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King Corcoran

Matt Schudel

People often ask me which people are the most remarkable characters I've ever written about. There have been many, but today I have someone new to add to the list. Jim "King" Corcoran is one of the most fascinating and frustrating, charismatic and callous people I have ever had the pleasure -- for that's what it is -- to write about.

His story appears in Sunday's paper as a Local Life -- the longest Local Life the Post has ever run, as far as I can tell, and I had enough material to make the story half again as long. For those looking for a preview, "King" Corcoran -- he gave the nickname to himself -- was a former University of Maryland quarterback who became the most famous minor-league football player in history.

I've known about King Corcoran for almost 10 years, ever since I saw a documentary about the Pottstown Firebirds -- one of his many stops as an itinerant football player, mostly in the long-defunct Atlantic Coast Football League. There was an earlier documentary, as well, which became something of a mini-hit when it was aired before the 1972 Super Bowl, and a book.

Corcoran was not much of a star at Maryland, despite his own stories about his exploits. He often claimed to have led the Terps to a dramatic 27-22 win over Navy in 1964, when Navy's quarterback, Roger Staubach, was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. In actual fact, Corcoran never played in that game. If you look at the game writeup from the New York Times, Md-Navy 1964.pdfyou'll see at the bottom of the page a list of every player who appeared in the game. Maryland's quarterback for the whole was Phil Petry. A second player is also listed at quarterback, "Stem."

By looking through old Washington Post articles from 1964, I found a complete Maryland roster for that season. George Stem was a halfback who probably played against Navy as a defensive back. (For football historians, 1964 was the first season of the two-platoon system in the modern era. Previously, players played both offense and defense. If they left the game, they couldn't return in the same half. In other words, for us purists, 1964 was the end of college football as it should be played).

At any rate, despite what Corcoran and his friends have said over the years, he did not play a single down in the 1964 Maryland-Navy game. (By the way, Staubach, who later starred for the Dallas Cowboys, set a Navy record by completing 25 passes in that game, breaking his previous school mark of 19.)

As I detail in the story, even though Corcoran did not appear in the 1964 game, he did lead the Maryland freshman squad to a 29-27 win over Navy's plebes, quarterbacked by Staubach, in 1961. He ran for one touchdown and passed for two more.

The 1964 Navy-Maryland game was infamous for another reason, as well. A Maryland linebacker named Jerry Fishman made several rough tackles on Navy players and knocked one of them out of the game. As the Navy fans booed, the unrepentant Fishman gave the finger to the entire Corps of Midshipmen -- not just once but twice. The whole story can be found hereFishman 1964.pdf. The Navy coach was outraged, and it created quite a brouhaha. The two teams played a previously scheduled game in 1965, but Fishman's gesture put an end to the long-running "Crab Bowl" of the top two college teams in Maryland. Another 40 years would pass before Navy and Maryland would meet again on the football field.

Getting back to King Corcoran ... He died on June 19, and we learned of his death about a week or 10 days later. For a variety of reasons -- Frank McCourt's death, a short-handed Obits desk and lack of basic information -- I was not able to complete the obituary within our usual 30-day deadline. Corcoran compartmentalized his life to a remarkable degree, closed doors and left few traces about who he really was or what he did in life. I found quite a few people who had known him in recent years, but it quickly became apparent that not many had known him throughout his life. Some people admired him a great deal and, as a came to see, others did not.

It took time to track down people who had known Corcoran before his most recent phase as a would-be Indian, complete with shoulder-length dyed hair and a feather dangling from an earring. He said he was born on a reservation in Montana and was orphaned at 9, and it wasn't until this past Thursday -- a month after I began work on the obituary -- that I was able to find out the true story.

I made another breakthrough when, doing a basic search of previous clips on Corcoran, I found a single story from 1992 about a court case. I decided to do a criminal records check and, well, let's just say, Bingo!

As time got away from me, and new information continued to trickle in, I decided to turn the story of King Corcoran into a Local Life, which allows for greater latitude in writing.

And I have to tell you, it was darn fun learning about the amazing things this guy pulled during his life. (Ihaven't even mentioned the times he passed himself off as Gene Simmons in Vegas.) In the story, I printed only what I could verify, leaving out a lot of stories that are shocking, obscene and hilarious -- and very possibly not true.

Here's one I can tell, though: Corcoran, who was quite handsome and extremely vain, was an early bodybuilder. He had a powerful upper body, as you can see from some of the photos we've included with the story, but spindly legs that he was ashamed of. To make himself look stockier and more muscular during games, he would put the game program inside his socks and wrap it around his calves. He had his uniforms custom-tailored and refused to touch a football if it was wet. But, as a teammate told me, "He knew how to make you feel better about yourself more than anyone I have ever known. It rubbed off on everybody, the whole team. He exuded this total confidence."

The King sometimes wore sunglasses on the sidelines during games -- even at night! -- which infuriated opposing and fans. He knew he was a showboat, but he simply didn't care. He loved, craved attention and didn't particularly care about anyone else's feelings.

Okay, here's another story that I heard from more than one source but chose to leave out of the actual story. He was, of course, quite handsome and very vain. At some point, I was told, he enlisted cheerleaders on the sidelines to have a blow dryer and brush handy. After quarterbacking a touchdown drive and returning to the sideline, the King would take off his helmet and go to the cheerleader, who would touch up his hair, so he could look my-tee fine while waiting to get back in the game. Not even Namath ever did anything quite so brazen.

There haven't been many people like King Corcoran in professional sports, I think it's safe to say. He was called a "poor man's Joe Namath," but from what I heard, he taught Namath a few tricks. Believe it or not, they actually roomed together in training camp in 1968, when Corcoran was trying out for the Jets. (Supposedly-- and I'll admit this sounds apocryphal -- Jets' coach Weeb Ewbank wanted to keep both players on the team but thought it would drive him crazy trying to control of the nighttime escapades of both Namath and Corcoran, so he let the King go.) As one of Corcoran's ex-teammates put it, "He dwarfed Joe Namath as a ladies' man -- dwarfed him. He was the ladies' man of ladies' men."

When Namath and Corcoan, I was told, this is how the conversation went:
Namath: "If you're the King, who am I?"
Corcoran: "Joe, you're the Lord."
Namath: "Is that higher than a king?"

Well, it all depends on who's got the ball.

By Matt Schudel  |  August 2, 2009; 7:24 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

Great article. I was wondering when the Post would get around to Corcoran's death. This is the first I'd heard that "The King" made no appearance in the '64 Crab Bowl, a widely -reported hoax.The legend did not become fact,after all.Thank you.

Posted by: bustheadbob | August 2, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

I have absolutely no interest in football and neither does my husband or my sister-in-law, but we all thoroughly enjoyed Matt Schudel's piece about "The King." I'd even go so far as to say that it is the most engaging, funny, and well-written piece I've ever had the pleasure of reading in the pages of the Washington Post--or any other newspaper--and that isn't knocking the rest of the Post. Great article! We all laughed out loud several times, and we are now eagerly waiting for the bio film about Corcoran's very interesting life.

Posted by: mookiemonkey | August 2, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and also the daughter of Jim "King" Corcoran. After reading your article I was amazed that the tragedy of someone's decline, from a promising young athlete to what became of King was viewed as funny. While it is true that he had not had contact with either of his children, who live in Florida, in more than 22 years, that was by his choice. Now, in retrospect, after hearing how he lived his life, it was probably for the best. What most people don't realize is that his "larger than life personality" was really an underlying mental health condition. There are a few of us who knew him before the last 20 years. I guess it is time to let the lights on his star fade. The show is over.
Kelly Corcoran Hone LMHC

Posted by: corcorak | August 3, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

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