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EGGERS: Fellow Giant Killers mourn death of center John Didion


'Greatest guy' was a hard-working All-American for Oregon State and the anchor of Dee Andros' Power-T offense

by: COURTESY OF BILLY MAIN - Four first-team All-Americans who played together at Oregon State, (from left) Jon Sandstrom, John Didion, Jess Lewis and Bill Enyart, gathered at OSU's 2013 spring game.There were plenty of leaders on Oregon State's Giant Killers of 1967, high-profile players such as quarterback Steve Preece and fullback Bill "Earthquake" Enyart on the offense and All-America linemen Jess Lewis and Jon Sandstrom on the defense.

Nobody was more important than center John Didion.

"I regard all of those other players with reverence," says Tucker "Billy" Main, a star halfback on that team. "But you could almost make the case that if you lost one of those guys off our team, you'd least like to lose John Didion."

Didion died Tuesday at Portland's St. Vincent Medical Center after suffering a heart attack while chopping wood Sunday at his home in Naselle, Wash. He was 66.

"Chopping wood -- that would be John," observed Enyart, now living in Bend. "He was a classic blue-collar guy, the embodiment of the Giant Killers. Everything he did, he worked hard at."

Dee Andros' 1967 team will forever have a place in Oregon State football lore. The '67 Beavers beat second-ranked Purdue, tied then-second-ranked UCLA and knocked off No. 1 Southern Cal and O.J. Simpson in one of the greatest seasons in the school's history.

Over the 1967 and '68 seasons -- Didion's junior and senior years -- the Beavers went 14-5-1 and had a claim as the best team on the West Coast both years. The 6-4, 255-pound Didion was a consensus All-American as a senior, the last Beaver to do that until safety Jordan Poyer earned such acclaim last season.

Andros ran a power-T offense, with Preece running the option, Main busting trap plays and Enyart bulling between the tackles. The Beavers had a great offensive line those two seasons, with players such as Rocky Rasley, Clyde Smith, Dave Marlette, Lee Jamison and Roger Stalick opening holes. Didion was the leader.

"He was a quiet giant," Main says. "He redefined what a center means on the football team. What an impact he had."

I was a teenager fortunate enough to have an inside perspective on Oregon State football in the late '60s, the son of sports information director John Eggers, who helped promote Didion to All-America status. I never met Didion until this May, when we spoke for a book I'm writing ("Civil War Football -- Oregon vs. Oregon State"), which will be published by The History Press next July.

Didion grew up in Woodland, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento.

"A little backwater town in the Sacramento Valley," says Main, who grew up not far from there in Walnut Creek, Calif., and now lives in nearby Lafayette. "Our Oregon State teams were filled with in-state kids. For four years, John and I kidded each other about being the outliers from California."

Didion told me he originally verbally committed to Brigham Young.

"(Coach) LaVell Edwards was a great guy and a good coach," Didion said. "But (then-OSU assistant coach) Rich Brooks came to an all-star game in Sacramento and offered me a trip to Corvallis. I thought, 'Why not?' And I fell in love with the school.

"It's what a college campus is supposed to be -- ivy-covered brick buildings, just a beautiful atmosphere. Corvallis is a college town, and Woodland was small. I didn't want to go to an urban area. I got to talk to Coach Andros, and what a great communicator he was. I felt like I wanted to be part of what he was building at Oregon State."

Didion arrived at Oregon State a lean 190 pounds.

"We were almost the same weight," says Preece, the well-regarded OSU football TV analyst now living in Portland. "I remember introducing myself to him in the bleachers watching the varsity practice during our first week as freshmen. I thought, 'This is the all-world center we recruited?' "

But Didion built himself up through his time at Oregon State, thanks in no small part to 6-6, 280-pound center Rockne Freitas, whom Didion played behind as a sophomore.

"Rocky was instrumental in my beginning weight training," Didion told me. "Having to go one-on-one against him was like throwing a BB against a wall. That was one of the biggest keys to whatever success I had. Rich and (offensive line coach) Sam Boghosian were also helping me along with that. By the time I was a senior, I weighed 255 -- and it was all good weight."

Didion said he enjoyed his time at Oregon State more than he did in the NFL.

"We pointed hard toward every game," he said. "We didn't have the great athletes. We didn't have any O.J. Simpsons. We had a lot of farm kids who were tough and worked hard, and Coach Andros had us believing we were the best team in the country. It worked. It was fantastic."

The 6-3, 245-pound Enyart was the nation's top fullback those two seasons.

" 'Buff' (short for "Buffalo," the players' nickname for Enyart) was awesome," Didion said. "Blocking for him was like self-preservation. You had to get out of the way or he'd take you with him. People don't realize how quick he was for a big man. He'd hit the hole hard, and he was a smart guy, knew the offense well, knew where the blocks were coming from."

Didion was chosen in the seventh round of the 1969 NFL draft by Vince Lombardi's Washington Redskins.

"Their linebackers coach was Sam Huff, and he envisioned John as a linebacker in the pros," says Enyart, now living in Bend. "John had size and fairly decent speed, but he didn't have the lateral mobility. He was a center. If you don't need a center, don't draft John Didion. Any team would have been wise to draft him as a center."

Didion played two years as a linebacker in Washington, then was traded to New Orleans, where he spent four seasons as a center -- three hiking the ball to quarterback Archie Manning.

After the 1974 season, at age 27, Didion retired from the NFL.

"He was a great pro player, but he just walked away," defensive tackle Craig Hanneman says. "That was typical of Didion. He was his own man."

"He had his pension and decided he didn't like that kind of life," Preece says. "Family was alway most important to him. He had a personal life that was incredible. He wanted to be able to spend more time with 'Mouse.' "

That was his wife, Anne-Marie. They met as freshmen at Oregon State, he a member of Phi Delta Theta, she a pledge at Alpha Chi Omega. They were married 44 years, had three children and 12 grandchildren.

" 'Mouse' is a great lady," Main says. " 'Did' worshipped her."

Didion and Sandstrom, a defensive tackle, were best friends -- fraternity brothers, best men at each other's weddings.

"We did everything together for four years," says Sandstrom, who lives in Portland. "One of the greatest guys in the world. He was somebody I always trusted, somebody I could share anything with. I had his back and he had mine."

Sandstrom says Didion was most proud of his family.

"Anne-Marie told me a week before he died, John told one of his kids, 'If I die tomorrow, I'm the luckiest person ever to have had a son like you,' " Sandstrom says through tears.

Didion embarked on a 35-year career in law enforcement in Pacific County in Southwest Washington, including three terms (1998-2010) as county sheriff. He was a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) coordinator and served as president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

When he spoke with Main at the May spring game in Corvallis, Didion told him the insides of his law-enforcement career.

"He explained what being sheriff in a small town means," Main says. "A lot of drugs, some murders, wife beatings, rapes -- really ugly stuff. Here's this quiet giant, doing that job for 35 years. You don't do that work unless you're a certain kind of person."

In the 24 hours since his death, Anne-Marie has been overwhelmed by calls from friends in mourning.

"You don't realize," she says. "He impacted a lot of people."

Main and Didion met in their dormitory three days before their first practice as freshmen.

"We became great friends," Main says. "He was a special guy, an inspirational, motivational guy by what he did, not what he said. He was the anchor of our offense. When a play ended, the center raises his arms and picks the position of the huddle. For two years, every time I went back to the huddle, I looked for John Didion. It's a little thing, but it's what I remember. Whatever happened, good or bad, he was a quiet leader. I loved John like a brother."

Enyart, who became an Academic All-American, remembers Didion as a student-athlete.

"I had him in a world history class," Enyart says. "I tried to never miss a class. John was one of those guys, too. An extremely disciplined guy on and off the field. I don't remember John missing a snap count or a block in two years. His head was in the game. It was unbelievable.

"That whole offensive line we had under Sam (Boghosian, the O-line coach) was a fine-tuned machine. John was the perfect guy. He didn't need a lot of pushing. He was disciplined to the core."

Enyart and Didion lived together their senior year.

"We rented a seven-bedroom house within walking distance to campus," Enyart recalls. "(Defensive tackle) Tom Greerty nicknamed it 'the Mansion.' John and 'Mouse' were dating then. He wasn't a married guy, but he might as well have been. A lot of us were out whooping it up in those years. His whole lifestyle was not finding out where the next kegger was. John was dedicated to 'Mouse.' "

Though Didion was quiet -- "even a bit aloof," Enyart says -- he had "a keen sense of humor."

"He came up with some pretty clever nicknames," Enyart says. "He called Sandstrom 'Grape Eyes.' He nicknamed Jamison 'Blob.' "

Main was "Rabbit."

"Preece and Enyart and Didion -- you talk about strength up the middle," Main says. "They were the heart and soul of those teams, at least on the offensive side. Everybody always felt a sense of confidence and reassurance that you had Didion setting the huddle, Preece down on his knee calling the play and Enyart to one side, ready to take the ball. It's something very few players get a chance to experience. I'm grateful for everything that happened to me as it relates to those three guys.

"Half of my yards were directly related to John Didion. He was the fulcrum, the guy right in the middle making that offensive line work. I feel a tremendous amount of humility when I think about it. Touchdowns are great, but they only happen when you have a great O-line. They got me the holes and Enyart the seams. That's why we kicked so much ass. It all came back to John Didion."

"I played against some of the best offensive linemen in the country for two years, and the person I hated going up against more than anybody was John in the midweek scrimmages -- "10 yards and in" -- at the end of practice," Sandstrom says. "John was the toughest guy there was."

"That was part of the Oregon State thing at the time," Preece recalls. "It was a toughness deal -- first (team offense) against first (team defense). Sandstrom had a real temper. One day, the two of them got into it during a scrimmage. They started slugging it out. The coaches let it go for a while. Then Didion stopped and yelled, 'Why are we doing this, Grape Eyes? We're roommates and best friends.' "

Sandstrom remembers the 16-16 tie at UCLA their junior season.

"John gets a concussion, and the coaches pull him out of the game," he says. "We're sitting on the bench, and then he's running out on the field. He gets hit again, and leaves again. He shows up a third time, then bends over and passes out. They get him off the field and have to take his helmet away so he won't go back out there. That's how much desire he had. He was a real winner."

Lewis was another D-lineman who went up against Didion every day in practice.

"He was a hell of a big presence," says Lewis, who lives in Corvallis. "He was hard to get around, that's for sure. He was real serious about doing his job. I took that to heart. We competed against each other. He was real good at holding his ground and not letting anybody through that center.

"He was a smart guy, always communicating, always knowing exactly what to do. He always did the right thing. You could always depend on him. He wasn't outspoken. He showed by example. I wish now I'd gotten to know him more. I always respected the man and what he could do."

Enyart calls Didion "a fantastic teammate."

"You didn't have to question if he going to show up for practice, if he was going to be on time for everything, that he would do his job," Enyart says. "He was the heart of that offensive line, and that offensive line was tremendous. I'm so indebted to him for what he did for me.

"There is very little glory at those positions. About the only time you hear your name is when you get caught for holding. Sam didn't have to get on John Didion. He was disciplined. He was the quintessential football player/lineman. That's what he loved to do."

Hanneman was a sophomore when Didion was a senior, the only sophomore starter on the team, the replacement for Lewis when he redshirted to prepare to wrestle in the 1968 Olympic Games.

"I'll never forget how John made you feel like one of the boys right away," says Hanneman, who lives in Salem. "He did it by action. He'd come up in a very quiet way and ask you how you were doing. He genuinely cared. Everybody would say he was a great teammate. Not just that -- a great guy."

That was the feeling of all of Didion's teammates.

"I know it sounds like a cliche," Preece says, "but if I had to tell you there was one guy I never heard anybody say anything bad about, and it really is the truth -- it's John. Nobody had a problem with him, ever. The greatest guy in the world."

Most of his former teammates last saw Didion at the 2013 spring game and at a get-together of the team during the Beavers' season opener against Eastern Washington in September. They were surprised to see Didion wearing a pony-tail, grey hair and all.

" 'Did' was one of the most conservative guys," Preece says. "Seeing him in a ponytail cracked us all up."

Didion, though, looked great.

"He was in amazing shape," Hanneman says. "You looked at him and thought he could have competed even now for a spot in the starting lineup."

"We got him to go over and stand next to (current OSU center) Isaac Seumalo," Preece says. "They looked pretty similar, except Isaac outweighed him by a lot of pounds. They looked like they could have squared off and had a pretty good battle. 'Did' was in that kind of shape. He was really a stud."

It's part of why everyone, as Hanneman says, "is totally stunned" about Didion's sudden death.

At the spring game, Main snapped a photo of the four first-team All-Americans from the team -- Didion, Sandstrom, Lewis and Enyart.

"I always love to kid Sandstrom," Main says. "So after I took the picture, I winked at 'Did,' 'Buff' and Jessie and said to Jon, 'I want you guys to sign this picture. It's going to be entitled the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-best players on the Giant Killers team.' Sandstrom bit on it and said, 'Oh, you're the first?' Everybody exploded. 'Grape Eyes' knew he'd been pimped. He said, 'Damn you, Rabbit.' "

Now Didion, the man in the middle, is gone.

"It's a tough one," Lewis says. "We're going to miss him."

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Twitter: @kerryeggers