his career at UCLA he was second team all-west coast and honorable mention All-American. He had led the team in minutes played and was the team captain and MVP his senior year. By the way, his brother had been captain of the UCLA football team in 1948.
He expected to be drafted by the San Francisco `49ers. “They sent me a telegram saying that they would draft me, but I was drafted by Detroit in the thirteenth round.” He had never traveled farther east than Ann Arbor, Michigan to play the University of Michigan and Champagne, Illinois to play the University of Illinois before he had been drafted by Detroit.
George Wilson was head coach and Don Shula was the defensive coach for the Lions at the time. He was converted into a defensive back during his stint with the Lions because he was too light to play defensive end.
“Jack Christiansen, who was an All-Pro safety for Detroit, had retired and become an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49′ers. So there was an opening in the defensive back field,” said Steffen. He wasn’t tried out at wide receiver because the Lions were well stocked with good wide receivers and they also had Jim Gibbons, an All-American at Iowa, playing tight end. Steffen’s first contract with the Lions in 1959 was for $7,000 and included a $500 signing bonus. In 1960 the league expanded to include the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings and the schedule was extended from 12 games to 14. So he was paid more because he had to play more games.
In the off-season he returned to Tustin, California and lived with his parents and was an extra in movies and television shows in order to make some money. “My roommate at UCLA was Gary Lockwood who had a TV series at the time. He was a good friend and helped me get the extra jobs,” said Steffen. He was an extra on the Ozzie and Harriett Show and in some Elvis Presley movies.
He was with the Lions for 2-1/2 years — 1959 to 1961. He was traded to the Washington Redskins in the middle of the `61 season. “I packed up and went to D.C. A coach picked me up at the airport and drove me to Griffith Stadium for practice. It was a Friday. LaVern Torgeson was a defensive coach for the Redskins and he told me that I would be returning punts and kickoffs and covering punts and kickoffs and playing right cornerback that Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.” He had returned kickoffs and punts for the Lions, so the assignment was not a total surprise. His contracts with the `Skins ranged from $12,500 up to $14,000. He played right cornerback in 1961, left cornerback in 1962 and `63 and strong safety in 1964 and `65. The defenses didn’t play zone back then. Instead, they played man-to-man. So when he played safety, Steffen had to cover large tight ends including Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears, John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts, and Pete Retslaff of the Philadelphia Eagles. “Pete Retslaff was the best I played against,” said Steffen. He weighed only about 195 pounds yet in 1964 he made 144 tackles and only missed two. He was known as one of the best tacklers in the NFL.
Perhaps his best game as a Redskin was against the Dallas Cowboys on September 29, 1963. He had three interceptions that game and returned one 78 yards for a touchdown. And, quoting the Washington Post description of the game, “In addition, Steffen made more than his usual quota of jarring tackles.” Moreover, he played hurt. He hurt his leg in the prior game against the Los Angeles Rams and was unable to run since the Wednesday before the Cowboy game, noted the Post article.
Steffen suffered a punctured lung, separated clavicle and three broken ribs in the first half of an exhibition game against the Baltimore Colts in 1966. Yet, he came out and played the second half of that game. “I was gasping for air,” said Steffen. After the game he went to a nightclub in Bethesda, Maryland with some Colts and Redskins players. He was spitting up blood but didn’t go home until Sonny Jurgensen advised him to. The next day he went to Doctors Hospital in Washington, D.C. and he stayed there for seven days with a tube in his chest.
It was soon after that that Steffen was traded to the Dallas Cowboys. The deal was Steffen and a fifth round draft choice for A.D. Whitfield, Brig Owens, and Jake Kupp. He couldn’t play for the Cowboys because of that injury in 1966 but returned to the Cowboy training camp in the summer of 1967. “I bulked up to 212 pounds. Landry wanted me to play weak side linebacker.” However, Steffen tore a ligament in his right knee during training camp and was unable to play that year. He was finally waived by the Cowboys in August, 1967.
He returned to the Redskins in 1968 and attended the team’s summer training camp. The plan was for Steffen to back up linebacker Chris Hanburger during the `68 season. However, he broke his arm in an exhibition game and retired.
After his days with the NFL, Steffen worked for a concrete company in Washington, D.C. and was a salesman for WMAL-TV. He returned to California and tried to get a job with a radio station. But the station wouldn’t hire him because they thought he was too old. He was only 35 or 36 years old. So he returned to Washington, D.C. and again worked for WMAL-TV, later to be WJLA-TV as a salesman. He also worked for a computer supply company that former Redskin quarterback Ralph Guglielmi was president of until his retirement.
Steffen has been married twice. His first wife was a contestant in the Miss California Beauty Pageant and his second wife worked for the Playboy Club in Hawaii.
Today Steffen lives in Annapolis, Maryland.