One by one, Trusse Norris goes through the items that have spent most of the past 57 years hidden away in a box in the closet of his home office. Here's his UCLA football jersey, No. 88, which he wore to play end on the offensive and defensive lines for the Bruins from 1957 to 1959. He takes out a 1960 Los Angeles Chargers game program and points to his name on the roster. He's listed at 6-foot-1, 194 pounds, his number halved to 44.
There's the still sweat-stained Los Angeles Chargers T-shirt he wore during practice, which is when he saw his most action. As he picks up his cleats, a clump of dirt falls off that's older not only than the five teenage boys gathered around at Messiah Baptist Church on West Adams Boulevard but also, most likely, their parents.
Then there's the highlight of his mementos: an AFL football signed by 30 of the other 34 players on the final roster of the original Los Angeles Chargers. A piece of masking tape runs the length of the football with “Trusse” written in permanent marker, a reminder of how players identified to whom each ball should be returned as they passed them around for signatures in recognition that they were part of something significant in the Chargers' inaugural season.
“You guys probably don't know this because I look like an old, old man, but at one time I was younger and I played with the Los Angeles Chargers,” Norris tells the boys, who play on the church's youth basketball team. “I sat on the bench, at least for the most part. I'm not a big star, but I was on the team.”
The Chargers' first stint in Los Angeles was too brief to make much of an impact, but for Norris that 1960 season was special — it was the entirety of his professional football career.
With the Chargers playing their first home game back in the Los Angeles area Sunday, Sept. 17, against the Dolphins at StubHub Center, Norris is reminded of his participation in the birth of the franchise.
Norris was still a student at UCLA when he tried out for the Chargers. He had completed his collegiate athletic eligibility the previous year, starting at strong-side end (a blocking tight end in the single-wing formation of the day) and serving as the punter.
During his senior season, the formation of the American Football League was announced; Barron Hilton, son of Hilton Hotels founder Conrad, owned the Los Angeles team.
Norris had a fascination with fame during his youth. In the summer before his final season at UCLA, a casting agent came out to the school recruiting athletes to play members of the all-black U.S. Army 9th Calvary Regiment in John Ford's movie Sergeant Rutledge. That led to two more nonspeaking parts after football, as an island native in the JFK story PT 109 and a security guard in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
He had the chiseled face and physique of a man to be taken seriously. At 80 years old, he still does. In the living room of his 3,500-square-foot, gated Ladera Heights home, his lounging clothes of blue drawstring sweatpants and a gray T-shirt could double for athletic wear.
In another attempt to make a name for himself, Norris tried out for the Chargers, earning an invitation to training camp. But the coaches, led by head coach Sid Gillman, wanted him to play defensive back, a position with which he had no experience. He played in the preseason but didn't make it through the last round of cuts before the regular season began.
He kept in shape by working out at Dorsey High, and midway through the season he got a call from offensive-end coach Al Davis, the future Raiders owner, wanting to bring him back in his regular position.
The Chargers paid him $7,500, roughly the equivalent of $60,000 today, substantially more than he had been making from UCLA as a gardener after his scholarship ran out.
Norris doesn't remember many details from the season. He was on the team for the final eight games, including the first AFL Championship game, a 24-16 loss to the Houston Oilers. According to pro-football-reference.com, he got into two of those games. There's a photo of him on special teams against a Raiders punt at Candlestick Park.
“Guys then were super tough,” Norris says. “I tried to be super tough. We were like the taxi squad, the opponent during practice. Our job was to make them ready for the teams they were going to be playing.”
After the season, Hilton announced he was moving the team to San Diego. Norris wasn't surprised. He had played at the Coliseum with UCLA in front of as many as 85,000 fans, but the Chargers once brought fewer than 10,000 to the stadium. They were behind the Rams, USC and UCLA in the city's gridiron pecking order.
“It made more sense to move to a market where you didn't have competition,” Norris says. “I still wonder why they've come back here, leaving a well-populated area that supported them.”
He would have tried to stick with the team another season, but with the move to San Diego he decided it was best to stay and finish school. “I knew my life legend was not going to be football,” he says.
It took seven years for Norris to get his bachelor's degree in physical education, which he attributes to the lack of preparation he received attending a segregated high school in San Antonio. Academics were a constant struggle, but he was put in easy enough courses to barely maintain his eligibility. In one class at UCLA, he remembers the students were given a math problem and his white teammates breezed through it, saying they had learned this in high school.
“I had no clue,” Norris says. “The segregated schools lacked resources on purpose.”
He persisted because of the importance of education in his family. His father, Dr. Clarence W. Norris Sr., rose from a Houston ghetto to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Michigan before completing his Ph.D. at USC in 1951. He was a sociology professor and dean at the historically black St. Philip's College in San Antonio, where there is a building named in his honor. Trusse's mother, Lucille, was a teacher who graduated from Howard University in 1925. Trusse's brother, Clarence Jr., also got a doctorate in education at USC, working as a professor and dean at L.A. Harbor College.
Trusse spent 36 years at the Los Angeles Unified School District, mostly as an administrator, at one point working as assistant principal at West Valley Occupational Center before settling in with the office of government relations as an analyst of legislative matters affecting the district. Norris started going to Messiah Baptist Church in 1955, living with his grandmother in the West Adams neighborhood while attending UCLA. He met his wife there in 1960.
“I'm the young guy and there's a cute lady, so I opened the door for her and asked for her phone number,” Norris says. “That was just kind of the way you did things back then.”
They've been married for 53 years. Even though he was on the Chargers when they met, Mary never did see him play football.
“That's a good thing,” Mary Norris says. “Long before the concussion movie and all of that, I felt that football was not a healthy game.”
She went to UCLA games with him for a while, but no more. He still goes to nearly every home game with a rotating list of friends. He's had season tickets since the 1960s, so long that upgrades over time have him at the 50-yard line.
They have two children, Lury and Clare. Lury is an artist in Santa Margarita, and Clare followed the family path to education, teaching English at West L.A. College.
Over the years, it's been rare for Norris to tell anyone about his season on the Chargers or take out his incredible keepsakes.
He has a binder full of programs from every game he participated in with UCLA and the Chargers. The program for the first AFL Championship is worth $1,000 according to Pete Lowry, one of the foremost collectors of Chargers memorabilia. Lowry says he's seen only six previous 1960 Chargers team-signed balls and three practice T-shirts. “There are likely more out there, they just haven't surfaced in the market,” Lowry says. “I love that he kept these mementos.”
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None of the kids on the Messiah Baptist Church basketball team had any idea that Norris once was a professional athlete. He got involved in what is now the Organization of West Adams Christian Athletics in 1963 as a coach. When he retired from LAUSD in 2001, he became its president. Now he's pretty much the one who keeps it running. It consists of four teams, each represented by a local church, comprised of boys age 14 to 18.
“It's just something to involve kids so they don't have idle time,” Norris says. “Something with a little supervision and control to help them make it through those teenage years.”
As he shows the Los Angeles Chargers football to the boys, he points out some prominent names. Quarterback Jack Kemp, the future U.S. congressman and presidential candidate, has a large signature on the middle of one side. Not far above him is Ron Mix, the Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle who starred at USC.
“They didn't make me feel like I was a nobody,” Norris says. “On a team like that, really everyone needs to feel like you're a part, even if you're a scrub, because you never know what role you'll need that person to fill.”